Interview: Actor James Hong on 'Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness'

Veteran character actor James Hong’s status is legendary in Hollywood. With over 500 credits to his name in film, television, theater, and games, chances are that if on the offhand chance you’ve never seen his face, you’ve heard his voice. A tireless advocate for diversity for Asian Americans in film, he’s kept his own resume peppered with varied roles. Over his nearly 60 year career, he’s portrayed a number of memorable characters, particularly in high-profile and sci-fi roles, working opposite Harrison Ford in Blade Runner as surgeon Hannibal Chew and Kurt Russell in Big Trouble In Little China as the over-the-top villain Lo Pan.

Most recently, his highest-profile gig has been as Mr. Ping, in Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda films. In this Annie award-winning role, Mr. Hong plays a goose who’s the adoptive father to Po, the portly panda martial arts savant of the title, and starting tonight, he will be reprising that role on Nickelodeon in the new series, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness. We spoke to Mr. Hong briefly about bringing this character to the small screen and some of the ways Mr. Ping is a lot like Mr. Hong.

MTV Geek: Bringing Mr. Ping to the small screen: were there any particular challenges to transitioning the character from two features to a weekly series?

James Hong: Well, of course, for Nickelodeon, it’s just doing a reprieve of the same character I did for Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 the feature, and so it was very easy. In fact, it was a little bit easier in the sense that I’d done it for two features. Also, for TV, we don’t have to be quite as exact. There’s fewer takes and we go faster, and because of it, we have a lot of freedom to improvise a little bit here and there, and be a little bit freer because of the director.

Geek: Were you looking to bring any particular changes to the character for his TV incarnation—perhaps any directions you might have wanted to go with Mr. Ping that you couldn’t have in the movies?

Hong: Because of the freedom to improvise with your dialog a little bit—certainly with the expressions—I was able to create more so-called “expressions” in Mr. Ping’s voice.

Geek: So being able to flesh him out a little bit more in terms of—

Hong: Yeah, right. Just jump into it and act for fun.

Geek: He’s a little bit of a fussy, nagging, protective dad. How much of yourself as a father do you see in the role?

Hong: [Laughs] Well, I don’t know, but I would think that other people would think that it’s very close to my character. I am very fussy, I am very detailed, I nag a lot. So in a sense, I am like Mr. Ping. I am temperamental, I am emotional, I’m fussy, and I’m very exact. And I want people to not fail, I want them to execute—all those things Mr. Ping wants in other people. Or animals.

Geek: After picking up a couple of awards for the role, what do you think the appeal is for fans of Mr. Ping?

Hong: I think they can identify with him, because he’s a blowhard, he brags a lot, and he’s very vulnerable. He’s sort of like a fall guy—the jokes always bounce back at him. He wants his son to follow in his footsteps, but the son has desires to do other things, which of course bothers him a lot. So in that sense, I think people identify with this guy because he is so vulnerable, and in essence, so loveable.

Geek: Did you have a little bit of that same experience with your own dad when you wanted to pursue acting?

Hong: You’re right. In a lot of ways, that was the situation. My dad wanted me to be a professional person, which I was—I was a civil engineer. I graduated from civil engineering at USC in California. I became an engineer and I helped design the roads for the L.A. County Roads Department. And I did that for about one and a half years in a sense to please my parents—to be a “respectable” person.

Because my parents thought being an actor would be, in essence, lowering myself. Being an actor was to be on the lowest rung career-wise for a person because you’re demonstrating your feelings in front of people, which is not what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re supposed to hold your emotions and control them, and not show them all over the place. So, they didn’t like that and I had to do it on the sneak.

So, of course, I quite engineering and decided to follow my own dreams and right away I got a role. The first one was with Clark Gable in Soldier of Fortune, then Blood Alley with John Wayne, and the third one was with Bill Holden in Love Is A Many Splendored Thing. So from then on, I averaged about 10 movies and TV series a year. And now, of course, it’s slowed down. But basically, I’ve done about 500 movies and TV series in these 57 years of my life as an actor.

Geek: You’ve played a lot of roles that involved kind of carrying your heart on your sleeve. Where do you think that came from?

Hong: I’ve often wondered about that. My father was a restaurant man, laundry man in his lifetime. And I’ve often wondered how and why did I become an actor? Where did I get the so-called talent to express myself? And I look back and I see that my mother was very animated, I can remember that she used to, what she called “bei zhu.” The Chinese love to read books out loud, and she used to sing with many tones sort of like poetry—making poetry of the whole book. I could hear the expression in her voice. Also, my father he was a speaker. He got up and spoke in front of audiences, he was the head of Sing Tong in Minneapolis, the Family Association. So, he was very demonstrative.

I think that was the background. In essence, I inherited those genes and I simply channeled those so-called genes and talents into performing arts. They had it, but they weren’t actors in that sense as professional people. And so James Hong took those performing arts talents and multiplied them into a career.

Geek: What was it like working with Mick Wingert who’s taking over the role of Po in the series?

Hong: For me, he’s extremely talented. He’s one of the best people ever to work with on voice over. And he can sing, and he can do many, many voices. Just a terrifically talented person. And to me, he did Po extremely well.

Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomness makes its debut on Nickelodeon tonight at 5:30, with a week of new episodes every day at the same time.

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