'He's smart enough and funny enough for parents to not be sitting there catching up on their emails,' the actor says of his villain, Kai.

By C. Molly Smith
Updated January 26, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: John Shearer/Invision/AP

After winning an Oscar last year for his role as a tyrannical drum coach named Fletcher in Whiplash, J.K. Simmons is playing another raging beast — a soul-snatching spirit named Kai (seen in the photo below) in Kung Fu Panda 3.

The film, out Jan. 29 and directed by Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh Nelson, sees Po (Jack Black) reunite with long-lost father Li (Bryan Cranston) and face off with Simmons’ supernatural big bad.

Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Monkey (Jackie Chan) are back, with Kate Hudson tagging on as a panda (and ribbon-dancing aficionado) called Mei Mei.

Below, Simmons, 61, tells EW about his attraction to the series and its new villain and balancing terror and laughs, and he picks the more frightening force, Fletcher or Kai.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to the Kung Fu Panda series?

J.K. SIMMONS: When my agent sent me the offer my only question was, “Is it the same creative team that made the first two films?” My whole family is big fans of the first two, so I was happy to jump on board.

Why is Kai a role you wanted to play?

He’s smart enough and funny enough for parents to not be sitting there catching up on their emails. There are great life lessons. One of my favorite lines ever is in this movie, where the mentor, Master Shifu, says to the student, “If you only do what you can do, you will never be more than you are now.”

Kai is touted as the supreme villain of the series. How did you prevent making him too terrifying?

I think adding the humorous aspect of Kai. He was the new bad guy, and he was supposed to be scary, but [the filmmakers] don’t want people carrying their screaming 5-year-olds out of the theater.

[He makes a] big, triumphant return [after] having been banished to the spirit realm, kind of assuming the entire world had been living in fear, but really nobody knows who he is — we had fun with that dichotomy.

You’ve done your share of voice work. How did Kung Fu Panda 3 compare?

I’ve been your yellow M&M for, oh, at least two decades or so, and I’ve done a lot of other animated stuff in between. This was great. Once I knew that this was going to be the same team that made the first two films, I was completely confident I was in good hands.

RELATED VIDEO: Kung Fu Panda 3 trailer

You won an Oscar for playing another fearsome figure, Fletcher, in Whiplash. Who’s more intimidating, him or Kai?

Well, Fletcher doesn’t kill anybody or steal anybody’s soul, so with the swinging ax blades, I think Kai is a little scarier.

I wouldn’t want to run into either of them.

That’s true too. Fletcher has the advantage of R-rated dialogue that, of course, Kai doesn’t have.

Speaking of Oscars, what are your memories of this time last year?

I’ve been acting for 40 years or so — 20 years in the theater and then 20 years in film and TV — so it’s not like it was my first rodeo. But in a way, it was all brand-new. That level of attention and getting the Oscar — the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — there was a really nice cherry on top of that sundae.

Kung Fu Panda 3

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 95 minutes
  • Alessandro Carloni
  • Jennifer Yuh