Toonzone News Interview: James Hong Talks "Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness"
The scene at the Nickelodeon Animation Studios in Burbank was a delight. James Hong, a veteran actor with over five hundred television and film credits was in the midst of a voice recording session for the new series, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, which is set to premiere on Nickelodeon next month. Under the supervision of the show’s executive producer, Peter Hastings, Hong worked on some actual singing for his character, Mr. Ping, the noodle shop owner and adopted father of the title character. Hong reprises the role from the two Kung Fu Panda movies, while Po is voiced by Jack Black in the movies and Mick Wingert in the series. It took a few takes, but once Hong as Mr. Ping “harmonized” his lyrics against the other character he will be singing with in the episode, the moment could only be described as hilariously magical.
Following the session, Toonzone News got the chance to catch up with Mr. Hong and talk about working on the new show as well as the Kung Fu Panda features, and even his film career which goes back to the 1950′s. In animation, Hong also voiced Mayor Tong in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Mandarin in Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!, and Chi Fu in the Disney animated feature Mulan. In the live action realm, Hong portrayed Chew the eyeball maker in the sci-fi classic Blade Runner and David Lo Pan in the cult classic Big Trouble in Little China. Hong will soon be appearing in the movie, R.I.P.D., starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges which is due out in 2013.
TOONZONE NEWS: How did you find your voice for Mr. Ping?
JAMES HONG: Well actually Mr. Ping, I got that inspiration from my uncle, Sing Bo Sook, who loved pork chops and he made noodles too, very good noodles. But he helped raise me so Uncle Sing Bo Sook was a great character to pattern Mr. Ping after.
TOONZONE NEWS: How did you like coming back to play Mr. Ping again for the series?
JAMES HONG: It was kind of a surprise. I thought I would just do the features. When Nickelodeon called me I said, “Great. I’d love to work every day with Mr. Ping.”
TZN: In the second movie, your character really gets to embrace Po being the Dragon Warrior and use Po to market your noodle shop. How did you like getting to play that subplot where “My son is the Dragon Warrior and I’m going to make him the mascot of my whole franchise?”
JAMES HONG: Well of course, he’s a role model, I should say eating my noodles. I want that right in the front of my noodle shop so that other people will eat my noodles.
TZN: In getting to play the character again in the series, have you learned anything new about Mr. Ping?
JAMES HONG: Well, I would say doing it for television and with Peter [Hastings]‘s help, it really gives me another form of motivation and performance. In a way it’s more freewheeling. We don’t have to be doing twenty five takes and be very precise with every word. You are free to just express yourself as the character of Mr. Ping. And sometimes it comes out very differently . . . surprisingly.
JAMES HONG: I saw that episode, it was wonderful. Mr. Ping is definitely in love. That’s a new angle for Mr. Ping. He was never in love in the features, never given the chance to really have a woman and to have Scorpion, the love of his life to be by his side is something – and Po doesn’t like that. Po is kind of jealous. He’s acting like my father, warning me not to be with Scorpion. But Scorpion is of course no harm to me, just a beautiful thing. I saw the episode. I kind of wished that the Scorpion was uglier. It wasn’t quite ugly enough. However, it served its purpose and most of the things in the TV series are very well animated, probably I would say another level above all other TV series.
TZN: I saw at Comic-Con you were wearing Mr. Ping’s signature noodle hat. Where did you get that hat, and is Nickelodeon Consumer Products making it?
JAMES HONG: Yeah, I was going to bring it today but I didn’t. I ate the noodles so the hat was left empty. But a fan who became a friend makes these things at a specialty house; I just asked – mentioned it casually, mentioned it – and out he came with this noodle hat for Mr. Ping. I wasn’t going to wear it for Comic-Con but then Tony, my friend, says, “Oh, no, no! Definitely wear it.” I’m very glad I wore it. I wore it to the premiere of Kung Fu Panda 2 and it was a big hit. Maybe I’ll make some and sell them to the people, huh? For a coupon of course.
TZN: What about sequels? Have you heard about Kung Fu Panda 3, and would you come back to play Mr. Ping again?
JAMES HONG: You know, I haven’t heard any definite thing about Kung Fu Panda 3. But of course if Kung Fu Panda 2 made so much money, millions and millions close to a billion, I don’t see how we would not make number three and maybe a number four, right? I’m hoping that the TV series will hit just as well. It remains to be seen. I hope we are not so-called “overselling” it. But I don’t think so. The TV series has something different, as I say possibly a more spontaneous feeling to the whole series. And I think the kids will love it. I know I love it. One episode with Mr. Ping and the puppets, that was great. That’s my favorite episode because I get to do that little puppet. I always want to be a puppeteer and do different voices.
TZN: Today you recorded by yourself for the series. Do you ever get to record your lines with another actor in the booth?
JAMES HONG: You know, for the feature I never saw [Angelina] Jolie or [Jack] Black during the recording session. I kind of wish I worked with Angelina [Jolie] a little bit more. Get that feeling, the motivation of doing Mr. Ping. But over here, I get to work with Po and he’s really great, really, really great.
JAMES HONG: I think he is excellent. He is really, really good. I’m totally amazed how well he does. And he does other voices. The director never asks me to do other voices in the series, but he does. He does all these wonderful, wonderful voices; very talented, extremely talented.
TZN: For this recording today you also got the chance to sing as Mr. Ping. How much do you enjoy being able to try and do things like singing for the show?
JAMES HONG: I’m not really a singer, you know. That’s why I never did any musicals on Broadway. In fact, they wanted me to try to be Mr. whatever they call it [Tran Van Dinh] on Miss Saigon. That would’ve been a wonderful part, but I just can’t quite make it. I guess you can’t have everything.
TZN: What was your first role in show business?
JAMES HONG: In anything? Oh my gosh. You would not believe it, but my career actually started one summer when I came to Los Angeles and I got on the Groucho Marx Show, Groucho Marx You Bet Your Life. I did impersonations and that’s how it was in those days. There wasn’t a chance for me to do any stage acting and I just came in town. In Minnesota you couldn’t really do anything. It was all white faces, Swedes and Norwegians. But when I came out here, I got on The Groucho Marx Show, did the voices I’ve always practiced in Minnesota and then from then on I got to do my first feature with Clark Gable, believe it or not, another two or three eras ago called Soldier of Fortune and then Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing with Jennifer Jones and Bill Holden. And Blood Alley with John Wayne. The three features came one right after the other so I quit in engineering. I was an engineer in those days.
TZN: You’re also well known for your role as Hannibal Chew in Blade Runner, a classic film.
JAMES HONG: Yeah, yeah, and I hear they are making a sequel now to Blade Runner and I hope that Ridley [Scott, director] hasn’t forgotten me. I kind of liked in the feature, Chew the eyeball maker was never really dead so they say. So maybe there’s a reprieve here somewhere. I would love to do it because when you’re in a classic like that and you look at it and you say, “Wow.” It just lived up to everything that I saw while I was shooting the movie. When I stepped into Warner Bros. and I saw all those awesome sets that Ridley had built, there’s a feeling that you get that this is going to be a classic. And I hope that the movie I’m doing now, R.I.P.D. is also going to be a classic of its own.
JAMES HONG: I’m Ryan Reynolds’ avatar. In other words, in the between world people will see me differently. I can’t give away too much but it’s wonderful working with those guys and Jeff Bridges, of course. Jeff and I talked briefly about the old days when his dad Lloyd [Bridges] did the series called Sea Hunt which I did an episode [for]. And I was wondering if Jeff did anything and he said yeah, he got into a couple episodes.
TZN: Do you have any relatives or family members that get excited whenever you play an animated cartoon character?
JAMES HONG: Of course all my nieces and nephews who are very young just love Mr. Ping and Po. And they are very surprised that I’m in it. When you tell kids about it – and even if you do the voice of [in Mr. Ping's voice] *Mr. Ping and the, “Po! Po! Come on downstairs! What are you doing up there,” they get shocked. They can’t relate the voice to the animation because all they see is the picture and the picture is speaking as that character. But when you do it as James Hong’s face doing the voice, they can’t quite connect. Finally, I got the report this week, the kid says, “Do it again! Do it again!” They get caught up in that enthusiasm.
TZN: Any favorite lines as Mr. Ping in the series?
JAMES HONG: Here, why don’t I read some from the script? [In Mr. Ping's voice] Be careful with my noodle mobile! *Gasp* what are you doing to my noodle mobile?! It’s new of course, very shiny. Would you like to touch it? Why yes, you bet your unflattering mustache it is!
Thank you so much to Nickelodeon for letting us observe the recording session and to James Hong for speaking with us. Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness is set to premiere on November 7, 2011, at 5:30 PM (ET/PT) on Nickelodeon.