DreamWorks Animation’s KUNG FU PANDA 3 AWESOME EDITION is out on Digital HD July 4th and on Blu-ray™ and DVD July 11th and we caught up with Jack Black to find out more about our favourite panda and his friends! Jack Black plays Po in the latest installment of the Kung Fu Panda series, known for his adoration of martial arts and equal passion for dumplings! There will be reunions, a new path for Po, all of your favourite characters and of course a brand new villain, Kai for Po to go up against.
What was it like returning to this hugely popular character?
It was great to revisit the character of Po. It is always fun to jump into his enthusiastic skin and relive the dream of becoming the master, the Dragon Warrior.
Why do you think Po has become such a popular character?
It is his innocence and naïveté. He can seem a little dim! He’s not the brightest bulb in the hardware store, (laughs) but people identify with his emotional purity, that love of kung fu and the kindness at the core of his being; there’s a profound wisdom there too. He’s bumbling and clumsy, but he is also a magical creature, so he’s got that yin and yang about him.
How much of Po is in you?
A little bit, it’s inevitable. I’m really just being myself with Po; I’m not putting on a voice in the way I have done with other characters. I’m not even lowering the voice to be bear-like or anything. I’m just being a more enthusiastic, innocent version of myself. I guess Po keeps me in touch with my inner child (laughs). God, that sounds sooo dorky! But he is like a younger version of me. I love playing him. It reminds me of that childlike side we all have, how it is important not to lose that part of yourself, the kid who just wants to play and do things because they’re fun.
He is growing up. He’s becoming an adult and he has to go from being the student to the teacher. If he doesn’t … he’s going to die! The stakes are very high. He also has some father issues. He meets his biological father who he thought was dead. It is huge and emotional for Po. He didn’t think there were any more pandas in China; he thought he was the last of the Mohicans, if you will. So it’s a huge revelation when his father steps into his world and says, ‘hey, I’m alive and so are a lot of other pandas.’ It is a bit of a bombshell. Also, it’s not entirely good news for Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping at the noodle shop. So there’s a delicate emotional landscape. The dynamic between his biological father and his adopted father is very spicy. And there’s a lot of comedy.
What is it like having Bryan Cranston as your dad?
It is amazing, he is fantastic. I met him at a charity poker game a few years ago and obviously I worship the ground he walks on. I love BREAKING BAD (the multi-award winning television series) and when I heard he was going to play my father it was a huge deal for me. We were all very excited and he had a huge impact on the movie. The original idea for the character was very different from what he ended up doing with it. He was going to be a quiet, noble and stern father figure. But after Bryan played with it for a while, it became apparent that his character was going to be like Po. In a way, he’s a bigger child than Po. He ended up being really funny.
Po and his dad go off on adventure, don’t they?
Po goes back with his father to a panda paradise and meets all his brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles and aunts and little baby pandas. He finds out that there’s a whole village of friends and family he has never met before. That has a profound effect on him. He has to teach them all to defend themselves because none of them know kung fu, and of course there is this super villain, Kai, who is coming to destroy, not just the pandas, but all of China. It’s up to Po and his new family to protect everyone.
Fatherhood is a big theme in the film, isn’t it?
It is and I have a similar dynamic to the one that Po has with both his dads, because I have a stepfather who I’m really close to, and I love my biological dad very much. So I know about that crazy dynamic Po faces. A lot of people have two fathers, so they can relate to Po. Back in the 40s and 50s divorce wasn’t as common, but now around fifty percent of the population has stepfathers and stepmothers.
What is it like having J.K. Simmons as the villain?
It is amazing. I don’t have any real face-to-face time with him. We work in isolation in the sound booth. But I love the work that he’s done; he’s so funny and he is a brilliant actor. If you’ve seen WHIPLASH [for which Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar], you will know that he’s one of the best actors out there. He is so compelling. I was positive that he was going to win the Oscar for WHIPLASH. All the other actors nominated were great, but J.K. Simmons slam-dunked it!
Can you discuss your experience of working with the directors, Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni?
It was great working with Jen again. She has a deep appreciation of martial arts films and a cool approach to the emotional life of the characters. She’s an artist and a brilliant animator. She’s great because she works from a visual place and that helps me a lot. She will bring over a drawing to show you and say: ‘here is Po in this scene,’ and you can see the emotions in his eyes and the expression on his face. It was a joy to come in and record with both directors. Their styles are very different. Jen is very quiet, she directs with a whisper. Alessandro is very passionate and funny and physical. They both make me laugh and we had really good sessions. With animated films everything comes down to your relationship with the director or directors, rather than the actors, because I’m not working with Angelina Jolie or the others everyday.
Other than the directors, are you alone doing the voice work?
I work with a fantastic voice actor, Stephen Kearin, who does all the characters, [standing in for the actual cast]which is great. Stephen is a super chameleon; he’s also an amazing ‘one man show’ kind of guy. He’s incredibly talented. We have a good time messing around and finding the character because we’re in the studio together for hours and hours. We used the script as a kind of launching pad. We would find stuff that was not in the script and shape it all together. There was lots of improv. I don’t know how much of it they used, but everyday I came in, I definitely made up some things.
Po is of course a kung fu master. What experience have you had in martial arts?
I did the obligatory year of karate when I was a kid; I did a year of judo later on; and I dabbled with a little kung fu for these films, just because I felt like I should learn a little bit, since I am THE kung fu panda!
Have you encountered any real pandas?
I went to see a baby panda at the Atlanta Zoo (in 2011). There’s a naming ceremony when a panda turns 100 days old, and we were there and named him Po. I got a little scared of the panda, because it’s a wild animal; he’s a bear, after all. Jeffrey Katzenberg (DreamWorks Animation CEO) was the brave one, petting the panda and holding him. He was teasing me because I was scared but I think he’s a fool. It’s a very dangerous animal! But apparently, Jeffrey Katzenberg is a beast master. I said to him: ‘you go pet it. I love pandas from afar.’
What do your kids think of the KUNG FU PANDA movies? They must enjoy them.
They love them. When they were in preschool, KUNG FU PANDA 2 (2011) was about to be released and we had a little sneak preview and brought the whole school to the DreamWorks theater and had a special screening for them. My kids got to present it to their friends. It is our movie together in a way and it’s cool to be able to share that with them. Sammy, my oldest boy, even does a voice in this one. He’s one of the bunnies, so it’s his voice acting premiere.
How fulfilling and challenging is fatherhood?
Fatherhood is great. It is just about being there and being present for the kids when they need you. Fatherhood is about getting them ready for when you’re gone. That’s a dark way to say it, but it’s all about teaching them to be able to take care of themselves, to survive on their own, taking off the training wheels. Also it’s just about enjoying your kids and appreciating their gifts and their sense of humor. I get tons of satisfaction just watching them play.
It must be fun for your children having Jack Black as a dad!
I don’t know if I’m as much fun a dad as everybody would imagine. In terms of schedules, I like them to get to bed on time, because I like them to get up on time and get to school on time. I want them to keep up with their homework. But I love to play with the boys, I love to jump in the pool, and do Lego with them. I even play some video games. I feel a little guilty when I’m sharing screen-time with them though. It’s such a bad word nowadays and you’re not supposed to let them have any of it, but I’ve definitely broken that rule. We’ve done some MINECRAFT amongst other games (laughs). I think people would be surprised to know how strict I can be though. It’s not just like Disneyland all the time. It’s all about boundaries. You’ve got to keep them in line to a certain degree. I’m in trouble if they are like me when I was a kid when they are older! But I know they are probably going to be like me. We’ll see (he knocks on wood). I hope they’re not like I was! But I’m not the rock-and-roll dad that everyone wants me to be all the time … I am sometimes.
Po has to start teaching in this film, which he doesn’t want to do. He has to move out of his comfort zone. How valuable is that as a theme for kids?
It is a good message for the kids. You’ve got to keep on pushing and stretching and growing and learning and turning. That’s what life is all about. It’s all about change and learning to adapt. I definitely feel that in my life. You can’t rest on your laurels for very long. Po’s got to learn how to be a teacher, just like I’ve got to learn how to do television (laughs).
Are you still as committed to your musical career?
I’m continuing to work with my band. We’ve got a festival we put on every year, (Festival Supreme). With that and the movies and raising the boys, I’m going a little bit crazy to be honest with you. It’s a little too much. When I look at my Google Calendar, I go, ‘ugh’ (groans). I look for the next time there’s nothing to do. That’s when I’ll be able to relax.’ I need my little oasis of relaxation.
You have an interesting hobby I believe when it comes to time off?
Yes I’m a numismatist. (collecting coins) I’m not even sure how you pronounce it. I like coins that tell a little bit about history. I think it’s interesting. The most precious coin I have in my collection is actually an American penny, but it’s worth a lot more than a penny. It is a (bust of Liberty) ‘flowing hair cent’, I think from 1812 and her (Liberty’s) hair is flowing in the breeze. It’s rare because it was considered too racy at the time. That says something about our puritanical streak in America.
How fulfilling is your career now, it sounds like you love music and acting equally?
Well, I’ve never had to choose between them. I wouldn’t have an acting career if it weren’t for my music. HIGH FIDELITY (2000) was my first good acting role and that was because of my music. I sang and did music in that film. And then SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003) was my next really great role and that was all about the music. I’m glad that I have my musical world, because that’s my secret weapon. Tenacious D is my band and there’s acting in Tenacious D, so I have often been doing the two together. KUNG FU PANDA is one of the rare times when I don’t have to sing… not yet … maybe we could do: KUNG FU PANDA 4, THE ROCK YEARS!
DreamWorks Animation’s KUNG FU PANDA 3 AWESOME EDITION is out on Digital HD July 4th and on Blu-ray™ and DVD July 11th.