If the sizzling chemistry between Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson is at the heart of Disney’s new adventure flick, Jungle Cruise, then Blunt doesn’t mind admitting that she played hard to get, taking her time in responding to Johnson’s earnest overtures.
Chatting with the pair, Blunt can’t help but tease the macho action star about how his feelings might have been hurt when she initially ghosted him.
Talking us through the process of how this dynamic duo’s screen pairing came to be, Johnson describes how he recorded a personal video to Blunt, telling her that she was the only one for the role, begging director Jaume Collet-Serra to hand deliver his video to the actress along with the script.
“I just wanted to play a little bit hard to get,” says Blunt, “and when someone comes on a little too strong it’s better to just tone it down a little. So, I needed him to back up a little bit, and allow me time to read the script. I really loved the video, I just needed some time.”
Based on the iconic Disneyland theme park ride of the same name, Disney hopes to recreate the same magic they did when they translated another popular ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, to the big screen.
After making Johnson wait, Blunt described their first meeting as being ‘pals for life immediately’. “I knew when we met that we had this rapport where we ping-ponged back and forth so quickly, and I just thought we’d have a good time.”
Johnson agrees, “It was special from the get-go, and I felt like we were going to get along just based off the fact that she is married to John Krasinski, and I had met John a few times and really loved him and was a fan. So, I just felt like I kind of knew her personality, so we immediately hit it off. And our families hit it off and we all became friends,” he says.
Johnson insists their chemistry isn’t just for the cameras. “Look, you always hope to have chemistry, but a lot of the times you’re faking it because you’re acting, but this time it was real.”
Set in the early 1990s in the Amazon jungle, Blunt and Johnson play Lily and Frank, polar opposites who just might have more in common than they think.
Lily is all business, determined to find the Tree of Life for the good of mankind. An adventuress, fashioned as a female Indiana Jones, she wears sensible pants in an era where women only wore dresses.
Johnson’s riverboat skipper Frank sets the tone by immediately giving her the nickname “Pants”. He’s irreverent, makes bad puns and ekes out a living taking gullible tourists on riverboat cruises. He also may be hiding a big secret.
With the Hawaiian island of Kauai doubling for the Amazon jungle filled with dangerous animals and reptiles, Jungle Cruise was actually completed three years ago, one of last year’s early pandemic box office casualties.
Talking with Edgar Ramirez, who plays Aguirre, a cursed conquistador who finds himself in a snake-filled purgatory, the actor says he’s happy none of the actual snakes were near him during the shoot.
“I’m super afraid of snakes so I’m not sure how I would have done that,” he says. “Even my mother was scared, just watching me with the snakes in the movie.”
Filled with non-stop stunts, Blunt says her toughest challenge was doing a vine-swing. “Dwayne would not let me get one straight take in; he pushed it so far to try and make me laugh every time I did the vine swing. We shot all day and didn’t get one straight take. Every time he would throw in some awful improv which would just make me laugh.”
Ultimately, Blunt believes she relates more to Jungle Cruise’s Lily than Mary Poppins. “I feel like Lily is more of a mess whereas Poppins is so pulled together and correct, and I don’t feel like I walk through life that way. That’s not to say that I’m not organised but I feel like it’s a juggle.”
Buried within all the action, Jungle Cruise even slips in a scene where Lily’s brother, MacGregor – played by Jack Whitehall – effectively comes out to Frank.
“I felt the scene was exactly what it was, which was two men talking about who they love, and it was as simple as that,” explains Johnson.
“I think it was a scene that we really wanted to get right,” adds Whitehall. “What’s great about this movie is that all the characters feel so fleshed out and all of them are fully realised whereas a lot of these kind of genre movies often have two-dimensional characters. But with all our characters having such rich backstories, it makes you feel invested and to care about them,” he says of the film which also features Paul Giamatti and Jesse Plemons as villains.
Blunt agrees: “It’s been immensely rewarding. We just needed to strike a chord which was really well-crafted, which we did with so much love. It was made in the spirit of the films which we all grew up watching and I mainlined those movies into my veins. I just loved Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone and African Queen; they are just joy-bombs and they’re nostalgic and I think we just needed to pierce people’s hearts directly with the spirit of those films which we all loved. And it just took a lot of tempering and beautiful conducting from Jaume, who was extraordinarily free-spirited with us in this massive spectacle of a movie. He’s such a world builder, which you need for these big adventure films,” she says.
Best known for helming Liam Neeson action thrillers, Unknown, Non-Stop, Run all Night and The Commuter, Blunt was pleasantly surprised at his response when she asked him, during early discussions, what he thought Jungle Cruise was about.
“He told me it was about love, which was the most perfect answer,” she recalls. “He could have talked about all the action and spectacle and the myths and legends, but he didn’t. That’s when I knew we had in Jaume an innate romantic and a world builder, and that’s what you need for this type of movie.”
Collet-Serra is pleased with the results: “We made a film that is supposed to be enjoyed by the whole family. It’s a big, up-tempo movie. You need to have a tone that is very inclusive of action, comedy and mystery and has some supernatural elements as well. You want to be scared and be laughing at the same time,” he says.
Johnson was on board from the outset, the director wanting to introduce a different side of the actor. “Dwayne is such a fantastic actor and a wonderful person, and he’s really funny. He has this mischievous something behind his eyes. He’s a very playful person, and I wanted to bring that out of him in this movie, because he’s usually doing action scenes and chasing bad guys, so he doesn’t have a lot of time to play.
“I wanted to see him like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Someone who is a hustler but someone who you also want to hang out with and have a drink. Someone who’s accessible yet selfish but you forgive him because he’s so likeable.
“I told Dwayne that I had not seen him in a role like this. He really stepped into the shoot and was not afraid to be a bit more vulnerable on screen, and not just be the alpha male all the time that he is normally. He’s the biggest star in the world, so at this point, I think he’s okay taking some risks, and I think that he felt comfortable taking a risk here.”
More than anything, the director felt blessed by the magical chemistry between his two leads, “That is something you cannot write,” he says. “That is something that you’re blessed with because every scene, as simple as it is, becomes an opportunity for something magical to happen. In the script, there may be two lines, but it suddenly becomes a one-minute banter, which is so fun, and fun to shoot, and fun for everyone else to watch.”
Jungle Cruise is in cinemas July 29, and on Disney+ with Premier Access* July 30, 2021