'Jungle Cruise' Star Jack Whitehall On Sharing Scenes With A CGI Jaguar And Playing Disney's First Gay Character [Interview]

Disney's Jungle Cruise feels less like the classic theme park ride it's based on, and more like a specific kind of adventure movie. You probably know the type. 1999's The Mummy. 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean. Spirited, funny, silly, romantic, charming adventures that blend action and banter in equal measure. And these kinds of movies demand a comic relief character, the goofball who says everything the audience is thinking in the back of their brain. Enter Jack Whitehall.

Sure, Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt are the romantic action leads of Jungle Cruise. But as MacGregor, the fussy but loyal brother to Blunt's character, Whitehall gets to experience the terrors of hostile jungle adventure like we would. It's a funny performance, a key counterbalance to the swagger of the leads.

And in one scene, MacGregor comes out as gay to Johnson's character, a scene that isn't vital to the plot of the film, but acts as a key driving force in his backstory. It's far from perfect, but after Disney's long history of queerbaiting, it's a step forward.

Over Zoom, I spoke with Whitehall about that scene, but also what it's like to act alongside a CGI jaguar (portrayed on set by a man in a leotard) and how he's the real lead of the movie.

I hope you take this as compliment, but your character in Jungle Cruise reminded me a lot of John Hannah in The Mummy

Yeah, I love that movie. I love John. He's great. He's a fantastic actor. And I remember those movies and loving them so much. I love that genre and I love that kind of tone in a film, that swashbuckling action adventure that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Yeah, it's kind of a complete package type of movie. If you don't like the adventure, there's romance. If you don't like the romance, there's comedy. I feel like Jungle Cruise and The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean are all cut from that same kind of cloth.

Yeah, definitely. This does feel like a proper four-quadrant movie and people will definitely enjoy it, I think, in a communal way. I think it's great that people can take their kids and see it, and there's a little bit of something for everyone.

I feel like there's something old-fashioned about how Jungle Cruise feels. It feels like an event. Did you think about that while making it? About how big this whole thing feels?

Oh my God, yeah, definitely. The scale of this is insane. And seeing it on the big screen for the first time the other night at the world premiere, it was so great to enjoy in that communal setting and to see it with the score and the CGI and the action set pieces and the stuff being blown up. It just feels like it's got scale and is a real visual treat. So yeah, hopefully if people can, I think seeing it in the cinema is the way to do it.

[Right on cue, my cat leaps onto my desk, peering into our Zoom call]

And Proxima, of course, as a cat lover yourself, I'm sure you appreciated the jaguar.

I did! Can you talk about working with a CGI jaguar? I'm assuming it was a tennis ball or something on set, right?

It was actually a man in a jaguar leotard. So a lot of my scenes were spent stroking a man in a leotard, which was quite unusual. Not wholly unpleasant. But quite a strange way to spend most of your days.

There are scenes where you're not just stroking it, but you're confronting it. We even see Dwayne Johnson combat it. How did you choreograph man and CGI cat? 

That scene, when Dwayne is fighting a man in a jaguar-skinned leotard and you've got to watch it and pretend to be terrified, that's proper acting. Even Emily Blunt struggled with that, because it was ridiculous. But once they had taken him out and put the CGI cat in, it kind of works.

I've seen all of director Jaume Collet-Serra's movies. He's made such fun action movies and fun horror movies, but this is outside the wheelhouse of what we expect from him. What kind of director is he on set?

It was very hard for him, because it was a new experience. It was the first time he'd ever done a film without Liam Neeson. [Editor's note: To be clear, Whitehall is joking here. Collet-Serra has made several movies without Neeson.] I think for him, that was a difficult adjustment. He tried with Disney, and I think at one point he wanted Neeson to play Proxima [the jaguar], but Liam Neeson didn't want to get into a jaguar skin leotard, so Ben got the part instead. But yeah, he's amazing. Jaume was fantastic, and is so good at building those set pieces, and the pacing of it and bringing that kind of darker edge that the movie has as well. I think he really elevated the source material, and I can't imagine any other director doing what he did with it. He's so fantastic.

I know I mentioned John Hannah earlier, but there is a storied history of the comedy sidekick in the adventure movie. Was there anyone you looked to for inspiration?

I don't want to contradict you, but in my head, I'm the leading man of the movie and [Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt] are sidekicks.

Of course. [Laughs]

[Laughs] But in terms of my performance, to be honest, one of my inspirations is my dad. I travel around the world with my dad for this show that I do for Netflix, and my dad is kind of a well-heeled, upper class Englishman who has contempt for foreign travel, turns his nose up at any rustic accommodation, and has a very dry wit. He's always delivering these deadpan one-liners whenever we enter a room, and that was certainly an element of MacGregor that I channeled. There are a couple of lines, there's one when he walks into a bar and says, "What fresh hell is this?" and he looks around and sees the drunk patrons of the bar, and says, "Classy clientele." That is literally a thing that my dad says when he walks into pubs. So I was able to purloin a few of his actual one-liners and smuggle them into the movie.

As somebody who's never felt like a leading man in my own life, comedy sidekicks like you and me need to stick together.

Exactly. And in our heads, we're the leading men – even if the Disney promotional material suggests otherwise. [laughs]

As a queer person, it's frustrating when Disney always says, "Here's our next gay character!" and so often, it's a moment that can be cut out of the movie, a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. Whereas here, you have a big scene where your character comes out to Dwayne Johnson's character. Can you talk about filming that scene and how it came to be?

Yeah, I know. We totally understood the significance of it. I'm not going to lie: I was very nervous about getting that scene right. We really talked about it so much. I love that they have the space in the movie for that moment, and I love that that scene is in there. I love that you learn that about MacGregor, and he has this interesting and rich backstory, and he's a man in full, and he has this fully realized character. We've talked about the comedy sidekicks – so often in those movies, those characters are one-dimensional and you don't learn a lot about them. I think the fact that we have that scene in the movie, you're so much more invested in MacGregor as a character, and you care about him, and you're so on the journey with him. To see where he ends up at the end of the movie, it's great. I loved that in the script and really wanted to do something that audiences emotionally connected to, and hopefully they like what we did.

Looking at the range of performances in this movie, there's you, who is very funny but very much of our world. And you have Jesse Plemons, who is just off going into maniac supervillain mode. What what it like sharing scenes with him?

I love that performance so much. I love villains. Alan Rickman, for me, is the benchmark, with the Sheriff of Nottingham and Hans Gruber. I love those colorful villains and actors taking big swings, and he just takes a big swing and absolutely pitched it perfectly. It's so good. It's so dastardly and has humor. He's the most talented actor, and when he signed on to the movie, we were all so excited to see what he was going to do with the character. The scenes with him were so much fun. The one in the submarine where he says "jungle" and I can't understand what he's saying, where he's basically doing his Werner Herzog impression, was one of the funniest scenes to film in the entire movie and had a whole 15 minutes of improv in it, which obviously they couldn't put the whole thing into the finished film, because it would be ridiculous. But yeah, he's such a talented actor and I had so much fun with him.


Jungle Cruise hits theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on July 30, 2021.