With his performances in High Fidelity and School Of Rock and his role as half of the acoustic metal duo Tenacious D, Jack Black rose to fame embodying the part of the imaginary rock star, a closeted extrovert whose path to success runs through the narrow valley between wish fulfillment and self-delusion. But Bernie Tiede, the East Texas mortician he plays in Richard Linklater’s Bernie, is after a more modest form of recognition. An apparently bottomless font of altruism, Bernie cares for the bereaved as well as the dead, ministering to grieving widows and lending his mellifluous tenor to funeral hymns. But Bernie—a real figure; the movie is co-written by journalist Skip Hollandsworth, who chronicled Tiede’s story in Texas Monthly—meets his match in a selfish, short-tempered widow played by Shirley MacLaine, whose malignant spirit finally exhausts his goodwill with tragic results. Black’s performance edges toward comedy as he embodies Bernie’s more extreme mannerisms, but he reins in his customary bigfoot style, with rich and nuanced results. When The A.V. Club met Black in a New York hotel room, he was jet-lagged from a transatlantic flight and suffering from a cold, apologetically offering an elbow-bump instead of a handshake. But he toughed it out to talk about his “fumbly-bumbly” acting style, Mr. Show’s musicals, why aspiring actors should just do it themselves, and the soon-to-return Tenacious D.
The A.V. Club: You’ve never played a real person before.
Jack Black: That’s true. I mean, I played characters that are loosely based on someone, sure, but this one was just straight up, this is the guy and this is his actual name and this could actually conceivably have some ramifications. That’s a different kind of pressure than I felt before.
AVC: Is there a responsibility that goes along with that?
JB: Yeah, you feel that. It’s in the back of your head while you’re acting. You’re thinking, “Oh God, is he going to watch this? What’s he going to think?” And you close your eyes and just imagine him and what you’ve seen of him and think, “How would he do this scene? What would he look like?”
AVC: That can be limiting in some respects. The movie is largely on Bernie’s side, but you need a certain amount of distance.
JB: It is mostly on his side, but it doesn’t absolve him of all blame, and it’s definitely like, no, he did something wrong and he deserves to go to prison because that’s just a crime. But the question is to what degree? Is he a monster that planned it out in advance? We’re proposing that, no, he was sort of the definition of temporary insanity. Because of this sort of poisoned relationship he had with her, he lost his mind and did this thing, and he’s not actually a monster that would come out of prison and do it again.
AVC: The opportunity seems unlikely to arise.
JB: But you’re right. It’s not so clear-cut as you would have with most movies where it’s like, here’s the good guy, Erin Brockovich, and here’s the bad guy, the corporation. So it’s not as easy to cheer and root, but maybe it’s good that it’s more difficult.
AVC: Shirley MacLaine is a great actress and formidable presence, and she also comes out of a very different era of moviemaking. What was it like to work with her?
JB: Well, her legend is intimidating when you first meet her. You want to genuflect and just praise her for her body of work, and it was good that she was so sweet to me. She was able to melt my fears with her kindness. She was just very complimentary of my stuff and laughing at my stupid jokes and making me feel like I was worthy to share the screen with her, and so we were able to just have fun when the cameras rolled. We very quickly fell into our parts, I felt. We never talked about it, but I felt like I was Bernie to her Marjorie and that I wanted to make her comfortable, attend to her every need on the set, make sure that everything went smoothly, that she was happy at all times, which probably went okay with her.
AVC: She does seem like someone who doesn’t brook a lot of inconvenience.
JB: She doesn’t waste a minute for bullshit. She’ll tell you what she thinks. Also, I was kind of blown away with her approach to the acting. The craft is just—none of that shit. No craft. No talking about Meisner or Stanislavski or any of that. She just did it. You roll camera, and she’s just old-school and—Brat Pack, Frat Pack? Which pack was it?
AVC: The Rat Pack. The original pack.
JB: I was going Brat and Frat. I couldn’t remember the Rat. Where it’s just meat and potatoes, one take. “We got it, didn’t we? What’s the matter, guys?” And she brings it. She’s got an energy about her; she can work a room. That translated to camera, too. She knows how to drop a line like a bomb and get the big laugh because she’s got that kind of skill.
AVC: That’s something that is still a big part of your life as well, actually working and being onstage in front of much larger crowds often.
JB: But my style is very sort of fumbly-bumbly. I don’t have that kind of sharp, “And timing is… boom!” I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. But I thought we had a good thing going there.
AVC: The volume is way down on this performance.
JB: A little bit.
AVC: Was it difficult or nerve-wracking not to be able to rely on that broad comic set of tools?
JB: No, it wasn’t nerve-wracking. It felt comfortable. I was just focusing on the script, and whatever felt right at the time. It’s a little easier when you’ve got an accent and a persona to build around. It was freeing. It felt good.
AVC: He has that nice soft Louisiana accent.
JB: It was definitely helpful to be able to focus on that kind of thing. I really worked hard on that. The thing I wanted to make sure of, and I hope that we got it, was that there was enough of a build-up to see his arc toward snapping. I was worried that we weren’t going to have enough of him feeling caged in and boxed in to the point where he lost the plot.
AVC: There’s a lot you have to infer. One of the details that’s in Skip Hollandsworth’s original article is that when the police searched Bernie’s house, they found videotapes of several Carthage men engaged in “illicit acts.” The movie certainly implies that Bernie might be gay, but when you add the strain of being closeted in a small East Texas town, it takes you another step toward explaining his actions.
JB: This would have been great stuff to include. On the one hand, there’s some gray areas, and it can be a little frustrating when things aren’t spelled out for you, but on the other hand, that’s what makes it cool is not having it all laid out. It makes it a little harder.
AVC: Going way back to the beginning of your career, you appeared on a handful of Mr. Show sketches in the mid-’90s, including “The Joke: The Musical.” Even then, long before High Fidelity, you made a lasting impression. You and Sarah Silverman both.
JB: Did you see her in that little thing I did, “Jeepers Creepers Semi-Star”? She’s in the background, and then the rock bounces off my head and then bounces off of her head and she collapses. That was all just an improv accident. That’s the genius of Silverman.
AVC: You were doing a lot of TV at the time. Did working on Mr. Show stand out for you?
JB: The other stuff was not meaningful. That was the only meaningful thing, yeah. That was huge for me. That was also my entry into television for Tenacious D. Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross] of Mr. Show gave us our big break and that preceded High Fidelity. That’s really how I got High Fidelity. John Cusack really liked the Tenacious D stuff, so I owe a huge credit to them. And that’s when I was finding my voice, because before that I did a lot of little things here and there, but I wasn’t catching any real breaks that would put me on the map.
AVC: Did you know that group already, or was it just a matter of them looking for someone who could sing? “We need someone for the role of the devil in a musical about a traveling salesman who gets his dick stuck in a hole.”
JB: I love musical-theater acting, so I fit right in. Mostly, it was getting to do stuff that I had a hand in writing—not those sketches, but with the Tenacious D stuff. That’s when I really started to find my voice, when I was just writing my own parts, sketches and songs. That’s when I started to find what worked and what didn’t work for me.
AVC: Were you already interested in writing, or was it out of necessity, because other people’s material wasn’t working for you?
JB: Well, before that, there was just a lot of me waiting around to be discovered, going on auditions and trying to make the material work. I was going to try to be that kind of guy they were looking for. It was a huge change of gears once I got Tenacious D going. That’s what I always recommend to people that are trying to get a career going: You’ve got to write your own stuff and you’ve got to enjoy it. See, that’s a dumb thing to say, though. You can’t decide to enjoy something. But you’ve got to keep on searching for the thing that feels right.
AVC: Maybe you can’t decide to enjoy it, but you can decide to go with what feels right rather than what might more immediately move you toward success.
JB: Sometimes I’ll run into people living in L.A. There’s a lot where it’s like, “I came here to L.A. because I just really wanted to make it, and my dream hasn’t worked yet, but someday my dream will come true.” And I’m like, “What do you mean? Your dream to write?” “Yeah.” I’m like, “Well, have you done any theater?” “No, only screenplays.” So I get the feeling quickly that your dream is not to write. Your dream is to be a famous writer. Your dream is coming true if you just take it down a few scales. Do something that does get produced. Do some theater. Then wouldn’t you finally be happy? They’re only finally happy if they’re huge and famous. The problem with that endeavor is that it’s based on something that’s like a mirage.
AVC: Writing is something that, as long as you have a laptop or a pen, no one can stop you from doing. So it turns out the goal is not to write, but to be read or to be produced, which is a different pursuit.
JB: I just remember the early days of Tenacious D. There was no talk or thought about doing a TV show or a movie. We were just doing it because we were fucking psyched about getting up in front of a crowd of 14 people at the coffeehouse. We got the crazy juju from that. We had adrenaline, and it felt like a huge, fiery hoop. Like, “This is it, man. This is where we’re going to finally make or break it.” We would go out there and play like we were playing to 100,000 people. And there was pure joy there. It had nothing to do with anything else. It was the joy of the thing.
AVC: Part of the underlying joke of Tenacious D is these two idiots who are delusional in their conviction that they’re going to make it, despite manifest evidence to the contrary.
JB: Well, now we’ve ruined that joke. Now we’ve played to thousands of people, and that part of the joke doesn’t really work anymore because they’re screaming and cheering.
AVC: You can’t just pretend that they’re not there.
JB: Right. Now we have to actually deliver the goods, but it’s fun on a different level.
AVC: Was that kind of a pretext or a shield in the beginning? Like, if you just got up onstage and played the songs, people might not respond, but they would if you did it in character?
JB: Early on, it was totally undefined. We didn’t put that frame up, that we’re two idiots. We didn’t think about it at all. We didn’t know why people were laughing, really. We just knew we were going to sing this week. We would go up with all these alt-comics on the scene in L.A., and there were themes to the shows back then. This week is going to be alien abduction, so we would write a song about alien abduction. And when we went up there, we just looked like two fat stoners. The joke was sort of built in, like, “What are these fuck-ups going to do?” And then it felt great. We didn’t really ever understand what it was that made it work, but we just did the best we could with our songs, and then people were laughing their asses off. It felt good. But we did slowly piece it together, and were like, “Oh, what’s funny about it is it’s aggressively stupid. It’s not just stupid. It’s like we’re going super stupid on purpose until it turns into something really funny.”
AVC: You’re two guys with acoustic guitars who are convinced that they sound like Black Sabbath.
JB: And we were playing for real. We were really trying to rock, and the people could really see us really arguing sometimes. We got mad at each other. That always helped.
AVC: And now it’s like with Flight Of The Conchords, where they can’t sustain the idea that they’re an unknown band with one devoted fan when they’re playing to 3,000 people who know all the words.
JB: Right. We’re trying to get a show together. I’ve always wanted to do a double-bill. Trying to get a big show together with Tenacious D and Flight Of The Conchords and Lonely Island. That would be…
AVC: Kind of insane.
JB: Actually a meeting of rock comedy minds.
AVC: There would be some freaking out involved.
JB: Yeah, it would be a mind-blowing event.