But there’s a lot more to the attention-getting funnyman than just slapstick. He’s also a dad, frontman of band Tenacious D, and quiet champion for the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation.
I had a chance to sit down with the energetic actor for a relaxed conversation that felt more like talking to a friend than one of the most famous faces in Hollywood.
DGOE: So, “Cosmic Shame.” There’s a lyrics that stands out to me – “follow your heart/even when your heart cuts like a fart.” Would you say that’s an accurate reflection of how you life your life?
DGOE: Let’s talk pandamonium. Your [Kung Fu Panda] character, Po, is obviously the star. Does his bumbling excitement resonate with your own personality?
DGOE: So you consider yourself an accidental hero that’s clumsy yet totally enthusiastic about it?
He’s a big full grown panda, but he’s still very childish. While he’s very positive and a happy panda he’s also very insecure because he doesn’t actually possess any of the Kung Fu skills that he dreams of having. And that daydreaming, I share that with him. A lot of times people will snap their fingers and say, ‘Hello, anybody home?’
DGOE: Were you able to do some scenes with the other actors in the recording studio?
The only actor that I worked with in person was Dustin Hoffman. I guess it was important to the directors that we get together to get some of that teacher-student magic relationship going. So we did all our scenes together. And I was really glad to get to meet him and work with him because he’s so legendary. He taught me some things about acting. Yes he did.
DGOE: So how the heck do you prepare for the role of a panda?
I just didn’t think about the pandaness of it very much. Instead I thought about who this character was, his thoughts and feelings. I didn’t spend anytime with pandas… and I must confess, I didn’t eat any bamboo.
DGOE: Other than the animated films you’ve been in, what is your favorite animated film?
Well, my favorite performance in an animated film is probably Robin Williams in Aladdin. I thought he was so awesome as the Genie. That was like one of my favorite things he’s ever done for sure.
And when I was a kid I really loved Fantasia and this other movie called Allegro Non Troppo [a Bruno Bozzetto animated parody]. I was a big animation buff as a kid. I wanted to be an animator for a while.
DGOE: Part of your comedy lies in what you’ve referred to as your “eyebrow technique.” Does it come into play when you’re doing voice work, too?
There’s plenty of that eyebrow workout happening, yes. I burn a lot of eyebrow calories.
DGOE: Do you find that it helps with your comedic routine?
My eyebrows? Of course. I should insure them with Lloyds of London. Powerful brows. They’re useful too, since they’re filming me while I’m doing the recordings, and can use any movements I do as reference.
DGOE: What was your secret desire as a kid?
I wanted to be in the arts. I didn’t have a secret about it. Everybody I knew wanted to be a painter, or an actor, a musician or something, but I just liked having attention, and I think that’s why I ended up going into acting because it felt like that was where the most attention was.
So maybe that was my secret. I was desperate to be the center of attention.
DGOE: Has being a dad changed the way you look at your career? That is to say, do you find yourself drawn to more family-friendly roles?
I guess I definitely feel more comfortable doing movies that are strictly for a family-oriented audience. I don’t feel insecure about that at all anymore. Like before, I might have gone, ‘Oh no, that’s going to hurt my indie cred in the rock world.’ I don’t really care about that now.
DGOE: When you did School of Rock it involved nothing but hanging around with kids all day. At the time, it was probably a pain. Now that you’re a parent, do you think it was a pretty good learning experience?
Yes. It was good because I definitely got over my fears of kids when I did that movie.
Going into it I was like, ‘Oh no, what if they don’t like me? What if they think I’m boring or uncool?’ And now I realize that you don’t have to have all those insecurities. Just be yourself. And kids are people too.
So at the end of that movie I didn’t go ‘Oh, never again,’ at all. On the contrary. I was like, ‘That was the best cast I’ve ever worked with and I’ll definitely work with kids again.’ And yes, it was all positive.
DGOE: On to fatherhood part two. Congratulations!
Thank you. My personal family sequel.
DGOE: What is the most surprising or unexpected thing Samuel has taught you thus far? Do you eat his leftovers? Kids are great at leaving those.
I do eat his leftovers, now that you mention it.
DGOE: We all do.
He doesn’t eat all of his broccoli. I’ll help him out with that as well as the mac and cheese that there’s on his plate uneaten. As for unexpectedness, I didn’t know how musical he was going to be.
DGOE: Figuratively or literally?
He’s not playing instruments so much, but he’s good with a percussion obviously.
DGOE: Pots and pans band, no doubt.
He likes to sing and dance a lot. And I’ve been doing a lot more dancing than I thought I would be as a dad.
DGOE: It’s a mini School of Rock!
Yes! He’ll be dancing and then he’ll come over and grab my hand and pull me up to dance with him. So, yes. That.
DGOE: Tell me about your involvement with the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. Why did you choose that particular cause?
Someone close to my family is afflicted with mitochondrial disease [symptoms include loss of motor control, muscle weakness and pain, gastrointestinal disorders and swallowing difficulties, poor growth, cardiac disease, liver disease, diabetes, respiratory complications, seizures, visual/hearing problems, lactic acidosis, developmental delays and susceptibility to infection], so I got involved early on and continued to be involved to gain awareness and you know, try to get support for it and get a cure for it someday.
Photo credits: DreamWorks
Throwback notes: Jack Black and I chatted in late 2007. This interview was originally released in early 2008.