Dane Cook stars in Disney’s new 3D animated comedy, Planes, voicing the character of Dusty, a small town crop duster that’s not exactly built for racing but dreams of competing as a high-flying air racer despite his fear of heights. Opening August 9th, the all-new action-packed adventure from Disneytoon Studios is directed by Klay Hall and features a terrific voice cast that includes Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Priyanka Chopra, John Cleese, Cedric the Entertainer, Carlos Alazraqui, Roger Craig Smith, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Sinbad and Gabriel Iglesias.
At the film’s recent press day at the Santa Monica Museum of Flying, Cook talked about how John Lasseter convinced him to do a Disney film, how the animated feature evolved from a DVD opportunity to a cinematic adventure, how he found it easy to match his voice to his character, what it was like being schooled in the technical jargon of aviation, the emotional experience of working on this project, his special connection to his mother, his work with foster children, how E.T. changed his life and inspired him to entertain, his pinch me moment with Steven Spielberg, the Planes sequel and his upcoming tour celebrating 23 years of stand-up comedy. Check out the interview after the jump:
Cook: When they approached me about this, there was no trepidation about that, because for so many years as I’ve done shows, I would do meet and greets. I would meet my fans after the show, and year after year, I would meet families. Parents would be bringing their kids to my show, and sometimes it was a little surprising because I would say to them, “There’s some adult stuff that I’m… the sexuality stuff.” What I learned from those parents in those conversations is they would always say the same thing, and I’m paraphrasing, but basically they would say, “But there’s no malice. You don’t come from a bad place.” They could distinguish that I come from a lighter place, even if was a darker tone. I grew up watching – I’m trying to think of an example of somebody, a comic, who was a little bit darker and grittier comedy-wise. I can’t think. But it’s like that message let me know that I could participate in things that maybe were outside of that particular box because people would embrace that. They weren’t looking at me like, “Oh! It’s offensive that he would be part of something family-oriented.”
We’ve been told that this was a different sort of recording session for you because the film had been shot and you were matching.
To me, that seems like the worst case scenario.
Cook: You would think, but actually I wish I could do it always like that. I’ll tell you why. The way this came to me was I’d known John Lasseter for many years and loved Pixar. He’s like my Willy Wonka, this guy. All the things that have come out of his brain, he’s just this incredibly dynamic and prolific person and businessman. And so, I had taken a date to see A Night of Pixar Music at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a great date, and the music was obviously wonderful. I was sitting there and watching all these beautiful animations, and the L.A. Philharmonic was playing. After the event, I went backstage to thank John for inviting me, and he looked at me and we were talking. He’s listening to me and he says, “I’ve been listening to your stand-up a lot lately and I have something that I’m working on that I think I need you for.” And I said, “Great. Okay, whatever it is.” In that moment, just hearing my voice, what he had done was they had crafted the entire film, but he had known that he wanted it to be a theatrical release. For whatever reasons in his business mind, he was like we’re going to go through these steps of creating a DVD opportunity, but he prepared it as a cinematic adventure. And so, he called and said, “This is what I need from you. I need someone to come in and rework this temporary voice that we had in there.” I was like this is great because now I get to be watching the actual film in front of me instead of alone in a booth by myself where you don’t even know what the animation is going to look like. You don’t know what the score is going to sound like or what that tidal wave is going to look like. I was actually in a theater. They put me in a huge screening room with a theater. I was watching the movie basically, and so I could be in those moments with the characters. I had all the other actors’ voices in my head. So it didn’t bind me because I felt like I could find those pivotal moments within the finished movie. I loved it. I thought it was really wonderful.
Did it limit you or could you still improv in those moments?
Cook: I could, because even though there were a few places where it was “locked picture” as they say, it isn’t completely locked because they could still go in sometimes and change. If I had a longer pause, they could change your mouth movement. They wouldn’t have to redo the whole scene. They could just change one tiny little “Oh” or “Ah.” They could make the mouth do that. That’s how incredibly quick some of the artists can create these opportunities. So no, I wasn’t really locked into it even though the scene itself was finished.
There’s a lot of technical jargon in this, especially for a kids movie. I felt like I was learning something while I was watching. For you, with some of the dialogue about the equipment, did you feel like you had to figure out what these things were before you could say them?
Cook: I did. I asked a lot of questions. I know that John Lasseter is an aviation enthusiast. I understand he’s done this with all his films. He wants everything to be the actual science. If a kid is really interested in wanting to have a career in aviation, he’s actually learning and getting some of the [basics], not even just fringe. There are things in here that he’s talking about like the pulp of an engine, and it’s the actual engine, the actual parts and pieces. So I felt like I got schooled as well. (laughs) I learned a lot just being in there and doing that.
Was it also important for you to understand? It wasn’t like you were just saying the lines.
Cook: Oh no, I wanted to understand, like “How does this affect the altitude? How does this affect…? Okay, Dusty is winded here because… What happened? Oh, his engine stopped. That must be the equivalent of getting a bad cramp when you’re running.” Everything had a way of bleeding into the performance. I’m a person that loves asking a lot of questions anyway, so there was no shortage of knowledge in that room when it came to [aviation], and Clay (Hall) is also a massive aviation enthusiast. So, those two together, I got schooled. (laughs)
Do you feel smarter now?
Cook: (laughs) I feel slightly smarter. I don’t know if I could rebuild an airplane engine, but I know a little bit about rotors and rivets.
Could you relate at all to your character’s determination to make it? Did it remind you of your career and moving to L.A.?
Cook: Very much so. In even simpler terms, I was a very introverted kid. I was not a silly kid or outgoing. In fact, I suffered from quite a bit of anxiety. I used to have panic attacks when I was a teenager, really incapacitating moments, because I had some phobias. I had a fear of being in front of people from a very early age. Not to get too depressing, but my mother, when she was pregnant with me, was very phobic. My mother had a lot of phobias. She’s pregnant with me and she was a very phobic person. So I was born into phobia basically. I’m not a phobic person, but because I was born with this, I had to unknot some of the things that I just picked up being inside my mom who had a fear of crowds and a fear of being alone and fear of abandonment issues — all these things that my mother explained to me as I was growing up. The way I related it to Dusty was there was a period in my life where I had to realize that if I wanted to entertain the world, which I did, [I would have to overcome this].
I’m 11 or 12 years old knowing I would like to be a comedian. I would like to entertain. I would like to do plays and sing and dance, but I can barely go out on my front porch. If a neighbor sees me, I’m back in the house. And so, I had to fight through. When this project came along and I started to read it, I got very emotional. The first time I read it, I got very emotional for two reasons. One’s kind of silly. One is that it just immediately struck me. I remember feeling this feeling in my life of not having any belief in myself, of being just very self-deprecating and not very healthy to myself. That hit me when I was reading it, and I was like I know that feeling. I can put my whole self into this. But the fact that his name was Dusty Crophopper and DC was Dane Cook, I was like symbolically this is supposed to be mine. It lit me up. It made me feel like every scene of this movie, every little bit of desperation that you hear is me digging down and saying with Clay in that room, “Let me remember and find that feeling of hopelessness that I felt.” I used to feel hopelessness in my life. And it’s all in this performance.
That’s crazy that you inherited some of that from your mom.
Cook: Yeah. And she knew it, too. As I got a little bit older, she actually said, “I know it’s all because of me.” In fact, when I was born, she didn’t leave the house with me until I was about one and a half because she had a fear of going outside. She said finally one day she looked out the window and she saw a young mother pushing her child down the street in a stroller, and she said, “I started to cry and get so mad at myself that I was afraid to bring you outside.” She forced herself to go to the park, and she said that every step pushing the stroller by herself just to take me to the park, she was so terrified. You’ve got to imagine. I love my mom and she’s my best friend, but I’m absorbing all of this. It took me a long time to deconstruct that. It took me a long time.
Did you get to meet Stacy Keach at all?
Cook: I didn’t. And Stacy’s voice is like… That’s some powerful stuff right there. They’re some of my favorite scenes. In fact, the scene with Stacy where he’s reminiscing about what happened in the war, his voice coupled with the visuals in that scene, that’s a conversation piece right there. I mean, that scene is really what it’s all about.
It’s beyond a kids’ movie at that point.
Cook: Yeah. Disney has done that sometimes where it’s like, “Alright, your kids are going to ask you some tough questions after the movie,” and for all the joy and all the light that this movie has, it does not shy away from the fringe of…not even the fringe because that’s a tough scene. That’s a darker scene. But his voice brings it so much beauty and lightness again. I keep saying that.
What would you like kids to walk away with from this movie?
Cook: I work with a lot of kids. Every year, for the past fifteen years, I work at Comedy Camp where I work with a lot of kids. Sometimes I’ll go through Boston Children’s Hospital. I’m actually going to bring the movie back and screen it for a bunch of kids at Boston Children’s. Because of what I experienced when I was a kid, I want kids to have that kind of an epiphany moment, that little jolt, that little spark that they see when Dusty flies higher than he has before — like in that scene where he flies straight up, and he’s starting to get dizzy, and then finally it comes together. We forget as adults. We get jaded and we think that’s kids’ stuff, but for a kid who doesn’t know about anything technical or how a movie is made, they’re just going to see this and hear this beautiful score and see this dynamic, fantastical thing happening in front of them. Subconsciously or subliminally, that’s a message of you can experience something of your own. You can break out of that shell or whatever it is.
I work with kids every summer in this camp that sit with me and tell me they feel hopeless. They feel like they have nothing. These are kids that have been through abuse. These are kids that are in foster programs that I work with. They detest themselves, and I’m there to say, “Listen. I’m here because I get that.” My voice resonates with them because it’s the truth that’s coming from me. And kids sense that. They know when you’re [being honest]. They can tell the real deal. If my voice can resonate that way with kids, maybe it will resonate through this film as well, and they’ll hear that little something that I’m giving to them, a performance that says to them, “I want to try.” It’s all interconnected. I don’t think it’s thinking too deeply about it.
That’s what these movies have always done. They’ve done it for me and they do it for so many families. It gives you hope. A little bit of hope can seep into everything, so two hours of hope in a movie can absolutely change your life. It did. I saw E.T. I loved that movie. I was never the same after that. My family suffered a lot of hardship. We had a lot of dark moments growing up, but my mom took me to see E.T. We sat on the movie theater stairs right after because I was so excited to talk about it. We left the theater and sat right on the stairs. It’s an emotional thing to even talk about, because talking to my mother there, I know that our connection and what she gave to me through explaining to me what we just saw, it made me want to someday create something that would entertain the world. I said, “What is this? Where will this go? Who made this?” And she said, “Well, his name is Steven Spielberg and he did it.” And she walked me through it, and I said, “I want to do something that moves the world.”
Have you ever had a chance to meet Steven Spielberg during your career?
Cook: I did.
Did you tell him about that?
Cook: It’s an incredible thing. Yeah. It’s a pinch me moment because I auditioned for a film of his about three years ago, for a drama, and I went on tape for his casting director. I got a call from my agent later that day. He said, “Steve Spielberg wants to meet you for dinner. He loved what you did.” I couldn’t believe it. My mother had passed away by this time. Yeah. I had lost both my parents by that time. I couldn’t believe I was finally going to get a chance to meet him. It was like sitting on those stairs after seeing E.T. and saying to myself, “That’s the direction you need to go in.” And so, the dinner didn’t end up happening that night. A couple weeks later, I was at an event and somebody came up and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’m an assistant to Mr. Spielberg and he would like to meet you.” He brought me to his table, and I sat with him for about a half hour and got to talk about that story, about E.T. and acting. He’s Steven Spielberg, but the amount of grace and him bringing me into his world, I was so very appreciative. I took a lot from that conversation. Almost like what he gave me when I was a kid, he did it again twenty some odd years later as an adult.
Are you looking forward to being part of the Planes sequel?
Cook: Absolutely. First of all, if you look at the Toy Story movies, the sequels always go in such unique directions that it doesn’t feel like retreads. Toy Story 3 is incredible. I mean, there is some dark stuff in there. It does get sad. I liken it to Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars was so light and up. They’ve managed to create a story for the sequel that takes Dusty and puts him in a new atmosphere, but now with his newfound confidence, so it’s not a retread like, “Oh, I’ve got to try and make it.” Now it’s something completely different. It’s growth. It’s like evolution even in this character. I can’t wait to talk about that more later. Right now, I just want this film to come out and make an impact on people.
Do you have any other projects?
Cook: Oh yes, I have a tour. I’m celebrating 23 years of stand-up comedy this year, but more importantly, I’m celebrating that it’s 10 years since my first CD released which truly changed my life. It gave me a career. Ten years ago, my fans really gave me a career at that point. And so, I’m doing a new tour in September and I’m going to film that. For the 10-year anniversary, I’m releasing a new bit of material, a new hour special. That’s been my focus this year.
Of all the character, which one do you think was the most influential on Dusty?
Cook: It’s funny. You’ve got Chug who’s his sidekick that he pals around with. He goofs off with him. But then you’ve got Dottie who’s going to tell him what his limits are. Not everybody always wants to hear what those things are. You’ve got El Chu and he’s like the wild child. It’s funny. That’s his family. Prop Wash Junction is his family, and that’s in every character. Of course, Skipper is a mentor to him. I bring it back again to Toy Story when I saw it. There’s no lead dog here. It’s not just Dusty. It’s all of them. It’s all of us together. It’s truly an ensemble film. It may be Dusty’s journey, but it’s really about the gang coming together and they all win because of it. That’s the cool thing. They all get to feel like it’s an experience in their life. Because he won, because they stuck by him and were champions of him, his ancillary characters get to feel like their life is better. Again, that’s a message that the world needs and that kids want to see. It’s a group effort. We always need other people to get to where we need to be.
Cook: No. I flew a tiny, tiny bit. I did some shows in Iraq several years ago for our troops, and they took me up on a C-130 and brought me into the cockpit, and they let me put my hands on the [steering wheel], and then they let me go, and for three seconds, it was like “Wow! This is real power right there.” I’ll go back on stage. I’ll stick to that and the microphone.
There’s a flight simulator around the corner here if you’d like to try that.
Cook: I might have to try that. That would be awesome.
You could be a jet fighter, too.
Cook: Alright. I’ll give it a shot.
Do you still get any anxiety before you go on stage? Is there anything you do to pump up or calm down to get ready?
Cook: Sometimes it annoys people, but no, I don’t. I don’t get any anxiety. I don’t because of two reasons. Number one, just breaking through it as a kid and finally getting past it was like okay, nothing’s ever going to feel that scary again as that deafening silence of a joke not working. Any joke not working is not as bad as not being able to even try and get on stage. And then, I just think, I’m 41 and I keep saying I’m in the Act Two of my life and my career at the same time. There are so many great changes. After you have loss in your life and after you experience something like losing your parents, the greatest gift of that was it prepared me for [anything]. Nothing else is as scary, and certainly stand-up comedy is not as scary as sitting there with your mom and having to have last conversations and things like that. It’s heavy stuff, but it’s enlightening because it makes me think I shouldn’t be afraid of sharing ideas and thoughts with people. It’s the yin and the yang of life.
Plus you get to talk about bad Burger King experiences?
Cook: No. That’s the best part. We’re talking about it a little more esoteric, but it’s like comedy is still just supposed to be light. I just want to get up there and make you forget about things for a little bit. So it’s still as light and I’m having more fun now than ever as a stand-up comic. It feels like the beginning all over again.