By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
SANTA MONICA, Calif.—Comedian Dane Cook is known for his edgy adult humor that he has been delivering in his stand up act for more than two decades. So it may come as a surprise that the Massachusetts native provides the voice of the heroic lead character in the kid-friendly Disney movie “Planes.”
Cook is the voice of Dusty, a scrappy single-prop plane who aspires to compete in a round the world air race. With the encouragement of his friends at Propwash Junction, a rural backwater, Dusty musters the courage to go where no crop duster has gone before.
Having the opportunity to voice a character in a Disney animated feature was a dream come true for the 41-year-old funnyman. He says he could relate to Dusty’s desire to soar and conquer his fears, having overcome his own fear of public speaking as a youth.
Bumping into fellow cast member Teri Hatcher (who voices Dottie, a friendly forklift, in the film) during a press junket at the Santa Monica Museum of Flying, Cook seems genuinely overjoyed that the high-flying animated adventure is about to be released, and he is hopeful that it will be bring joy to children and audiences of all ages.
Q: How cool is it to finally meet your co-star?
Cook: She’s tremendous.
Q: Your humor is normally not kid-friendly so what was the draw in doing a family film?
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 families. Parents would bring their kids to my show, and sometimes it was a little surprising because I would say to them, “There’s some adult stuff here.” 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 it’s a darker tone. That message let me know that I could participate in things that maybe were outside the box. They weren’t looking at me like, “It’s offensive that he would be part of something family-oriented.”
Q: This was a different sort of recording session for you because the film had been shot and you were synchronizing your voice to the animated character. Was that difficult?
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 (Disney/Pixar creative chief) John Lasseter for many years and loved Pixar. He’s just this incredibly nice and prolific person and businessman. And so, I had taken a date to see A Night of Pixar Music at the Hollywood Bowl. After the event, I went backstage to thank John for inviting me. And he says to me, “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.” He said, “I need somebody to come in and rework this temporary voice that we had in there.” I was like this is great because now I get to watch the actual film in front of me instead of being alone in a (recording) booth by myself not knowing what the animation is going to look like. 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. I felt like I could find those pivotal moments within the finished movie.
Q: There’s a lot of technical jargon in this movie. Did you feel like you had to figure out what these aviation terms were before you could say them?
Cook: I did. I asked a lot of questions. I know that John Lasseter (who is a co-writer and executive producer on “Planes”) is an aviation enthusiast. 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 (real information in this), not just the fringe. There are things in here that (Dusty) is 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. (He laughs.) I learned a lot just being in there and doing that.
Q: Was it also important for you to understand the lingo? It wasn’t like you were just saying the lines.
Cook: Oh no, I wanted to understand. I’d ask myself, “How does this affect the altitude?” Or, “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, and there was no shortage of knowledge in that room. (Director, co-writer) Klay (Hall) is also a massive aviation enthusiast. So, between him and John, I got schooled. (He laughs.)
Q: Do you feel smarter now?
Cook: I feel slightly smarter. I don’t know if I could build an airplane engine, but I know a little bit about rotors and rivets.
Q: Could you relate at all to your character’s determination to compete with the real racers? Did it remind you of your career and moving to L.A.?
Cook: Very much so. Even in 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 and stuff. I had a fear of being in front of people from a very early age. My mother, when she was pregnant with me, was very phobic. When she was pregnant with me, she was a very phobic person. I was born into phobia, basically. So 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 realized that if I wanted to entertain the world, I’d have to (overcome my fear). When I was 11 or 12 I knew I would like to be a comedian and entertain, but I could barely go out on my front porch. If a neighbor saw me, I went back in the house. And so, I had to fight through.
Q: Did you see some parallels between you and Dusty?
Cook: 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; 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 D.C. 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, “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.
Q: 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, after 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.
Q: Did you get to meet your co-star Stacy Keach, who voices the part of reclusive ace flyer Skipper Riley in “Planes?”
Cook: I didn’t. And Stacy’s voice is like, “Whoa!” That’s some powerful stuff right there. (My scenes with him are) some of my favorites. In fact, the scene 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. That scene is really what it’s all about.
Q: Was there a movie that resonated with you as a child?
Cook: I saw “E.T the Extra-Terrestrial.” 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.” She walked me through it, and I said, “I want to do something that moves the world.”
Q: Have you met Steven Spielberg and told him about this?
Cook: I did and it was an incredible thing. It’s a pinch-me moment because I auditioned for a film of his about three years ago, a drama, and I went on tape for his casting director. I got a call from my agent later that day. He said, “Steven 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, both of my parents. 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.” The dinner didn’t end up happening that night but 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. I took a lot from that conversation. It was almost like what he gave me when I was a kid; he did it again some 20-odd years later as an adult.
Q: Are you looking forward to being part of the “Planes: Fire & Rescue” sequel that has been announced for 2014?
Cook: Absolutely. First of all, if you look at the “Toy Story” (films), the (Disney/Pixar) sequels always go in such unique directions that it doesn’t feel like retreads. “Toy Story 3” is incredible. There is some dark stuff in there. It does get sad. 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 really make an impact on people.