The new Black
He is best known for broad comedy and loud music, but his new film, an intelligent look at a real-life domestic murder case, shows an unexpectedly sensitive side to Jack Black, says James Mottram
It's the morning after the night before and Jack Black, flopped in an armchair in London's Soho Hotel, is still on a high. As any follower of the 43-year-old's high-tempo career knows, being a Hollywood movie-star is just his day job. At night, he's one half of rock-comedy duo Tenacious D – a band that's become almost as big as the hard rock acts they set out to ridicule. And yesterday evening, he and fellow band member Kyle Gass were completing their European tour at the Hammersmith Apollo.
Black is, consequently, a little frazzled. "Yeah, we don't get outta there until 1 o'clock, after the schmoozing," he says. "And then – ding-ding-ding – the adrenaline takes a while to wear off."
Isn't this a problem when you need to be up the next day? "When I'm on tour, you don't have to worry about it – you go to sleep when you get tired. And then you sleep until four in the afternoon. It's a great job in that way!" But when you have to do press the next morning? "Then you're shit out of luck!"
Still, it shows Black's dedication to Bernie, his latest film that's already won him a Golden Globe nomination this year. Far removed from the broad comic strokes that brought him fame in the likes of Nacho Libre and Shallow Hal, it's a true-life story – reuniting him with Richard Linklater, the director who gave Black one of his most beloved roles, as the music-digging teacher in 2003's School of Rock.
While that was written for Black, this is a project Linklater has worked on for 13 years. "This is his baby," he explains.
He and Linklater were originally working on a sequel to School of Rock – but couldn't get the script right. "We didn't want to do it, just for the sake of doing another movie that makes money." Instead, they turned to Bernie – a story based on a real-life "peculiar case" that took place in Texas in 1996. Black plays Bernie Tiede, a fun-loving funeral director and pillar of the community who befriends lonely widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine). In return, she treats him appallingly – until, one day, he snaps and shoots her dead.
This is just the first act of an increasingly strange story, as Bernie tries to cover up the crime. Believing that Tiede was simply a sweet man without a release for his emotions, Black met his real-life counterpart, now serving a life-sentence in a Texas prison.
What did they discuss?
"We didn't talk about the actual murder. We talked about the relationship that he had with her. I just wanted to ask him the question which I knew the audience would be asking: 'Why didn't you just leave if the relationship was so bad? Why didn't you just get out of there?'"
As the story shows, Tiede's devout Christian beliefs go some way to explaining why he preferred to turn the other cheek than turn on his heels. For Black, this meant learning gospel choir singing (one of Bernie's hobbies).
"We worked on sifting through a lot of different gospel jams," he says. While he recorded the songs beforehand, Black insisted on singing on set during the shoot.
"It was important to me that I sang it live. It's a pet peeve of mine when people lip synch to stuff on camera – I can always tell."
Cue an interesting exchange about musicians that mime on stage to their records; does that appall him? "I'm not appalled. It doesn't surprise me. When they're dancing around that much, how could they keep their wind to do their singing? With the Madonna mike – that thing! I'd be appalled if it was like 'Oh my God – Jack White. Why is he lip-synching?' But that's not going to happen. I'm not going to the kind of concerts where people will do that."
There's also little chance of that at a Tenacious D gig either. With their third album, the Grammy-nominated Rize of the Fenix becoming last year's highest-selling comedy record, it's almost 20 years since Black and Gass formed the band.
They'd first met back in 1989, when Black was hanging around an LA-based theatre troupe, the Actor's Gang, led by Tim Robbins (who later cast Black in his three directorial efforts, Bob Roberts, Dead Man Walking and Cradle Will Rock).
While Black spent most of the 1990s toiling away unnoticed in films like The Cable Guy and Mars Attacks!, his time with Gass – who taught Black how to play guitar – was well spent.
By 1999, they had their own HBO show, which led to their self-titled 2001 debut album and a second disc five years later, The Pick of Destiny (along with a tie-in movie, which flopped).
Black clearly still gets off on playing the rock star – particularly live. "It's a lot more satisfying to go out and rock a crowd than it is to rock some emotions onto a camera lens!"
He even gets to entertain his two young boys, Samuel (6) and Thomas (4).
"They like the rock," he smiles. "I play them the kids' version. We have a clean version of the album – the family-friendly Tenacious D album. And they love it! It's nice. I don't play it for them all the time – but sometimes they ask for it!"
Music does run in his family – his wife of seven years, Tanya Haden, is the daughter of jazz double bassist Charlie Haden, and her two sisters – she's a triplet – Petra and Rachel play violin and bass, respectively.
Raised in Hermosa Beach, California, by two satellite communications engineers who divorced when Black was 10, he first met Haden a few years later at Crossroads, a performing arts school they attended.
They would only reunite 15 years on, at a friend's birthday party. And in the interim? "I stalked her in the interim!" he laughs, explaining how she and her sisters would perform concerts around town. "I would go see them play and sing their beautiful harmonies. And I would talk to her a little bit."
When he talks about Haden and his boys, the schoolboy smirk and the bluff comic persona drop away and a sweeter side emerges.
Not that we're likely to see much of this on screen; only Linklater has used it to good effect. But Black still has a hankering to stretch beyond comedy. "I actually prefer character work when I can get inside the skin of another person with a whole different persona, with a different walk and talk and taste in music, all of that. That's all great stuff for me."
Right now, he's being tapped up to play a blogger feuding with a Hollywood director in Frank or Francis, the new film from Being John Malkovich visionary Charlie Kaufman. "It is the most brilliant, original look at the Hollywood industry and the sickness that is celebrity, and how it's intermingled with the Internet," says Black. Early reports are that the script is struggling to find a financier – typical of the play-it-safe environment the industry is currently in.
While Black would seem a safe bet – a go-to guy for the Hollywood studios, right up there with Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell – has he ever worried about it all grinding to a halt?
"I've never had a problem where I felt like 'Oh, now it's all over,'" he says.
"You just follow the muse. Follow what's going to be fun. If there's nothing interesting happening in the TV or film world, there's music to be made." Rock on, you might say.
Bernie opens on April 26
CRACKER JACK THE BEST OF BLACK
HIGH FIDELITY (2000)
Playing Barry, the Chicago record store snob in Stephen Frears' transatlantic Nick Hornby adaptation, Black's breakthrough left an indelible mark — as loud and proud as his entrance to Katrina and the Waves' Walking on Sunshine.
THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003)
His first major hit — to the tune of $131m — Black showed just how likeable he could be as a wannabe rocker who winds up teaching at a prep school, getting his pupils to ditch maths and Latin, form a band and “stick it to the man”
KING KONG (2005)
Black was perfect as Carl Denham, the showman/ explorer who captures the giant ape on Skull Island in Peter Jackson's remake. Luckily, he didn't have to go into a real jungle, Black admitting he's scared of snakes. “They're like scary, powerful, erect penises with teeth.”
TROPIC THUNDER (2008)
In Ben Stiller's merciless Hollywood comedy, Black went all out as the bleached-blonde Jeff Portnoy — an Eddie Murphy-like comic (think flatulence and cross-dressing) whose past hits include ‘The Fatties' and ‘Fart Club'.
KUNG FU PANDA (2008)
The first of DreamWorks' popular animations about a clumsy, obese panda named Po (voiced by Black) who learns martial arts. This, and its 2011 sequel, together took $1.3 bn at the box office. A third part is set for 2015.
Day & Night