With Jack Black's new film, Bernie, directed by Richard Linklater, about to open, Culture Web looks back at Stephen Applebaum's encounter with the great man during his UK press duties for his first Linklater collaboration, School of Rock (2003). On the day, Black was in candid form, willing to discuss everything from films and music, to drugs, relationships, and his parents' divorce. We salute you, sir!
The critical success of Shool of Rock must feel good after Shallow Hal. That was your first lead role and the film wasn't terribly well received.
“Well, you know, it wasn’t as funny as I hoped it would be. But it was still a good experience.”
Do you mean playing the romantic lead?
“Yeah, it was something I had never done. It was something I joked about doing. It was a joke with my agent. I said, ‘Yeah, tell all the studios I’m ready for my romantic lead opposite Gwyneth Paltrow,’ and we were laughing about it. Then the offer came in and I said, ‘What?’ But it was good to try to carry it. I had always been the comic relief or the small supporting character role, so that was cool. It was cool just to look at the Call Sheet and my name’s up at the top. The top banana. The responsibility, it felt like an accomplishment when I finished it. It did alright. Financially, it made all its money back and stuff, and then some. But it wasn’t really me. The character wasn’t right for me. But that’s alright.”
Did you worry that if School of Rock didn’t work, it could reflect badly on Tenacious D?
“Yeah, sure. That’s what made the movie more frightening than other movies, in that I felt a responsibility to the rock; that the rock had to be good and legit. I know a lot of musicians and if it wasn’t a good representation of the rock, then I would be held accountable. Then, obviously, it could damage the ‘D’. But we’ve had a really good ride. The ‘D’ has already exceeded our expectations. We were just fucking around, writing funny songs, performing and having a really good time. We always thought, you know, making the album was the pinnacle for Tenacious D. But now we’re going to make a fucking movie! So was I worried that it would destroy the ‘D’? Yeah, that was a consideration. I thought about that a little bit. But, ultimately, it came down to a good friend of mine [Mike White] had written a very funny script, and it had to do with rock. But you know what? It isn’t just the ‘D’ that is rock; I like rock. It’s similar because, you know, they’re both based on me. So there’s room for both.”
One of the things I like about the film is the fact that after people blaming Marilyn Manson for Columbine, or, say, blaming Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Suicide Solution’ for inspiring teenage suicides, the film showed rock having a positive impact on these kids. Was that an attractive message for you?
“I didn’t even think about that. I think it’s just cool showing a teacher who is a little bit insane. But it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching, if you love what you’re teaching you’re going to be a good teacher. The passion and the intensity were things I thought would be fun to play.”
That intensity and passion also comes across in the montage of rockers expressing themselves in their own way. Like them, you have succeeded by being yourself. Has that been difficult? Have people ever tried to mould you into something else?
“I wouldn’t have any career if I was trying to do what I thought was the hip thing. Because even if I was, you know, in tip-top physical condition, with all the latest hair products and shit, I still wouldn’t look as handsome, or fucking whatever, as the studs they got marching around in Hollywood. So I don’t even think about that. I’m just trying to do my own thing.”
What do you think of that kind of actor?
“I think it’s mostly squinters. It’s the acting school of squinting. And the reason you squint is because you’re thinking about something deep and heavy. You’ve got a very complex inner soul and life, but you’re also a really macho and powerful man. You’re willing to kill, and make the proper sacrifice. It’s just a bunch of fucking macho bullshit.”
What were your school days like?
“I was not a good student when it came to anything besides the arts. I excelled when it came to singing and acting and drawing and painting, but math and Spanish and English, and all the rest, I didn’t have the discipline. I would fall asleep. I couldn’t stay awake.”
I read that you were like that at U.C.L.A. So you were also like that at school?
“Yeah, I had trouble. Obviously I buckled down and forced it to work. To get into U.C.L.A. I had to make a maximum effort. But it never felt right. It felt like hell. People would say, ‘Enjoy these years, man. Because these are the best years of your life. Trust me, I know. Because I’m out here in the real world where it’s hell.’ And you know what? If that was true, I would have killed myself. It couldn’t have been worse. I hated school.”
What was so bad about it for you? Was it the lessons, the environment, other kids?
“I guess it was just sort of being forced to study things that I had no interest in and just wasn’t good at. I kept falling behind, and I had to work like three times as hard to keep up. All I wanted to do was play, and I just felt like it was getting in the way of my play. That was where my passion was. And, ultimately, that is what acting is. You find a way. That’s a way to play for a living.”
So are you still a kid at heart?
“Yeah, I found my way to stay a kid. Acting, it’s the best job in the world. I’m so spoiled.”
At what age did you stop growing up?
“Um, 19. You can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain. Do you know that song? It’s Neil Young. You can’t be 20 . . . [Sings in an almost falsetto tone].”
Your first acting job was an Atari commercial. How old were you?
You did one for Smurfberry Crunch cereal and then gave up acting. Why?
“Yeah, it destroyed my career. With Smurfberry Crunch I lost all my indie cred with the kids on the playground. It just wasn’t fun. I was going to all those auditions and I couldn’t take the rejection. It was bumming me out. And going on all those auditions was getting in the way of my play. So, yeah, I quit that and just focused on the school plays. It wasn’t until after I got out of college that I started going on auditions again.”
So after U.C.L.A.?
Where did your passion for the arts come from? Your parents were satellite engineers, weren’t they?
“Yeah, they both worked for TRW. There’s no entertainment people in my family. But it came from a Passover dinner. I’m a Jew, my mother’s name was Cohen, my father’s name’s Black, and we went to at a friend’s house, and after the dinner she said, ‘Let’s play the Freeze game’. I was like 11 or something and I said, ‘What’s that?’ It’s an improvisational game where two people will be doing a scene, like, ‘Man, it sure is weird being on this log,’ and then anyone in the audience can say ‘freeze,’ and then you go up and tap one of the people on the shoulder, you take their body position that they were in, and then you go ‘Woof! Woof! I’m a dog,’ or whatever. I was immediately addicted because I loved the attention, and the play. It was fun to play.”
You had five half-brothers and sisters, didn’t you?
“No, I had three and then I had four. Now I have three again. One of them died.”
So was that why you wanted the attention, because of your siblings?
“No, no. My parents already gave me attention but it wasn’t enough. I don’t know why, I just wanted extra love. I wanted to be loved, luvvie-loved.”
Did they encourage your artistic interests?
“Yes, they always came to my plays. They were very supportive.”
When did you discover that you had the ability to make people laugh?
“Well, I thought I was good at it from the beginning. From the Freeze game. It was one of those things where from a kid I thought I was the best and the fastest and the strongest at everything. I thought I might have been the fastest runner in the world until I went to my first track meet and came in dead last. I thought I might be, you know, all of those things. But one by one my illusions were shattered. But the arts, I kept the dream alive that I could be really good at it.”
How do you categorise yourself? Actor? Comedian? Musician?
“Just entertainer in the old-fashioned sense of the word. In the old days, you know, if you were in showbusiness, you didn’t just know how to act; you knew how to dance and sing, and do pratfalls, and play instruments. That was the only way you could survive, because it’s too competitive to hang your hat on just acting. So I cast a wide net. Plus I had interest in all those things. I had fun doing them. And If I had fun I was going to pursue it.”
Does comedy or dramatic acting come more naturally to you?
“Comedy. I like some drama, too. But not straight-up Plough in the Stars-type angst ridden drama. My drama has to have some comedy in there. There has to be something funny. But I also like drawing and painting. It‘s just that I get bored. Even with the thing I love, acting, if it was just acting I would start to hate it. So it‘s good to change gears, switch over to do some music, do some album artwork, do some other stuff.”
Chris Farley was a big hero of yours. What did he mean to you?
“He just made me laugh and he seemed like a force of nature with his attack at those comedy scenes. I remember my favourite actor in college was John Malkovich, because I saw a production on videotape of True West, this Sam Shepard play, and he was so kick-ass funny and great in it, and funny and scary, and intense and real, and I wanted to be like him. Then I saw him on Saturday Night Live, many years later, and he was doing his character from Of Mice and Men. He was touching the rabbits and being semi brain damaged, and Chris Farley was in the scene with him, too, and he was doing the same character that he was with the rabbit, so there was two Lennys. Then it was revealed that Disney had decided that he was such a popular character in Of Mice and Men, that they’d decided to make two of them, because that would be more popular. Market research showed it would be a bigger hit if there’s two Lennys. I remember how fucking funny Chris Farley was next to him, and I thought, 'Okay, Chris Farley’s not really a straight-up actor, he’s more of a comedian than an actor, but seeing him next to John Malkovich and just going toe-to-toe, you wanted to watch him more than Malkovich in the scene.' I thought there was a real fucking talent to that. It’s a subtle difference when you’re focusing just on what’s going to make people laugh. It’s not the same as acting where the main thing is being real and believable, and I respected it and I wanted to do it. I wanted to have that, too.”
When I interviewed Rob Schneider, he said that Farley hated himself when he looked in the mirror each each morning, yet he was one of the funniest men you could meet. A lot of comedians seem to be troubled. Do you think a lot of humour comes out of a troubled life?
“I don’t know. But yeah, if you’re in comedy, or you’re in acting, really there’s got to be a black hole in there that needs to be filled, because you want the love and you’re doing it to get it, for the most part. I think most actors are. Why, I don’t know.”
Do you recognise that in yourself?
“Sure. Yeah, mine might have started when my parents divorced. They divorced when I was 10. I think everybody’s parents get divorced nowadays, so it’s nothing unusual. But there’s something about the divorce where even if both the parents still love you, the fact that they hate each other and can’t live with each other, makes you feel there’s something wrong with you. That’s two sides of you that don’t like each other, so you don’t like yourself in a weird way because of that, I think. I was thinking about it recently, and that might have something to do with it. Yeah.”
What happened to you when you were a teenager, because suddenly went off the rails and, I believe, dabbled with cocaine?
“Yeah, I was doing some cocaine. I was hanging out with some weird people, I was kind of looking for a father figure. Even though my dad was always around, I just didn’t want him as my dad anymore. I wanted somebody else to be my dad. I don’t know why. I wanted to be tough. I wanted to be cool and tough, and on the streets with fucking gang kids. Yeah, I got in some trouble. I stole money from my mom to get cocaine, got caught, and had fucking horrible feelings of guilt. My parents pulled me out of the school I was in and put me in this little school for, like, troubled youth. It’s like a reform school situation, where there’s, like, a bodybuilding therapist on campus. It’s only like 20 kids in the school and this real strong therapist. So if you were going to try fight him, he could wrestle you down, force you to have therapy and stuff. But I remember I was there and I had some therapy with him. I wanted to. You didn’t have to have therapy but I saw him talking to kids in there and I was, like, ‘I want to talk in there.’ I didn’t even know what I was going to talk about but I was like, ‘Yeah, I want therapy.’ I went in there and talked to him, and like within two minutes I had told him about stealing from my mom, and I just started crying. I had this huge dam breaking release of emotion, and it felt really good. It was like confession. Because, you know, I never had that. It felt good to release the grease.”
How long were you there for?
“I was there for two years, for ninth and tenth grade. I then went to another school, a private school for arts and sciences called Crossroads. It was kind of a prep school. I kind of buckled down and tried to force some productivity for school.”
Did you see the divorce coming?
“Yeah, they were fucking fighting all the time. Really horrible, screaming, physical fights. It was scary and weird so it was good they divorced. But it’s never pretty, it’s never good. It’s always fucked up.”
Did it affect your attitude to marriage?
“Yes, it definitely tweaked my sense of permanent companionship. I just don’t want to do it [he has since married] unless I’m positive that it’s forever. Otherwise there might be a divorce, and I don’t want to deal with that fucking shit.”
What kind of impact would you say that School of Rock has had on your celebrity? Has there been a noticeable change?
“Yeah, it’s had an effect. It’s just nice when people say, ‘Hey, you’re the rock guy,’ as opposed to, ‘Hey, Shallow Hal.’ A lot of people say, ‘Hey, Hallow Shall,’ I don’t know why. A lot of people mix that up.”
Is it all positive, the impact?
“No, the drag is you lose some privacy and you can’t really go to the supermarket without stopping. It should just take 10 minutes but it takes an hour because people want to talk to you about Gwyneth Paltrow, or talk about ‘Oh my God, you know what would be so great? If you could give an autograph to blah blah blah.’ You end up trying to be invisible, and you keep stopping, and you start getting angry.”
So next up is the Tenacious D movie.
Have you cast it?
“No, we wrote the first draft and now we’re working on the second draft and the songs.”
Is that one of the positive effects of having a hit, that you can now do this project?
“That’s the good thing, man. You do one, it makes money, then you can do one that doesn’t.”
Copyright © Stephen Applebaum, 2003, 2013
Bernie opens April 26