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Kung Fu Panda - Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and Ian McShane interview

Kung Fu Panda: Ian McShane, Jack Black, Lucy Liu and Dustin Hoffman

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JACK Black, Dustin Hoffman and Ian McShane talk about the making of Kung Fu Panda at the London press conference, including the technicalities of providing their voices for the animated hit and why they felt lucky with this one.

They also discuss their favourite animated movies, some of their previous role and – in the process – get very fruity with their language (so younger readers beware!)…

Q. Were you persuaded to do the film because you were about to become one of the scariest cartoon villains ever?
Ian McShane: No, I was seduced by the fact they brought me down to nerd heaven… DreamWorks Animation department and they showed me a sequence they’d done using the voice [of Al Swearengen] from Deadwood. They called it a crude sketch… I thought it looked pretty good myself. But it was a scene involving Tai Lung using a scene where I nearly kill a whore in Deadwood. Also, it seemed like a perfect way to work with people like Dustin Hoffman and Jack Black who you never see, but you have a wonderful relationship with on-screen, and then you come out afterwards when the film’s a success and bask in the afterglow. So, it was nice to finally meet those guys [on junkets]. But to be part of a film like this was also a great opportunity. I remember my favourite [voice] growing up was George Sanders as Shere Khan in Jungle Book. So, there’s a little touch of that… but not a lot.

Q. How did you feel about doing a film such as this, which seems to go against everything you’ve done in your career and having people to bounce acting off?
Dustin Hoffman: Well, they didn’t tell me that. I took for granted that I’d be in a room with Lucy [Liu], Ian [McShane], and Jack [Black]. I thought we’d be inter-acting and they didn’t tell me I’d be in isolation. But if I can depart for a minute… We’ve been advertising this movie and have flown from LA to Berlin and then the next day to Spain and then Rome. And this is by far the smallest press conference of all and there are at least eight empty seats! And this is a huge hit! It’s stunning to me! And another thing, I did a lot of TV interviews this morning and about every fifth interview a lovely girl would be sitting there and saying: “I have to tell you that my mother… this gets worse… has had a crush on Ian McShane…” [Laughs] So f**k you [says facing Ian McShane]

Jack Black: This is a children’s film! The whores and the swearing… [looks aghast]

Q. But what kind of experience was the isolation for you?
Dustin Hoffman: Well, first they showed me a sketch done by these guys that have been at it for years and years before you even meet them. It means you have to do a character that’s already sketched out. So, you ask: “What’s the guy like?” Because there’s no script and they keep changing it… which is the way movies should be made, by the way. But they keep changing it and trying different things. So, as any artist would agree, you reach a certain point where you tell yourself that if you’re going to do it, you’re going to put yourself in their hands. Had this film flopped, each of us would be pointing [at the directors]. But they deserve the credit for its success because it’s their vision, it’s their imagination, it’s their taste and we’re lucky because it could have been the end.

But you’re in there [the booth] alone with a microphone and these guys very quickly become easy to hate. It’s always: “Do it again, louder!” You feel like you’re beginning as an actor and they’re behind the glass. They also tell you at the beginning that there’s a camera above your head, a regular 35mm camera, and it’s recording everything you do because when you’re acting you don’t know when you’re moving your hands or your face or whatever. They tape that and give it to the animators, who then incorporate that with the image they’ve already constructed, which is interesting to me. I do think we’re in the infancy of a new art form… and I hate to say it. I used to think they were cartoons but they’ve moved on.

Q. As a child, weren’t you quite active in the martial art forms of judo and karate?
Jack Black: It’s true. I took a year of karate. It was like obligatory… every kid was taking like one year of karate and one year of piano in my town. It was Bruce Lee and Liberace. But I was not a white belt. I graduated. I had a colour belt – but that’s all you need to know. It could have been black, it could have been yellow, or it could have been anything in between. I was pretty good at judo and I was heavier than most of the other kids in the class, which gave me an advantage. It’s easier to flip people if you outweigh them. There’s a little titbit for you… it’s not all a down side, there are some advantages to being a little extra around the waist.

Q. You get two screen credits for singing and playing the panda. But you didn’t get one for scriptwriting because I believe it was your inspiration to use the word Skadoosh!?
Jack Black: A little known fact… Skadoosh is a little known combination of [early 20th century US slang for “scram”] “23 skidoo” and Baba Ganoush, my favourite Middle Eastern dish. But that’s part of the acting gig… you’re going to let loose some improvs and put stuff into your own words every once in a while. That doesn’t get you a writing credit… or more money. It just makes it more fun.

Q. What cartoons were you brought up on as kids?
Dustin Hoffman: I’ll reveal my age, I’m 70, and the first film I ever saw in my life was Bambi. It’s interesting that once in a while you hear people say: “Gee, this is a little violent, this movie.” But if you’d read children’s stories and you have kids, you’ll know otherwise. Bambi was a traumatic experience and I still suffer from it. Those animals get killed in a forest fire. But I’ve sat reading children’s stories to my kids and once I was reading Pinocchio and it said: “And Pinocchio was in front of the fireplace and went to sleep, and after a while his legs were burnt up to the knee.” That’s actually in that storybook. The second film I saw was Dumbo… eternally identified – not big ears but you can guess what I substituted that with [laughs]

Jack Black: I liked Fantasia. The Night on Bald Mountain, when the mountain came alive and it was a blue devil guy and he had little flaming demons dancing in his hand? The music was that classical [mimics]… it affected me deeply.

Ian McShane: Looney Tunes and early Popeye. Early Popeye especially because they’re rude [laughs]

Q. When we attended a press conference with the cast of Madagascar the cast told us they all studied their animals. Did you study pandas as part of your preparation?
Jack Black: I don’t believe they studied their animals. They later said they did, or studied right before the press conference. I was told just to use my own voice. I wasn’t modelling my character on the behaviour of pandas. I was just being me. Guilty! Sue me! I’ve never even seen a panda face to face.

Dustin Hoffman: Tell the truth, Jack. He demanded a panda in his hotel room…

Jack Black: But that’s different. I think I did the pandas proud. I think they’re going to be OK with my performance.

Q. Congratulations on the recent birth of your second son. Now that you’re a father will you be looking to do more of these kinds of films?
Jack Black: No and that’s because I’m not thinking about forcing my kids to watch my movies. It’s always awkward when someone says: “Hey, I wrote a song, can I play it for you?” That would be the dynamic, if I was like: “Hey, you’re my son, watch my work…” I don’t want to put them in that awkward position. If anything, it makes me want to make good movies – not necessarily for kids. Just because when they get older, that’s when I’m worried, that they’ll judge me and say: “Yeah, my father’s [hand over mouth] Jack Black. He was in that cheesy movie.” So, I’m going to keep it all high quality. It’ll be a quality controller.

Q. Have you looked back and thought how much you owe to Deadwood, which may have appeared a bit of a gamble but which has led to so many roles since?
Ian McShane: No, I thought the work was going to be great because it was David Milch and it was Walter Hill directing and it was for HBO. You’ve no idea what it’s going to turn out like, you just do it and it goes from there. But it was three extraordinary years. People in this country didn’t have a lot of chance to see it because Sky – in their wisdom – bought it and put it out at 10pm on a Monday night. Which is a bad time for anything, people are in bed. But I had no idea what was going to come from it. It was just a great job with wonderful people to work with and it led to other nice things. But it’s true what you say about it being a gamble because some people are put off by language [concerning the gamble element]. We’re just doing a follow-up to Sexy Beast now and I know two distinguished actors turned the older part down because they found the language offensive. So sometimes I feel that people come from another generation.

Dustin Hoffman: I’m curious when it became a hit what type of women approached you?

Ian McShane: [Laughs] It was mostly women who said: “I just love the way you said ‘c**ks**ker’”. They’d say: “I just love that word and I never thought of saying ‘c**ks**ker.” So I’d just tell them to say it again.

Q. With your great improv ability did you find yourself having to reign yourself in for this family movie?
Jack Black: No, I took it all the way and then they’d just use whatever they wanted. I’d always read what they had on the page and then I’d take it to different directions and bring it back home, every which way but loose. But I don’t think of myself as a great improver. A lot of times there’s long periods of silence when everyone in the recording studio is looking at their watch and waiting for me to say something. And I’m searching desperately in my brain for anything before something dribbles out.

Q. Have you ever done any martial arts training before? And did you find yourself attempting any of the moves in the recording studio?
Dustin Hoffman: I never did any of that. In Meet The Fockers I had to learn a form of it, and I wasn’t very good at it, and I had to tell the director after a few lessons but he said: “Just do the best you can.” I did learn one thing about it, which I didn’t know… and by the way Jack [Black] is extraordinarily flexible at that stuff.

But I didn’t know that it had an intellectual aspect to it. Sure, they’re extremely fit and are very disciplined athletes, but there’s also an intellectual element to it, a mental part, because they’re trying to convince the opponent of their own pattern and then once they think they have, they violate it. It’s like high-speed chess in a way. The physicality didn’t come in until right at the end of the recording, when they had me come in to do the noises and that was the hardest part for me. I said: “Why don’t you just get some porno actors?” Because it was all like “aah”, “ooh”, “aah”.

Read our review of Kung Fu Panda

Read our interview with the directors