Hoffman masters role of kung fu master in ‘Panda’

Ed Symkus

All it took to get Dustin Hoffman interested in voicing a part in “Kung Fu Panda” was a call from DreamWorks Animation head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg, who asked him to do it. But after he said yes, he needed some help in figuring out what the heck he was playing.

“They showed me sketches of the character, and I said, ‘What is he?’ I didn’t know what it was,” Hoffman recalls.

The film’s directors, Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, explained that the martial arts master named Shifu was a rare red panda, a creature that will remind moviegoers of the cute lead characters in “Gremlins.”

Hoffman replied, “Tell me about this guy.”

But this was no biological question about eating habits or being a member of the raccoon family. It was more on the order of what makes him tick.

In “Kung Fu Panda,” the story of the lazy, clumsy, overweight and kung fu-crazy Po (voice of Jack Black), Master Shifu reluctantly becomes Po’s martial arts teacher when Po is accidentally named Dragon Warrior of ancient China’s Valley of Peace. The short and short-tempered Shifu is equal parts Chuck Norris and Yoda, but he’s also — at least in the early parts of the film — an egocentric jerk who’s convinced that he’s right and everyone else is wrong.

Hoffman, his acting skills restricted here to only the use of his voice, needed to find the character for his performance.

“I was concerned that it would be two-dimensional, and that’s what I didn’t want,” he says. “So we discussed what a third dimension is in a character and in a human being. I said, ‘Insight, introspection.’ Suddenly my little red panda ears went up when they said, ‘He’s an arrogant guy, all-knowing at the beginning, doesn’t think he’s ever been wrong. But he has an arc.’ And I do appreciate that by the end of the film, he reaches a point where he realizes that a portion of the life he’d been living is a lie. So you just try to get as much human qualities in him as you can.”

The film is certainly geared toward a young audience, but because it fits within the Kung Fu genre — something that the filmmakers took seriously — it has its share of violence and emotional intensity and, by the way, a really scary villain. Yet it manages to maintain a balance that ranges from violent kung fu action to having a soft, cuddly panda as its star.

Hoffman has long been fascinated, and concerned, by the amount of violence in entertainment that’s aimed at kids, even in classic literature.

“What’s interesting, for those of us that have kids, is the shock of recognition when you start reading children’s books to your kids,” he says. “You’re reading ‘Pinocchio,’ and you haven’t read it for a long time, and suddenly you’re at that point” — he shifts into a sing-songy voice, pretending he’s reading aloud — “‘And Pinocchio’s in front of the fireplace, and the fire starts to burn his legs up.’ And you just stop talking! I think the first film I ever saw was ‘Bambi,’ and the trauma stays with me — they were all killed in the fire in the woods! The amount of children’s literature that has violence in it is extraordinary.”

But he takes it in stride, well aware that an important part of storytelling, an important part of being a kid, is to be scared in a safe environment.

Asked for his thoughts on playing a master in the film and being a master actor himself, he makes it clear that he doesn’t now, and never has felt that he’s a master.

“You don’t want to feel that,” he says. “Because you’d feel that you’re gonna stop in your tracks, so to speak. You want to feel that you’re a student for your lifetime. It’s like you don’t want to say, ‘Now I understand life.’ Because you’re in trouble if you do that. You want to say I’m gonna continue to learn about life till the last moment, and I’m gonna continue to learn about myself until the last moment. I continue to find the things in myself that I thought were accurate that aren’t accurate. We lie to ourselves. We paint ourselves a color that we want to be.

“I am aware of following my own feeling,” he adds, “and I tell actors to do that. I mean this with all my heart: The most extraordinary thing about being alive is that you look around, and presumably, you’re looking at the one person that has never existed before and is never going to exist again, that each person has that extraordinary quality called uniqueness. And that’s what any actor or any artist should be trying to get in touch with.”

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@cnc.com.