There's no question that when Dennis Haysbert appears on screen, his towering stature and resonant voice command your attention.
From playing the hilarious power hitter Pedro Cerrano in the "Major League" movies earlier in his career, all the way to his acclaimed turn as U.S. Sen.-turned-President David Palmer in several seasons of the hit TV drama "24," audiences know that when Haysbert's around -- even currently as All State Insurance's television and radio spokesman -- they're always, well, in good hands.
In his latest role, Haysbert isn't using his hands, or feet for that matter, but hoofing it instead as Master Ox -- one of the Kung Fu masters under siege in "Kung Fu Panda 2." In a recent interview for the Tuesday release of the film on Blu-ray and DVD (Paramount Home Entertainment), Haysbert said whether he's playing a president or voicing the role of an animated character, he can lose himself in the action and enjoy viewing his projects just like any other audience member.
"I'm one of the few people who likes to watch myself on screen because it's not me I'm watching, it's a character of the creator, and for me it takes on a life all its own," Haysbert said. "Sure, it's my voice coming out of the character in 'Kung Fu Panda 2,' but he also doing things that I normally wouldn't do. So, I don't see me: I see a facsimile of me in a totally different setting, but that to me is what acting is -- putting yourself in a position where people see the character, and it sometimes happens to have your face."
In "Kung Fu Panda 2," Jack Black once again voices Po, the once-hapless panda bear who is now living his dream as a Dragon Warrior and protecting the Valley of Peace with his fellow friends and kung fu masters, The Furious Five. However, Po's life of awesomeness is turned upside down when the formidable villain Lord Shen (voice of Gary Oldman) threatens to conquer China after he kills a kung fu master and imprisons two others -- Master Ox and Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) -- and forces Po to delve into the painful secrets of his mysterious past.
"There are so many levels going on in the film. (In my storyline), you have two creatures -- Master Croc (Jean Claude Van Damme) and Master Ox -- who lose a friend and there's a great deal of sadness there," Haysbert said. "And with that, there was a great loss of hope. With all those things there's an underlying sadness and I hope people pick up on it. That what I love about what filmmakers are doing with animation. Everything is so heartfelt. "
Not mincing words, Haysbert said there's a reason why animated characters can engage you emotionally, much easier than live-action characters most of the time: When you employ actors for voice roles, you're hiring them for their true capabilities.
"(Filmmakers) have to be cognizant of the kinds of actors they are hiring," Haysbert observed. "Are you hiring a face because it's pretty, or are you hiring someone who can go to those depths and bring out that emotion? Emotion for me has always been at the forefront. I wouldn't be able to get into the character if I couldn't deliver on some sort of emotional level. What's the point otherwise?"
Haysbert said ultimately, while Master Ox and all of the characters in "Kung Fu Panda 2" are not humans, that doesn't make them any less emotional beings.
"You have to find the humanity in them. Sure, they're all animals in there, but we're still speaking to the human condition in how we deal with failure, how we deal with loss and how we deal with being on the outside," Haysbert said.
The idea of Po feeling like an outsider is crucial in "Kung Fu Panda 2," as Po struggles internally as he unravels the mystery behind the circumstances of his adoption by Mr. Ping (James Hong). Fortunately, Po learns, a story isn't about not having "an unhappy beginning" and letting it define who you are: It's up to you who you choose to be.
A prescriber to the power of positive thinking in his life and career, Haysbert said he's inspired by the way "Kung Fu Panda 2" layers a philosophical narrative within its overall story.
"The movie addresses how you feel about being judged because you're adopted. On some level, someone is saying, 'You're discarded and someone didn't want you,' but on the other hand, someone did. That's what you have to extenuate," Haysbert said. "Maybe this is what the spirit wanted for you. Maybe this is what you were supposed to do. Maybe you're in the place you were supposed to be, and you should take the positive aspects of that. Instead of looking at it like, 'Someone didn't want me,' you have to look at it like, 'Maybe I was freed.'"