Interview: Jack Black (Bernie)


[From Mar. 9th to 17th, Flixist will bring you live coverage from deep in the heart of Texas at South by Southwest Film 2012. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]

As fun as it was to talk to Matthew McConaughey and Richard Linklater, the “real” draw with the Bernie roundtables was Jack Black. Say what you will about his films or penchant in playing the same character type, the guy’s charismatic and has an infectious personality. Read on to discover Black’s newfound interest in gospel, the pressures of playing a real person, and what it’s like bringing his kids to film premieres. Also, if you haven’t yet, read my review for Bernie.

You gave [Shirley MacLaine] a foot massage and that’s more intimate than a love scene, according to Pulp Fiction rules.

Jack Black: Is that Pulp Fiction, they say a foot massage is more intimate than intercourse?

They get angry about it.

JB: And I didn’t just rub the feet. I also buffed and shined them. You saw, it was a full-on pedicure.

Did you spend any time with the funeral director to get some of those techniques down pat?

JB: I talked to a mortician, but I was not allowed to go in to see the corpses as I wanted to. There’s rules against it, but then I heard later than Lindsay Lohan was doing work with corpses and I was like, “How did she get around it?” She’s just a pretty lady, I guess. I don’t know.

That’s what she got for her drunken driving. Part of her service was working with…

JB: Is that it? Right. Well, okay, I didn’t have that deal.

You were great in this movie. You were fantastic. You seemed to really embrace Bernie, and Richard was talking about you meeting Bernie. You want to talk a little bit about his character?

JB: It was something I had never done before. The script as a whole, obviously, has a dark theme and it’s funny, but it’s very dramatic and very… There’s a lot of pressure playing a character who’s based on a real person, and someone who’s got a lot on the line, you know, they’re in prison and you’re going to tell their story and there’s a hope… “I hope this doesn’t make me look bad.” So you’ve got that in the back of your mind the whole time, you want to do justice to the guy’s story. And it’s a tricky spot to be in when you want to be funny, but this is a person’s life you’re playing with. So it’s a little dance you do with respect, but it was amazing to go and meet him in the prison, in the maximum security prison. It’s just intense going to a prison. I’ve never been to one before, and the five security checkpoints, you get scared. You’re going in like, “I don’t know if I’m ever going to come out of this place.” There’s some rough characters in there. There’s some serious dudes in there with lots of face tattoos and lots of heavy stories around every corner, you’re like, “Wow. There’s like a hundred movies in there waiting to be made.” And then you see Bernie, and it’s so incongruous because all of a sudden, there’s this sweet angel of light. He’s just a gentle giant in there. It’s like, “What are you doing in here?” It’s like, “Yeah, you had one bad day.” That’s really what it comes down to. That was Rick’s feeling about the whole feeling, and he had personal… He’d been obsessed with the story since he went to the trial, he read a little story about it, and then he went to the trial because he was so curious about it. Every since then, he’s felt like this guy was not a monster. The fact that he was the most loved guy in the town was a real reflection of who he was as a person, and that if he could commit murder, maybe anyone could under the perfectly wrong circumstance. That’s the goal of the movie, to communicate that. I don’t know if we did, I hope we did, but going to visit him in there definitely confirmed that feeling that this guy was actually a great person that just snapped.

Was there a feeling of sadness in Bernie, or is there more of a, “This is what’s happened and I’m going to move forward from that?”

JB: Bernie is still Bernie. I mean, he’s still the most-loved person in the maximum security prison. Everybody loves him from what I can tell. Very popular, not only with the inmates, but with the guards and the staff there. He’s leading Bible studies and teaching cooking lessons and is just very involved. But he definitely isn’t totally happy with the living conditions. You know, it’s tough. No one has sympathy for prisoners because they’ve all committed horrible crimes and they shouldn’t have a comfortable existence, necessarily, but at a certain point, it does turn into cruel and unusual punishment in his mind because people are just getting sick just from eating Doritos. It’s just pure junk food. The prisons have some kind of deal with these junk food [companies], and so that’s all they’re eating, and they’re all getting… He’s got diabetes, they’re all getting sick, and then eventually, it ends up costing the tax payers more because the medical bills are way higher than it would cost to just mix in a couple fresh fruits and vegetables for Christ’s sake, man. That was his main bummer. He was mostly bummed that there wasn’t anything healthy to eat. He just wanted his peeps to be well-nourished.

What about getting into that small town Texas mindset? Did you do any preparation in that way?

JB: Well, you know, he was a public figure, so it was good that I was able to get a lot of video and audio tape and just listen to him a lo and try to get into his voice. That was my way in. I focused on him. I came out here, I didn’t go to Carthage, TX, but I came out here for a few weeks and worked with Rick and just… that was it.

You nailed the Methodist Church. Did you go to a service?

JB: I did. We went to a couple of services and I loved the music. I actually was really into the gospel songs, especially that… You ever hear Jim Nabors’… I didn’t know he was an incredible gospel singer. He’s got a powerful baritone bass voice.

He actually trained to be an opera singer.

JB: Is that right? Yeah. “Blessed Assurance” was probably my favorite song, and he does an incredible version of that. But yeah, I never really explored the gospel music before, so it was cool.

Why wouldn’t the real Jack Black volunteer to host the Muppet telethon [in The Muppets]?

JB: Oh yeah, I know. Why’d they have to kidnap me? Because that’s the thing: the REAL Jack Black had to be a horrible Hollywood asshole. It was hard to do that. I didn’t want to be an asshole. And then I was worried because I took my boys to see the premiere. Actually, only one boy; the other boy didn’t want to see my head shrunk. I had to warn them, I was like, “Look, I’m warning you guys: I’m going to take you to the premiere, but Daddy’s head gets shrunk down really tiny, and it might be a little scary.” And then he’s like, “I’m not going! I don’t want your head to be shrunk.” So I took the other boy and then he didn’t know why I was being so… it’s weird. You don’t want to take your kids to see you in a movie. It’s a real… it does a number on their heads because they’re all of a sudden sharing Daddy with a bunch of people in the room.

What did they think of little Lilliputians stuck in your butt in Gulliver’s Travels?

JB: That was also slightly disturbing. But I warned them, and once again, I’m really big on the warnings: “Listen you guys, there’s a little man that’s going to go in my butt, okay? But it doesn’t hurt and it’s not real.” They were prepared, psychologically, for the trauma.

That’s surely what Jonathan Swift originally intended, right?

JB: Jonathan Swift… I don’t want to get too much into the Gulliver’s Travels junket, I feel like I’m going to time-warp now. [Swift] was very scatological even more so than we were, actually. There was all kinds of weird, crazy, sexual shit happening in this. We didn’t make up the pissing on the fire at the palace. That was in the book, too.

In this movie, you have a lot of great scenes with Shirley MacLaine, and I think one of the reasons that your role worked so well was because you guys really play off of each other very well. It’s kind of that “lovable guy, hateful bitch” [scenario], but I think it’s because she’s such a great actress. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship working with her, and what were you guys were able to figure that out ahead of time?

JB: Well she didn’t want to play a straight-up hateful bitch. She didn’t read it that way. When she read it, she was like, “You know what, fuck these townspeople. They’re a bunch of gossips. She’s not a bitch. She’s right! And I’m going to play it right, and when people see this movie, they’re going to say, ‘You know what, she’s right! I’m on her side.’” And that’s what was good. You want that, I think, when you get someone who’s playing the character, you want them to be on the side of the character no matter what. You got to be rooting for yourself, even if you’re a villain. She had Marjorie’s back and that makes for good battle of good vs. evil, I guess. I don’t want to say that, but that is kind of what the movie is, it’s like there’s someone who… The two of them together, their relationship was very much him trying to sweeten, try to be the sweet one, bring her to the light, and her being like, “Nah, fuck that shit. I’m bringing you over to the dark.” Who’s going to win? And in the end, she won, but then she was, obviously, she was killed.

Can you talk about the relationship you two had, in terms of how you worked that out on screen? Or did you guys bring your own things…?

JB: We talked about it a lot, but it wasn’t explicitly on the page. It didn’t say that in the stage directions, but that’s stuff we talked about. I remember she said that she didn’t want to be like Nurse Ratched [from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest] where she was just a straight bitch. She wanted to have some sweetness to her, too.

Were there any elements to Bernie’s character that you kind of exaggerated to fit the comedic tone, or was it all just Bernie’s personality?

JB: Well, I only spent a day with Bernie… really, only about 45 minutes, so I didn’t really have time to say, “This is absolutely exactly what he’s like.” I mean, a lot of it was just imagination. Was there anything I exaggerated?

Like you said, he was a very sweet person. Did you heighten that?

JB: I tried to accentuate it. But no, that’s just stuff that’s documented. People loved him. He was a really sweet, warm, caring guy. I don’t think I exaggerated it at all.

How close did you get to his voice?

JB: I think I nailed it, but that’s not for me to say, and now I’m all of a sudden tooting my own horn. But I did have the audio tape and the video tape, and I studied hard.

I’m curious, when you went to visit Bernie, he’s been in jail for awhile. Did he know who you were, and did you try to accept his acceptance? I mean, he didn’t have a lot of say in the matter.

JB: No. He had been in prison for 12 years, so he was not aware of my career at all. Because yeah, School of Rock was before that, and that’s how he’d have known who I was, but no. I was definitely going over there to try to just soak up some of who he is and just try to… I guess a part of me was trying to get his blessing to do the thing and going off to play someone’s life and reassure him it wasn’t a smear campaign, that there was going to be some comedic elements, but it wasn’t going to be at his expense. He was a little quizzical. He’s like, “Yeah, when they told me that you guys were making this movie and it was a dark comedy, I didn’t really understand what’s funny about it.” It doesn’t seem funny from being in it, but it’s not so much funny, I explained to him, “ha ha” as it is amazing like, “What? How did that happen?” He was into it by the end of it. He could see where we were coming from, what we were doing. But I remember just sitting in the room, they gave us a little room where we could sit and talk to him and interview him for awhile, and I was feeling very nervous just being with a guy that’s going to be in there for another 20 years or something crazy like that. The pressure of the situation, because he’s thinking, “Please tell my story right. Please don’t make me look like a monster. I’m not a monster.” I started to feel a little faint. I felt like I was going to pass out at a couple points. I felt like my hands were getting really big and swollen. I felt like… it’s hard to explain, but I was definitely feeling a little… I was having a slightly out of body experience in the interview.

What made you decide to take on a character like this?

JB: Well, it was really Rick. It was his passion project that he had been thinking about for so long. It was a challenge, it was something I had never done before. I’m attracted to that kind of story. I like a little darkness in my entertainment. I find it more interesting, maybe a little more honest, so it was cool. It was something I wanted to do. And also, I would have done anything to work with Rick again. He’s my favorite director to work with since School of Rock. Been looking for something for years. We’re trying to do School of Rock 2, we’re working on that. I’m sorry, we don’t have a script. Hopefully someday we’ll come up with it.

What kind of director is he? It sounds like he is very hands-on with the actors.

JB: He’s a real worker. He does not just show up on set and go, “Alright, good to meet you all. Let’s start shooting.” He likes to do his due diligence. We’re reading through a month in advance, we’re rehearsing it, it’s a lot more like we’re rehearsing a play, and when we start filming, that’s opening night, which is a great process. And none of the directors I’ve worked with have been into rehearsing like that. He’s the only one. It goes against the grain of most productions.

So he likes doing a lot of one take and if it’s good, it’s good, and you move on?

JB: We’d never do just one take, no, but I know what you’re saying. The brunt of the work, the bulk of the work is already done when we get there. Things do move faster, yeah.

You mentioned earlier about how when you were meeting Bernie and your hands were getting swollen, you’re getting all nervous… There’s that great shot at the end of the film when the credits start rolling where it shows the real Bernie and he’s joyful, and it just pans over to you and you just have this look on your face of, “What the hell [am I getting into?]” *Ed. Note: Too much laughter concealed the second half of this sentence* Was that pretty much the moment you were describing, like, “I’m not really sure if I should do this.”

JB: I’m not sure. I got over it after about halfway through the interview. I don’t know what we were talking about at that time. We could have just been talking about cheeseburgers, I don’t know.