This interview was originally broadcast on April 23, 2012. Jack Black's Bernie is now out on DVD.
Actor Jack Black is best known for his comedic performances in films like Nacho Libre and School of Rock. In his latest film, Bernie, Black goes to a darker place: He plays a serious small-town funeral director who uncharacteristically murders his live-in companion, a wealthy widow played by Shirley MacLaine.
The film is based on a true story. In 1996, 39-year-old Bernie Tiede of Carthage, Texas, murdered his 81-year-old companion, Marjorie Nugent, shooting her in the back four times with a rifle. A lengthy Texas Monthly article about the case notes that "what made the story peculiar was that Mrs. Nugent had been dead for almost nine months before people began searching for her. What made the story truly bizarre was the way many of the townspeople rallied around the 39-year-old man who had admitted to killing her and stealing her money — the soft-spoken, chubby-cheeked Tiede, the former assistant funeral director at Hawthorn Funeral Home who had gotten close to Mrs. Nugent when he supervised her husband's funeral."
Tiede, currently serving life in prison, met with Black for 45 minutes at his maximum-security prison before filming began.
"What was crucial was that he was really likable," Black tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "You could really believe that the whole town could be in love with Bernie."
Black has made a career of playing likable characters, from a substitute teacher in School of Rock to a superficial man obsessed with physical beauty in Shallow Hal. He has also simultaneously pursued a music career, performing as one-half of the satirical rock band Tenacious D.
The band's new album, Rize of the Fenix, is a heavy metal-influenced album about the power of redemption. It includes tracks like "How to Be the Best," an upbeat song reminiscent of the Flashdance theme that Black says is supposed to "inspire you to do push-ups and sit-ups and run around like Rocky."
"All those great '80s rock things — there's something so funny about that now," he says. "No one's really doing that particular brand of cheese, so we thought the world needed that right now."
The album is heavily influenced by bands like Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. Black says he grew up listening to Van Halen, but also enjoyed the vocal scat stylings of Bobby McFerrin, who became famous for his ability to sing various voices and instrumentations.
"I was obsessed with him, because I had always imagined going out on stage by myself and blowing people's minds just with the power of my singing voice," says Black. "Long before [McFerrin made] 'Don't Worry, Be Happy,' he was blowing people's minds with incredible covers of Beatles songs. ... His voice would sound like all of the different instruments."
Black says he went to every McFerrin concert he could, even running onstage when McFerrin asked for audience volunteers.
"I think I was a little too aggressive with my enthusiasm," he says. "Because he did one time tell me to tone it down. Not with words, but just with a look in his eye and a shake of his head. I knew that I had crossed the line and I wasn't supposed to be slapping my chest. That's his job."
"I don't have any real spirituality in my life — I'm kind of an atheist — but when music can take me to the highest heights, it's almost like a spiritual feeling. It fills that void for me."
On Tenacious D
"It's comedy folk rock. We're two acoustic guitars at our core and singing like Simon and Garfunkel, but then we're most heavily influenced by heavy metal bands of the '80s. And we used to make fun of the devil because the devil's influence on '80s metal is so prevalent, and now it just seems so ridiculous and hilarious. But [our] new album is more about redemption. It's a comeback-themed album."
On comedian stereotypes
"The real challenge is if you don't look super sexy, like a Brad Pitt, you're going to have to try harder. You're going to have to make up for it in other ways. You're going to have to charm the pants off them. You're going to have to make them laugh. But those are good hoops to have to jump through. You're going to have to do some writing. Let's face it, the great comedians now that are handicapped in the looks department are tremendous writers."
On his first role in a commercial for a video game
"That was my big break, my first paying gig. I was so proud of that. Before I got that commercial, I just prayed to the heavens that if I could just be on television and the kids could see me from school, that would be the answer to all my prayers and I wouldn't need anything more. And I got it. I went on the auditions, and I got the part in an Activision commercial for the Atari 2600 — the original video-game system. It was for a game called Pitfall. And I remember all the lines still, to this day. I was only 13 years old."
On Billy Joel
"I've had so many hot, cheesy, corny loves of music in my life. I had a very intense Billy Joel period. So once you've really Joeled it up — there's some good periods of Joel; it's not all hot cheese. But I can't judge anyone else for their cheese. I've deep-sea dived in the Gouda."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest Jack Black is best known for his roles in "High Fidelity," "School of Rock," "Shallow Hal," "Tropic Thunder," "Nacho Libre" and the animated film "Kung Fu Panda." He's also known for his satiric, hard rock-heavy metal band Tenacious D, a duo with Kyle Gass.
Black starred this year in the movie "Bernie," which was directed by Richard Linklater, who also directed Black in "School of Rock." "Bernie" is now out on DVD. Based on a true story, Black plays the new assistant funeral director in a small Texas town. Here he is, explaining how to prepare a body for a viewing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BERNIE")
JACK BLACK: (as Bernie) The nails have to be clipped, shaped and brought back to life, and you must cast the nails to the person. You wouldn't want a mechanic to have the nails of a flight attendant, would you? It's very important to remove any unwanted nasal, ear or facial hair. You can never be too vigilant in the lookout for that one, stray, rogue hair. The eyes are often a minor problem because they usually want to stay open. It's almost like they want one last look at this miraculous world. But with some Super Glue, a little dab'll do you, and it's no more peeking.
DAVIES: Bernie knows how to treat the living, too. He has a gift for soothing the deceased's family and is especially good with older people who have lost a spouse, which is how he becomes very close to the widowed Margery Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine.
She's generous to Bernie and takes him everywhere with her, including trips around the world. But eventually she starts treating him like a servant, issuing demands, demeaning him - until he shoots her in the back. Here's a scene where he's questioned by the sheriff and confesses to his crime.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BERNIE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Sheriff) How long have you been thinking about killing her, Bernie?
BLACK: (as Bernie) I never thought of me killing Mrs. Nugent. I - I guess I fantasized about her death, but I was never the one responsible for it. She always died accidentally - like in a car accident or falling down the escalator at the mall in Longview. I was always the one weeping by her open casket, comforting others, being comforted myself.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Sheriff) Why'd you want her dead, Bernie?
BLACK: (as Bernie) She had become so mean and possessive of me. I couldn't face being around her any longer. And then it just happened. I don't know. I shot her. I shot poor Mrs. Nugent four times with the armadillo gun.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Sheriff) Then what?
BLACK: (as Bernie) Well, then the Lord called her home. I know I done wrong, and I must atone for my sins.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
That's a scene from the new film "Bernie." Jack Black, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
BLACK: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: This is a really different kind of role for you. You play someone who seems to be very controlled and who loves people. And people really like him; older people love him. And he does something shocking: He commits this murder. And in the scene that we just heard, like, you're very vulnerable. Does this feel like a different turn for you?
BLACK: Yeah, I mean, I felt like it was a good role for me because of the similarities to other roles, in a way. What was crucial was that he was really likable and that, you know, you could believe that the whole town would be sort of in love with Bernie because that was the case.
And Rick Linklater, who I worked with on "School of Rock," felt that I'd be a good choice because, you know - it feels weird for me to say so, but I was very likable in "School of Rock," and he felt that that quality was perfect for Bernie. And he was also a real musical guy, and I obviously have that in my - in my repertoire.
So yeah, I'd never delved the depths of that kind of dark emotion before. That was the real challenge. But I felt like I was well-suited to the role in other ways.
GROSS: So what did you do to meet that challenge of channeling dark emotion?
BLACK: Well, everyone's got the dark emotions inside of them. It's just a question of, are you going to be able to access it? The block is fear, you know. Was I going to be able to face the fear of opening up and being vulnerable in front of the camera, in a way that I hadn't before? And I felt that I could, you know.
I knew that I could because I cry a lot. I'm an easy crier when I go to see movies, when I'm in the audience. And I thought, it can't be that hard to turn it around. And I'm used to being the clown but, you know, let's turn that smile upside-down.
GROSS: You met the real Bernie Tiede in prison, where he's serving a life sentence for murder. And is awkward the right word when you're: A, meeting the person you're about to play; and B, it's in a maximum-security prison?
BLACK: Yeah. It was awkward, to say the least. I mean, there's a certain amount of anxiety that comes when you're going to meet someone new, and that's magnified to the power of 10 when you're going to meet them in a maximum-security prison. There's a certain amount of intimidation just going through the gates, just meeting the guards.
You're seeing the general population in the prison, and there's a lot of rough customers in there. There's a lot of face tattoos and serious-looking people. And even though you've got the security there, you don't feel entirely safe. But then I got a couple people who were fans, and that made me feel a little more at ease - a couple people, fans of Nacho.
GROSS: Nacho Libre.
BLACK: And then I saw Bernie in the middle of the yard, and they had a place for us to go and have a little interview. They gave us 45 minutes to talk. The awkwardness quickly melted away - of saying hi, I'm the guy who's playing you; is it all right with you, and can you tell me some things about your life that'll bring you, as a character, into focus for me?
The awkwardness is in the fact that they're in a vulnerable position. You want to kind of put them at ease that you're not there to lambast them, or to tell their story unfairly. I can imagine if someone was telling my life story, I'd be freaked out about, you know, certain chapters.
GROSS: What did you talk to him about? And what was most interesting to hear, in terms of understanding who he is?
BLACK: A lot of it was just wanting to see him in person, and try to get hints about his personality and his behavior and just the sound of his voice, and the way he walked. These are all, you know, helpful for the playing of him. I mean, the main question - and the main question, I think, when you watch the movie - is, you know, why didn't you just leave when she was becoming so oppressive, and when life was becoming unlivable as her servant? You know, he had become her manservant.
And it was a complex relationship they had. He couldn't just leave; that wasn't his way. He was a - this sounds ironic, but he's a real - he's a pleaser. He had to be liked. And maybe that was his character flaw - is, he wanted everyone to love him. And if he had just left her, she would have hated him, and he couldn't live with that.
And also, you know, there was a seduction of that life that all of her money afforded them. He admitted to the fact that he had become accustomed to that world and the travel. They would travel all over the world and have a lavish lifestyle.
GROSS: There's a fair amount of music in the movie because when you're - when Bernie is a funeral director, you know, your character is singing hymns at funeral services. Your character also loves theater, and he's involved in local theater, starring in productions of "Guys and Dolls" and "The Music Man." And you even sing the old Stephen Foster song "Beautiful Dreamer" at a senior citizen's pageant, kind of like a senior beauty pageant.
And this is all pretty far away from the kind of heavy metal, hard rock music that you're famous for loving, and that you do - kind of real and satirical versions of - with your band, Tenacious D. So before we talk about Tenacious D, just - let's hear a little bit of you singing "Beautiful Dreamer," in the film "Bernie."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BERNIE")
BLACK: (as Bernie) (Singing) Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song, list while I woo thee with soft melody. Gone are the cares of life's busy throng. Beautiful dreamer, awake to my song. Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me. Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me.
(as Bernie) Thank you.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jack Black, and he's starring in the new movie "Bernie." So there's a new Tenacious D album about to be released. I'm going to ask you to describe the band Tenacious D.
BLACK: Tenacious D is comedy folk-rock, is what I would say.
GROSS: Folk rock?
BLACK: And the only reason I say folk is because we're two acoustic guitars. At our core, it's just me and Kyle on acoustic guitars and singing - you know, kind of like Simon and Garfunkel. But then we're most heavily influenced by heavy metal bands of the '80s.
And we used to make fun of the devil because the devil's influence on '80s metal was so prevalent. And now, it just seems so ridiculous and hilarious. But this new album is more about redemption. It's a comeback-themed album.
GROSS: Which leads me into the title track, which I'd like to play, if it's OK with you.
GROSS: Yeah, so this is "Rize Of The Fenix," the title track, and it's the story of your band, Tenacious D, making its big comeback. And it's a tribute to, you know, a lot of heavy metal music of the '80s. Do you want to say anything else to introduce it?
BLACK: No, I think it speaks for itself. We're - it's in reference to our last album, which was a soundtrack to our movie "The Pick of Destiny." And it didn't do well in the box office scores, and it didn't do well with the critics. And this is our triumphant comeback to say, you know, you can't kill us.
GROSS: OK, so here's Jack Black and his band, Tenacious D.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIZE OF THE FENIX")
BLACK: (Singing) When "The Pick of Destiny" was released, it was a bomb. And all the critics said that the D was done. The sun had set, and the chapter had closed, but one thing no one thought about was the D would rise again, just like the phoenix will rise again.
(Singing) 'Cause the fiery heart of a champion cannot be squelched by a failure or an embarrassment; no way, no. And the critics all agreed it was a stinky pile of cheese, but that does not mean that our hearts are not strong. Just like the phoenix, we'll rise again. Just like the phoenix, we'll rise again.
DAVIES: (Singing) Sunshine, it's a hell of a day...
GROSS: That's Jack Black's band, Tenacious D. What are some of your favorite things about heavy metal voices and the things that they - you know, like the really like, big, dramatic flourishes?
BLACK: Well, in general, in the vocals department, what I appreciate is glory.
BLACK: I was thinking about this the other day. And it's not just heavy metal but, you know, hard rock in general. I like to include my brothers from The Who and Led Zeppelin. But if they can take me on a journey through the clouds - I don't have any real spirituality in my life; I'm kind of an atheist. But when music can take me to the highest heights, it's almost like a spiritual feeling. It fills that void for me.
GROSS: But what about like, certain - just - like, vocal flourishes, like the - excuse me for embarrassing myself here - like the ri-i-i-se again thing.
BLACK: Oh, that.
BLACK: That was just me showing off. I wanted to show that I've got the chops, and I wanted to take my voice on a rollercoaster ride.
You know, that's just flexing in the mirror; vocal flex.
GROSS: So is that one of the things you love about, like, hard rock - is that, you know, the bigness of it?
BLACK: I do love the bigness. And it feels almost primal. It feels like we're Native Americans around the fire. Before there was - big buildings and cars and civilization, there was just the power of a voice singing to the heavens.
DAVIES: Jack Black, speaking with Terry Gross. Black's film "Bernie" is now out on DVD. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Jack Black, whose film "Bernie" is now out on DVD. Black's also known for his satiric heavy metal band Tenacious D, a duo with Kyle Gass. Their latest CD, "Rize of the Fenix," was released in May.
GROSS: One of the tracks, "To Be the Best," is almost like a parody of "Flashdance" - of the songs from "Flashdance."
BLACK: It is. I mean, that was a song that we did almost - that was the last song that we added to the album because we felt we needed one more song that fit the theme - which was, you know, the rise of the phoenix; the comeback. And we needed a song that sounded like something that would inspire you to do push-ups and sit-ups, and run around like Rocky.
BLACK: You know, like "Eye of the Tiger" and all those great, '80s rock things - you can do it if you believe in yourself. There's something so funny about that now. No one's really doing that kind of particular brand of cheese.
GROSS: Let's hear a little bit of "To Be the Best," from the forthcoming Tenacious D album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE THE BEST")
BLACK: (Singing) To be the best, we've got to pass the test. We gotta make it all the way to the top of the mountain. We can do it again. To feel the high, we've got to learn to fly. We've got to take it to the sky on the wings of an eagle. You're the best in the world.
(Singing) You are the best, but you say you don't know. You got the touch, now come on let it show. You call the shots, but you know that you gots to believe in the things that you're dreaming. Your search for the meaning is very revealing. The power of being is what you're feeling. You gotta believe that you're simply the best.
GROSS: That's Jack Black and his band, Tenacious D. So when you were, say, a teenager, who did you fantasize - yourself - as being like? If you could've been in any band, which band would it have been?
BLACK: Well, I had two sides of myself. There was the yin and yang of my musical tastes. I had Van Halen on one side, and then I had Bobby McFerrin on the other side; the hard rock, and then the jazz. Both of them had a certain type of cheese to them. And when I mixed them together in my laboratory, that's sort of what I became - a mixture of the vocal stylings of the jazz-scat master, with the bombast and power of the hard rocker.
GROSS: Who else was in your jazz side?
BLACK: OK, now you're going to reveal me to be not that deep on the jazz.
GROSS: Was Bobby McFerrin out there all by himself?
BLACK: OK, he was all by himself.
GROSS: But nevertheless influential.
BLACK: Yeah. But I was obsessed with him, I would go so far as to say, because I had always imagined myself going out on stage by myself, and blowing people's minds just with the power of my singing voice. Now, I'm revealing too much about my ambitions, but...
GROSS: No, and Bobby McFerrin was probably most famous - was definitely most famous for "Don't Worry, Be Happy." But because he could do different voices when he sang - he could, like, back himself up - it almost sounded like he did several voices at the same time. But he could sing different parts. He could sing in different voices. So it was kind of like having a whole vocal group in this, like, one man.
BLACK: Yeah. Long before "Don't Worry, Be Happy," he was blowing people's minds with incredible covers of, like, Beatles songs. He did an unbelievable version of "Blackbird."
GROSS: Right. Didn't he do, like, percussion by tapping on himself, too?
BLACK: Yes. He would slap on his chest, and that would sound like the drums. But it would also affect his voice. (Vocalizing and tapping) I'm not going to do it justice so I won't even try now, but there was a time...
GROSS: I can just tell by that, that you - you were - you did him in your room.
BLACK: Whenever he came to town - oh, yeah. Whenever he came to town, I would be there. I would be at the concerts. And whenever he asked for volunteers from the audience, I would be running as fast as I could to the stage.
GROSS: Did you make it onstage?
BLACK: I did. I did make it onstage, and I think I was a little too aggressive with my enthusiasm because he did, one time, tell me to tone it down - not with words, but just with a look in his eye and a little shake of his head. I knew that I had crossed the line, and I wasn't supposed to be slapping my chest. That's his job.
BLACK: I was just going to do what he told me.
GROSS: You said one time as if, like, you did this many times - running onstage and performing with him.
BLACK: I've been onstage with McFerrin more than once. He wouldn't remember. I was just one of the thousands that have been on the stage, you know. I did want to be part of his voicestra(ph).
DAVIES: Jack Black speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in April. Black will be back in the second half of the show. He stars in the film "Bernie," which is now out on DVD. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Let's get back to Terry Gross' interview with Jack Black, who had starring roles in "School of Rock," "High Fidelity," and "Tropic Thunder." His latest film "Bernie," has just come out on DVD. It's directed by Richard Linklater, who also directed "School of Rock." Terry asked Jack Black about that role.
GROSS: You play a musician who is kicked out of his own rock band because he's so annoying, and then you end up being a substitute teacher and you want your students to like, love rock, so you're teaching them all about rock. And you want them to form a rock band that you will lead. And you're trying to give them like, an education about rock, you're trying to teach them how to channel their anger into like, writing songs and performing songs. So let's hear a clip of that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SCHOOL OF ROCK")
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) All right. Now, is everyone nice and pissed off?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (as characters) Yeah.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) Good. Time to write a rock song. Now, what makes you mad more than anything in the world? Billy.
BRIAN FALDUTO: (as Billy) You.
BLACK: Billy, we've already told me off. Let's move on.
FALDUTO: (as Billy) You're tacky, and I hate you.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) OK, you see me after class. You, Gordon.
ZACHARY INFANTE: (as Gordon) No allowance.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) I didn't get no allowance today. So now I'm really ticked off.
(as Dewey Finn) You know what I mean? What else makes you mad? Michelle?
JORDAN-CLAIRE GREEN: (as Michelle) Chores.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) I had to do my chores today. So I am really ticked off.
(as Dewey Finn) What else?
JOEY GAYDOS: (as Zack) Bullies.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) All you bullies get out of my way because I am really ticked off.
(as Dewey Finn) So what would you say to a bully? Zack?
GAYDOS: (as Zack) I don't know.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) No, come on. If someone was right up in your grill, what would you say?
GAYDOS: (as Zack) I don't know.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) If someone was pushing you around, telling you what to do, what would you say?
GAYDOS: (as Zack) Step off?
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) Step off! Step off! Step off! Step off! - everybody.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (as characters) (Singing) Step off! Step off! Step off!
GROSS: That's great. That's Jack Black in "School of Rock." I love your heavy metal falsetto. It's such a key part of those bands.
BLACK: I look forward to, someday, my Vegas show - where I do excerpts of all the highlights of my career. I will definitely do a "Step Off." I can see it, in my golden years.
GROSS: Mike White actually wrote "School of Rock" for you - at least, that's my understanding of it.
BLACK: It's true.
GROSS: And he told "GQ" in January 2006 that the reason why he wrote "School of Rock" was that he was really - he really liked you personally, and he said, "I really believe in him as an actor, but all the scripts that were being sent to him were very much like the fratty guy who gets drunk and falls down. I think originally, they were trying to put him in a John Belushi or even Chris Farley - kind of little bit tubby, very sophomoric comedy thing. And in my opinion, there's such a bigger charm to him." So that's what Mike White, the writer of "School of Rock," had to say.
Do you think when you're a comic actor and you're also like, a little heavy, that you get typed into certain - stereotyped roles?
BLACK: I don't think that that's necessarily a real problem. The real problem is - well, the real challenge is, if you don't look super sexy, like a Brad Pitt...
BLACK: ...you're going to have to try harder, that's all. You've got to make up for it in other ways. You're going to have to charm the pants off them. You're going to have to make them laugh. You're going to have to find some other - but those are good hoops to have to jump through. You're going to have to do some writing. Let's face it, the great comedians now that are handicapped in the looks department, are tremendous writers. I'm not going to say who they are 'cause now they'll be offended. But you know who you are, if you're listening, and you know that I'm right.
That's why it's - it's what I tell anyone who approaches me, that wants a career like mine. I say well, then, you better get to the writing because I didn't really have anything going until I started, you know, writing songs and sketches for Tenacious D. And it's not enough just to be an actor anymore. You have to bring a whole skill set.
GROSS: Now, you know how in the scene of "School of Rock" that we've just heard, you were telling the kids to basically channel their anger and frustration, and turn it into music; did you do that when you were a teenager - you know, like, try to channel your anger and frustration into music?
BLACK: I did use music as an outlet. And I did like to sing and make music into my four track. I had a four-track recorder in like, 10th grade, I got my first one. My Tascam Porta 05 - anybody out there that remembers those machines. And I loved just to sing as hard and as loud as I could - and harmony. It was like a release. It was kind of like a form of therapy. It's like scream therapy but I - I don't know, but I did have a - I did have a lot of - a fiery temper.
GROSS: Was the temper one of the reasons why you ended up going to - I've read that it was a school for problem kids, so you can tell me that that's...
BLACK: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...wrong. Was it?
BLACK: Yeah. It was a school called Poseidon, for troubled youths. It wasn't my rage that got me there. That was - it was that I had been, you know, experimenting with different drugs. And I was actually doing Coca - I almost said Coca-Cola - I was doing cocaine, and running with a rough crowd. And I actually started to feel like I was in danger of getting badly hurt. There were some rough customers coming to exact some revenge on me for making out with the wrong girl. And then I actually asked my parents if they would take me out of the school 'cause there was a dude named Brock, who was in a motorcycle gang, that wanted to kick my ass - and I didn't want to face it. And my parents obliged. They knew that I was in trouble anyway, and they took the opportunity to send me to this little school for trouble youths. It was not military school, but I guess it was a similar - sort of alternative to regular public school.
GROSS: Did part of you feel like you were supposed to like, stand up to this guy and like, fight him and like, show him that you were no coward?
BLACK: Well, I did kind of stand up to him in that - well, no, I didn't stand up to him. But he did kick my ass, and it was mostly just me rolled up in a ball while he punched and kicked me.
GROSS: That's so horrible.
BLACK: And then I knew he hadn't had his fill. He was cut off before he had really delivered his full punishment, so I exited stage left.
GROSS: What about acting in high school?
BLACK: Yeah. I was real involved in the theater program in high school, and I was in a lot of musical theater. And that's, I guess, where my music and my acting started to mix.
GROSS: Did you feel like, oh, how can I sing musicals when what I really want is hard rock?
BLACK: No. I liked the musical theater. I didn't have any hang-ups at the time. I liked doing "Pippin." We did "Pippin." And one of my heroes when I was really young was Ben Vereen. When I saw him in a production of "Pippin" on cable TV, I was like wow, look at his moves, and his voice. And he was just a very charismatic and magnetic performer.
GROSS: So what was your favorite role that you played in a musical?
BLACK: Well, it's got to be "Pippin." That was my best one. But we also did a production of a Bertolt Brecht play called "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." And I played Azdak, the kind of anarchistic judge in a land that was sort of in turmoil. That was a kind of a heavy play to do in high school. It was pretty advanced.
BLACK: But I had a blast, and I overcame a lot of fears. I remember I was so scared opening night, when we were supposed to do our first performance for all the parents, that I just called my teacher and said, I'm not doing the play. And he said, just come meet me at the diner. And so I met him at the diner that day. And he talked me into it, said don't worry about failing; it's going to be fine. You know, it is what it is. It's an experience. You're going to learn from it. I was like, OK. And I did it. And I was so filled with fear and adrenaline that I gave probably my best performance of my life that day.
And it's a lesson that I've carried with me - that just because I'm terrified doesn't mean that I shouldn't do it. You know, and a lot of times I'll want to turn down a role or something because I'm scared of what it is, or that I won't do it well and people will judge me. And then I have to say, eh, remember high school? You were scared of Azdak.
And I'll - more often than not - do it if I think that the fear is based in just cowardice, as opposed to something that I really shouldn't do.
DAVIES: Jack Black speaking with Terry Gross. Black's film "Bernie," is now out on DVD.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Jack Black, recorded in April. He started this year in the film "Bernie," which is now out on DVD.
GROSS: You got your first acting role, I think - you know, paid acting role in a video game. Do I have that right?
BLACK: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So you're probably like, the first generation to have that as an option to get started.
BLACK: It's true. Yeah, that was my big break; my first big, paying gig. I was so proud of that. I remember before I got that commercial, I just prayed to the heavens that if I could just be on television and the kids from school could see me, that would be the answer to all my prayers and I wouldn't need anything more. And I went on the auditions, and I got the part in the Activision commercial. It was, you know, for the Atari 2600, the original home video game system. It was for a game called "Pitfall." And I remember all the lines still, to this day. I was only 13 years old, but it was: Just last night I was lost in the jungle with Pitfall Harry, surrounded by giant scorpions and cobra rattlers.
BLACK: It's so weird how my lines - some things just stick with you. And that one...
GROSS: And you've done voices on a lot of video games since then.
BLACK: It's true. I have done a fair share. I've won a couple of awards for my portrayal of video game characters.
BLACK: It seems like a strange thing to be proud of, but I am. I'm very proud of my video game awards. They're up on the mantel...
GROSS: Can you do a voice of one of the ...
BLACK: ...next to my fake Oscar that I built.
GROSS: So your breakout role was "High Fidelity."
GROSS: And "High Fidelity," based on the novel by Nick Hornby, is set in a record store. You're one of the guys who works in the store. And you judge everybody - customers, your fellow workers - based on their taste in music.
GROSS: How did you get the role?
BLACK: Well, John Cusack was a friend from the Actors' Gang Theater Company - because he and Tim Robbins were tight buddies. And they were real...
GROSS: This is the theater company that you first worked in, when you were getting started. Yeah.
BLACK: That's right. Out of - yeah, out of college. Actually, as far back as my senior year in high school, I was aware of them. And I would go to see their shows, and I idolized Tim and John. And so John had seen my work at the Actors' Gang, and then he saw me do Tenacious D. And he said: I want him to play Barry in "High Fidelity." And I wrestled with it for a while; I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it.
BLACK: Because I was afraid. I was afraid people were going to judge me. But yes, but I was coming up with other reasons. I was like yeah, man, no, I'm not going to talk about music like that. That's not cool. You don't just talk about Kurt Cobain. And you know, there was a few lines in the script that ruffled my feathers 'cause, you know, there were certain things that you just don't name; you don't say those words out loud. They're too cool to be spoken out loud. But then once I got over the fact that it wasn't really the lines in the script but the fact that, you know, I was going to be on a bigger stage than usual and that I would be judged, I realized that I had to face my demons and go into the battle.
And I had that same kind of fear, adrenaline, going like I did in high school, in my first play. And I just acted my butt off. It was a transforming experience.
GROSS: Well, Stephen Frears directed that film. He's a very good director - I mean, judging as a viewer. Did he help you through your fear?
BLACK: Stephen was a great director, and he didn't tell me very much. He was very sparing with his praise. Like, I would try my hardest, and I was just doing anything to try to get his approval. You know, it was almost like a father figure. I wanted him to love me, and love my performance. So I was just diving through hoops and setting myself on fire, and doing everything I could to wow him. And he wouldn't say anything. He would just say, all right, that's good; let's go to the next scene. And there was something about that that drove me crazy and sent me to higher heights. There's something to be said for the denial of praise - sometimes, that's the best kind of direction.
GROSS: And you know, your character in "High Fidelity" is very - kind of belligerent and crude. And at the end, he's going to perform and everyone who knows him thinks, like, this is going to be really embarrassing. And you end up being great. You perform Marvin Gaye's "Let Get It On," and just sing it really soulfully and with genuine feeling, which nobody knows - nobody knew you had.
BLACK: Yeah. They wanted me to sing a different song, initially. They wanted me to do a Marvin Gaye song - you know that one - (Singing) I used to go out to parties, dance till dawn. Can't we get to something...
I can't remember the name of the song, but it didn't have the punch that "Let's Get it On" had. And I was like, guys, let me just rock "Let's Get It On." I can really sink my teeth into that one. And they were like, OK, sure. But then when it came time to do it, I kind of froze up. I got a little scared.
And we did it, and I sang it. And I was a little tentative, and it was not rocking. It just - everyone was aware that oh, this is how we're going to end the movie. Ewww. And Stephen Frears came out and started yelling, but not at me. He was yelling at everyone else in the audience for not rocking more. You know, why aren't you enjoying this music more?
BLACK: And then he said, fine, Jack. Let's do it again. So he didn't yell at me - but I felt like it was all at me. And then when he said action the next time, I just, you know, I took it to another level. And then that was the take that he used in the movie.
GROSS: Well, that's great. Let's hear it now. So here's my guest Jack Black, singing Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" in the film "High Fidelity."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH FIDELITY")
BLACK: (as Barry) (Singing) I've been really trying, baby, to hold onto this feeling for so long. And if you feel like I feel, sugar, come on. Wow, come on. Ooh. Let's get it on. Let's get it on. Let's love, sugar. Let's get it on. Sugar, let's get it on. Ooh. Fa-la-da-da-da-da. We are all sensitive people with so much to give...
GROSS: That's my guest Jack Black, singing in the film "High Fidelity." Jack Black is now starring in the film "Bernie."
Do you ever feel that way yourself - up until maybe your new film, "Bernie" - that there was this, like, side of you like the character in the movie, that really loves beautiful melody and just like, a straight, beautiful voice, as opposed to, like, you know, the satirical, hard rock voice; but that you didn't really have a vehicle for getting that out, and that people wouldn't believe that you were capable of that?
BLACK: Yeah. I think that - I mean, that's what I was trying to do at the beginning, before I was the court jester of rock. I wanted to sing serious songs, you know, that were pretty. But people would just laugh. So, yeah. I pretended like, yeah, I meant for you to laugh. You know, I'm just going to do funny songs now. It's very sad. I can't believe I'm going down this dark road.
GROSS: So do you judge people like the character in "High Fidelity" based on their music taste?
BLACK: BLACK: No. I don't. I can't judge because I have had so many hot, cheesy, corny loves of music in my life. I had a very intense Billy Joel period.
BLACK: So once you've really Joeled it up - and, you know, there's some good periods of Joel. It's not all hot cheese.
BLACK: But I can't judge anyone else for their cheese. Are you kidding me? I've deep-sea dived in the Gouda.
GROSS: Jack Black, it's really been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much.
BLACK: Pleasure was mine.
DAVIES: Jack Black speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in April when his film "Bernie" was released. It's now out on DVD. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album from the band Shoes. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.