Jumanji: Inside A New Kind of Game With Karen Gillan and Jake Kasdan

Karen Gillan and Jake Kasdan talk reimagining Jumanji’s rules for a new generation.

This article was originally published in the Den of Geek Special Edition Magazine. Click here to view the full issue!

It took going to a rainforest for the world of Jumanji to live again. At least that is how it appears to Jake Kasdan, director of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Standing in the lush underbrush of Hawaii’s interior, his film suddenly quickened into existence on its first day of shooting, which also happened to be the first scene of the movie featuring its leads. Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black, all playing disparate personalities thrown into the wilderness, were several hours away from where they had previously rehearsed and geared up for the high-concept fantasy. And for their director who had long prepared for that day, it was as if they’d instantly discovered a new land.

“You have these incredible locations but you have to earn them a little bit, because it’s hard to get to and it’s hard to get all the stuff there,” Kasdan says. “[But] we get to this sort of spectacular spot of rainforest, and looking at all of them, I thought, ‘This is going to be really cool.’ It was kind of the moment where it becomes real all at once.” Like the title says, welcome to the jungle.

This type of far-flung adventuring is par for the course for the upcoming movie, as it looks to offer a unique spiritual sequel to the original Jumanji of 1995. Whereas that first film was about the world of a mystical board game bringing Victorian vistas and pulpy jungle quests to a modern suburban setting, Welcome to the Jungle will elaborate on the concept by having teenagers enter the actual landscape from which Jumanji derives its power—by way of the avatars they choose in a new 1990s-styled Jumanji video game.

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For Kasdan, this is both appropriate and liberating since he views it as maddening when movies share the same franchise title but don’t feel related. Yet at the same time, it allows his comical, body-swapping yarn to deepen the mythology from the previous Robin Williams-led adventure. This is probably prudent, because despite being adapted from the 1981 children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, to an entire generation of millennials who grew up on the ’95 flick, Robin Williams is Jumanji. That even applies to Karen Gillan, whose passion for the earlier picture made joining this 2017 reimagining irresistible.

“I love the original film so much, it’s still in my top three films of all time,” Gillan says while recalling how often she watched it growing up in Scotland. Many years before she would learn it was based on a book, a young Gillan found herself returning time and again to a VHS copy of Jumanji, as if it too was enchanted. “I was a kid, and I just fell in love with the magical quality. I loved the performances so much.” It’s also the reason she jumped at the opportunity to audition for the property’s revival. Looking back at her literal last day on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, that moment of triumph became an even greater celebration upon hearing the word “Jumanji”—one that almost cost her a laptop.

“I remember I had just wrapped, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve done it!’” Gillan says. “So I sat there with a glass of wine, on my own, and then I saw on my emails that I had an audition for the new Jumanji, and I almost dropped the glass of wine. Spilled it, because I was like, ‘What?! That’s one of my favorite stories of all time!’”

Describing the process of joining the film as her own endurance contest, Gillan ultimately landed the role of a shy high school introvert named Martha… as well as her video game-esque alter ego, the no-nonsense Ruby Roundhouse.

As Gillan explains it, “[Martha] doesn’t want to be looked at; it isn’t like she’s dying for attention at all. It’s the opposite. So then she gets trapped in this kind of Lara Croft, badass action hero sort of body, and she just does not know how to inhabit it at all.”

It’s a concept rife with comedic potential, and one that Kasdan believes Gillan was ideal for.

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“Karen’s the absolute perfect person to do that, because she really is both things,” Kasdan says. “She can absolutely locate the sort of awkward teenage girl, wallflower character—I think she relates to that—as well as this ass-kicking badass woman that I think she also easily relates to.” Indeed, Gillan finds it all too easy to slip into both sides of the character, particularly since, despite coming up in what she describes as the “Marvel System” of action star training via Guardians and Avengers films, she still feels awkward while acting as a warrior woman.

“[Her anxiety] sort of felt like the way I feel when I am in action movies, and I have to be badass and am pretending,” Gillan says.

It is this archetypal aspect that similarly raised a few eyebrows (and more than a few hyperbolic tweets) when the initial press images of the cast dropped. Released before audiences knew that the character was a satire of pulpy clichés, Gillan’s scantily clad Ruby Roundhouse earned the ire of social media groupthink, and the thousand ship armada of think-pieces that come with it. But the actress seems undaunted by that early reaction, particularly as the concept of the movie becomes clearer. Hoping that concerned parties will dig Jumanji when it comes out, Gillan says she was more than game to embrace the meta-commentary of an introverted girl trapped inside a teenage boy’s limited fantasy.

“I definitely thought about it, because she is in a far more revealing outfit than the rest of the cast,” Gillan says of first meeting Ruby on the page. “But you know the whole idea behind it is that we’re really making fun of that trope in ‘90s video games. I mean, Lara Croft is a perfect example of that. So I didn’t think we should shy away from that. We should either go for it or we don’t, and I definitely feel like it was the right move to go for it. And as you’ll see in the film, she’s not happy with it. She wrestles with it all the time.”

Gillan also suggests the movie might have already made its point given our conversation. “Maybe it’s a good thing that it’s opening a discussion about all of this. I don’t necessarily view that as a negative thing to be talking about these issues, because they are issues. So I hope they think that we handled it carefully enough, and perhaps we have enlightened some people on the fact that these tropes [are] a little gratuitous.”

Plus, in the film, Martha/Ruby gets to be easily the bravest and most heroic. Perhaps even more so than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is leaving the realm of audience expectations by playing a child. A very, very scared and faintly cowardly child.

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“He’ll try anything you ask him to and he has great ideas, and he’s just a total pleasure to work with,” Kasdan says of Johnson. After all, this was Kasdan’s first action film, yet Johnson—the perennial king of run-and-gun flicks—was always game to work at and perfect their shared ideas, including playing someone fighting back tears when chased by beasts.

“How would the teenage version of myself respond to the situation?” Kasdan chuckles about creating Johnson’s new onscreen persona. “You know, for comedy writers working on a screenplay, it’s easy to locate the emotional core of being terrified by a terrifying situation, and to transpose it onto [Johnson] was sort of the great vanity of it. And it turned out he was completely responsive to what would be fun about that.”

Johnson is thus a potent avatar to explore the concept of a male power fantasy, and then to aggressively subvert it for maximum snickers. This is only more evident when Gillan credits him as being among the funniest actors she’s ever encountered.

“He really floored me with his comedic ability,” she says. “We had such a good time acting together, because [our characters] are both introverted weirdos, and they’re just so socially awkward. And when we try to see them interacting with each other, it’s more painful in the best way.” She then playfully enthuses, “And Dwayne’s probably going to run the world one day.”

Looking back at her time on Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and in those hard-to-reach forests that both challenged and rewarded Kasdan, Gillan can become a bit wistful, saying she’s already nostalgic about the experience. This is only heightened by nature’s beauty… and also its cheerful torture.

“Okay, so as amazing as Hawaii is, it’s actually a kind of brutal place to film because we were in the deep jungle; it was so hot, and there were giant mosquitos who are immune to every mosquito repellent now,” Gillan says. And given how much that horrified the real-life Kevin Hart—never mind his onscreen character—the genuine affection Gillan has for memories of this struggle creeps into her voice like so many giggles. Or bugs.

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“So Kevin is not good with the creepy-crawlies at all, and he thought there were spiders on him all the time,” Gillan confides with a hint of the conspiratorial. “So everyone, especially Dwayne, started tickling him with little pieces of grass to make him think that they were crawling on him.” Eventually, this situation would reach a fever pitch. “He’d literally be screaming and he’d run off-set!” After pausing for a moment to contain her own roar of delight, she adds, “It was so good.”

Hopefully, so will be spending Christmas time with these crazy kids when Jumanji opens in December.