Interview: Shane Jacobson (Santa’s Apprentice, Kenny)

Interview: Shane Jacobson (Santa’s Apprentice, Kenny). By Simon Miraudo.

Shane Jacobson is a comforting presence, whether it’s on the screen or on the other end of a telephone line. Since breaking out in the 2006 surprise hit Kenny – a performance that earned him an AFI award for Best Actor – he has popped up in a number of films (Charlie and Boots), worked in television (Kenny’s World, upcoming telemovie Beaconsfield) and shown off his presenting skills as both a song-and-dance MC (the 2010 AFI Awards) and bloke’s bloke TV host (Top Gear Australia). Fittingly, Shane voices the king of comfort, Santa Claus, in the new animated flick Santa’s Apprentice.

We spoke to the very jovial Jacobson about vocal performances, his role in The Bourne Legacy, not getting a part in Three Stooges and the possibility of a Kenny sequel.

SM: I like to start with the same question. It’s a nice icebreaker, and it gives me a good indication of who I’m talking to.

SJ: [Laughs] Have I ever robbed a bank?

SM: We have police on the line to verify that. No, do you remember watching any films growing up that inspired you to get into acting?

SJ: Yeah, many, to be honest. I should say, it was an emotion I got from watching even TV for that matter. It made me go, ‘Gosh, that’s wonderful, I wish I could be a part of all this’. Even watching things like MASH as a kid, you realise these people are acting and they’re making you laugh. Then I went and saw some stage shows as a kid; the first thing that made me go, ‘I want to do this’, was when I saw Annie as a kid on stage. It made me go, ‘This is what I want to do’.  And I went and saw a thing called The Game Show, which is this live theatre show, and it was at that point that I actually said to my mum, ‘I want to do that; I want to join this show and do that. I’m scouting, and I want to be in it. I’ve seen Annie; it was amazing. I watch TV. I think it would be good to be on the television’. When I saw The Game Show I knew I wanted to do that.

SM: And your parents were always encouraging? You didn’t really have to break it to them that you wanted to be an actor?

SJ: No, well, see, my family are all pretty artistic. My mum teaches dancers and my dad used to do a little bit of comedy here and there, and my brother [Clayton] was already moving towards being a director. So it was in the family. My dad’s side come from carny-folk. No one was really shocked by it, I guess. When it came to movies, the films that I loved as a kid were the obvious ones, to be honest: Wizard of Oz, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It was when you see things, like, for me, Apocalypse Now, made me want to act in big films.

SM: There are few bigger than that one.

SJ: [Laughs] I know.

SM: Santa’s Apprentice is the English-language version of a hit French film. That may sound odd to us, but we forget that the exact same redubbing happens when English-language films go overseas.

SJ: Yes.

SM: That being said, did you have any apprehensions when you were approached about voicing over someone’s performance?

SJ: Well, the animations were drawn in Australia. So, I got to watch the animations happening, and they actually animated to my voice.

SM: Interesting. Have you met or spoken to the actor [Benoit Allemane] who plays the French version of Santa?

SJ: No, no. When I did it, I read the script and did the voice here without knowing any of that. I literally went to Sydney, and when I was recording it they were using some of my voices to animate the film. Bernard Derriman, one of the animators who I coincidentally knew from doing the Kenny cartoons – he’s a friend of my brother’s, and he’d done some of the Kenny cartoons for Kenny’s World the TV series – him and some of the animators, I was going up and seeing them doing some of the animating, and he was saying ‘It’s great having your voice to animate; it makes it so much easier’. It was probably different to what you expect, I guess. Some of what you’re seeing is based on the performance I did; they would actually animate to it. From that point of view it was great.

SM: When you record these parts, you’re often alone in the studio. How do you amp yourself up for a vocal performance when you’re on your lonesome?

SJ: Well mate, of all the ones to do, the role of Santa makes it really easy. By that I mean, the way to find Santa’s voice – I was thinking about this before I did the role – I thought, ‘What is Santa’s voice? What do I have to do?’ I realised it’s actually about completely letting yourself go. It’s like, I always say, grandparents. I think they do it best. When it comes to dealing with or speaking to children, grandparents do it so so well. All of us have an aunty or an uncle or a grandmother or even just a friend’s mum or dad that when you walked in a room they made you feel really special. I know the elderly do it so well and so often. You walk into a room and they go, ‘Hello Simon, how was school?” You immediately go, ‘Oh my God, this is fantastic; they’re really talking to me!’ You know what I mean? At a family function, in a corner at some point, if you watch an old person talking to a child, the kid is so animated because the elderly person is so animated back to them. ‘And what have you been doing at school?’ And they go, ‘I’ve been playing!’ They’re so excited, and that’s what I realised I needed to do this. He’s Santa! His whole world is getting toys ready, made by elves, to service the toy needs of kids around the world at Christmas. I mean, he’s an old person’s enthusiasm multiplied by millions. That’s his voice, and I realised it’s about letting yourself go completely. If you had to show a kid how excited you were that you’ve just been on a drive down the highway with mummy, and now you’re here, and tonight you’re having ice cream … the only exciting bit is ice cream. If you were told to let yourself go and ask that of a child as excited as you, I think you would find you become an older person with that enthusiasm, or a Santa. ‘Hello David! You’ve just come down a freeway and tonight you can have ice cream!’ The kid will go, ‘Yeah!’ They respond to it. That’s what I realised with Santa. Untie everything and let it all go. It’s all in the volume. He’s on a sled, Ho ho ho’ing to the world. He’s not in a boardroom saying, ‘I personally believe…’ He’s gotta let it go. ‘Tonight we’re going to fly!’ As soon as I realised that, and let everything go, I had Santa.

SM: Good advice there, just for controlling children in general, from that voice work. Do you have much of an affinity for Christmas movies? Do you have a favourite screen Santa?

SJ: To be quite honest, I just have that feeling that all of us have that Christmas brings. The older you get now, the more you look back to your childhood, and look at the children around you, and in the case of my kids, Christmas becomes a different thing. I still get a buzz, especially for me, you know? Now Christmas is the time you can have barbeques and catch up with family and friends and hopefully there’s a small break in workload, it’s what it means to us as an adult, and soon our kids are going to be excited, which is great. Still, on Christmas Eve, when I hear carols being sung at Carols by Candlelight or Carols in the Domain, you can drive around areas and see the local council has put on a Christmas do in the park; I still get a buzz out of that. I think there’s something special about that. I love knowing there are children laying in bed, closing their eyes and going to sleep, because the quicker they can go to sleep the quicker they wake up, in their mind, and when they open their eyes, the house is going to have presents in it. We can all remember the joy. I hope everyone’s Christmas was as great as mine, because every Christmas I had was special. So, for me, I don’t really have a favourite Christmas [movie] as such. That Disney/Scrooge McDuck stuff was great, but for me, the whole thing – Christmas as a concept – was exciting as a whole, because you got the presents, and you got to stay up late and watch Christmas carols. For me, there was never one single moment; it was the whole experience of being young at Christmas.

SM: Absolutely. Moving away from Christmas, I understand you have a role in the new Bourne Legacy flick with Jeremy Renner. Can you spill a few details about who’ll you be playing in that.

SJ: Believe it or not, I am not allowed to say a word.

SM: I imagined that would be the case.

SJ: Believe it or not, the fact that people know that – that it got out – is amazing. They were quite amazed in America, because we don’t know. I can’t, other than to say – you can write it in there and do it as a personal favour so my career doesn’t get shot at – that I cannot talk about the project at all.

SM: Fair enough. It’s a pretty great franchise to be a part of.

SJ: Absolutely. It’s wonderful. The only thing I can say, the one thing that was printed in error – and if you can word it something like this – is that Jeremy Renner is replacing Matt Damon, which he is not. It’s a whole different character.

SM: That’s right.

SJ: That’s literally all I can say, other than, as you said, it’s a really exciting project and I’m very happy to be a part of it.

SM: This is all going up verbatim, so you won’t get into any trouble. Hypothetically, this is a great franchise, but it there a dream franchise you would love to appear in, whether it’s come and gone like Star Wars – just something you’d love to be a part of?

SJ: I’d like to own 10% of Disney.

SM: Sure!

SJ: I don’t think that’s the question you asked, but that’s the first thing that came out of my mind. Is there a franchise? Oh, look, if I was younger I’d like to have been Indiana Jones’ sidekick. Also, if we could rewind the clock, I’d like to have been in the Star Wars films, if only so I could say, ‘I was in Star Wars’. I think if someone said, ‘You get one franchise to be a part of’, I think as a kid – even as a teenager – if I could have been plonked right into the middle of Star Wars I would have been pretty excited. Just to say that out loud; imagine saying that? ‘Yeah, I was in Star Wars’. Does that mean, moving forward would I want to put myself in it? No. I think I would rather rewind the clock and be put in that somewhere.

SM: You were also rumoured to be in the running for Three Stooges earlier in the year. Can you tell me a little bit about how you’re finding the reception to Australian actors in the US?

SJ: I can talk about that, because I’m not doing it. Yeah, I was. I think – you never really know – I was close with the Farrelly brothers’ casting director. I had to go back and do quite a few different auditions, but obviously not quite right for what they were looking for. Clearly, or I would have got the part. It’s been said a million times in a million different ways; we’re used to working pretty hard, but most actors are. I think the thing that works well for Australians is we do so many things here. We don’t just concentrate on film; you know, I’ve had a stand-up career, I’ve done corporate work, I’ve done dancing, I’ve done musicals, I’ve sung in a band, I’ve done drama. You do it all, because you kind of have to. In all honesty, I think the thing that works really well for us is our accent. I’ve been asked by US casting agents. She said, ‘Why do you think Australians are so good at doing accents?’ The reality is, our accent is, by comparison to others, so bland. We are just plain pasta. If you have an American accent, you’ve got to remove that twang. Some people misunderstand how I mean this. But, if you’ve got a German accent, you’ve got to remove German and then do something else. We’re very bland in what we do. It’s an Australian accent. You can put anything on it. It’s a salad with no dressing. If we want to be American [speaks with American accent], ‘We throw that on right there’. But a German is not going to go [speaks with thick German accent], ‘I’m now going to do my American accent, and here it is. [Changes to American] So, there’s this guy’. They can’t do that. We can add it all on. Our accent is so bland; we can add anything to it. It’s a little bit like coffee, and we’re the boiling water. Once you put in the milk and coffee, you can’t separate them, with a strong accent like German. So I think that’s why we’re very fortunate, because we can do many accents. And look, as a result, we can do English too. It is us and the New Zealanders that can do it. Someone from Tonga can’t go on screen and pretend to be an American guy who talks casually like he’s from New York.

SM: It would be a difficult transition for them to make.

SJ: I think so.

SM: I would be remiss if I finished up without asking this, and I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times, but are there any plans for a Kenny sequel? I know you did the TV show, but would you ever take him back to film?

SJ: Kenny Number Twos, is that what you’re suggesting?

SM: Brilliant.

SJ: We have been asked, and it is a fair question. Everyone says, ‘Never say never’, but I’ll be honest, we do say never. But you inherently know you’re never supposed to say it. We firmly believe – me and Clayton, my brother, the mastermind behind Kenny really – we’re pretty well convinced we answered everything that was left to be answered in the TV series. So, because he and I toured so much promoting the film for seven months and then overseas I did more tours and going to audiences and doing live stand-up as Kenny, at the end of screenings we got to hear the questions from people, and I can tell you undoubtedly the top 10 questions people ask. ‘Does he get the girl?’ ‘Does he ever patch up things with his father?’ ‘How is his relationship with his son?’ ‘Did he take the promotion in Sydney?’ ‘Does he still work at Splashdown?’ All of those we answered in the TV series. Now there’s kind of nothing left, short of them going somewhere else with the story. The reality is, we wanted to – and we do – imagine Kenny as being real, and if someone walked up to him and said ‘Do you want to be an actor now and present shows?’, we’re pretty sure he’d say, ‘Well, no, I’m a plumber.’ If that makes sense. ‘Do you want to host a show? We’re going to follow you again.’ He’d go, ‘Well, why? You’ve done that? Now I’ve got people calling out to me on the streets and it’s making it hard’. When you think about Kenny the person, you should never expect to see him going further.

SM: It wouldn’t be true to the character you’ve established.

SJ: No. We thought out of respect for him, and the way we always made it work was we imagined him to be real. Not to be insane, but always, ‘Would Kenny do this?’ If ever he was asked to go to an event, ‘Would he do this?’ If they said, ‘We’re gonna follow you again,’ he’d say, ‘Look, I gotta get on with my life’, you know?

SM: I think that’s the reason why the character is so rich, and why people love him.

SJ: We think so. We did the TV series, and it was an opportunity for him. At the very start of the series, he’s taken into a boardroom where they’re pitching him the idea for the show. And he is flabbergasted. ‘Who me? Jesus!’ He couldn’t believe it either. He loved it because he got a chance to travel the world and see the world, and it’s a chance he never thought he’d get. So that’s kind of how we went ‘Kenny would do this; it’s an all-paid trip around the world to meet interesting people that work in the world’. He was taken on a holiday to look at the world of sanitation and meet amazing people. He enjoyed that, but beyond that, we think he’d say no.

Santa’s Apprentice arrives in Australian cinemas November 10.

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