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The light Jack Black

The rock comic on his latest role, musicals, murder and the spirituality of Shirley MacLaine

Jack Black may have built his reputation on playing the affable post-grunge goof in School of Rock and High Fidelity and as part of godlike rock duo Tenacious D, but he has also always flourished as the loose cannon in a dark drama, from 1999 black comedy Jesus’ Son to Noah Baumbach’s 2007 sepia-washed tragicomedy Margot at the Wedding. His latest role, as a closeted funeral director in Richard Linklater’s dark comedy Bernie, is a revelation that his talents may equally lie in playing it straight. Or not so straight, as it happens.

Black plays Bernie Tiede, the sweetest murderer you’ll ever meet. An effervescent presence in the curtain-twitching town of Carthage, Texas, Bernie is head of the Christmas decorations committee, sings indulgently at choir and is adored by the local old ladies. One monied widow (Shirley MacLaine) takes advantage of his generosity to browbeat him into becoming essentially her livein servant, until one day Bernie shoots her with a hunting rifle. Black fizzes as the proud host of the Mrs Senior Carthage beauty pageant, and is snake-hipped and plumed for a local production of The Music Man. “The Bernie I knew was somewhat of a sissy,” says one resident in disbelief. “There just ain’t no way I could see him ever killin’ anybody!”

You last worked with director Richard Linklater on School of Rock. How did you hook up with him again?
I was meeting with Rick and (writer) Mike White, trying to work out a School of Rock 2. Not everyone was happy with the script, and Rick said, ‘You know, in the meantime I’ve got this script that I wrote that I’m ready to do right now, what do you think?’ I read it and said ‘yes’ on the spot.

Had you come across the story of Bernie Tiede beforehand?
No, I had not. A lot of Texas people knew the case of Bernie because of its peculiarities. It’s not just a murder, but it’s the sweetest guy in town that murdered this old lady and hid her in a freezer for nine months and nobody noticed. Then it becomes almost dark comedy.

It’s not just a murder, but it’s the sweetest guy in town that murdered this old lady and hid her in a freezer for nine months and nobody noticed

There’s darkness in the film, but Bernie’s a light character too. I loved seeing him in the local theatre – you’ve got that hip-swivel down!
(puts on ‘luvvie’ thespian voice) Thank you! (laughs) Well, I was a theatre major in college, so it felt like an extension of what I had done in the past. I was Pippin in a production of Pippin, an early Bob Fosse production from the 70s. Pippin was rocking a mesh chainmail vest, skintight electric-blue pantaloons and ballet slippers! So yeah man, I danced around!

So you embraced your inner Pippin as Bernie?
That’s right. (laughs) And Shirley MacLaine kind of discovered Bob Fosse – she asked for him by name before anyone else. On-set she was constantly reminding me, ‘This isn’t Hollywood, Jack. Hollywood was 1961 when me and Frank and Jerry...’ You know, they were roaming the land like legendary giants. You’re working with a legend, and it makes you step your game up. She’s got some special sauce.

Shirley MacLaine is known for her spirituality, isn’t she?
She is, for her past-life exploration! She did say, ‘C’mon, come to my retreat in New Mexico. I wanna take you through space and time.’ I don’t believe in that kind of ooga booga, but I still think it would be a fun experience, and eventually I am going to make it out there. She wasn’t forcing it upon me, but she did deliver a clear invitation to the dance.

At the end of the film we see you meeting the real Bernie in prison. What was that experience like?
It was an amazing thing, and it was a necessary thing. You’re gonna play a real guy that’s living? You have to make the pilgrimage to get their blessing. We had a private room that we could go in to talk, and I just felt very self-conscious, because he’s looking at me going, ‘You’re gonna tell my story? This’ll be the way people see me; my life story is in your hands.’ He’s very vulnerable, so I had to assure him that we weren’t out to do some kind of smear campaign, or make fun of him. But when you’re going to a maximum-security prison – which I had never been in before – it makes it a lot more dramatic. It’s a pretty intimidating place. Lots of scary creatures crawling around.

The Bernie you play in the film is expressive and effusive. Was he the same after so many years in prison? (sadly) Yeah. He’s a gentle, warm, charismatic, really lovable guy. I totally saw why he was the most popular guy in town. He was magnetic – you wanna hang out with him! But at the same time he did this horrible thing, and he deserved to do some time in prison. But maybe he’s done enough. He’s been in there for 13 years. Not all murderers are created equal, you know? I don’t think he’s a threat to society; this is like, the only bad thing he ever did.

The Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth that inspired the film says there were videos found at Bernie’s house showing him with local men. Why did you choose to make Bernie’s sexuality ambiguous?
This story wasn’t about his gayness. It was about this relationship with Marjorie. It seems pretty clear to me that he is gay, but it wasn’t important to point it out more than we did. We kept it pretty subtle. We actually shot the film close to Austin, Texas. Bernie could have had some fun there, without the prying eyes of the super-conservative neighbours!

He’d go down well in Austin’s bear bars.
Yeah, no doubt. He’s a catch!

Music seems like Bernie’s release and escapism, though.
There is an element of that, but I couldn’t help but notice a lot of suggestive lyrics that were maybe subconsciously put there by the composers. There’s one (classic gospel) song about Jesus which is like (starts singing), ‘He touched me... Ooooohhhh, He touched me, and oh the joy that floods my soul / Something happened and now I know, He touched me and made me whole.’ It’s there if you look for it! (laughs)

Bernie does seduce the congregation, but not necessarily in a sexual way.
He was a big giver. I mean, I have a bit of that in me, I’m a pleaser. I like people to like me, to a fault. I don’t like to have any enemies, and if someone is upset with me it’ll keep me up at night. It’s a bit like your Tenacious D song ‘Fuck Her Gently’. It’s about catering to the needs of the person receiving. Yeah. I think that’s healthy! It becomes unhealthy if people take advantage of you and you are such a pleaser that you don’t
stand up for yourself. If, like Bernie, you don’t have a release valve, then you risk exploding one day. He was blocked.

Would you have done the same as Bernie?
Well, that’s the question posed by the movie. If Bernie’s capable of this kind of thing, maybe everyone’s capable of doing something horrible in the worst circumstance. Obviously I’ve never killed anybody, but I have had bursts of anger that I regret. I have attacked my bandmate Kyle a couple of times. He makes me furious on purpose, because he gets some kind of sexual pleasure from watching me get angry, and he toys with me.

What’s the movie you’ve made that you have the fondest memories of?
Well, High Fidelity was special. It’s always the first one... And School of Rock was extra special. That’s probably my peak right there. Just nailing what I’m good at, and the things about me that could fit into a character.

Your critics might say that there’s something of yourself in a lot of characters you play. Do you think that’s accurate?
I mean, that is true. My critics would say, (adopts lofty tone) ‘He’s not the chameleon that Sean Penn is.’ But I do like doing character stuff, and when I do it I feel like it adds another dimension to me, and that’s why I had such a blast working on Bernie. I had a blast on Nacho Libre, and that was a very different kind of character to me too.

Bernie is out in the UK on April 26th

Photography Alec McLeish