'Bernie' Star Jack Black Says He's a 'Clown' Who Also Wants to Be Taken Seriously (Video)

After I first saw Richard Linklater's indie dramedy Bernie back in May, I tweeted my impression that star Jack Black -- who portrays Bernie Tiede, a real man who was the pillar of a small East Texas community before being convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison -- had given a performance worthy of a best actor Oscar nomination.

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Within seconds, I was pilloried by others who thought the idea ridiculous. They hadn't yet seen Bernie, of course, but they had seen much of the rest of the Black oeuvre -- from High Fidelity (2000) to School of Rock (2003) to Nacho Libre (2006) to Kung Fu Panda (2008), as well as his alter-ego, an absurdist rock star in the band Tenacious D -- and simply couldn't fathom the idea that the lovable goofball might actually be capable of, well, acting.

But, after a half-year, one more viewing of Bernie, and screenings of a lot of other 2012 films featuring supposedly awards-caliber performances from "actors' actors," I stand by my statement. Black deserves to be in this Oscar discussion, and, thanks to the proactive efforts of Millennium Entertainment, the small distributor handling Bernie, he is. (Millennium made sure that Bernie was the first awards screener sent to journalists, that it will be among the first received by voters, and that it is already screening for the groups that will determine the first awards of the season.)

In fact, it was a screening for the National Board of Review that brought Black into New York last week, making it possible for us to spend some time together. I moderated a Q&A with him and Linklater at the Apple Store in SoHo on Monday night, and then met up with him again on Tuesday morning for a more in-depth chat about his life, career, and awards prospects. (Video of our full conversation appears at the top of this post.)

Jack Black was born Thomas Jacob Black in August 1969 to two satellite engineers who lived in Hermosa Beach, California. An animated kid, he first discovered an appropriate outlet for his energy and exuberance at the age of eight. "The first time I felt the fever, the magnetic pull towards acting," he deadpans, "was at Passover seder." His famiy had gone to celebrate the Jewish holiday at the home of some friends, and, after dinner, the hostess encouraged everyone to play "Freeze," a physical, improvisational acting game. Black recalls, "I couldn't stand being in the audience; I had to be on the living room stage."

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Throughout his adolescence, he discovered a love and passion for all sorts of artistic avenues, including playing musical instruments and singing. But, in high school, he focused his attention on acting. Interestingly, he reveals, "I wasn't always 'a comedy guy.' I was doing some straight theater, some drama," including a part in a high school production of The Miracle Worker that stands out in his memory. "It wasn't until later that I realized, 'I'm a clown,' and had to make peace with my own clowniness."

After high school, Black headed off to study at UCLA. While there, he joined the Actors' Gang Theatre, a not-for-profit theater troupe that was run by his classmate Tim Robbins, whom Black regarded as a "godlike figure." He left in the middle of his sophomore year, but not before laying the groundwork for his two-trajectory career that would follow: Robbins would later offer Black his first film role in Robbin's directorial debut, Bob Roberts (1992); and Black and fellow Actors' Gang member Kyle Gass, with whom he had "formed a bond, a powerful friendship, an alliance," would later create Tenacious D.

For a decade after Bob Roberts, though, Black struggled mightily. It "wasn't really the launching pad that I had hoped for," he cracks, in that it "led to 10 years of scrounging and not getting any other good parts," with the exception of a few others in the Robbins-directed films Dead Man Walking (1995) and Cradle Will Rock (1999). Mostly, he just went on a lot of auditions and popped up briefly on TV shows. It was only "through writing comedy sketches and songs with Kyle," he says, "that I really found who I was and what I was good at."

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Black says he "loves rock" and "to rock," and spent most of his life "dying to find a way to get up in front of an audience and rock them." He had tried to form bands and perform during high school, but found that people weren't interested; in fact, at parties, he was like a "repellent." With Gass, however, he found his way in: "First we tried to write some serious songs," he recalls, "and then we figured out that they key for us was humor. If we could combine the rock with comedy, that's where our magic was. And we wrote 'Tribute," [aka] "The Greatest Song in the World,' and that was what launched us." They were soon discovered by David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, who had inroads at HBO and were planning the sketch-comedy show Mr. Show with Bob and David, and "we kinda caught that wave."

As his career in music began to take off, one might assume that Black put acting on the backburner, but he emphasizes that was never the case. "There was never a time when I thought, 'I'm only going to do music' or 'I'm only going to do acting' exclusively. There was never a reason to do that. There was always time for both. Really, I wouldn't have had an acting career without my music, or vice-versa. I needed both of them to make my mark." (Indeed, a love for, knowledge about, and/or facility with music would be a central trait of many film characters that he would later play.)

Eventually, a major film opportunity presented itself, and he made the most of it. John Cusack, another friend from The Actors' Gang, contacted him about a supporting part in High Fidelity (2000), a Nick Hornby book that he and several others had adapted into a screenplay that was to be directed by Stephen Frears and star Cusack. Black said yes, and his performance as Barry, an obnoxious record store clerk who turns out to have a gifted voice, "was the part that got me on the map," he says. "After that I didn't have to take head-shots to my auditions anymore." In fact, he was suddenly famous and recognized on the street by strangers.

The movie that would shoot him to super-stardom, however, was still three years away: The School of Rock (2003). Writer-actor Mike White, whom Black knew from their collaboration on the film Orange County (2002), had penned School of Rock specifically for Black, and, at the suggestion of producer Scott Rudin, noted indie filmmaker Richard Linklater was brought in to direct it. Black worried, at first, that it might be stepping on his "Tenacious D world," but couldn't deny that it was a magnificent script, and gave it his all. For his efforts as a rock-loving substitute teacher who changes his students' lives in the most unexpected of ways, he received a Golden Globe nomination for best actor (musical or comedy).

Black candidly says that the movie turned him "from being famous to super-famous," and in so doing presented him with career options of the sort that he had never had before. He laughs, "Suddenly I was able to go, 'Uh, I kinda feel like making a sci-fi Western,' and then it would suddenly happen, you know? This weird strange magical power that you have when you have a huge hit under your belt." For him, the two biggest projects that came about as a result of of School of Rock were Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005), in which he played a film director whom he modeled after Jackson, and Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (2006), which he readily admits was a critical and commercial "bellyflop," but was nonetheless "a milestone for me personally because I had written and created the thing, and it felt good."

Black is often grouped with "The Frat Pack" of actors who made their name in late 20th and early 21st century comedies. But, in recent years, he has demonstrated an increasing desire to take on serious -- or, at least, meatier, character-driven -- parts. "It's something that I'd like to do more of," he says. "I had a blast getting into the character of Bernie, as well as Nacho Libre [the character he played in a film of the same name in 2006]. I like getting into a different person's skin, and getting into accent work, and just real character stuff. I see myself doing more of that in the future." He knows that many moviegoers struggle to think of him as a straight actor, but he believes, "If you're doing something that really excites you, the audience will follow. Yeah, people get used to seeing you in a certain way, but you can shake loose of that."

Bernie reunited Black and Linklater nine years after School of Rock. Interestingly, Linklater had been working in it even before School of Rock, but only mentioned it to Black three years ago. The actor says that "Rick Linklater is my favorite director to work with" precisely because of this sort of "a unique patience" and willingness to put in whatever amount of work is required to get a project right. "He's an incredible artist, and it's a rare thing to find those kinds of directors. And I'm hoping that he's got some secret project that he's thinking of me for when I'm 50 so we'll work together in 2020."

Before commencing work on the film, Black and Linklater, at Black's request, visited Tiede in state prison. "It was little intimidating," Black says, "going into the maximum-security prison, to say the least. There were some rough customers wandering around the halls." However, "I thought it was important that we go and meet him, not only to get his blessing, but also to pick up some clues on how to play him. I had a ton of videotape to research, but seeing him in person made a huge difference, just seeing how he walks and talks, and to ask him a few questions about what his relationship was like with Marjorie Nugent [the woman he murdered, played in the film by Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine]. It was extremely helpful."

Both Black and Linklater came away from that visit with strong feelings about Tiede and his case. In short, they, like his neighbors, couldn't help but like the man immensely -- "How could the most liked man in this small Texas town be capable of this horrible murder? That's what it's all about," Black says -- and feel that he had not received a fair shake from the legal system. "He definitely deserved to do some time; he did murder someone. But, you know, not all murders are created equal. There's people that get out of prison in less time than he's done for real premeditated murder where there's a possibility that they would do it again. I don't think that there's any possibility that he would do it again, and there was no premeditation, and he didn't get a fair trial. So I guess what we're pushing for is that he just gets the fair trial that he never had."

As for the experience of making the film, Black says that it was a unique honor to work alongside the legendary MacLaine. "From the first time we met I was intimidated by Shirley because I'm such a huge fan of her work," he confesses. However, he established a routine that endeared himself to the feisty 78-year-old: "On the set, when we would be getting ready to do our scenes, we were both kind of in-character the whole time. I was sort of taking care of her every need; in a way, I became her man-servant, a little bit, if you will. The art imitated life, in a way." By the end of the production, he says she paid him the highest of compliments: "She said, 'Hey, I've worked with three great Jacks: Jack Lemmon [on The Apartment (1960)], Jack Nicholson [on Terms of Endearment (1983)], and Jack Black." (Black says he was grinning for days about that until she added to the list a fourth Jack, her manager Jack Gilardi, which, he jokes, sort of diluted the praise.)

Black has been a part of some of the most commercially successful films of the past decade, including five that have made over $100 million domestically, but he says that he is particularly proud of his association with Bernie, which has made $9.2 million (a small number by comparison, but a great deal for an indie film that cost just $6 million to make), received favorable reviews from 92% of the critics whose reviews are aggregated by RottenTomatoes.com (the New York Times review described it as "gaudily vibrant, at times morbidly funny"), and brought him personally the best notices of his career (Roger Ebert says his is "surely one of the performances of the year").

He reflects, "What has it meant, the success of the film and the buzz? It's been a great source of pride for me. It feels good to be a part of something special. And hopefully what it means is that I'll be able to do more of the same, because I love making little indie features with people like Rick, where you go out there on a shoestring budget and make a little magic for a few weeks. It's very gratifying."