With an Oscar, Brad Pitt as a beau and a face as recognizable as any on the planet, Angelina Jolie doesn’t fluster easily.
The personalities of Jack Black (kinetic energy) and Angelina Jolie (reserved tenor) have worked their way into the Kung Fu Panda franchise.
Stick her in a recording studio with her kids, though, and she’s a jangle of nerves.
“They know when Mommy’s funny and when Mommy’s not funny,” she says over tea at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel.
Jolie, who stars opposite Jack Black in Kung Fu Panda 2 (in theaters May 26), says her six children — Maddox, 9, Pax, 7, Zahara, 6, Shiloh, 4, and twins Knox and Vivienne, 2 — were fixtures on the set and became “part agents, part managers.”
“They’ll sit in a room and say, ‘That’s just not funny,’ ” Jolie, 35, says of the brood, half of whom are adopted and half who are biologically hers and Pitt’s. Young scrutiny, she says, “will keep you competitive, even if they think Jack Black is always cooler than Mom.”
The movie, a follow-up to the 2008 animated hit, reunites Jolie, Black and stars including Dustin Hoffman and Jackie Chan. Analysts expect it to eclipse $200 million and to help redeem Hollywood’s substandard spring at the box office.
But for Jolie and Black, the movie provided some unexpected parental moments.
Jolie and Pitt worried whether the sequel, which addresses adoption and non-traditional families, would create tension in the household, particularly among the adopted children. They braced for a sit-down that never came.
Black, 41, used the film to connect with his sons Thomas, 4, and Samuel, 2, who still don’t know he’s the title character, panda bear Po.
Angelina Jolie voices kung fu master Tigress. Daughter Zahara, 6, loves tigers.
“The kids just think Kung Fu Panda is an actual bear,” he says. “But we act out our own scenes, go on our own adventures. The story gets a little disjointed; we usually forget our mission by the time we get in the living room. But we don’t care. I’m learning my kids are funnier than I am.”
Big shoes to fill
Creating a funnier film than the predecessor will be a tall order for director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who served as an artist on the original film. That movie raked in $632 million domestically and overseas, making it the third-biggest movie worldwide in 2008.
If Jolie and Black are nervous about reaching those numbers again, it doesn’t show.
Both say the decision to do a sequel was a no-brainer. Like a lot of Hollywood parents, stars are flocking to animated movies to not only have something to see with their children but also to impress them.
The original film “was one of the kids’ favorite movies,” Jolie says.
On a movie like Panda 2, “it’s about the children,” she says. “If you look at your own children, you want to do something you know will be better than the first one. You want to make sure it’s what they want — and that you’re good enough.”
She may have an Oscar (for 1999’s Girl, Interrupted), but Jolie asked herself regularly during filming whether she was good enough. Men might like her voice. Jolie hates it.
Po the panda (voiced by Jack Black) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) are poised to pounce on a villain who is out to conquer China.
“You know, when you hear your own voice, you can find it quite boring and uninteresting,” she says. “Suddenly, you get very shy that your voice is not enough, because I’m not musical and I don’t know my voice.”
Black’s ears perk up as Jolie talks about her early auditions for voice-over work. She says she was so nervous about getting jobs that she brought dozens of zany voices she plucked from thin air, including a crude Mae West imitation.
“You mean like, ‘Come up and see me sometime?’ ” Black asks in a husky breath.
“That sounds more like Bogart doing Mae West,” Jolie says. Black rolls his eyes. “Uh, that was Bogart in drag.”
Though they didn’t share the soundstage once in filming Panda 2, the movie marks the third animated movie they’ve done together. Before the original Panda, the two paired on 2004’s Shark Tale.
The years have created a rapport between the two, one they say began on their introduction at Cannes seven years ago for Shark Tale.
“I was crazy about him,” Jolie says. “I had seen him in everything he’d done, but what I really knew him for was music.” Black is half of the mock-rock duo Tenacious D, whose tunes include Wonderboy, Rock Your Socks and Kyle Quit the Band.
“I don’t have musical talent, so I always thought it was really cool that he could be an actor to a lot of us but equally a rock star,” she says.
Black, who is usually quick with a retort, is clearly shaken by the fandom.
How can you tell? When Black is nervous, he gets sincere.
“When I first met Angie, I was clearly taken aback by her beauty,” he says. “She has a powerful presence.”
And a photo-friendly one. During their introduction, Black and Shark Tale co-star Will Smith persuaded her to join them on a ride along the Mediterranean in a boat shaped like a shark to hawk the film.
“You were stuck in a sandwich between me and Will,” Black recalls. “We wanted to do it, but you were the only one who said, ‘Uh, guys, I’m not sure about this.’ But we convinced you.”
“I don’t think I could have let you guys go alone,” she says. “That would have just looked too weird.”
Black nods. “Yeah, that could have definitely changed the dynamic of the photo shoot.”
With that, their yin and yang personalities became an element of the franchise.
‘Close to the subject matter’
Black is all kinetic energy, on the screen and behind the mike.
“Jack works it all out,” director Nelson says, recalling days when Black would attempt all the kung fu moves of his cartoon doppelgänger. “He’d leave the session covered in sweat.”
Jolie, meanwhile, provided a reserved tenor for the warrior Tigress while providing behind-the-scenes counsel to Nelson. The director says that she knew the story of Po’s search for his biological father would strike a chord with Jolie.
“She is so close to the subject matter, we had to treat it with a good deal of respect,” Nelson says. “Actually, a lot of the crew who had experiences with adoption had a positive response to what we were doing.”
Inside, though, Jolie was nervous, especially when she and Pitt took the children to the DreamWorks studios to see an unfinished print of the movie.
“I wondered how they’d respond to the themes of the film,” she says, adding that she and Pitt were “sensitive to see if there was going to be a big discussion that night about adoption and orphanages.”
‘Our own focus group’
There wasn’t. “But that’s because we talk about those issues at my house all the time, very openly. We’ve had those discussions so often, they’re such happy, wonderful discussions.”
It made Jolie grateful that she regularly brought the children to recording sessions.
“We’ve got kids of all ages,” Jolie says. “So we joked that we had our own focus group.”
An unflinching one, apparently. Jolie says she was prepared during early sessions for her kids to grow impatient watching her speak into a microphone.
But it became live-action theater. “When they’re there and they hear you making kung fu sounds and jumping around, you can see them giggling through the glass,” she says. “It makes you go that much further.”
And occasionally compete more fiercely. While Jolie says the cast of Kung Fu Panda has formed its own ragtag family, sibling rivalry occasionally surfaces at home. “The little ones don’t understand yet,” she says. “They like Tigress, though they might not know why. The older kids get it. Zahara loves tigers.”
Pandas, too. Jolie concedes that she has tried to sway kids from Team Po to Team Tigress.
“Oh, there’s a little competition in our house,” she says. “I tell them, ‘I know you like Po. But come on. Mom’s cool too, right?'”