Jack Black may be known best for his comedic roles in such films as “School of Rock,” “Nacho Libre” and “Tropic Thunder,” but he sheds all stereotypes with his current dark comedy “Bernie.”
Black reunites with “School of Rock” Director Richard Linklater in the real-life story of Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director in the tiny, rural town of Carthage, Texas, who was one of the town’s most beloved residents.
So much so, that the townspeople rallied in his favor after he murdered the town grump, Marjorie Nugent played by Shirley MacLaine. Matthew McConaughey plays the town’s blustery District Attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, who was determined to get to the bottom of the crime.
Black and Linklater spoke exclusively with TheImproperabout making the documentary-style film, and working with the real “cast of characters” in Bernie’s bizarre story.
The Improper: Richard, did you write “Bernie” with Jack in mind for the lead role?
Linklater: No, I didn’t know Jack when I first wrote the script way back when. I first worked with Jack in ‘02 or ‘03, and it was probably in the few years after that I started thinking that Jack could be Bernie. But he was still a little young then. He sort of aged into it.
There’s always a lot of pressure when you’re playing someone who’s real and alive because they can see it and judge it.
— Jack Black
But I always thought Jack would be great once I thought of it. Jack’s a really great actor, and there’s an element of Jack’s personality in which he is nonconfrontational, he wants to be liked. I said, ‘Well that’s Bernie.”’ He just wants everybody to be happy, he’s repressed. Jack is the opposite of that, but opposites sort of attract. He understands his polar opposite.
IM: Jack, what made you want to take on the role of Bernie?
Black: It spoke to me. When I read the script, I could hear his voice, and I saw a way to play it in an interesting way. I thought the story itself is compelling. You’ve got this guy who is the most loved guy in the town that is the least likely to commit a murder. It’s just very compelling. And then add to that, he puts the body in a freezer for nine months. There are so many question marks that make it interesting.
IM: Describe your working relationship with one another.
Black: We had some collaboration in the rehearsal process. While we were making the movie, I would voice concerns about certain elements. Like I’d say, ‘Are you sure we’re building it enough so that it seems like he’s going to kill her? Is she mean enough? Maybe we should add a scene where she’s being more oppressive…’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, it’s fine.’ But he had written the script for years before I came on board. I wasn’t involved in that part.
Linklater: We’re just friends and collaborators. Same with any actor you work with that second time. You kind of trust them. You trust one another; you’re friendly; you have fun. Jack was really pushed to his limit on ‘School of Rock.’ He felt that was the hardest he had ever worked up to that time. I felt it was the easiest movie I had ever made because I had all this time and support. ‘Bernie’ drove me crazy, and Jack felt it was the easiest one he had made.IM: You both got to meet with the real Bernie Tiede in prison before making the film. How would you describe that experience?
Linklater: Jack and I met with Bernie really to get some kind of okay from him. We sort of wanted his blessing, to a large extent. We didn’t legally have to, but I think spiritually.
Black: It was a relief to see that he was in fact a sweetheart. It reinforced our theory of what he would be like, and it was very surreal. It was very strange, I had never been in a maximum security prison; that was pretty intimidating. There were lots of hardened criminals in there doing hard time for hard crime. And then there was Bernie, who’s just this big, sweet, soft gentle mammoth of a man. He didn’t really fit in with the general population in there, to say the least. It was good just to connect with him and listen to his accent and his behavior, and ask him a few things about his life.
We walked around the prison with him for a couple of hours. He showed us his workshop. They gave us a lot of leeway because of the ‘Hollywood Jack’ aspect of the situation. We got to go to his cell and watched some of his friends, and then we got a room where we could just talk for about 45 minutes. Now he leads bible study, and I believe the prayer group and the choir.
IM: You keep referring to him as a ‘character.’ Do you consider him to be more of a role, or are you always reminding yourself that you’re portraying a real person?
Black: I was always aware that it was a real person. There’s always a lot of pressure when you’re playing someone who’s real and alive because they can see it and judge it. However, they’re not going to let us play the movie for him in prison, which I’m bummed about. I wanted Bernie to see it and see what he thought of it.
I also got to see a lot of videotapes of him because he was a public figure. There were great videos of him conducting ceremonies and being in front of a congregation singing songs. I studied those a lot just for the accent and the behavior.
IM: What is the most challenging aspect of playing a real person?
Jack and I met with Bernie really to get some kind of okay from him. We sort of wanted his blessing, to a large extent.
Black: Just the pressure and the fact that you want to get it right. If it was just a made-up part, I wouldn’t feel bad about acting like an ass sometimes. I don’t want it to be a smear in any way; I want it to be accurate.
IM: Did you find yourself method acting, or channeling Bernie when you were off camera?
Black: I’m not really that kind of actor… well, maybe a little bit. I don’t lose track of time or anything. You hear about some actors that sink so deep into their character, like, The real Jack Black disappeared…’ I’m not like that.
IM: We have a preconceived notion of Jack Black as this all-around funny guy. Was it a struggle to break away from that label?
Linklater: When you only know an actor through their roles you don’t really know them–particularly a younger actor. Maybe by the time they’re 70-years-old and they’ve done one hundred movies you might have a sense of them. But with a younger person, you’ve seen them in a certain type of thing and you’d be surprised how different they are and what range they could really have. I knew Jack could do this, it never crossed my mind that he couldn’t. Whether audiences would like it or not, I didn’t feel like he was too typecast. Jack’s a pretty intriguing guy, he’s got this rock ‘n roll career going; I think he can do anything.
Black: Maybe that is the real Jack Black, and all the other times I was forcing a big clown show. The real Jack Black is like Sean Penn, have you ever thought about that? (laughs)
IM: What about the moustache you sport in the film? That’s not the real Jack Black.
Black: That is my secret weapon. Whenever I bring out the ‘stache, my most powerful performances come to life. I don’t know if you saw ‘Nacho Libre;’ the ‘stache is like a superpower when I grow it.IM: What was it like to work with Shirley MacLaine?
Black: Shirley MacClaine is a hero of mine. I was always a huge fan of her performances going way back to The Apartment. It’s rare that someone can be that beautiful and that talented. Her performance was so good. There was no one hotter than her back in the day. She was hands down the most talented and hot–it’s a powerful combination. She’s like a Jack Nicholson level of awesomeness. She put me at ease early on. She would laugh at all my dumb jokes and make me feel like I was worthy.
Linklater: She’s funny. When asked what attracted her to the part she was like, ‘Well, I love the fact that after she’s dead, she’s still around. That’s how I’m going to be.’ She’s a force of nature. There’s really no one who’s had a career like hers. It’s totally unique.
IM: Did you find yourself trying extra hard to please her? Maybe trying to be funny…
Black: Definitely. We kind of fell into the roles of the movie. I became her Bernie to her Marjorie. I took care of her needs, made sure she was always comfortable and attended to. If she needed something cool to drink… if she needed a hand I helped her move from here to there. I never actually gave her a foot massage or anything, it never went that far. A little hint of that relationship was happening. (laughs)
IM: Jack, would you say that your role as a dad has factored in your decisions about which roles to take on? Do you think, ‘How are the kids going to feel when they see it?’
Black: No, not really. I know a lot of people do, but I actually would have done these movies whether or not I had kids. I wanted to do ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ just for fun, and for me. And obviously, ‘Bernie’ I did not do for my kids. They can see ‘The Muppets,’ but not necessarily. I don’t really want them to see me in anything, kids movies, or adult movies. It’s too much of a head trip to see your dad all big up on the screen. Then the next thing you know, they’ll want acting classes.
IM: What’s your next project?
Black: My Tenacious D album is released next month, and we go on the world tour. We’re going to do all of the United States and then Europe.
IM: What’s going on with the ‘School of Rock’ sequel?
Black: I would love to do a ‘School of Rock’ sequel. We’re just trying to figure it out. We never came together and saw eye-to-eye on what that story would be. But never say never. At this point I think it would have to be about how rock is dead. And then it’s Dewey’s job to bring rock back to life somehow.
IM: Do you have any films lined up?
Black: I’ve got a couple in development. I’m really hoping to get started on the Charlie Kaufman movie right after the Tenacious D tour. It’s called ‘Frank and Francis.’