The longtime actor who provides the voice of Mr. Ping talks about the film and much more
It's kind of funny how things have come full-circle for James Hong. He was born in 1929 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to parents who owned a Chinese restaurant that he worked in, making noodles, as a youth. Cut to 79 years later and a staggering list of almost 350 acting credits and some writing, directing and producing as well, and Hong finds himself cast in Kung Fu Panda, doing the voice for Mr. Ping... the owner of a noodle restaurant that his son, the panda bear Po (Jack Black) toils away in. Kung Fu Panda hit the DVD and Blu-ray shelves last Sunday, November 9, and I recently had the chance to speak with Hong over the phone about his new performance. Here's what he had to say.
First of all, how did you first become involved with this project? Is this something they came to you for?
James Hong: My agent called me and I went over and auditioned for Kung Fu Panda. Originally, I auditioned for the part of the master, the little raccoon. Then they put it on the shelf for a little while and worked on it. The next time they called me they said, 'Dustin Hoffman is going to play the master, but we would like to know if you would like the role of the father, the duck.' I wasn't really familiar with the duck, but I went in and I saw the cartoon, the drawing, and the voice that came out was finally the father of Po.
Had you been a fan of the previous DreamWorks Animation films before signing on?
James Hong: I had never worked with DreamWorks before. I had worked with Disney, the animated feature called Mulan and I did the voice of Chi Fu at that time, so I was familiar with, more or less, how the bigger studios work. It's a wonderful place to work, the big studios, versus the daily animated cartoon type of series. The daily stuff, like Jackie Chan Adventures, it goes much much faster. It's just one or two takes and that's it. However, in a feature such as Kung Fu Panda, it may take a lot of care in doing exactly what they want to do. You might go in there for just one line a day and then go home and then they play it back, versus the cartoon, if it fits the action and mouth and so forth. If it's not right, we go in and do it again.
Is it kind of an odd process in recording, you're doing a dialogue with somebody and you can't even see them or hear them. Is that difficult to go through?
James Hong: Definitely. As you know, when you look at the piece of paper, and there's just words on there, you interpret it as the actor to whatever you think is right. There may not be the hidden meaning behind the dialogue, because you don't really get to see what's going on. Like there's that scene where I said, 'Po, come on down, Po. What are you doing up there?' I never get to see that, and then, when he's finally in the same room with me in the movie, then I go through that whole process with the noodles and pointing out those pictures, all that visual stuff, turns out to be so funy with the timing... I never get to see that. I have to just say those words and then they set the picture into those portraits that they show of my grandfather and so forth. I'm laughing just as hard as the audience. I take great pleasure in that sense.
You've been in a lot of these voice roles and a ton of these live-action acting roles as well. Do you have a preference for either, or does it depend on the project?
James Hong: It is a different art because when you go in to do a scene with Seinfeld, you see these four actors who've been acting for a long time together and you have the feel, the tempo, of what they're doing, what their timing is like, from the first time you see them in person. You're supposed to be more or less a character in that scene, like in that restaurant scene where I don't give them a seat. In a sense, I have to like play the house, as they say in comedy. You have to be aware of everything. You have to be aware of what each of them are doing and then you have to be aware of where the camera is, and that's the audience. In a sense, doing stand-up comedy helped a lot because you're playing to the house. Then the timing of the lines have to be, not only according to what Seinfeld and the rest of the cast are saying to me, but I also have to time it so there are spaces where the laughs are coming or applause. It's very different to play, so-called, on camera, as opposed to being at a microphone, in a booth, doing voiceovers for Kung Fu Panda, because you don't see the other actors, you don't see the characters. You're just using your imagination, total James Hong standing there in the booth with the earphones on, and he's imagining all the actors, the panda and all these people and my business. I can't be doing this in the booth, I can't be cooking noodles in the booth. These things are purely in your head and just reading some words, as if you're doing all those things that's said in the script. Then the director listens to what you're doing and if it doesn't fit, he's the guy that knows the picture and he passes on the word to you. 'Um no, maybe a little more emphasis over here, because Po is way across the room and you have to shout to him.' As you can see from what I described to you, is a total different art.
I've spoken with Jeffrey Katzenberg before and he seems very passionate about the DreamWorks Animation division. How did you like working with him and Dreamworks as a whole?
James Hong: I think DreamWorks is a wonderful company in the sense that they try to put your personal feelings into the business. In that sense, the studio is very atmospheric, there's a fountain there and they have a cafeteria where the whole studio eats there. They make it friendly, worker-friendly. Everybody is so nice. They make you feel like a king, like you really want to work. After you're all done, they thank you and it's all very Chinese in that sense, a lot of courtesy. In the live action, when you go to the studio, 'Hey James. We have to get on camera in 10 minutes. Can you get up there?' Everything is rush, rush, rush, on camera. But in voiceover, you can take it easy. If it doesn't work the first time, do it a second time, if it doesn't work, go as many times as you feel that is needed and as many times as the director feels that is needed. I felt very happy when DreamWorks was so happy with the work, that they sent me a bonus. I wrote a letter back to DreamWorks and said, 'This is the first time in my whole life, after practically 500 films and TV shows, that I got a bonus for my work.'
Yeah. The DVD just did phenomenal in its first week. It was second place in sales for the whole week, based off just the first-day Sunday sales. It was really incredible.
James Hong: Wow. Yeah, I am amazed myself at the reaction to the film, especially from my friends in China. I heard from them and they said that, in the beginning, they didn't know how to receive this film, because it is a film about the national animal, the panda and here's an American company that's going to take this country's symbol and make a movie out of it. Are they going to be insulting? What's going to be happening? So there were a lot of negative feelings in the beginning. Then, when they saw the movie in the opening week, they said, 'Wow. This is something entirely different from what we expected.' It was more of having fun with the panda, rather than treating him as a totally serious matter. They were very happy in the sense that it was silly with a lot of fun but with a lot of good morals, so it became number 1 and my friends in Shanghai and Beijing said they had to stand in line to get a ticket. That made me very happy to.
Is there anything you can tell us about your role in The Day the Earth Stood Still?
James Hong: Yeah. Well The Day the Earth Stood Still, I went to Vancouver to shoot that and it was, believe it or not, snowing up on top of the hill there. Everything is kind of secretive because my scene is kind of ominous in that sense. I'll just tell you that Keanu Reeves, when he arrives, he goes and seeks one of his colleagues here on Earth. I will tell you that the scene between Keanu and myself is totally in Mandarin. He learned about four pages, to my huge surprise, he spoke pretty good Mandarin.
James Hong: Yeah, he did. He was very dedicated, learning that language and sitting there with the coach. He really knocked it down and when the camera rolled he spoke Mandarin. It was fantastic. I sat there and talked Mandarin with him for four pages of all Mandarin dialogue. I spent a few days there and had a wonderful time. He is definitely one of the nicest actors I have ever met. He's so easy to work with, full of humor. We did some little comedy things on the side, which I have on camera. Maybe I'll show it on my website after the movie starts. He is just a real nice guy. Keanu is probably tops on my list as the nicest.
Have you heard of any sequel talks for Kung Fu Panda?
James Hong: I can only say that I think they're testing the story points out and so forth. Certainly I would think they would follow this wonderful picture up with a sequel. We're experimenting with the idea that why am I a duck and why is he a big fat panda (Laughs). I've been asked that question so many times by the kids especially. They kind of wrinkle their brow and say, 'How come, how come the panda has a duck father?' I'll say, 'Well, the sequel opportunity... that's all I can say.' If somebody has an answer, please mail it in and I'll read it and maybe I'll suggest it to DreamWorks.
Excellent. Sounds good. So, finally, for those who missed it in the theaters, can you talk a little bit about why people should pick up Kung Fu Panda on DVD?
James Hong: Well, lets see now. I just got mine, but I was told it has all kinds of little goodies there, a lot of interviews with the stars and the director and the making of it and the drawings and the games. It has probably more than any DVD you've seen before, because there is much to the pandas and the animals and the fighting stances. They even have a chapter of how to use chop sticks. They asked me to give that demonstration. I wish they would've asked me how to make noodles on camera to put on the DVD because I made noodles in the restaurant with my brother back in Minneapolis. In those days, when you're in the Midwest, where are you gonna get Chinese noodles? You're talking about making a whole lot of noodles, so we had a big flatbed where we'd knead it by hand. Talk about hard work, that's really hard work. So, I'm really a noodle-maker and an excellent cook and I've worked in restaurants oh ever since I could remember. In a sense, I am the duck.
Excellent. Well, that's about all I have for you, James. Thank you so much for your time today.
James Hong: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Kung Fu Panda is on the DVD and Blu-ray shelves now.