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Pandamonium: Jack Black on Kung Fu Panda

Kung Fu Panda star Jack Black on finding his inner dragon, super breath power, and his favorite Biblical exclamation

Casting Jack Black as a cartoon character is almost redundant. After nearly a decade of regular but undistinguished work as a character actor in the 1990s, he hit his stride by cranking up both the volume and the attitude, with his semi-parody, two-man heavy metal band Tenacious D and as the ultimate opinionated record store clerk in High Fidelity.

Kung Fu Panda is not his first experience voicing an animated animal (he was Zeke, a sabre-toothed cat in Ice Age, and Lenny the shark in Shark Tale). But it is the first one where the character is designed for him. The Dreamworks movie is the story of a Panda named Po whose dream is to become a kung fu master. His dream makes for the movie’s clever opening sequence, depicting Po’s imaginary adventures in a flat style resembling Asian cut-out puppets. Po fantasizes his exploits with heavy use of the word legend, and proclaims of himself, “He was so awesome that his enemies would go blind from sheer awesomeness!”

Watch the trailer for "Kung Fu Panda"

Reality is a bit more mundane: Po works at his father’s noodle shop. But while Po has all the attributes of your normal panda—big appetite, bigger belly, disinclination toward actual physical motion—the local sage Oogway is persuaded that it is his destiny to become the Dragon Warrior who is destined to save their village from an impending disaster. And so he is sent to train with Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who had expected that one of his students—collectively the Furious Five—would be the D. W. Clearly if Po wants to achieve his dream he’s going to have to work for it.

At a press function for Kung Fu Panda in Beverly Hills last weekend, Black demonstrated that his onscreen persona isn’t much different from the real him. Like Po, he finds that the path to becoming the Dragon Master is not by imitating his heroes but by being himself. Black says, “I didn’t have a real career going on until I found my own voice. For many years I just imitated other actors and comedians that I loved. It wasn’t until I started writing my own music and scenes and found my own voice that I became a ‘master of my craft.’”

Putting the phrase in quotes doesn’t quite do justice to the way Black says things like “master of my craft.” Even in his rare serious moments, he loves to use intentionally pompous phrases delivered with sardonic intensity. Commenting on the upcoming Year One, set in Biblical times, he says that his favorite word to say in the ancient dialogue is “Lo!,” but you have to imagine him raising his eyebrows and letting it rip from the diaphragm, dragged out to five or six syllables. Transcribing his comments makes you run through the entire range of devices to provide various kinds of emphasis—quotes, capitalization, exclamation marks, etc. Speech like this is why they invented emoticons.

Anyway, here’s what else he had to say:

Artvoice: Did you do martial arts as a kid?

Jack Black: I took the obligatory one year of karate, I believe I got a yellow belt, and then I quit. I also did some judo—I believe I made it to a green belt. But never kung fu.

AV: Could you break a board?

JB: With my mind—don’t even have to use my hands. It’s the highest level of kung fu.

AV: So did this movie help you relive those days?

JB: Definitely. That’s the only reason I did it, was for therapy.

AV: Do you have panda-esque qualities?

JB: I feel I’m panda-esque. We’re both roly-poly…That’s the main one. Cuddly. I’m furry, and my beard has black and white in it now that I’m getting older.

AV: Were you encouraged to improvise when recording your lines?

JB: I was allowed to go crazy. I would always do what was on the page, and then they always encouraged me to go crazy and have fun and explore all the different things. I don’t know how much they used, but they did use “Skadoosh,” so I feel I deserve a writing credit. [To judge from a quick scan of the internet, kids are taking to the line “Skadoosh” in droves. Forewarned is forearmed.]

AV: A lot of your dialogue is groaning and yelling and screaming. Did they script all of those?

JB: It’s not like one of those things where I came in and in one day cranked out the whole movie. I’d come in and do a few scenes, then a month later I’d do a few more scenes, and then re-do the earlier scenes I did with a few dialogue tweaks, and every time I’d do a few groans and squeaks, eee-yahs, grunts. For years I’ve been grunting and groaning and screaming for this movie. But not all at one sitting.

It’s a lot like Miles Davis used to work. When he entered the recording studio they were rolling tape all the time, just in case some magical genius happened. Same with me—if I’m taking a sip of water they’re rolling tape, just in case.

AV: So you’re the Miles Davis of animated movies?

JB: It’s not for me to say, but thank you for saying it.

AV: Was it hard to do this and not be able to use your entire body like you did in Nacho Libre?

JB: I did use my body a lot actually. You don’t know it but they’re filming us while we’re doing our vocal recordings and they used it for reference. To get the proper sounds I would actually do the things I was supposed to be doing. Like if I was supposed to be tired from running I would run around—it was very method acting in that way.

AV: Po’s motivation turns out to be food. What is your motivation?

JB: Food. I love food. I love pizza. And cheeseburgers—a cheeseburger is the perfect food. It never fails to deliver the mouthwatering satisfaction.

AV: How are you enjoying fatherhood?

JB: He’s [his son Samuel] only one. But these are magical days ’cause he’s only one for another two weeks. So I’m documenting really closely everything he does in the next two weeks, ’cause I’ll be able to say, “He did that when he was one?” If he did it when he was two, it’s not such a big deal.

AV: What kind of games do you like to play with him?

JB: He likes books. I love to read him stories, like Dr. Seuss. [An irritated look crosses his face] The other day I was reading him One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish—that book is too long! It’s 63 pages long! It’s a trilogy—break it into three books!

Right now he likes to pretend that he has super breath power, that he can blow and it will send me hurling across the room. It’s kind of an exhausting game—he blows at me and I go “Aaaaaaarrrgh! And I fall and flip away. It’s a lot of exercise. For me. And then when I blow back at him, he doesn’t fall down! I have to tell him, You gotta understand the concept, we both have the power of blow power!

Will they be getting big stars to do the voices for the movie in other countries?

JB: Can’t you see the poster in France: Gerard Depardieu is the Kung Fu Panda? No, I met the guy [who will be doing the voice in the French version], he’s a really funny standup comedian. What was his name? I can’t remember—don’t tell anyone.

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