Jack Black, the star of the new movie Kung Fu Panda, talks about his role as a chubby, furry animal; what it’s like to be a funny person; and how being an actor is like being a chef.
Jack Black is yawning. Repeatedly. He’s just finished making a music video that promotes his role as host of Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, and now he has to promote his role in the new, big-budget animated movie Kung Fu Panda
, in which he stars as a kung fu–fighting panda. Obviously. So Black is tired. Also obviously. But he’s behind schedule. It’s about 7:30 on a Sunday evening in Los Angeles, and Black still has a slew of one-on-one interviews to do to publicize the movie. Several of those are with writers on the East Coast -- sleepy writers on the East Coast, like me.
This is a toxic combination. Black is wiped out and turned off. Spent. The writers, meanwhile, want -- no, need
-- him to be something else. They need him to be that guy
. That guy from the mock rock band Tenacious D and from the movies School of Rock
, High Fidelity
, and Nacho Libre
. That dazed and confused smart aleck whose oversize frame and alternately melodramatic and singsong way of delivering dialogue makes him something of an animated character that’s come to life.
But Black is not going to be that guy tonight. He’s already put out all the comic energy he can muster. So, forget it, writers. Black’s not going to be funny for you now. And the funny thing about that is the reason he’s able to be funny in the first place is due to moments just like this one, moments when he’s not funny at all. “People expect me to be funny all the time,” Black tells me at just after 11 p.m. my time. “The other day, I was playing poker, and the guy down at the other end of the table from me was being really loud and obnoxious. I was just kind of being quiet and playing the game and sometimes thinking about other things. And the guy at the other end says” -- and here Black starts using a vaguely Texas-sounding accent -- “ ‘Man, you sure are serious over there, Jack Black. I expected something more wild and funny from you.’ But I am not always funny. I’m not the life of the party all the time. I have a lot of quiet, shy times.”
And many of those quiet, shy times come when Black is on a movie set, in the moments right before he’s at his wildest and funniest. “A lot of times, I’m sitting quietly and waiting for the inspiration in a scene, and it’ll look like I’m doing nothing,” Black says. “So someone will come up and break my concentration by going, ‘Sure is cold today, huh? Looks like there are some clouds coming.’ And then I just have to get away.”
Having quiet time is most important to Black not in the long, tedious (and, we assume, sleepy) hours he spends waiting around on a film set but in the few minutes before the director yells “Action!” “Your preparation has to be fresh,” he says. “If you do all your work an hour before shooting, it’s going to dissolve. It’s kind of like you’re a chef making a meal: You have to heat up the performance right before the cameras roll. You want to serve it nice and hot. You want that bubbling and that crispness that you get in the broiler. You don’t want to do all your preparation before and then just reheat it in the microwave.
But after a day of cooking, the oven is off. Black’s not going to fire up a bubbling mess of comedy. Instead, we’ll have to settle for learning his recipe. What makes Black’s comedies -- likely to soon include Dream-Works’ Kung Fu Panda
-- so mouthwatering to movie audiences? As it turns out, there are just four key ingredients.