Jack Discovers His Inner ‘Panda’
by Paul Fischer
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That zany Jack Black gets animated as he takes on a reluctantly heroic panda in the new animated feature, Kung Fu Panda. From his hilarious stint on American Idol, to a slew of successive films, Black is as busy as ever, fitting in fatherhood and a perpetually frenetic career, as he explained to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: Was this your way to live out your kung fu fantasies?
Jack Black: In a way, it was my way of living out my kung fu fantasies. When I was a child, I took the obligatory one year of karate. I believe I got a yellow belt. I graduated to yellow belt. And then I quit. I don’t know why I quit. I got my colored belt and I was on my merry way. And then I also did some judo. I believe I made it to a green belt. But never kung fu. I’d always wanted to do kung fu and I’d seen the movies, all the Bruce Lee and the great television series that Mr. Carradine was in. I’d always been really interested in the mystical art of kung fu. It seemed like the most wise of all martial arts. So this was my chance to explore that world a bit.
PF: Could you break a board?
JB: With my mind. I don’t even have to use my hands. It’s the highest level of kung fu.
PF: Do you do a movie like this to bring out the child in you?
JB: Yeah, doing this movie definitely was a way to get back in touch with my inner child. That’s the only reason I did it was just for therapy.
PF: Did it work?
JB: It did. I’m back in touch.
PF: Was doing American Idol also a fantasy?
JB: American Idol was a blast, yeah. That was just a crazy Ben Stiller idea that I was all aboard for. Anything he comes up with is usually worthwhile. He’s got a great mind for the comedy.
PF: How much were you allowed to improv?
JB: Well, I was allowed to go crazy. I would do what was on the page as written and then they always allowed me and encouraged me to go crazy and have fun and explore all the different things which I did. I don’t know how much they used of it but they did use skadoosh so I’m gonna take some credit. Writing credit. It won’t say written by me.
PF: Do you have some panda-esque qualities?
JB: Yeah, I feel like I’m panda-esque. We are both rolly polly. Rolly polly’s the main one. Cuddly. Yeah, I’m furry and my beard has black and white in it now that I’m gettin’ older. So I’m kinda like a panda in that way.
PF: Did you record a big bank of grunts and screams?
JB: We just did a little bit at a time. It’s not like one of those things where I just came in and in one day cranked out the whole movie. I would come in and do a few scenes, and then a month later I’d come back and do a few other scenes and then go back and redo the scenes that I already did but with slightly different dialogue tweaks. Yeah, every time I would do three or four groans and screams and kee-yahs. For years I’ve been grunting and groaning and screaming for this movie. It was not all done in one sitting, no.
PF: They also left the tape running.
JB: It’s a lot like Miles Davis used to work. When he entered the music studio, the recording studio, they were rolling tape all the time just in case some magical genius happened. Same with me. Like if I come in, I’m just taking a sip of water, they’re rolling tape just in case.
PF: You’re the Miles Davis of animated movies?
JB: Yeah, it’s not for me to say, but thank you for saying that I am the Miles Davis of animated feature films. Vocal performing.
PF: Were you fighting verbally without your whole body like Nacho Libre?
JB: I did use my body an awful lot actually. I mean, 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 really do the things that 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.
PF: What’s Father’s Day like in your house?
JB: Father’s Day? When is that comin’ up? Hmm, did anything happen special last year? I can’t remember. No, I don’t know.
PF: Is he old enough to make homemade cards for you?
JB: No, no. Well, actually, I think that I did get something like that, but you know, it’s guided. Like my wife will put down a piece of paper and he’ll just kinda scribble. He doesn’t know what he’s doing yet. He’s only one. He’s almost two but these are magical days because he’s only one for another two weeks, so I’m documenting really closely everything he does in the next two weeks, because I’ll be able to say, “He did that when he was one. He’s a genius.” If he did it when he was two, not such a big deal, but when he’s one…
PF: How is fatherhood?
JB: Fatherhood is good, very good indeed.
PF: You were a shark, now a panda, what’s next?
JB: I was a shark, yeah, now a panda. I’d like to be a winged creature, like an eagle. Although I kind of was an eagle in Nacho Libre. I had the eagle powers so maybe next I’d like to be a cheetah. That’s always been my favorite animal because of his speed. The fastest of all creatures. Also my favorite superhero was The Flash because he was the fastest. He ran the speed of light. I don’t know why I like the fastest of all things because I certainly am not the fastest.
PF: That was my next question.
JB: Am I the fastest? At some things. Not running. That’s all I can say.
PF: How are you at being dragon warrior?
JB: How am I dragon warrior-esque? Well, you know, I wouldn’t call myself a master, but Po becomes a dragon warrior when he realizes that he doesn’t have to imitate his heroes, the furious five. He just has to be himself. If he can be himself completely and be the best that he can be, then that would make him a master of his craft. It wasn’t until I started, for me, Jack Black, I didn’t really have a real career going on until I found my own voice because for many years, I just imitated other actors and comedians that I loved and then it wasn’t until I started writing my own music and scenes and finding my own voice that I became “a master of my craft.” Didn’t want to go down that road but then I did, I guess.
PF: Food is Po’s motivation. What is yours?
JB: I’m gonna say for me, it is also food. Food is my motivation. I love food. I love my babies. And yeah…
PF: Favorite food?
JB: I love pizza. Pizza’s the first thing that came to mind. Pizza, cheeseburgers. Cheeseburger is the perfect food because I love good sauce and I love meat. I don’t know why. Melted cheese? I don’t know, it’s just the perfect sandwich. It never ceases to deliver the mouth-watering satisfaction.
PF: Any other artistic aspirations besides acting?
JB: Well, I’m a fan of all of the arts. I like drawing and painting and working with arts and crafts like that. No one will ever buy my art, but I like to do it. It’s fun to do and I like to go and see other people’s work.
PF: What is the secret to Dreamworks animation?
JB: You can’t tell people the real reason why, the special thing because it’s like the Colonel’s secret herbs and spices. The techniques that make the Dreamworks animations different.
PF: Are there any stories you like to tell your son and any characters you’d like him to see you play?
JB: Well, he loves books and stories. I love to read him stories. I love to read him Dr. Seuss. It’s always my favorite but the other day I was reading him One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. That book is too long. It’s like 63 pages long. Why did he have to do that? It’s a trilogy. Break it into three books. It takes 20 minutes to make it through. Besides that, I would say Dr. Seuss, there’ll be more of that and slowly graduate to more complex children’s stories.
PF: And characters for your kids?
JB: Well, right now, my son really likes to pretend like he has the super power of breath power, that he can blow and that it’ll blow me across the room. It’s kind of an exhausting game because he blows at me and then I go, “Arghh,” and I fall and flip away. But it’s a lot of exercise to get blown around. And then when I blow back at him, he doesn’t fall down. Sammy, you’ve got to understand the concept. We both have the power of blow power.
PF: Did you ever do any dirty takes for fun?
JB: Did I drop any foul language? It was more just to get sometimes motivated. If I have to be really angry or something in my character, I would actually accidentally say some bad words, but just get me into the zone. Then I’d substitute bad words with family-friendly words.
PF: What’s next?
JB: Yeah, I’ve got a movie with Ben Stiller called Tropic Thunder.
PF: The most expensive comedy ever?
JB: Dude, it is worth every penny. I saw it and it’s funny as hell.
PF: How was that experience?
JB: It was difficult. Even though it’s a parody of war films, we were making war film level action sequences in the jungle. Well, it’s Hawaii. We did it in Kuai, so immediately nobody has any sympathy for me. They’re like, “What do you mean, you’re in paradise?” There are parts of Hawaii that are like a jungle.
PF: Are you done with Year One?
JB: Year One is done, yeah. Had a great time on that one, as well. That one was Harold Ramis at the helm directing and young Michael Cera who is very brilliant. I highly recommend doing a movie with Michael Cera if you get a chance.
PF: The director was influenced by Tenacious’ D’s “Cosmic Shame” for the film’s theme?
JB: Yeah, that’s what he said to me, too, and it’s very flattering. I suspect he just said that to get me to do the movie. There’s some bad language in that but the idea in the song is that it’s about following your heart. Sometimes you’ll follow your heart and it won’t lead to anything but you have to try. You have to try because if you don’t, you’ll always regret it and you’re following, chasing your dreams. It’s a theme that I’ve been exploring before this movie ever came about.
PF: Are you signed for anything else?
JB: Not yet, no. There’s an impending strike and I don’t want to mess around until, yeah, you know…
PF: Think it’ll happen?
JB: I hope not. I hope it’s all resolved.
PF: How did you get into biblical mode for Year One?
JB: We just played, me and Michael Cera just played two dudes wandering around in biblical times. We are not famous characters in the Bible.
PF: But you meet them?
JB: Yeah, along the road. It’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz in the Bible.
PF: You don’t have to talk like thee and thou?
JB: No, there was a tiny bit actually though. Ye and thee and thou and lo. Lo is my favorite one.
PF: Did you and Downey flip a coin to be the black faced one?
JB: Oh man, he is amazing. His performance is transcendent. I am just a clown but he is a real actor. You’ll see. He’s awfully good.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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