Jack Black and Producer Melissa Cobb Interview – KUNG FU PANDA

     June 2, 2008

You know how the Discovery Channel has Shark Week? Well, you might as well call this Kung Fu Panda week on Collider, as this interview marks the beginning of a boatload of coverage for the movie on the site.

The reason for all this coverageis…I participated in interviews with most of the cast this past weekend. And on top of my interviews, Erico from the website Omelete (Collider’s partner) flew here from Brazil for the junket and I’ll be using his video interviews as well. So…like I said…it’s Kung Fu Panda week on Collider.

Thankfully, I really enjoyed Kung Fu Panda so helping to promote the film is cool with me. And if you haven’t heard of the film yet…

Kung Fu Panda features Jack Black as Po the Panda, a lowly waiter in a noodle restaurant, who is a kung fu fanatic but whose shape doesn’t exactly lend itself to kung fu fighting. In fact, Po’s defining characteristic appears to be that he is the laziest of all the animals in ancient China. That’s a problem because powerful enemies are at the gates, and all hopes have been pinned on a prophesy naming Po as the “Chosen One” to save the day. A group of martial arts masters are going to need a black belt in patience if they are going to turn this slacker panda into a kung fu fighter before it’s too late. Fighting alongside Jack Black is a hell of a voice cast, with the film also featuring the voices of Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Ian McShane, Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie, David Cross and Seth Rogen.

Anyway, before getting to the interview with Jack Black and Producer Melissa Cobb, if you want to watch 10 movie clips from Kung Fu Panda click here.

And, as always, if you’d like to listen to the audio of the interview click here for the MP3.

Again, Kung Fu Panda gets released this Friday at theaters everywhere.

Question: Jack this was a very long process. 4 1/2 years since the very beginning. At what point did you get involved?

JB: I wanna say it was four years ago when I first came in and recorded. Is that right?

MC: That’s about right. Yeah, I think it was four years ago. So, every few months, three or four months. Five months. Six months. We’d call. ‘No, we’ve got it right this time. Can you come do it this time?’

Q: Did you feel like you had it from the very beginning or did you see a process of your character evolving?

JB: 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 at once, because that’s not the process they were working with – it was more organic script development. Performances would come in and is that fair to say?

MC: Yeah, I think he was a little bit more of a jerk in the beginning. And then once we started hearing Jack’s voice, it was like ‘Oh, this is!’ 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 to the movie. But, that really came from working with Jack and finding where is he charming and likeable and working off that.

Q: Jack, I was wondering if there was a Master Shifu in your own life?

JB: I had plenty of mentors and people that advised 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 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 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. Make the show happen. That’s the one that pops in my head right away.

Q: Jack, thought there was a lots of emotional realism. Were there moments that you really connected his story to your own story?

JB: 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. Ah, 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? 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 can be in Radiohead!’ And, y’know, things of that nature. Little ‘What if?’ exercises is what we like to call it in the Strasbourg technique that I’m really good at.

Q: What was your childhood dream? Was it always acting? Was it music? Were you into martial arts?

JB: I loved acting and I loved the arts in general. I also loved the martial arts. Yeah, I was crazy for improv games.

Q: Can you talk about the experience Cannes? You let slip that Angelina was pregnant with her baby. Any repercussions of that?

JB: The truth is I didn’t tell the whole story. I held back. What the hell I’m going to 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.

Q: Still friends?

JB: We are still friends. Good, good friends.

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

JB: Dusty and I worked together — and I can call him Dusty now, we’ve gotten to that point. Um, it was great to work wit him and I think you guys and Jeffrey just wanted us to get together to see what would happen. ‘Cause 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, y’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, um, it was cool to get tips from him. Acting tips and, yeah, he is the master for real.

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

JB: 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.

MC: We were actually just looking back at that footage just early 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. A great moment for the movie I think.

Q: Jack, Dustin – the Master, was telling us how painstaking it was. Was this a whole different challenge?

JB: 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 to bounce off of and have like, 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, my technique. I would find it just as difficult if I had his role in ‘Kramer vs. Kramer.’ That would be very painstaking to me.

Q: How much are you looking to being a dad for a second time? Challenge? Is it fun for you?

JB: 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.

MC: Hours in the middle of the night would probably help with that.

JB: Oh, yeah. Hours in the middle of the night, oh, I have been. I have a new one that’s 8 or three hours.

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

JB: Totally. I lived with Pandas for three years before we even started recording, since I heard about the project. I eat 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. ‘Hot, hot, hot, hot.’ And I’ll use it. I’ll use that technique on you.

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

JB: 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 you can’ do. I think when people see the film they will appreciate an incredible performance. And in the context of the film, I don’t think it will be deemed racist or inflammatory at all, just a very funny and smart comedy.

Q: Jack is your older son able to watch this? And has he gotten a lot of toys?

JB: 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. Keep those well hid in the attic. Take them down in a couple years.

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

JB: Yeah, I’m gonna wait until he’s…this movie, any movie – you don’t want to take a little baby into a big, dark movie theater. That’s 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.

Q: Is he musical?

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

Q: What’s on it?

JB: ‘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 Steve Wonder in there. The one that goes…[does a sound from the song] what is that? ‘World keep on turnin’ because it won’t be too long…’ ‘Higher Ground’ it’s on the baby dance mix. I recommend it for anyone with babies.

Q: Did Jackie Chan have any input and why is the bad guy always British?

JB: Yeah, Darth Vader. All those guys.

MC: They are scary those British. Jackie Chan has seen the movie and sort of the greatest compliment is he really thought the action was terrific. You know when he came in, one of his sessions, he actually did a lot of his sound effect work to picture. He sort of watched his character move through space, so that was really cool, because he can do those sound effects like, well, Jack Black can. He did a fantastic job. Y’know, we didn’t have that opportunity to work with him 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 dunno what’s going on there. Ian McShane is really an amazing, amazing actor. He has such an intensity. Him just him standing in a room when you are sort of trying to pitch the project is like, ‘You wanna be this tiger?’ is really scary. He just gives you that look. But, the sweetest guy in the world. So, it was a really wonderful opportunity to work with him. He can go from being a sweet man to the scariest villain in the recording session just two seconds later. He’s just fantastic. Happens to be British by the way.

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

MC: Rudolph?

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

MC: Oh, Eric Chen, maybe.

JB: Chen, yeah.

MC: 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 Kung Fu class…

JB: When you say, ‘all of us’? You and all the animators had to go through a class.

MC: Yeah, six-hour class of Kung Fu. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can do that. We wanna feel what it’s like to be really out of shape and do Kung Fu.’ At the end of the day we were doing knuckle push ups, that was the last thing, and it was like, ‘Ooohhhhhh.’

JB: He teaches a class in LA.

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

JB: 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.

MC: Yeah, but the animators, for them, until you do it with your own body, you don’t really understand how the character is supposed to do it. How much of your back is involved. All those mechanics.

Q: What is up to D? And the projects you’ve done since?

JB: Tenacious d is a live 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 probably do some benefits in LA when we get back from that in August.

Q: I actually wanted to ask…

JB: 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. 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.’ Special, special, kid.

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

JB: 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. Pretty funny adventure movie.

Q: Does it mean something special to be opening those?

JB: 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 sort of tribute to them. A medley of sorts. And we got some special things in store. We are trying to do some new things 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? Whatever. My brain doesn’t go above 50,000. (Laughs.) That is August 20, 21, 22, 23.

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