SXSW Interview: Jack Black talks Bernie, Prison Conditions, Gospel Music, and Tenacious D

Jack Black saunters in wearing a cool black western shirt, black jeans, and neon lime green sneakers. He’s also carrying a drink which may or may not contain something more than Coca-Cola at 1pm. Sometimes thoughtful and incredibly articulate, other times profane and silly, he keeps the roundtable interview jazzed. He’s got a touch of magic about him. He’s also got a fine performance in Bernie that he is (rightfully) proud of.

I was invited to attend this roundtable interview with several other journalists (local and national). The following is an edited transcript, and an audio file of the last few minutes of the interview in which Jack serenades us with some Tenacious D.

Glory be, and long live rock.

QUESTION: How does it feel to join the ranks of Jack Nicholson and Jack Lemmon who romanced Shirley MacLaine on screen?

JB: You know that’s a lot of pressure. Those are some powerful Jacks.

(laughter)

QUESTION: You give her a foot massage so that’s even more intimate according to Pulp Fiction rules.

JB: Is that in Pulp Fiction? They say a foot massage is more intimate than intercourse? Yeah, and I didn’t just rub the feet. I also buffed and shined’em. You saw it. It was a full-on thing there.

(He pretends to blow residue from a buffer as he does in the film.)

(laughter)

QUESTION: Did you spend any time with a funeral director to get some of those techniques down?

JB: I talked to a mortician but I was not allowed to go in to see the corpses. I wanted to. There’s some rules against it. Then I heard later that Lindsay Lohan was doing work with corpses, and I thought, well how did she get around it? She’s just a pretty lady, I guess.

QUESTION: It was part of her community service…

JB: Is that right? Okay, well I didn’t have that deal.

QUESTION: What are the films where we get to hear you sing? School of Rock, High Fidelity, Tenacious D Pick of Destiny… To digress a bit, Tenacious D has a new CD coming out. Can you talk about the album cover?

JB: Oh, it’s a phoenix. It’s a phoenix rising, the most powerful mythological bird. And it’s a terrifying creature and it’s head is sort of helmet-shaped. Purple. It’s purple. And it’s legs are so powerfully muscular that they’re just perfectly round with a blue tint. A majestic creature.

(laughter. See the not-so-subtle image above.)

JB: Thanks for mentioning it.

QUESTION: Did “The D” need to rise like the phoenix?

JB: I find nothing’s more compelling than a great comeback story. And we embraced it, you know. A lot of people after having a lackluster sophomore effort would have ignored it, and just said, “Yeah, yeah, we’re back again and here’s another great album.” We decided to embrace the fact that it was a critical and commercial failure. And say a big “fuck you.”

(laughter)

JB: And not only that, we’re back and better than before.

QUESTION: Has The D ever played SXSW?

JB: Yeah, we did, about 10 years ago at the Music Hall. It was great. I remember Modest Mouse was on the bill and so was Sebadoh, two of my favorites.

QUESTION: You were great in this movie. You seemed to really embrace Bernie. Richard talked before about you getting to meet him. Can you talk a bit about his character?

JB: Yeah, it was something that I’d never done before. The script as a whole has a very dark theme in it. It’s funny but it’s very dramatic and very… There’s a lot of pressure in telling a story that’s based on a real person, and someone that’s got a lot on the line. You know like, they’re in prison, you’re gonna tell their story. And of course there’s a hope that, like, he’s thinking I hope this doesn’t make me look bad. So you’ve got that in the back of your mind the whole time. You wanna do justice to the guy’s story. And it’s a tricky spot to be in when you want to be funny but it’s a person’s life you’re playing so it’s a little dance you do with respect.
It was amazing to go and meet him in the maximum security prison. It’s intense going to a prison. I’d never been to one before. The five security checkpoints get scary and you’re like, “I don’t know if I’m gonna come outta here.”

(laughter)

JB: There’s some rough dudes in there. Lots of face tattoos. Lots of heavy stories around every corner. It’s like a hundred movies in there. Then you see Bernie and it’s so incongruous because all of a sudden there’s this sweet Angel of Light.

(laughter)

JB: This gentle giant in there. It’s like, what is he doing here? He had one bad day. That’s really what it comes down to. And that was Rick’s feeling about the whole story. Just, he’d been obsessed with it. He’d read a little story about it and he went to the trial because he was so curious and since then he’s felt like this guy is not a monster. The fact that he was the most loved guy in the town is a real reflection of who he was as a person. And if he could commit murder maybe anyone could under the perfectly wrong circumstances. That’s the goal of the movie to communicate that. I hope we did. I don’t know if we did. But going to visit him there definitely confirmed that feeling… that this guy was actually a great person who just snapped.

QUESTION: Was there a feeling of sadness in Bernie or was it more like, 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 maximum security prison.

(laughter)

JB: Everyone loves him as far as I can tell. Very popular. Not only with the inmates but with the guards and the staff there. And, yeah, he’s leading Bible study and teaching cooking lessons. Really involved. But he isn’t totally happy with the living conditions. I mean, 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 gettin’ sick just from eating Doritos and it’s just pure junk food. The prisons have some kind of deal with these junk food companies… like Coca-Cola and whatever… and so that’s all they’re eating. 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 of fresh fruits and vegetables every now and then. That was his main bummer. He just wanted his peeps to be well-nourished.

QUESTION: How hard was it to get into the small-town mindset?

JB: Well, he was a public figure so it was good that I could listen to video and audio tape, just listen to him a lot and get into his voice. I came out here… I didn’t go to Carthage, TX, but I came out here and worked for a few weeks with Rick. That was it.

QUESTION: You nailed the Methodist church. Did you go to a service?

JB: I did. I went to a couple and I loved the music. I was actually really into the gospel songs. Have you ever heard Jim Nabors? I didn’t know that he was an incredible gospel singer. He’s got a powerful baritone base voice. Blessed Assurance was probably my favorite song and he does an incredible version of that. But, yeah, I never really explored gospel music before so it was cool.

QUESTION: Now if this Phoenix Rising thing doesn’t work out and Santorum gets elected, you have a future in gospel music…

JB: I could do a gospel album anyway, whether or not Rick Santorum is elected.

QUESTION: We loved you in The Muppets also but the question is why wouldn’t the real Jack Black volunteer to host the Muppet telethon?

JB: Oh, yeah, I know. Why’d they have to kidnap me?

(laughter)

QUESTION: Couldn’t they just ask nicely?

JB: Because 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 went because the other one didn’t want to see my head shrunk.

(laughter)

JB: I said, “Look, I’m warning you guys. I wanna 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 just like, “I’m not goin’!”
So I took the other boy, and yeah, he didn’t know why I was being so weird. You don’t wanna take your kids to see you in a movie. It’s a real…it does a number on their heads because then they’re like sharing Daddy with a bunch of other people in the theater.

QUESTION: What did they think of the little Lilliputian stuck in your butt in Gulliver’s Travels?

JB: Just so slightly disturbing! Once again, I’m big on the warnings. I’m like, “Listen you guys, there’s a little man that’s gonna go in my butt, okay? But it doesn’t hurt and it’s not real.” Psychological trauma.

(laughter)

QUESTION: That’s surely what Jonathan Swift originally intended…

JB: Uh, Jonathan Swift. Right. I don’t wanna get too much into the Gulliver’s Travels junket. I feel like I’m in a time warp, but the book was very scatological. Even more so than we were, actually. There was all kinds of weird crazy sexual shit and stuff in there. We didn’t make up the pissing on the fire at the palace, either.

QUESTION: In this movie you get to work with Shirley MacLaine. I think one of the reasons the movie worked so well is that you get to play off of each other. Kind of that lovable guy and the hateful bitch. Can you talk a bit about that?

JB: Well, she didn’t wanna play it that way. She didn’t wanna play her as a straight-up evil bitch. She was like, “You know what? Fuck these townspeople. They’re a bunch of gossips. She’s right. And I’m gonna play it right. And when people see this movie they’re gonna be on her side.” That’s what was good. You want that. When someone decides to play a character you want them to be on the side of the character no matter what their position is. So she had Marjorie’s back. And that makes for a good battle of Good vs. Evil, I guess. I don’t wanna say it like that… (laughs) but that is kind of what the movie is. It’s like the two of them together was very much about him trying to sweeten her, be the sweet one and bring her to the light. And she was like, fuck that shit, I’m in the dark and I’m gonna win. And in the end she won… but then… she was killed.

(laughter)

QUESTION: Were there any elements of Bernie’s character that you exaggerated to fit the comedic tone or was that all from her personality?

JB: Well, I only spent a day with Bernie. Really only about 45 minutes, so I didn’t have time to say this is exactly what he’s like. I used some imagination.

QUESTION: You said he was a very sweet person. Did you try to heighten that?

JB: I tried to accentuate it. But, no, that’s just stuff that is documented. People loved him. He’s very sweet and warm and caring. A good guy. I don’t think I exaggerated it at all.

QUESTION: How close did you get to his voice?

JB: I think I nailed it. But, you know, maybe that’s not for me to say. I’m all the sudden tootin’ my own horn.  But I did have the audio and video and I studied hard.

QUESTION: Bernie’s been in jail for a while. Did he know who you were? Did that help in trying to get his acceptance?

JB: No, he’d been in prison for 12 years so he was not aware of my career at all. So I just wanted to go in there and try to soak up some of who he is. I guess part of me was trying to get his blessings to do the thing. You’re going off to play someone’s life and reassure him that it’s not a smear campaign.  There was gonna be some comedic elements but it wasn’t gonna be at his expense. You know, because he was a little, he goes (his voice changes, softens), “They told me you guys were making this movie and that it’s a dark comedy and I don’t really understand what’s funny about it.” (painful sigh)

(laughs and sympathetic “awws”)

JB: You know? It doesn’t seem funny when you’re in it. It’s not so much funny, I explained to him, like ha-ha, but it’s more amazing, like, “What? How did that happen?” But he was into it by the end of it and he knew where we were coming from.
I remember just sitting in the room where we talked at the prison and I was feeling very nervous and bad for the guy. He’s gonna be in there for like another 20 years or something like that. The pressure of the situation… ‘cause he’s thinkin’ please tell my story; don’t make me look like a monster. I started to feel a little faint. I felt like I was gonna pass out at a couple of points. It felt like my hands were getting really big and swollen. I felt like… it’s hard to explain. It was a slightly out of body experience.

QUESTION: What made you decide to take on a character like that?

JB: Well, it was really Rick. He’s the one that had this passion project for so long. And it was a challenge. It was something I’ve 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 bit more honest. So it was cool. It was something I wanted to do. And also I would’ve done anything to work with Rick again. He’s my favorite director to work with. We’d done School of Rock and we’ve been looking for something for years… We’re trying to do School of Rock 2.

(gasps of joy from around the table)

JB: (laughs) Sorry, we don’t have a script on that.

(laughter)
(We are motioned that time has run out.)

QUESTION: We can’t let you escape. We heard you singing through the wall for the other group, so you must sing before you leave. Please?

JB: Well, I don’t wanna sing the same song ‘cuz then they’ll hear it and be like, “Oh, he’s singin’ his song again.”

(laughter)

QUESTION: Sing a gospel song.

JB: I’m trying to think of one, because I was singing Blessed Assurance for them, which I do love. What were the hits…

QUESTION: Did they sing What a Friend We Have in Jesus?

JB: Uh, no.

(laughter)

QUESTION: Can you sing a Tenacious D song?

JB: Sure. You want some Tenacious D?

(lots of ‘yes’)

Click here to listen:
JackSings

 

Bernie screened at SXSW on March 14. Click here to read my review.
It’s currently showing in theaters.

 

 

 

One Response to “SXSW Interview: Jack Black talks Bernie, Prison Conditions, Gospel Music, and Tenacious D”

  1. Emma Says:

    GREAT interview, thanks for the post! I love Jack and his band Tenacious D. I actually just found a new video they released called “To Be The Best,” and it definitely is the best I’ve seen so far. It’s super funny (as if you expected anything less from Jack), and definitely worth checking out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nai7w1frB1E&feature=player_embedded

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