As far as actors go, Dustin Hoffman is probably one of those who could now merit the title of living legend, writes Kate Whiting.
The twice-Oscar winner has played almost every role imaginable, from a woman (in Tootsie) to Captain Hook (in Hook), but he has been something of a stranger to animated feature films – until now.
Kung Fu Panda is the latest cartoon caper from Dreamworks – the team behind hits like Shrek and Flushed Away – with an all-star cast including Jack Black as the titular panda Po, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan and Ian McShane.
Dustin might now be 70 but today, when I meet him in a plush suite at the aptly-chosen Mandarin Oriental hotel, his deep tan and a crisp blue shirt make him look ageless.
He’s in a playful mood – joking about Jack’s diva demands to have a panda in his hotel room – and is clearly enjoying promoting the film, which has included trips to Berlin and Spain as well as London.
But he admits he initially had reservations about appearing in it.
He says: “When (Dreamworks’ CEO) Jeffrey Katzenberg asked me if I wanted to be in a film called Kung Fu Panda, I thought it was the end of a distinguished career.
“I happened to work with Jeffrey some years ago on a movie and I bumped into him and said, ‘What are you doing now?’ and he said, ‘Something called Kung Fu Panda’ and then said ‘I have an idea...’ So that’s how I got involved – reluctantly.”
Although he’d already had the ubiquitous cameo on The Simpsons, back in 1991, Dustin found the reality of making a feature-length animation didn’t quite match up to his expectations.
“I didn’t know these things take four years and they first think of them nine years before!” he says.
“I also took it for granted that I’d be in a room with Ian and Lucy and Jack. I thought we’d each have a microphone and we’d be interacting. They didn’t tell me we’d be working in isolation.”
Dustin voices Kung Fu Master Shifu, a rare, small, Red Panda, who trains the Furious Five (Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Viper and Monkey) at the Jade Palace high above the mythical Chinese town where the film is set.
When news arrives of the evil Tai Lung’s imminent escape from prison, Shifu and his old master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) – a turtle – decide it’s time to chose the Dragon Warrior to protect the town.
Enter Po – a flabby panda who works in his dad’s noodle shop for a living but dreams of being a Kung Fu expert and joining the Furious Five.
Shifu is less than happy when Oogway points his stick at Po – and then realises he has his work cut out to train the food-obsessed panda.
Dustin says he was fascinated by the process of bringing the characters to life and enjoyed being quite hands-on in creating Shifu’s look.
“They show you a sketch and it’s the first time you have to do a character that’s already sketched out.
“But there’s no script. They keep changing it so it’s more like any other art form, whereas with movies you’re supposed to get it right the first time.”
However, sometimes that can be to the actor’s advantage as they can change their appearance with the help of the team.
Dustin adds: “I realised at a certain point if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to put yourself in their hands.
“(The animators) would ask ‘How do you like the face?’,” he continues.
“I wanted my character to look more like Brad Pitt but they didn’t listen. I wanted him taller, better looking, but Jack had already made those demands.
“I’m very nose sensitive. I rarely get a chance to alter my own nose, so I shortened his a bit!”
The animators also used a form of motion capture, to make Shifu’s movements echo Dustin’s while he was voicing the character in the sound booth.
“You’re in a room alone with a microphone and these guys behind the glass very quickly become easy to hate. They say, ‘Do it again, louder’,” he says.
“They tell you at the beginning there’s a camera above your head, a regular 35mm camera and it’s recording everything you do, because when you’re acting you don’t know what you’re doing with your hands and face or anything.
“They take that film, give it to the animators and the animators incorporate that with the image they’ve already constructed which I think is interesting. I do really think that we’re in the industry of a new art form.”
Dustin had a rare opportunity to record with Jack – and he says the King Kong star was perfect for the role of Po.
“Every once in a while, an actor gets a role in life, where the director will say, ‘Just show up and be yourself’ and Jack is perfect casting for Po.
“He’s very smart to use his comic gifts and not gild the lily. I was surprised when he showed up the first time and he was serious. Like most wonderful comic artists he takes it seriously and he’s marvellous in this.”
The hardest part came towards the end of recording, when Dustin was asked to make the ‘noises’ for the big action sequences.
He jokes about doing all his own stunts, before adding: “Finally I just said, ‘Why don’t you get some porno actors because it’s the same noises; ‘Ah! Ooh! Aah! Ooh!”’