This week we sat down with Anjali Bhimani to find out more about her Jungle Book experience so far. Throughout the run of The Jungle Book, we've been getting to know the cast through a series of interviews with the people that make up this crazy talented ensemble. Check out posts from the artists who play Baloo, Bagheera, and many more ensemble members. If you haven’t already, buy your tickets to The Jungle Book now, before it closes on Saturday!
Q: Of all of the cast, you have the most experience working with Mary Zimmerman. What attracted you to this project, and how is working with Mary unique?
Anjali Bhimani: Both of those answers are related, because what drew me most to this project was working with Mary again. After having worked with her for 16 years (the first show I did with her was the original production of Mirror of the Invisible World at the Goodman in 1997) you could say I’m a fan, both personally and professionally. Working with Mary is unlike any director I've worked with; as many people know she starts the process without a finished script, and while she draws from her source material, there is always a unique and beautiful element that she creates that comes directly from her. What excited me about her doing this show was knowing that although, yes, it was based on Disney's Jungle Book as well as the original Kipling stories, she would also be injecting the story with some of her own heart and wisdom and humor and love. She always finds a way to tell stories that we think we already know in a way that presents aspects we’d never seen before, and that’s a thrill to be a part of. Then there was just the fact that working with Mary after all these years is like coming home to family and the knowledge that it would be ridiculously fun while we were putting it together as well as challenging and exciting. Add to that the chance to collaborate with the rest of this crazily talented artistic team and it really was just too exciting a show to not want to do it.
Q: You have an impressive career on stage and screen. What has been most fulfilling to you about The Jungle Book?
AB: I've found it most fulfilling to hear from the audiences how they were transported and how they saw things they never expected to see. I love portraying all of these different characters in such unconventional ways, and people in the audience respond tremendously to the pace and excitement of the journey we're on for those two hours. No one really knows what to expect when they come in, and everyone I've spoken to after the show has had something that stuck with them in a powerful way, whether a scene or a line or something visual that resonated with them. And truly, there is nothing like hearing a child's laugh in the audience—I could probably be about to pass out on stage and one little gleeful giggle in the house would give me the energy to do the show all over again.
Q: Tell us about the various roles you play in the show. How did you prepare for them prior to rehearsals, and how do you keep them fresh nightly? Care to share any pre-show rituals?
| Bhimani as the Baby Elephant
AB: I love how I get to transition from playing the fierce and loving Mother Wolf directly into the Baby Elephant; I've had several people tell me after the show that they didn't know that was me playing both, and I feel like that's the highest compliment. As far as preparing prior to rehearsals, I didn't really do much because all of them are a part of my life so far. I've grown up with a fierce and loving mother who would kill for her children, and I remember how fun it was to be a child and trying to keep up with the adults and prove how grown up I was. And as for the monkeys...well...I mean...who didn't pretend to be a monkey when they were a kid? And again, since with Mary you're not always sure what you're going to be doing in the show prior to rehearsals, the only preparation I could do was be as open and ready for anything as possible, physically and mentally. As for pre-show, I do have a ritual with a few other members of the cast where we get together at five minutes before the show and well, I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you.
Q: What have you enjoyed most about being back in Chicago? What most excites you about continuing the show in Boston?
AB: Oh, God; Chicago Chicago Chicago. I love this city. Honestly if it weren't for the brutal winter I think everyone would try to move here. I've just loved everything about being back and really can't wait for the chance to work here again. And I also can’t wait until the show moves to Boston. What's exciting to me about Boston is that I haven't spent any time there since I did the Boston University Theatre Institute when I was 15, so it's really new territory for me. I think I'm actually living right down the street from where I was back then, too! I am eager to see the similarities and differences between the audiences in Chicago and Boston, as well. Chicago audiences are so beautiful in their openness and energy, and I'm eager to experience that in another way in Boston.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away from The Jungle Book?
AB: Since I'm a firm believer that the only reason to adapt anything for another medium—whether film to book or book to stage or film to stage—is to create something completely new that wouldn't have been possible in the original medium, I hope that audiences walk away from this wanting more. I hope the people who are familiar with the Disney movie go to read the Kipling, or vice versa, or that people unfamiliar with both explore them now with this new introduction, and that the experience of one enhances the experience of the other. And I hope they walk away feeling energized and excited. It’s such a joyous production, and some of the performances are so powerful, I hope that when people leave after that final crazy number, they just feel...lifted up.
Q: What’s next for you, after The Jungle Book? Any dream roles/shows you hope to tackle in the future?
AB: I'm developing a play with a writer named D. Tucker Smith called Roof of the World, and that is a show I would love our team to bring to Chicago. The show itself is so grand, the writing is beautiful, and the character I play in it is so much a part of my heart I just want to share her with the world. But I'm also looking forward to getting back to Hollywood before the winter hits and getting back to some TV work. The Newsroom is my favorite show right now, and I'm on a mission to find a way to be there beside Jeff Daniels and the rest of that glorious cast putting Aaron Sorkin's genius writing out to the world.
Q: Any advice you'd give to aspiring performers?
AB: The more I work and create and collaborate, the more I realize that people cast you for who you are, not who you think they want you to be. Yes, you have to become someone different when you're acting, but the real connection comes when you are bringing genuine aspects of yourself to roles fully and wholeheartedly. My college acting professor, Mary Poole at Northwestern University, had us do an exercise where we essentially acknowledged that the audience was looking at us and gave them permission to see everything we had to offer, beautiful or ugly. It was very powerful because it gave you the power to say, "This is who I am and I'm sharing all of that with you right now, exhilarating and terrifying though it might be." And the best way to do that is to stop second guessing what directors, casting directors, agents, producers, whoever want from you and just live. Travel, write, read, watch movies; get out and experience the world so you have so much to bring to a role that even if you're not right for this one or that one, people will remember you and want to bring you in again and again until that part comes up that is perfectly yours. Honestly, this show is proof of that. Mother Wolf to Baby Elephant to Monkey—yup, that's pretty much who I am.