Dane Cook reprises the role of Dusty Crophopper, voicing the crop duster turned world-famous air racer in Bobs Gannaway’s “Planes: Fire and Rescue” based on a screenplay by Jeffrey Howard. When Dusty returns home to his friends in Propwash Junction after a victorious racing season, a fateful training run sets him on an unexpected course that launches a new career for him with the Aerial Fire Fighters at Piston Peak. Opening July 18th, the animated adventure-comedy also features the voices of Curtis Armstrong, Julie Bowen, Ed Harris, John Michael Higgins, Hal Holbrook, Regina King, and Wes Studi.
At a recent roundtable interview, Cook spoke about returning to the role, being a part of the Disney family, wanting to tell a deeper story this time around, how the theme of second chances paralleled some of his own life experiences, how G-rated animation rejuvenated his R-rated stand-up comedy, what it’s like having his own action figure, the cartoons that inspired him growing up, why he loves films that raise the stakes like “The Incredibles,” “Bambi,” “The Lion King,” “Toy Story 3,” and now “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” his upcoming Showtime comedy special and the possibility of a “Planes 3.”
QUESTION: I have to say I heard a car alarm last night. I cannot hear those without thinking of your joke.
DANE COOK: That’s what I wanted it to do. I knew that the day that I wrote that bit. I was like, “Oh, I got everybody on this one. I’m going to get into everybody’s heads.”
Q: Do you do a little disclaimer now to all the kids that see you as Dusty Crophopper because their parents can’t take them to see your live performances?
COOK: It’s an interesting moment when parents come up to me and then say, “Oh I’m a big fan. These are my kids.” Then they say [to their kids], “This is Dusty.” I’ll do the voice for a second or I’ll talk to them. And then, it’s always a weird moment when they say, “You can’t hear his other stuff. Only Daddy can listen to that.” The kid’s always like, “What does that mean?” I’m sure it’ll be interesting for those young kids to someday find one of my comedy downloads and listen and be like, “Dusty is dirty!”
Q: You don’t think they haven’t already?
COOK: Oh wow!
Q: It’ll be like Bob Saget. We’ll have some real life Danny Tanner.
COOK: Have you ever heard Bob’s stand-up? Whoa! Yikes!
Q: It’s not Danny Tanner.
COOK: Not at all. Oh my goodness!
Q: Where were you looking to go with this new version of “Planes”? Did you want to tell a deeper story with Dusty this time around?
COOK: Sure. With the first one, I’ll be honest I was really kind of pie-eyed and excited just to be a part of the behind-the-scenes of Disney. I knew John Lasseter (the film’s executive producer) for years. He was a fan of my stand-up. From time to time, we’d meet and he’d say, “I’m listening to your new stuff on a road trip with my sons.” He and his boys were always listening to my stuff. But secretly, I was always hoping he was going to say, “By the way, I’ve got a voice part.” I never asked, and I never said anything, but I knew his history with comedians. I went to an evening of Pixar music with the L.A. Philharmonic, and I got to meet him after that again just to thank him for the invite, and that’s when he said, “You know I’m thinking about something. I’m going to give you a call in a few months.” So the whole first experience was like a “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” moment. I was like, “I’m in this! I’m here.” John sat with me at dinner and said, “You’re part of this family now.” It’s this very small family that he created. And so, the whole first experience was certainly a blast, but given the opportunity to get the phone call and then come in to talk about what the sequel would be and to have some input on where they wanted to take the story, kind of like Dusty, my naivete was now gone. It was more about, “Okay, now I’m here from the very beginning on this. How can I implement my ideas, and where am I more useful and less useful?” I just tried to figure out what it would look like from a different vantage point of some success from the first one. So yeah, it was an entirely different, more enjoyable experience the second time around.
Q: Was it because you were more involved in the filmmaking process this time around?
COOK: Sure. More involved and less green in terms of what it really meant to work with the people that had been painstakingly working on these movies for years. I always had such a great affinity for animation. Once I met the animators, talked to them, got to know them on a first name basis, got to know their families, got to know why they got into animation, what movies inspired them, it made me want to go into the booth and not just be funny because they hired me, and I guess I’m kind of funny, but it was like what can I really do to give these people enough stuff to where they were like, “Ah man, this is beyond what we need.” I always say exceeding expectations. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my own career, and it was similar to Dusty, not what’s good for me, but what’s going to be good for this group of people to make this one even greater.
Q: The film’s theme is about second chances. How did that resonate with you?
COOK: I think if you’re in this particular career especially, it can be rewarding beyond your beliefs. The low moments are pretty low, especially if you’re a person that craves that kind of sharing. You love live performance and you want to get up and share your notions. An idea that you think in your mind, “Oh this might be funny,” potentially could be in front of 20,000 people a year later at Madison Square Garden. You’re hearing everybody laugh at once and you think, “Oh that was just from a notion that I had.” In 24 years, I’ve taken my own hits. I’ve had some wonderful high-water marks. I can’t complain. I shouldn’t. I probably could but… And so, be more grateful in the experience of this film. Dusty’s got this second chance. He’s got something that is going to impair him. That’s a very serious thing, and it makes a person shift their focus on what they’re doing with their life. “Wow! All the set-up tools that I have that I thought were going to sustain me for life don’t work the same way.” You have two choices. I’ve been there. You can either sit on your couch and you can go, “Woe is me,” and feel really bad, which feels good for a minute, and then you put on 20 pounds from all the crap you’re eating. Or, you can get up and say, “Okay, back to the drawing board. What am I good at still and where can I now do something that’s not just good for me but is going to be good for the people surrounding me, the people that have actually championed me to get to where I am? How can I make them happy?” I felt that several years back. How can I make the people that saw me reach a level of success and now they too are like, “Ah, man. What’s next for Dane? What’s he going to do? He had the high-water mark and then… We know him now.” It was like more charity stuff, working with foundations, giving back to Comedy Camp, which I’ve done for 16 years now, where we take kids who are hopeless, who have no idea of what their future could be. They don’t know what possibility is. They come from abusive, sometimes foster programs. It’s dire. For 16 years, we’ve taken kids in and we teach them comedy. But even if they don’t want to be a comedian, we teach them about having a voice, sharing their fears. We give them a different vantage point. I like that this character is looking to do that with the characters of Propwash Junction. It’s so cool. I can tie in my own life, and the truth will resonate through my voice in the character. It’s a fun family film. It’s fun and funny and a little harrowing, but there’s heart. My heart’s in it.
Q: The irony is the G-rated animation brought back your R-rated stand-up comedy. You seem rejuvenated and you’ve got a special coming out in September.
COOK: Sure, I do. Yes.
Q: That’s incredible to think that something Disney did could breathe new life into your career.
COOK: Yeah, it helped to propel me into a new direction which was, okay, I can still have the freedom of stand-up comedy, and wherever I am in my life now can inform the shows that I put on. The reward from the first film was all these great new fans and fans that have been around forever going, “I don’t go to the nightclubs anymore. I can’t see your show the same way.” And I’m going, “I need to do two things. I want to be able to entertain a whole family and I can do that now with “Planes.” And I need to direct my own special and not wait for somebody to tell me what they think is funny and go through the system myself.” This is the first special that I’ve directed. I built it from the ground up. And people wanted it. We have an incredible partnership with Showtime. They’re the people that are going to air it in October. But yeah, it really defibrillated things into a way that I never thought I would be going three or four years ago if you had asked me.
Q: Is it still surreal that you have toys of yourself out there?
COOK: Very. Yeah. I’ve got the Dusty on my desk. It’s one of the few things that I keep in my office. And that is wild. I’ve spent my whole life holding other people’s cool toys, and pressing a button, and hearing people that I dig and their voice coming out of it. Now I get to have that. It’s so cool.
Q: What does your toy say?
COOK: I think it just says, “Hi! I’m Dusty Crophopper.” (Laughs) And then I say, “Hey Dusty! Good morning.”
Q: What cartoons did you watch growing up?
COOK: I watched a lot of cartoons. I loved “Tom and Jerry.” There was a cartoon called “The Mighty Heroes.” There was a show called “Zoom.” Remember “Zoom”? It was Boston. Maybe it was an East Coast thing. It was this little filler cartoon. I just loved it. It was only three or four minutes long, but I was obsessed with it. The voices were really cool and I could do all the voices. I used to act out the voices of these characters. There were a lot, but I think those were the early ones. I loved all the Disney stuff and all the musicals, especially “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” which was live action and animation combined. I just always loved it. I always wanted to be a part of it.
Q: Would you like a “Planes” musical?
COOK: Oh, I would like that. That was the biggest bummer. After “Frozen” came out, I was like, “We needed music! Dammit!”
Q: You seem to be a big Disney fan. Apart from doing a movie now and prior to being associated with the company, did you go to the theme parks a lot?
COOK: I did. I went to the theme parks. I’ve had deals with ABC/Disney over the years, so in one way or another, we’re always trying to accomplish something together. But yes, I came with a lifelong appreciation for them. When they do it great, they do it so that it’s going to last for 100 years and beyond. “The Incredibles” is one of my favorite movies, just as a script. It’s almost a perfect balance of everything that you want in there. And what I loved about this movie that even “The Incredibles” has is the peril. That’s my favorite part. This is a darker movie than the first one. There’s some scary stuff in there. But if you look at “Bambi,” and if you look at some of these others, like even “The Lion King,” there are some pretty haunting moments. I like that element. I like the raising of the stakes. For me, what’s so cool about how this character has grown and how the story has grown is that now we get to tell a new kind of story in a new way and not be afraid to get a little bit gritty. “Toy Story” also had it. In “Toy Story 3,” there’s that unbelievable scene where they’re all in the assembly line going towards the incinerator and it was terrifying. Talk about friendship. “We’re going to be together. We’re going to figure it out.” It was sad and scary. There was another one when I was growing up that I was trying to remember. It was one of the first times. Oh, in “The Incredibles,” there’s an unbelievable emotional moment where they come out of the cave and Dash still thinks this is all fun and cool, and the mother says, “These bad guys that are chasing us, they’re like the bad guys on TV.” And when he hears that, he gets excited. Then when she immediately says, “But unlike them, they really want to hurt us,” you see his innocence go in that moment. You see him change. He becomes almost a little adult when he realizes that, and it’s without words. I think, “Wow, that is powerful, beautiful animation.” I’d like to think that we have some of those moments even in here.
Q: Did you have to do something different for the second “Planes”? Was it easier to step back in because you knew Dusty and you knew you could do this? Or did you have to do more research because of the firefighting theme?
COOK: No, I just asked a lot of questions once we got in the booth. Bobs is real open and inviting about that, because those guys did years of field research and watching footage. They knew upside down and inside out all the verbiage and what needed to be said to accomplish what I was trying to get to. I wanted to feel that Dusty was informed by his success. He’d had success. He had the confidence. So it wasn’t so up here with the dreamy voice. It was something a little bit more like, “No, we have to go.” Even if he was wrong and he was going to learn from it, he had to be a bit more astute in the way he was going to handle these situations. That’s what I tried to tweak and have little nuances and little new colors in there.
Q: Have you ever been in a crop duster?
COOK: Have I? No. I’ve flown in a few different planes. I’ve been brought up in some jet airplanes and stuff over the years, but no, never a prop plane.
Q: Do you have any aspirations?
COOK: I’d do it. It’d be fun. I’m kind of an adventurer so I would do something like that.
Q: Are there any hints there will be a “Planes 3”?
COOK: Nothing yet. I asked Bobs, “Do you think we might be able to do it again?” He said what we all think, “If people see the movie and they enjoy it.” I think we’ve made a better movie. It capitalizes on the first one. I love the new characters. When I did the first one, I’m not going to lie, I thought, “Man, I hope I can do these for a lot of years, not only because it’s a side of me that I don’t get to entertain very often, but I’m alive and it’s happening right now. I get to go to a booth and play and figure it out, and here’s something a month later, “Guys, I think I can do it better. Let me give you another shot.” They can drop it in and tweak it. So selfishly, I hope I get to do them for a long time. And then, just the reactions that I’ve gotten from families makes me feel like maybe we’re onto something that can really entertain people, and let them get away from it all for a little bit, and there can still be a nice message in it.