When Robin Williams set the template for what the lead character in a “Jumanji” movie should be like, it’s a daunting feat indeed to fill shoes of that size.
But the upcoming Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a semi-direct continuation of the franchise that’s transitioned from board games to video games, wisely didn’t just double down on A-list talent to headline the film, it quadrupled its bet with an all-star cast of A-listers: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillen.
And while each of the stars may very much look the parts they’re playing – a quartet of 90s-style video game avatars – there was a little acting lure as well: they’re not just performing the iconic outer physiques of their roles, they’re playing the teenaged kids trapped inside as they contend with the wild and wooly dangers of the Jumanji jungle.
“It would be like if you took the characters from The Breakfast Club and put them in the world of Jumanji,” says Johnson, who joined his co-stars on the Hawaiian set of the film to offer a peek into their unconventional roles. “The idea that we’re all 16-year-old teenagers is just a great element for us to tap into.”
Dr. Smolder Bravestone
Johnson embodies the handsome, hugely muscled archeologist and explorer who serves as the avatar for misfit gamer Spencer Miller (played as a teenager by Alex Wolff).
“There was an element about the script that I really liked that took the spirit of the original movie and the spirit of the original story and added this other great layer to it,” says Johnson. “I’m decked out as this avatar, but in reality, in the real world, I’m a 16-year-old kid, which was a great juxtaposition. A 16-year-old kid who’s extremely uncomfortable to begin with, not a people person and an epic nerd.”
Johnson came well-equipped to play the creatively named avatar. “It’s Dr. Smolder Gravestone because throughout the film, I just, well, smolder,” he laughs. He also took more than a little inspiration from a very specific screen icon. “Indiana Jones is one of my top movies of all time. It was literally the movie when I was eight years old I thought, ‘Wow – I want to do that!’ Not necessarily that I want to be an actor, but ‘I want to be that guy!’ Like, ‘That guy’s cool!’”
“That’s why there’s nods in the movie to Harrison Ford and to that movie,” says Johnson, who even outfitted Bravestone with his own distinctive hat. “This is such a dorky thing, but this is my nod to Harrison. It’s kind of slung real low.”
Of Bravestone’s inner teen Spencer, producer Matt Tolmach says, “He’s like this super-smart, with a chip on his shoulder irreverent kid who is a gamer but who just doesn’t fit in yet. He hasn’t had his moment in life, and kind of lacks, in a very profound way, confidence. What avatar is he going to choose? He’s going to choose the avatar who is brave and courageous and these things that he thinks he lacks and so who is the antithesis of that? It’s Dwayne Johnson!”
“He’s playing against his sort of persona in the way that’s so funny,” says the film’s director Jake Kasdan, “but also really kind of brave. It requires a guy like that to be just completely game for anything. One of the things that’s so fantastic about working with him is he’s really funny and he has great sense of humor. He is a real comic performer, like, with some juice and some moves. He’s just incredibly good at that part of it.”
“This particular movie required him to really go for it and it’s very bold in that way,” adds Kasdan. “Something we were talking about all the time was ‘What would a nerd do in this situation?’ Luckily I have a lot of experience with that and was able to tell him exactly what an insecure, neurotic teenager would make of a given situation and we would sort of navigate that together. It was really fun doing it with him and he really made me laugh every day.”
Franklin “Moose” Finbar
Hart’s role stands in sharp contrast to Johnson’s: teenager Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (played by Ser’Darius Blain) is a popular school sports star who ends up in an expected avatar. “I play a small guy in a different world that’s the complete opposite of the high school version of who this individual really is,” says Hart, “But who he is on one side is completely different from the person that he’s forced to be on the other side.”
Fridge’s avatar is zoologist and weapons specialist Franklin “Moose” Finbar, whose substantial backpack is almost as big as he is, and he carries his literal and figurative arsenal against the wild. “I wanted to stand out,” says Hart. “Not come off like a clown, but come off as a person who embraced this world of the jungle, this Jumanji-esque world.”
“You get why this guy’s in there, from his backpack to his short shorts to all of the patches on his vest and him having over 15 pockets, to having to answer for any and everything when it comes to wild or when it comes to animals,” says Hart. “That’s the guy that you technically want to be with when you’re in these situations, and you get why his presence is felt.”
“He’s captain of the football team, he’s 6’5″, he’s a handsome guy, All-American – he’s the man. And then, he turns into Kevin,” laughs Johnson.
Gillen’s role takes its cues from sexy action icons like Lara Croft on the outside, but is all awkward teen angst on the inside. “I play a character called Martha Schwartz, who is a bit of a nerdy teenage age girl,” Gillan explains. “She’s a bit of a geek. She’s very smart in school but not very good socially. She takes on the avatar of Ruby Roundhouse, who happens to be this really kick-ass, karate expert badass girl. She just does not know how to inhabit this body at all.”
Gillan related more to her role’s inner life, played as a teen by Morgan Turner. “I feel like I got cast because Jake the director could tell I was a bit of a nerd in high school,” she admits. “I was like ‘You’re absolutely right!’ I just have the mannerisms of a regular girl who is just like ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I just don’t know what to do with it, and that’s exactly what I’m doing with the role – which is kind of nice, that I get to put an aspect of myself into it.”
Professor Shelly Oberon
Black got to take on a dual challenge: inside of the portly professor, an expert cartographer and cryptographer, is a gorgeous, popular teen girl named Bethany White (played by Madison Iseman).
“I play a girl who’s like the cutest girl in her high school – she’s a bombshell,” Black reveals. “When the game starts and we realize that our avatars are totally different, she’s a little bummed that she’s taken the shape of an overweight middle-aged man – but them’s the breaks! She learns some lessons along the way about superficiality.”
“In a weird way, I feel like it was the real life I was born to play,” chuckles Black. “It was very easy to tap into my inner 16-year-old girl – I don’t know why!”
In addition to the four leads, there’s an another ace in the hole in the already starry cast: Nick Jonas appears in the key – but still enigmatic – role of Alex, a jungle guide and adventure within the Jumanji game.
“I have to be select with what I say because I don’t want to give away any big secrets,” admits Jonas. “My character is someone that our four heroes find in the game — they’re trying to figure out what his purpose is and where he comes from and all the rest…He’s had some complications in the past that he’s had to overcome, in a certain sense.”
“Every avatar has certain kinds of strengths,” Jonas adds. “I have some that are really valuable and really helpful in my journey in the game, and some that maybe aren’t so helpful that you’ll see. Some that are funny, and some that make things a little more complicated.”
Kasdan says each of the Jumanji actors were cast for a common reason: “that they looked like a certain archetype, and could cut all the way against it. We knew that each one of them in different ways would be brilliant doing that. I do feel like we just really lucked out with the cast we got, because they’re all kind of fantastic.”
“Sometimes it takes taking a person out of their shell and putting them in a different one for them to realize who they really are,” says Hart.