There's no need to go into the history of Jack Black. Those who are fans of the writer, producer, singer and actor already know it; and those that aren't don't care. But for most, their first memorable exposure with Black came in one of three places: the Tenacious D shorts that aired on HBO beginning in the late 1990s, his wonderful take as Barry in HIGH FIDELITY, or in Richard Linklater's surprisingly great THE SCHOOL OF ROCK, which propelled Black into the mainstream, for better or worse. Sure Black did dozen of supporting and even a couple leading roles before SCHOOL OF ROCK, but after that borderline family film, your mom probably knew who he was.
Like many funny actors with the ability to make something out of the dramatic parts they are occasionally thrown, Black's career has been hit and miss over the years. But between works like Peter Jackson's KING KONG, NACHO LIBRE, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, BE KIND REWIND, TROPIC THUNDER, and I'll even throw in the first KUNG FU PANDA movie, Black has amassed an extremely successful career.
The best news for fans of Black is that he has re-teamed with Linklater to make one of the darkest and funniest comedies in recent memory, and it's miles away from the tone of THE SCHOOL OF ROCK. The film is called BERNIE, and Jack Black isn't telling jokes or acting wacky or screaming and making faces. The man is doing some of the best acting of his career playing the real-life Bernie Tiede, a Texas mortician who also has a habit of looking in on recent elderly widows to make sure they're doing alright. One of the widows in question is played by Shirley MacLaine, who takes Bernie on as a constant companion/slave. The film is as charming as it is deviant.
There's no way I could have gotten to all of questions I would have liked to ask Black in the short time we had together at the SXSW Film Festival recently, so I decided to stick to what was new (including his recent Tenacious D album with Kyle Gass "Rise of the Fenix," which I got an advance copy of the day before our interview and came out this week) and a little about his upcoming film FRANK OR FRANCIS, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. And of course, there's lots about BERNIE. I will warn you that although the film's biggest spoiler is contained in its trailer, there are technically spoilers in this interview. Just warning you…
Please enjoy my all-too-short chat with Jack Black…
Capone: Hi, how are you?
Jack Black: It’s nice to finally meet you.
Capone: I just watched the film last night. It’s phenomenal.
JB: Thanks, man.
Capone: The opening is particularly good where you’re teaching the class on preparing a body for a funeral. How long did you actually have to practice that procedure and all of its nuances?
JB: Well I mean we practiced. We rehearsed. Rick likes to rehearse and I like to also. He’s like the only director I’ve worked with that rehearses a movie like a play. The main trick was getting all of the lines. Some people have a photographic memory with their lines; I’m not one of those people. That’s a big long monologue with a lot of twists and turns, and it’s extra hard when there’s technical jargon, and he’s talking to a group of students, so he’s throwing some fancy words around willy nilly. So once I got that backwards and forwards I felt good.
Capone I’ve got to imagine that the opportunity to work with someone like Shirley MacLaine doesn’t come along all that often in a lifetime for any actor. What did you kind of pick up from her that you hadn’t experienced before or hadn’t considered before?
JB: Just to question. To ask and to get to understand who your character is on your own, not to just say, “Oh, the director knows what it’s going to be. Just do whatever they tell you to do.” You have to understand it and you have to own it in a way emotionally to make it your own, and that’s her deal. She is very inquisitive and thorough in her research. I respected that.
Capone: I like that you are sinking your teeth into a character that isn’t necessarily going for laughs. When you read the script, what was it about Bernie that you just said, “Yeah, I can work with that and I can build on that.”
JB: What was it that I picked up on? There’s something about the incongruity of this guy who is the most loved guy in the town that could commit this horrible crime that was just really fascinating. The irony of him as a person is that he’s the biggest humanitarian and yet he’s the only person that has committed a murder in Carthage for years and years. He’s a walking conundrum and that was what was interesting.
There was a darkness there that I hadn’t really explored before. It was a challenge in that way. I liked doing East Texas dialect. That was fun. There were a lot of attractive things, but I was scared when I first read it. There were a lot of reasons I didn’t want to do it, mainly just because it was so dark and it was real; this is a real guy. When you’re messing with someone’s real life story, someone has a real personal stake in how the story is told. So I was nervous about it, but because of my enthusiasm for Rick Linklater as a director, I got over my fears.
Capone: A lot of actors I have talked to have actually said that fear is a huge component in why they choose a role, because they want to challenge themselves constantly and say “I don’t know if I can do that, therefore I will try to do it.” Is that something you do frequently?
JB: I think it’s important to really examine your fears for why you turn down roles, because a lot of good stuff can slip by if you say no for the wrong reasons.
Capone: Another aspect to Bernie that I thought might attract you--a gentleman who often sings of Satan--was that you got to perform all of these gospel songs. How was that for you?
JB: Yeah. It was cool. It was a great time. I had a great time singing those songs. Those songs are so passionate, man. They're from the same core. Those Satan songs are all basically Christian songs. You don’t have Devil songs without Christianity. But the gospel tunes are really soulful and fun to sing. I'd never really listened to any of that music before and listening to the songs, learning them, and getting ready to perform them, I was into it. I saw the appeal.
Capone: I don’t know if there’s a soundtrack out for this, but it’s almost “The Jack Black Spirituals Album.”
JB: There really should be. It’s a crime if they don’t put out a record. I’ve got to get on that and say, “What’s happening?”
Capone: Then you’ll have two records coming out. At the end of the film, they obviously show that brief bit of footage of you and Bernie together when you talked to him in prison. What was that experience like?
JB: It was surreal., going to the maximum-security prison. I had never been to one before, and it was intimidating. The guards are real serious. They don’t care if you’re from Hollywood, and going in there there are signs up on the wall saying basically if you mess around or do anything wrong, you're going to be in serious trouble. So you’re on edge going in. You’re like, “Okay, don’t do anything wrong.”
And also you’re really close to real harsh criminals. There are a lot of murderers all around you and you feel a real sense of… I mean you’re safe, because there’s guards too, but you don’t really safe. You feel like, “I want to get out of here.” And then you see Bernie. He’s over there just standing there soft and sweet and gentle, and it’s so weird to see him in that environment. He definitely doesn’t fit there. It’s like, “How did you get here? What’s wrong with this picture?” It confirmed a lot of our feelings about who he was.
Capone: There’s a line in the film about how Bernie casts a spell over the town. How do you play a guy that has that ability? Like what do you add to someone’s personality? It’s more than just being a nice guy; it’s like a mass hypnosis almost.
JB: Well that’s the way that [Matthew McConaughey's] character described it. Other people would describe it as he’s just a lovable guy, and he’s genuinely thoughtful and caring. That’s the way I choose to see him. He had to cast him in that light as this evil hypnotist of this town. You’ve got to try to tap into the charisma, but that’s just something that you have to manate I guess, but he had it. I watched videos of him conducting services and talking to congregations, and he was a great storyteller and a great performer.
Capone: The first note I wrote down in my notebook, about 20 minutes into the movie, was “Corky St. Clair” [Christopher Guest's character in WAITING FOR GUFFMAN] and I’m sure I’m not the first one to bring that up, because there is an essence of him in the, partly due to the veiled homosexuality and having that theatrical leaning. Did that cross your mind at any point? And having all of those interviews was also very much in the Christopher Guest style.
JB: Right, there is a little bit of Corky in there, definitely. Yeah, a mixture of documentary and narrative storytelling, yeah.
JB: They were kind of the Greek chorus of the piece.
Capone: And I love that a lot of them are real towns people, right?
JB: A lot of them were Carthage residents that knew Bernie and loved him.
Capone: Switching gears here: I don’t know if this was by accident or on purpose, but a day or two ago, shortly after I confirmed this interview, I got a link from Sony Music with the new Tenacious D album and I listened to it, and I have all of the other ones, and I’ve seen you guys play before. Oh my god, it’s so good.
JB: Thanks, man!
Capone: I especially like the last song, “39,” because you are channeling Neil Diamond in a big way there. It feels like it. Was that on purpose?
JB: I mean there’s a lot of Bob Seger. There’s definitely Neil Diamond. There’s also a little Tom Waits. It’s “The Gravel.” I employed my gravel voice a lot on the album.
Capone: But you haven’t done that really before on an album.
JB: Well, it was time. It’s our golden years as Tenacious D. We are entering a new phase. We are Gandalf The White. We're older, but we’re wiser, and it was time for the gravel. Songs just felt better and sounded better with the gravel.
Capone: One of the best memories I have of going to any concert was when you were in Chicago shooting HIGH FIDELITY, and Tenacious D played a show at House of Blues, and you had the whole cast there, Stephen Frears was there. I had seen the shows on HBO, the one time they aired, so I went to this, and it was remarkable that everybody knew every word to every song. I had never experienced anything like that before in a show for a band that didn’t have a record out.
JB: Oh yeah, that was great. That was a special show. We had just wrapped or were right in the middle of shooting HIGH FIDELITY and we went and did that. That was a crazy show. I remember that, yeah.
Capone: I know you’re doing FRANK OR FRANCIS with Charlie Kaufman. How close to that is shooting?
JB: That’s next up on the docket.
Capone: I’ve seen that script, and it’s great.
JB: It’s the most incredible script I’ve ever read.
Capone: Yeah, I have a copy of it on my laptop. And you get to sing, it’s a musical on top of it. Have you heard anything about how that’s going to go down?
JB: No. I haven’t heard any of the music. I’ve just read the script a few times and marvel at its honesty. No one has ever made a movie about Hollywood that’s so raw and honest and also so weird at the same time. It’s so surreal. It’s what you would expect with Charlie Kaufman going directly at the heart of our entertainment-focused society.
Capone: From the Hollywood standpoint and the blogger standpoint.
JB: I’m not going to talk too much about it, because of spoiler alerts, but it’s awesome.
Capone: And you might make a movie with Michael Winterbottom too [BAILOUT]. He’s one of my favorite directors.
JB: That’s also on the docket to do. It’s on my to-do list.
Capone: Is that first? Do you know yet?
JB: I’m not sure which one is going first. They both want to go around the same time, and I have to figure out what’s happening. But he's one of my favorite directors. 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE is still so great.
Capone: Cool. It was great to meet you. Thank you so much.
JB: Great to meet you, too.
Capone: Are you going to go on the road with the album?
JB: We are going to tour, yes.
Capone: That’s cool. That’s awesome. I’ll be there.
JB: We’ll be coming back to Chicago in a couple months at the Aragon.
Capone: Really? That’s cool. That’s not far from where I live.
JB: Yeah, with Urge Overkill and The Sights, another kick-ass band.