Oscar winner J.K. Simmons chats to London Mums about Panda Power, Bad Guys, his Oscar and his music

Oscar winner J.K. Simmons sat down for an exclusive interview at DreamWorks Animation’s Glendale studios in Southern California for London Mums. In his latest role, he voices the supernatural villain Kai in KUNG FU PANDA 3, the latest adventure in the popular franchise which once again stars Jack Black as Po, the loveable, legendary Dragon Warrior. Gearing up for his most daunting challenge so far, Po meets his long lost biological father Li (Bryan Cranston) who takes him to meet the panda relatives he never knew existed – in a remote mountain village. Po has to confront Kai, a fearsome foe who is terrorizing China.

J.K. Simmons collage

J.K. Simmons won the 2015 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his powerhouse performance as the merciless jazz instructor, ‘Fletcher’ in WHIPLASH. Well known for his role in the SPIDER-MAN trilogy, he is a frequent collaborator of the filmmaker Jason Reitman. He starred in Reitman’s hit film JUNO, as well as THANK YOU FOR SMOKING and the Oscar-nominated UP IN THE AIR.

He also appeared in LABOR DAY and MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN. The versatile actor’s many films include THE WORDS, HIDALGO, THE LADYKILLERS, THE GIFT, RENDITION, BURN AFTER READING, JOBS and TERMINATOR: GENISYS. On television, his credits include THE CLOSER, OZ, and LAW & ORDER, as well as PARKS AND RECREATION and MEN AT WORK. His stage performances on Broadway include GUYS AND DOLLS and A FEW GOOD MEN. The actor’s upcoming films include THE RUNAROUND, THE ACCOUNTANT and THE MEDDLER.

Voicing an animated character is challenging but being the villain is always tougher. JK is most definitely up to the challenge. The main character Po has faced villains before, but there has never been a more dangerous and deadly adversary than Kai (J.K. Simmons), who is sweeping across China, defeating all the kung fu masters. Unlike Po’s previous adversaries, the supernatural, horned Kai is a power-hungry warrior from the Spirit Realm, where he was banished for eternity. But now, he has returned to earth, intent on revenge. With his leather armor and jade swords he is an imposing and intimidating presence. Kai and his evil forces of destruction can only be stopped by a true master of chi.

J.K. Simmons Kung Fu Panda

Adding to the drama, Po, who was raised by his adoptive father, Mr. Ping the goose (James Hong) in the Noodle Shop, had assumed that he was the only panda left in China, and is amazed when his biological father, Li, (Bryan Cranston) turns up out of the blue. In addition to their striking resemblance, the two bears have a lot in common. Both are exuberant, warm and very playful. Both have huge appetites! It’s exciting for father and son, but Mr. Ping is far from happy. Li takes Po on a trip to a secret panda village in the mountains, which is full of his relatives. Learning all about the panda way of life, the Dragon Warrior has to embrace his daunting destiny, reluctantly taking on the mantle of teacher and guide. Po has to train the entire village of clumsy pandas to become kung fu masters themselves, so they can help him defeat Kai.

Dustin Hoffman returns as Master Shifu. And the formidable Furious Five return: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen).


Q: What was the appeal of KUNG FU PANDA 3?

JK: “I am a fan of the whole franchise and when they asked me to do this role, my first question was: ‘is the same creative team making it?’ It is indeed the same team, so I was very happy to jump in. My kids, who are now teenagers, are also fans; they really enjoyed the first two movies.”


Q: Do your children still enjoy the films now they are a bit older?

JK: “As a matter of fact we recently brought our daughter Olivia and three of her pals to see the film right here in a screening room at DreamWorks. (Our son Joe was away on a school trip so he couldn’t come with us). The version we saw wasn’t finished yet, not all the animation was complete, some of it was just in storyboard form and some of it was not lip-synced yet. It was kind of a ‘ground floor’, exciting thing for them to be a part of. It was extra fun for them to see it at that stage and they loved it.”

Q: Why is Jack Black’s Po so popular around the world do you think?

A: “Po has a great combination of qualities: he’s innocent; he is very childlike and very sweet; but during the course of these stories he continues to find his inner strength and become the Dragon Warrior. I think there’s a lot of appeal in that journey, how he changes. Also, Po is an everyman, almost an ‘every child’ character, because there’s an ageless quality to him. I think the appeal lies in the unlikeliness of Po the panda being a kung fu master, The Great Martial Artist! The premise is a good source of fun and humor. And the animation is really beautiful in all the films. This one is just mind boggling to look at.”


Q: What kind of villain is Kai?

JK: “Kai comes from the spirit world. He is some kind of super yak, ox, beast sort of creature! He is great fun to play. I love that there is more to him than just being the villain (he is funny and vulnerable). It is fun when you’re playing the bad guy to have an angle other than just: he is bad. Kai’s backstory is that he and Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim) were brothers in arms, many, many years ago. Kai’s justification for the things that he’s doing now is that he feels he was betrayed by his friend. That’s what drives him and all his evil doings in this story. Po has become the leader of the ‘good guy’ team, as the Dragon Warrior. He is my main nemesis (or I’m his nemesis). I basically steal everybody’s chi — everybody’s life force — and Po is the main opponent standing in my way.”


Q: What do you think Jack Black brings to the role of Po?

JK: “What Jack brings to the role is his own natural humor. The way the part of Po was tailored for him is amazing. Jack is absolutely great. Po is a brilliant character created together by Jack and the writers and the directors, Jen Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni. Adding Bryan Cranston as Po’s dad in this film was another stroke of genius.”


Q: How scary is Kai?

JK: “There was a fine line that we walked with that. As Alessandro and Jen were directing me in the booth, I would give a range of options in terms of how scary I was being. We want the character to be scary enough to have some stakes involved, to have a real sense of dread, and the sense of Kai being a worthy opponent, but we did not want to scare younger kids out of the theater and have angry moms and dads saying, ‘it was too frightening for my kid.’ My part of that job was to give the directors a range of options and then it’s up to the creative people to make the final decisions.”


Q: How enjoyable is it playing bad guys? You have tackled quite a few…

JK: “It is nice to go back and forth. I guess a few times lately the high-profile roles I’ve done have been more bad guy stuff, but really most of the time I play good guys. It’s true though that a juicy villain part is always fun. I just like good writing, whether it’s an animated family movie or a film like WHIPLASH.”

JK Simmons spiderman collage

Q: Can you discuss your experience of working with the directors of the film?

JK: “Well, they make me think of the Coen brothers (the directors) in a way, because Alessandro and Jen are very much on the same page all the time. Of course, it’s animation and they can turn off their mics and I don’t always hear everything they’re saying (laughs). So maybe they were actually fighting the whole time and I just didn’t know it. But I don’t think so! They were great. When they would give a suggestion or an adjustment it was fun. They would ask me to do something a different way or to try my own thing. You have total freedom to go as far as you want to, because ultimately they’re going to make those final choices. It is interesting because actors might be a little reticent to do that in a live action film. In animation you can go to the extremes.”

JK Simmons

Q: How interesting in general is animation compared to live action?

JK: “It is challenging and interesting and if the story is well-conceived and well-written and well-executed, it’s rewarding and fun in some of the same ways and some different ways. You are usually doing a line at a time or short scenes that are easy to memorize, so I actually tend to end up closing my eyes. I almost always stand there in the booth, unless perhaps I’m doing a long narration, then I’ll sit. Mostly I prefer to stand, to have a little physical freedom, but I am very rarely being animated physically, moving about. Often with animation, you’re not even in the room with the other actors. The only downside is the fact that you don’t usually get to see the other actors a lot. You don’t get that ‘hanging out with the cast’ kind of camaraderie. But they have very talented guys, voice actors, who come in to read the scenes with you. It is really fun and easy compared to live action because you are not doing hair or make up… well in my case, make up!”


Q: Did you do any recording with Jack?

JK: “No, we just overlapped one day at the studio. We’ve met before and goofed around on a couple of things such as charity events. We have never really worked together, although actually, we were both in a movie called THE JACKAL (1997), many years ago; it was the year I got married. We didn’t have any scenes together but I’ve been a fan of his since then. I’m also a big fan of his music. My kids love his band, Tenacious D. Jack is a great musician, a hilarious everyman and a genius comic actor.”


Q: You are actually a musician yourself.

JK: “Well I don’t call myself a musician. I studied music, but I don’t have the chops that Jack and Kyle (Gass from Tenacious D) have, or my own children, who are far more accomplished musicians than I am. Musically, nowadays I’m sort of living vicariously through my kids who are very talented. They both play piano, guitar, bass and drums. My son mostly is a bass player, but he also plays percussion in the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. The orchestra did a European tour recently, playing concerts in Vienna and Prague, and we went along of course (the family). The organizers actually utilized me as a sort of MC (master of ceremonies) for the concerts, especially in Vienna, because I speak enough German that I could ingratiate myself with the locals by doing part of my spiel auf Deutsch, which was nice. My brother (David Simmons) is a more accomplished musician than me. But I knew enough about music to be able to play a convincing musician in WHIPLASH.”


Q: What music do you like?

JK: “I just appreciate good music whether it’s jazz, rock and roll or classical.”


Q: How did you end up acting?

JK: “When I first started college, I was messing around and wasting time. There was somebody on my dorm floor who was singing in the choir. I went to one of the choir’s concerts and I thought, ‘that really is great; I do like that classical music.’ So I changed my major to music. I was singing in choirs and in operas. I did musical theatre and auditioned for summer stock theatre. I really fell in love with being on stage and telling stories and doing plays and musicals. I did that for almost 20 years before I started doing screen acting.”


Q: You mentioned your Oscar winning performance in WHIPLASH, which was astonishing. Can you talk about your experience of making that film?

JK: “Well, believe me that was a rare opportunity in a number of ways, because it was one of the most genius screenplays I’ve ever come across. And Damien Chazelle turned out to be such a brilliant director. Miles Teller was wonderful too. Every step of that journey was completely satisfying from the first moment I got that script from Jason Reitman. It came with his recommendation, so I had high expectations and those expectations were exceeded throughout the whole process. Then all the attention and the awards were lovely, but that’s never been my raison d’être. It’s just the icing on the cake. Now, I’m reaping the benefits of all that in my work and the best part of that is that I have more roles to choose from.”


Q: Are there great roles flooding in?

JK: “The nice thing for me is that an opportunity like WHIPLASH came along late in my career so at this point people aren’t going to pigeonhole me as ‘that guy’. It just brings me more attention in general as a character actor who has a range. So there are now offers for a lot of different kinds of parts, which is nice. But at this point, honestly, a big part of how I make my decisions is geographical. I like to be at home in LA, which is another lovely reason to do animation. You’re in your car for 15 minutes, you come over here to the studio, you work for an hour or two, you have a little lunch and you go home.”


Q: You’ve been acting for many years, but I believe you are not interested in going behind the camera yourself or writing screenplays?

JK: “That’s right, I don’t really want to direct for a number of reasons. I’ve been doing this job for 40 years and I have learned a fair amount about it. I can’t say I would never direct. But other than a few experiences years and years ago directing theatre, I think what works for me is that I’m always trying to serve the story and be a team player as an actor. And honestly again, part of the reason I don’t want to direct is that my kids will still be living at home for the next five or six years and I don’t want to be working too many hours. I want to spend time with the family. I don’t want to be producing and writing and directing in addition to acting. The days are long enough just being an actor. And I have no talent as a writer … at all (laughs)! I think whatever ability I have, I’ve developed in the work that I do. The good thing about having a body of work and a reputation and all the awards this past year is that people view me more as a collaborator. People will listen to my opinion, so I can have a little bit of input, without having all the responsibility (laughs)!”


DreamWorks Animation’s KUNG FU PANDA 3 AWESOME EDITION is out on Digital HD on 4th July and on Blu-ray™ and DVD on 11th July.

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