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How Meeting a Murderer Helped Jack Black Have Fun Again

Earning acclaim and awards buzz for his lead role in "Bernie," the actor/rocker has found a new enthusiasm for his career -- oh, and wants to save rock 'n' roll, too.

Jack Black - Bernie - P 2012

 Jack Black is back where he belongs.

A rocker-comedian-actor who splits time between the cult humor world and mainstream Hollywood, Black became a star in 2000 with his supporting role as a snooty record store clerk alongside John Cusack in High Fidelity. It launched him to A-list status, and earned him the lead in a series of gems as well, including his turn in 2005's King Kong and a Golden Globe-nominated role as a man-child guitarist in 2003's School of Rock. The 43-year-old's box office results have not been as strong the past few years; aside from his voice acting in the hit Kung Fu Panda series, he's suffered a string of tepidly received films in Year One, Gulliver's Travels, and The Big Year.

Those were all big studio films, and perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. This year, he's receiving some of the best reviews of his career for his work with School director Richard Linklater on Bernie. The film -- about a Texas funeral director who befriends then murders a curmudgeonly, rich old woman -- was a decidedly indie affair, with a $6 million budget. Ultimately, working on a shoestring was the best thing Black could have done.

Film Review: 'Bernie'

"I want to do more indie movies," Black told The Hollywood Reporter at, fittingly, the Gotham Independent Film Awards, where the film was nominated for best feature. "I had more fun making this movie than I had the last five movies before that. And I think it comes from not having enough money to sit around picking our noses. We had to act all the time. And the waiting in the trailer, that’s not good for actors. That’s just time to get nervous and get inside your own head. You don’t want to have time to think about it like that. You do your homework at home. When you get to the set, you just start acting right away.

Black had plenty of homework, but in this case, not all of it was done at home. The film is based on a real case from Carthage, Texas, where the most beloved man in town, Bernie Tiede, shot to death local banker and grouch Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine). Tiede was beloved for his charity work and devotion to the church and had befriended Nugent when her husband died; the rest of the town wanted nothing to do with her. Black plays Tiede with a sympathetic touch, portraying him as ultimately, despite the crime, a very nice guy.

VIDEO: 'Bernie' Trailer

"That’s what we were aiming for," he explained. "It’s the question: Can you murder someone but actually be a really nice guy? And we think that the answer is yes, that sometimes a really sweet person can have a moment of insanity, and that’s what we think it was: temporary insanity."

Black visited Tiede in prison, where his views on the character were cemented.

"He was too nice. He was so sweet and nice that I think that’s what was his fatal flaw," he explained, "that when in an abusive relationship, he couldn’t just say, 'F--- you,' or, 'Yeah, I’m leaving.' He stayed and he took it and he took it and the resentment built up until he exploded."

Still, Tiede benefited from Nugent's friendship; she took him on trips around the world and ultimately employed him, and he was the beneficiary of her estate. That led to speculation that he had planned on taking her life the entire time -- something the actor rejects.

"He did get a lot out of it, and he did enjoy the adventures that they had together. And so did she," Black explained. "They traveled the world together, and they were best friends, but after a few years it turned poisonous, the relationship went sour. He used her money to give to other people. But he didn’t keep any of it for himself, and that’s part of why I believe that it was not premeditated."

In Black's other life, he is the lead singer of the comedy band Tenacious D ("The Greatest Band on Earth," as they bill themselves) and is known for his love of hard rock and metal. He recently told Vanity Fair that he fears rock is dead, though he was a bit more optimistic on Monday.

"Well, you know, all it takes is one great band" to save rock, he offered. "There’s still hope. There’s still great bands out there. I was just listening to the new Soundgarden album, which is amazing, King Animal. There’s great bands out there, like Arcade Fire -- love them, they’re like a hope for a new generation. It’s just in general, there’s no giants. Like back in the day, when you had Zeppelin and you had a ton of great bands like that. Those days seem to be over, but you never know. You never know what’s going to happen to change things. We just need someone, or a band, that’s so good that they change music."

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin