Jack Black is a goof – at least when you watch him on screen: from “High Fidelity” to “School Of Rock” to “Kung Fu Panda” to “Tropic Thunder,” Black exudes a manic, febrile energy that is irresistibly funny, if not charming, even when he’s being mean or maybe a little bit obnoxious. But off camera, Black isn’t the kind of performer who seems to feel the need to maintain that silly sensibility, and he’s in fact quite mellow. All of which is why his turn in the new film “Bernie” is a such a refreshing and unique change of pace for Black; pitched at a tone between his level-11 comedy and off screen quietude, he delivers a fascinating, sympathetic performance as a genteel Texas funeral director who unexpectedly murders the wealthy widow he befriends after performing services for her late husband. Black scores a home run in the role, lending subtlety and real humanity to character whose odd combination of characteristics – all of which are evidently real – could have come off as cartoonish.
Following a successful screening of “Bernie” at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival last week, The Playlist sat down with Black to discuss the demands of the role. In addition to talking about the responsibility he felt to the real Bernie, he examined his process as an actor, and offered an update on the long-gestating sequel to “School of Rock.”
First, what initially inspired you to take this role on, and then what sort of responsibility did you feel to both portraying Bernie accurately and telling the best story?
When you’re playing a character who’s a real person who’s living, you definitely want to get their blessing – you want to get their permission in a way, because they’ve got a lot riding on it. There’s a lot on the line for them, and you want to assure them that it’s not a smear campaign, but it’s as honest a retelling of the facts of the story as possible. And it just so happens that this is a very strange and original and unusual tale. But the pressure I felt was that this guy is in prison, and he’s definitely at the mercy of our storytelling. So I wanted to let him know that we were being straight up.
How tough was it to find all of the personality details that suggested he could be capable of killing someone, and yet isn’t a sense that he’s mean-spirited or malicious?
Well, that’s the dance. You try to be respectful, and you try to be accurate. You try to be funny, but you try to keep it real. It’s just a delicate balance and you’re constantly questioning how it’s coming off, and trying to make subtle adjustments. But I guess it just comes down to the preparation and the questions you ask when you’re rehearsing it, and that’s why I was confident that we would get to some place good – because Rick is so thorough in his rehearsal process that I don’t know any other directors that work like he does. He rehearses it like a play, and I was able to talk to him a lot about every aspect, every question I had about him.
How do you choose roles in your career now? It seems like you could do bigger stuff, but you’ve made a choice to do smaller or more serious films like this one.
I just want to make things that I want to see myself, and this had a lot of appeal to me because it was something that I hadn’t done before. I hadn’t really explored the darker sides before so much, and I do love that kind of thing when I watch film or television. So I was excited for the challenge. But how do I choose my things? I just go with what turns me on – if I read a script and go, “Wow – that was a great, enjoyable read,” it’s easy, the decision is easy, and not real difficult. But more important than the script, even, is the director; I really felt strong about working with Rick again, because he’s got good vision. And you can take a great script, and if you don’t have a good director on board, it’s a piece of garbage.
Is it worth taking a script that might not be that good because there is a good director attached to it?
No, both are important. But if I had to choose, what was more, I would go with a director, with no script. I’d take a director with vision, because it’s a visual art form.
How intuitive is the process of developing a character for you? "Bernie" obviously had more contextual information, but do you generally let it happen as a process of discovery on set, or do a lot of work beforehand?
The work is mostly about relating emotionally to the material. And if you read it the first time and say, “What? I don’t understand this. I can’t play this – I’m not like that at all. I would never do something like that,” and getting to a place where you’re like, "Okay, well, if this and that happened, and this and that were different in my life, I could imagine doing the things that this character does." And once you get to a place where you resonate with the character you’re playing, then you’re on to something good. That’s what all of the work is geared towards. The rest of it, like the accents and the behavior, that stuff is important too, but the emotional reality is really what’s at the heart of things.
How much did this reunion for you and Richard inspire discussions about maybe getting “School Of Rock 2” off the ground?
Before Bernie we were trying to figure out “School of Rock 2” and how it could work and what the script would have to be, and I would only want to do it if all of the original players are on board again. Because it was my best movie, and I wouldn’t want to make a sequel unless it had a shot of being as good or better than the first one. And we were unable to crack the code and get to a place where everybody was happy and everyone was ready to go. So we just, I don’t know – I haven’t given up, and I’m hoping that we can find it. But in the meantime, Rick was like, “Hey, I’ve got this other thing that I love that I want to do right now,” and I said “Let’s do it.”
You called “School of Rock” your best movie. How and when do you determine that for yourself – after making it? Seeing the end result? Seeing how audiences respond to it?
When I see it. When we’re done with it, and I feel like I’ve given as much as I can to a role. That was all of my best sort of qualities – I used all of my top-shelf tricks because of my passion and feelings about the subject matter. I love to rock, and I guess when I saw it, I just felt like, “Oh, good!” Because usually when I see stuff that I like, I’m like “Oh, fuck! I wish I would have done that better. I could have done that better – why didn’t I?” There’s a lot of regret. But there’s a few films I see like “School of Rock” and “High Fidelity” where I’m like, no, that’s how I wanted it, and I’m very pleased with the way that turned out.