Interview: Jack Black on new film Bernie

Jack Black stars in Bernie. Picture: Getty
Jack Black stars in Bernie. Picture: Getty
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JACK Black can rest easy – he has finally made it. Earlier this month, the star of King Kong and High Fidelity was the subject of a Friars Club Roast, that strange Hollywood tradition where celebrity friends gather together to rip one of their own to shreds.

It is a great honour – and Black recognised the occasion by dropping his trousers on the red carpet. “I forgot to pack a belt,” he quipped.

With the likes of Debbie Harry and Kiss’ Gene Simmons in attendance – proof that Black has respect in the rock world too – the actor stood by as others paid ‘tribute’.

“Jack is so fat, his last movie was shot by Google Earth,” jibed Sarah Silverman, his co-star from 2003 hit movie The School of Rock, in one of the less X-rated comments of the night. Even Shirley MacLaine, co-star of his new film Bernie, sent a video message. “It was extra-ordinary to go to work and watch you do that stuff all day,” she said. “It makes up for Kung Fu Panda and Gulliver’s Travels and Mars Attacks!”


You could even add prehistoric comedy Year One and birdwatching tale The Big Year to that list. But then Black has never been one to let a flop get him down. He rarely stops working, regularly slotting internet skits, TV guest spots and shorts inbetween movies. “That’s just to keep it bubbling, keep it fresh,” he says. “I think a trap you can fall into when you get a certain amount of success is, ‘Now I’ll just sit and wait for the perfect thing to come along’. And you can sit around waiting for something perfect for years. I think it’s important to keep working, keep the joints oiled.”

When we meet, Black has been doing just that – albeit via his parallel career, as a rock musician. The night before, at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, Black and his long-time friend Kyle Gass – or Tenacious D as they’re known – played their only UK gig of the year, to support their third album Rize of the Fenix. “It was a great show, a great audience, a great end to the tour,” he says.

It’s late morning and Black is fighting to stay awake. He’s not used to doing interviews the day after a gig. Wearing a navy T-shirt, grey slacks and trainers, he’s swigging from a water bottle. Not very rock’n’roll – but then it’s too early for alcohol and he doesn’t drink coffee, he tells me. “It gives me the jitters, and I feel like it prunes my stomach – it does something strange to my innards.” His voice is treacle-slow, lingering on certain words – “innards” in this case – with relish.

It’s bizarre to look at the 43 year-old Black – heavy gut, unkempt beard, dopey brown eyes, double chin – and think that last night thousands were rocking out to him. Even he’s still bamboozled by it, some 19 years on from Tenacious D’s formation.

“It is an odd feeling, but it’s a great feeling,” he says. “It’s exhilarating.” It was their 1999 eponymous HBO television show that gave him and Gass a platform to kickstart their cult following, lampooning the pomposity of hard rock with songs like Tribute and Wonderboy.

Supporting bands such as Wheezer and Pearl Jam, Tenacious D’s celebrity fanbase also grew rapidly – notably Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. “He’s the guy that championed us early on. He saw us, before we even had a TV show, at the Viper Room in LA back in the day. He came backstage before the show – which is a weird thing to do. He came back and said, ‘Hey guys, I’m Dave Grohl, I’m going to be watching tonight. Have a good show.’ And then he left and we went, ‘F***! Don’t do that!’ Then we had a good show, luckily.”

The ex-Nirvana star has played drums on all three of their albums – including 2001’s self-titled debut and 2006’s The Pick of Destiny, which accompanied the release of Black’s long-gestating Tenacious D movie. A comic odyssey charting the formation of the band, the film flopped – taking just $13 million (£8.5m) around the world. Typically, they parodied their own failure in the video for ‘To Be the Best’, a track from Rize of the Fenix, in which Gass is committed to an institution and Black – aka Hollywood Jack – spends his time “buying mansions, meditating with monks and doing lots of drugs”.

Their six-year hiatus clearly worked – with the Grammy-nominated Rize of the Fenix becoming the highest-selling comedy record of last year, selling 113,000 copies in the US alone. “We have to take a break in between albums,” says Black. “Just for a year or two to recharge the batteries and get some other experiences under our belt to build up material.” So, you’re nothing like Hollywood Jack – buying up mansions, meditating with monks and snorting huge piles of cocaine? “I don’t party like that,” he grins. “No. Maybe a little. One of those three.”

In truth, Black has had his time off the rails. Raised in Hermosa Beach, California, by two satellite communications engineers, they divorced when Black was ten and he moved in with his father in Culver City. When he turned 13, the same year he made his first screen appearance in a commercial for a video game, he got into drugs – glue-sniffing, cocaine, LSD. “I had some problems when I was a kid,” he admits. “I did some drugs and hung out with some rough kids. I had a phase for sure.”

One acid trip was so bad all he could see were chess pieces floating in his head. His parents, naturally concerned, enrolled him in Poseidon School, a private institution for students struggling in the traditional education system. Only one of 20 pupils, Black spent the next year and a half in therapy. “I definitely needed more attention, I think, than most kids,” he shrugs. “I think I was pretty annoying.”

He did, at least, make it out alive – studying drama at Santa Monica performing arts school Crossroads, where he would meet his wife Tanya Haden long before they got together. He later entered the University of California, Los Angeles, though dropped out in his second year to forge a career in the entertainment business. By this point, he’d met follow actor Tim Robbins. “My stepfather drove me around to some auditions, and I auditioned for Tim, and he put me in his play. I was in it for three weeks of a six-week run, and I quit halfway through because I got bored.”

Still, Robbins persisted, casting him in his 1992 political satire Bob Roberts – one of Black’s first screen roles. Using him again three years later, as Sean Penn’s redneck brother in Dead Man Walking, a third appearance came in Robbins’ 1999 film Cradle Will Rock. By then, with Tenacious D underway, Black was on the verge of a major breakthrough; his forthcoming role as the record shop music snob in Stephen Frears’ Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity would draw him rave reviews (the Washington Post called him “a bundle of verbally ferocious energy”).

Music has always informed his best films. In Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock, he was the substitute teacher who encourages his class to enter a ‘battle of the bands’ competition. And now, reuniting with Linklater a decade on, we have Bernie. Black’s finest work in ages, he was nominated for Best Actor in the comedy/musical category at this year’s Golden Globes (just as he was for The School of Rock) – though he was beaten by the hot favourite Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables.

Inspired by a true-life article that first appeared in a 1998 edition of Texas Monthly, Black plays Bernie Tiede, a funeral director with a love of gospel choir singing. Beloved by everyone in the town, he even befriends wealthy widow Marjorie (MacLaine). Lonely and sour, Marjorie treats his kindness with cruelty until, one day, in a moment of madness, he shoots her dead. Bernie then tries to cover up the crime, pretending Marjorie is still alive but too unwell to make public appearances.

“He didn’t have a release valve,” says Black. “When you get mistreated or abused, a lot of people will speak out and say ‘Hey, man, don’t do this to me.’ Instead, he just turned the other cheek and was very sweet, and the resentment slowly built up over time until he exploded.”

What follows is even stranger – as the local townsfolk showed unanimous support for Bernie at his murder trial. A story Linklater has been working on for almost a decade, it afforded Black the chance to meet the real Bernie, currently serving a life sentence at Telford Unit State Prison in Texas.

“I went over there to get his blessing. We could’ve shot it – he’s a public figure, we didn’t need his permission, but I wanted it. I’m like Bernie. I want everyone to like me. I don’t like the idea of some dude in prison going ‘F***ing Jack Black, he’s going to tell the wrong story, it’s not fair.’ Though I’m not afraid of him coming to get me – I don’t think he’s a threat to society. I think he’s genuinely a sweet guy who snapped. I don’t believe there’s any premeditation there.”

Destined to be filed alongside films like Margot at the Wedding – in which Black starred as a slacker set to marry Jennifer Jason Leigh – it’s proof he can play more than the fool in Hollywood. He’s currently attached to Michael Winterbottom’s Bailout, a story about a man who has to turn to dealing pot to keep his family afloat. He’s also set for Frank or Francis, the new film by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) about a feud between a movie blogger and a Hollywood director. “We’re trying to get the money together, which is a challenge because it’s very artistic,” he explains.

Not that he’s too worried about killing time; Black has two young boys with his wife, with whom he got properly reacquainted at a friend’s birthday party some 15 years after they first met at Crossroads. Haden, an accomplished cellist, is the daughter of jazz double bassist Charlie Haden; a triplet, her two sisters are violinist and singer, Petra Haden, and bass player, Rachel Haden.

In the intervening decade and a half, Black would occasionally see all three perform concerts. “They would sing these beautiful Carter Family old bluegrass songs,” he says.

After proposing at Christmas in 2005, they married three months later – by which point Haden was six months pregnant with their first son, Samuel Jason. Their second boy, Thomas David, was born almost two years later, in May 2008. So how has he found fatherhood, now his boys are aged six and four respectively. “It’s very satisfying but it’s also work. The boys are a handful. Getting them to school can be a challenge. But the joys of watching them grow and learn are very satisfying. They make me laugh more than I make them laugh. I try to make them laugh, but they just kill me.”

Black says his boys “kind of know” what he does for a living – and they particularly like his music (he plays them the family-friendly version). They even went to see the first few songs of a Tenacious D gig 
recently. “They were a little blown away I think,” he smiles.

Whether he’ll continue this way remains to be seen; while the Spinal Tap musicians have proved rock pastiche works at any age, Black’s brand of manic, physical comedy may be harder to pass off when he’s older. Yet when I ask if he can foresee himself still doing what he does in 30 years’ time, he nods enthusiastically.

“I have a passion for entertaining. I love to put on a show. As long as I love putting on a show, I think I could continue doing it.”

Twitter: @JamesMottram

• Bernie opens on Friday; see The Week for Siobhan Synnot’s review