Jack Black Interview, Kung Fu Panda

Posted by: Sheila Roberts
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Jack Black and producer Melissa Cobb to discuss Kung Fu Panda! Enthusiastic, big and a little clumsy, Po (Black) is the biggest fan of kung fu around…which doesn’t exactly come in handy while working every day in his family’s noodle shop. When he’s unexpectedly chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy, Po’s dreams become reality and he joins the world of kung fu to study alongside his idols, the legendary Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan) – under the leadership of their guru, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). But before they know it, the vengeful and treacherous snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) is headed their way, and it’s up to Po to defend everyone from the oncoming threat. Can he turn his dreams of becoming a kung fu master into reality? Po puts his heart into the task, and the unlikely hero ultimately finds that his greatest weaknesses turn out to be his greatest strengths.

Here’s what Jack Black and Melissa Cobb had to tell us:

MoviesOnline: Jack, this was a very long, continuing process, about 4 1/2 years from the very beginning. At what point did you get involved?

JACK BLACK: I want to say it was four years ago when I first came in and recorded. Is that right?

MELISSA COBB: That’s about right. Yeah, I think it was four years ago. So, it’s like every few months, three or four months, five months, six months, we’d call him [and say] “Now we’ve got it right this time. Can you come do it this time?”

MoviesOnline: Did you feel like you had it from the very beginning or did your character evolve as you went back and did more voiceovers?

JACK BLACK: I evolved as a character. When we first did it, I remember I was like, “I wonder if that’s too whiney or too shrieky” and calling up the next day and saying, “I want to come back in. I think maybe I was too whiney or shrieky.” And then I came back and we did it again. But, I never did it all in one sitting. I never sat down and did the whole movie all at once, because that’s not the process they were working with. It was a more organic script development. Performances would come in. [to Melissa] Is that fair to say?

MELISSA COBB: Yeah, I think he was a little bit more of a jerk in the beginning. And then once we started hearing Jack’s voice, we were like “Oh, this is [it]!” There was this one moment where he is in the dojo and feeling a little nervous about doing Kung Fu in front of his heroes and I think that was from one of the early sessions and as soon as we had that moment, we were like, “Oh, that’s the character we like!” And then we sort of had to go back and find how to bring that character through the movie. But, that really came from working with Jack and finding where is he charming and likeable, so we worked off of that.

MoviesOnline: When you were doing the voiceover work, did you do any special kind of movement as the character?

JACK BLACK: I don’t remember if I did. I don’t think so. I think the animators should get more credit for all those things.

MELISSA COBB: And Jack’s stomach is much smaller.

JACK BLACK: I don’t know. [examining his stomach and joking] It’s pretty big. [demonstrating how he moved his stomach when in character and laughing] That’s my move! That’s my best King Fu move!

MELISSA COBB: Now I wish we had it on film. That’s more inspiration.

MoviesOnline: Jack, I was wondering if there was a Master Shifu in your own life who was a guide or mentor in your acting career?

JACK BLACK: I had plenty of mentors and people that advised me and helped me along my road. Great acting teachers. Deb Devine was my teacher in 9th grade. She actually said, “Hey, why do you want to be an actor? Why don’t you be a writer or director? Those people are the ones who are really the brains behind the movies. Why do you just want to be a puppet?” You could say that she was discouraging me from being an actor, but I don’t think so. I thought it was really great advice. And I have tried to do some writing. I’ve written for myself songs and sketches and stuff for my band, Tenacious D, and it really helped me to find my voice as an actor. And that’s what I always tell people who ask me, “How do I become an actor like you?” I tell them to write their own ticket. Do your own movies and things. Don’t wait around to be a puppet in someone else’s show. You make the show happen. So that’s the one that pops into my head right away for something that helped me.

MoviesOnline: Jack, I thought there was a lot of emotional realism that came through in your portrayal of Po. Were there moments that you really connected his story to your own story?

JACK BLACK: Yeah, there’s lots of -- I knew Dustin Hoffman was in the movie so I wanted to be absolutely method acting in my performance. I didn’t want to be outshone by the master himself. I would think about things like when we were doing the scene where I was talking about the Furious Five and how much I idolized them and was really excited that they were going to have a presentation of the Dragon Warrior. And I substituted, “OK, what would I get that excited about? Oh my God, Radiohead, my favorite rock n’ roll band is going to be playing at the Wiltern. I have to go see them. They are going to be adding a new member of the band and maybe I could be in Radiohead!” And, you know, things of that nature. Little “What if?” exercises is what we like to call it in the Strasbourg technique that I’m very good at.

MoviesOnline: What was your childhood dream? Was it always acting? Was it music? Was there anything you were as obsessed about as Po is about his martial arts?

JACK BLACK: Well yeah. I loved acting and I loved the arts in general. I also loved the martial arts. Yeah, I was crazy for improv games. Viola’s bowling games when I was a kid. I definitely wanted to master it. I would say, yeah. That was my thing.

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about the experience of Cannes? You let slip that Angelina was pregnant with twins. Were there any repercussions from that?

JACK BLACK: Yeah, that was fun. The truth is I didn’t tell the whole story. I held back. But what the hell, I’m going to go ahead and tell you. She’s actually pregnant with triplet pandas which is great news for the panda population. We got three new pandas coming. Unfortunately, it’s really bad news for Brad Pitt because they are not his.

MoviesOnline: Are you still friends?

JACK BLACK: We are still friends. Good, good friends.

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about the day you worked with Dustin Hoffman and what that was like?

JACK BLACK: Dusty and I worked together -- and I can call him Dusty now, we’ve gotten to that point. It was great to work with him and I think you guys and Jeffrey just wanted us to get together to see what would happen because for the most part, we work in isolation. It’s just easier that way so you don’t have overlap and just technical reasons and schedule reasons, you know? It’s fun to work together, but it’s also really helpful to be able to just focus on your performance and to just explore all the different lines and joke angles you can take without the other actor there who is like, “C’mon Jack, we’re on hour number three on the same joke. I’m Dustin Hoffman, I have to move!” But, when we did get together, I was intimidated because I have been a huge fan of his for my whole life, it seems. And it was cool to get tips from him, acting tips and, yeah, he is the master for real.

MoviesOnline: Are you like your character who is nervous when he meets the other Superheroes? Did you suck up?

JACK BLACK: Yeah, I was a suck up. I don’t think I said anything too embarrassing. I think I actually clammed up a little bit. I got a little quiet.

MELISSA COBB: We were actually just looking back at that footage just earlier this week for another reason and it was really cool to see, because I think even we’d forgotten. It was a few years back. And we had cut the two performances from that day together. And it was that moment in the movie where they are having that face off between each other and it’s a great moment in the movie I think as a result because there is a really quick back and forth between the two of them that came out of that day. It was a great moment for the movie I think.

MoviesOnline: Dustin, the Master, was telling us about the difference between doing a live action film and an animated film and how painstaking it was. Was this a whole different challenge for you? Is it more difficult for you as an actor?

JACK BLACK: No, I think we have different approaches. I’m more of a stand up than a method actor. I think he definitely prefers to have another human being there to bounce off of and have real human interaction. I’m fine with just doing it in a vacuum, in a space vacuum of my own. Yeah, I’d do it in a mirror. That’s my technique. I would find it just as difficult if I had his role in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” I’m sure that would be very painstaking to me.

MoviesOnline: Are you looking forward to being a dad for the second time? Is it fun for you? Is it a challenge due to your career?

JACK BLACK: You just gotta make all the time precious that you have with the babies when you are working. Like right now? I should really be with my babies right now. But I’ll get back. And you have an hour in the morning and an hour at night. And you really make the most of that time. 

MELISSA COBB: There’s some hours in the middle of the night where you could probably help out too.

JACK BLACK: Oh, yeah. Hours in the middle of the night. Oh, I have been. I have a new one.

MoviesOnline: Are you a method actor like Dustin is a method actor?

JACK BLACK: Totally. I lived with Pandas for three years before we even started recording, since I heard about the project. I eat bamboo. I haven’t eaten anything but bamboo. Bamboo and cheeseburgers. No, I did actually take a summer of Strasburg classes here in LA and I learned how to hold an imaginary cup of tea. And I still have it. Sense memory. [demonstrates] “Hot, hot, hot, hot.” And I use it. I’ll use that technique on you at the drop of a hat. 

MoviesOnline: Following up on “Tropic Thunder,” were you surprised by that Robert Downey, Jr. controversy over his appearance in black face?

JACK BLACK: No, it’s a spicy little character he’s playing there. We’re in a very politically correct climate right now and there are certain things that are taboo and you can’t do. But I think when people see the film, they will appreciate an incredible performance, and in the context of the film, I do not think it will be deemed racist or inflammatory at all, just a very funny and smart comedy.

MoviesOnline: Jack, is your older son able to watch this and enjoy it? And has he gotten a lot of toys?

JACK BLACK: Yes, Sammy has gotten – I screen the toys though. He’s only 1-year-old. And a lot of toys come in and they say, “3 and above,” “4 and 5 and above” and I’ll hold off on those. I keep those well hid in the attic. I’ll bring them down in a couple of years.

MoviesOnline: You can show him some of the pictures at least…

JACK BLACK: Yeah, I’m gonna wait until he’s…this movie, any movie would be really overwhelming…you don’t want to take a little baby into a big, dark movie theater. That in itself is an intense movie experience even though he’s pretty intense already, but you have to keep things soft and sweet for a bit while longer.

MoviesOnline: Is he musical?

JACK BLACK: Yes, very musical. He’s got great rhythm and loves to dance. I made him a dance mix on my iPod recently which I’m pretty proud of. I think I cracked the code.

MoviesOnline: What’s on it?

JACK BLACK: “Groove is in the Heart” by Dee Lite. That’s one of the nuggets. “Dancing Queen” by Abba. What else is on there? “Surf Wax USA” by Weezer. Lots of good jams. A little Stevie Wonder in there. The one that goes…[does a sound from the song]   What is that? “World keep on turning because it won’t be too long…” “Higher Ground,” it’s on the baby dance mix. I recommend it for other people that have babies.

MoviesOnline: Has Jackie Chan seen the film and did he have any input? Also, why is the bad guy always British?

JACK BLACK: Yeah, Darth Vader. All those guys.

MELISSA COBB: They are scary those British people. Jackie Chan has seen the movie and sort of the greatest compliment was that he really thought the action was terrific. It was great for him to see it. You know when he came in, one of his sessions, he actually did a lot of his sound effect work to the picture and sort of watched his character move through space, so that was really cool, because he can do those kung fu sound effects like, well, Jack Black can. [Laughs] He did a fantastic job. You know, we didn’t have that opportunity to work with him too much during the process of production because he was incredibly busy. But, we were honored to show it to him and have him like it. In terms of the British bad guy, yeah, I don’t know what’s going on there. Ian McShane is really an amazing, amazing actor. He has such an intensity. Just him standing in a room when you are trying to pitch the project is like, “You wanna be this tiger?” is really scary. He just gives you that look. But he’s the sweetest guy in the world. So, it was a really wonderful opportunity to work with him. He can go from being a sweet “may I have a cup of tea” guy to the scariest villain in the recording session just two seconds later. He’s just fantastic. He happens to be British by the way.

JACK BLACK: What was the name of that dude who was the consultant on Kung Fu moves?

MELISSA COBB: Rudolph?

JACK BLACK: Is that his name? Didn’t he do some work on some actual live action Kung Fu films? I met some guy yesterday…

MELISSA COBB: Oh, Eric Chen, maybe.

JACK BLACK: Chen, yeah.

MELISSA COBB: He’s a cool guy. He actually taught a class to all of us. I don’t know how many of you have taken a six-hour Kung Fu class…

JACK BLACK: When you say, “all of us,” you and all the animators had to go through a class?

MELISSA COBB: Yeah, a six-hour class of Kung Fu.

JACK BLACK: Exhausting!

MELISSA COBB: And I’m like, “I’m cool. Yeah, I can do that.” We wanna feel like Po. Like what does it feel like to be really out of shape and try to do Kung Fu? At the end of the day we were supposed to be doing knuckle push ups, that was the last thing of the day, and it was like, “Ooohhhhhh.”

JACK BLACK: He teaches a class in LA. I want to go.

MELISSA COBB: Yeah, he’s great. He teaches kids…

JACK BLACK: My neck is still sore because I did a little session with him yesterday at a photo shoot making me do official Kung Fu poses.

MELISSA COBB: Yeah, but the animators, for them, it was great because until you do it with your own body, you don’t really understand how the character needs to do it. How much of your back is involved in the punch and what all the mechanics of it are.

MoviesOnline: What’s up with Tenacious D? Also, what projects have you done since wrapping on “Tropic Thunder”?

JACK BLACK: Tenacious D is alive and well. We are going to do some festivals, Redding and Leeds in England, very famous, and we are going to be opening for Metallica. Just a little band you might have heard of, Metallica. [Laughs] And then probably do some benefits here in LA when we get back from that in August. The other movies – I did a movie with Harold Ramis at the helm called “The Year One” with the young and brilliant Michael Cera who I am the president of his fan club after working with him. He’s so great, smart, and yeah, I am jealous of his magic. What was I doing when I was 20? I did not have that kind of magic. But he’s a special, special, kid. 

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about your characters in that film?

JACK BLACK: We are just two dudes wandering through biblical times. We are not famous characters from the bible. We are not even in the bible at all. This is two dudes, Zed and O, I play Zed and he plays O, wandering. We are in a tribe, a primitive tribe, and we wander out of our tribe to go on a quest for the meaning of life and we see all the major players of the Old Testament. It’s a pretty funny adventure movie.

MoviesOnline: Leeds and Redding are two huge, legendary festivals like Woodstock. Does it mean something special to be opening those?

JACK BLACK: We are very excited, especially knowing one of the greatest live albums of all time in our opinion is “The Who Live at Leeds” and we will probably pay some kind of tribute to them, do a medley of sorts. And we got some special things in store. We are trying to do some new stuff that no one has seen, catch people off guard a little bit, but it will be fun. To play in front of that many people, we’ve never really played that huge a crowd before. It will be like 50,000 people or something crazy like that? More? Yeah, whatever. My brain doesn’t go above 50,000. [Laughs]

MoviesOnline: When is it?

JACK BLACK:That’s August 20, 21, 22, 23, 24.

MoviesOnline: You guys rocked Comic-Con a few years ago. That was like a legendary performance.

JACK BLACK: Oh yeah! Thank you!

MoviesOnline: Any chance of you guys being down there to promote “Year One” or doing anything with “D” down there this year?

JACK BLACK: I don’t know. As of now I haven’t heard anything but it wouldn’t surprise me because that’s the new place to go to promote all the things cinematic.

MoviesOnline: Did you watch any Kung Fu movies to prepare for your role in “Kung Fu Panda”?

JACK BLACK: No, but I’ve done a lot of Kung Fu movie watching. Films by Stephen Chow, “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer” in particular.

“Kung Fu Panda” opens in theaters on June 6th.

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