Reuniting with “School of Rock” director Richard Linklater in “Bernie”, Jack Black takes on the main character in this black comedy of a true story. Bernie is an assistant funeral director and one of small Texan town Carthage’s most beloved residents. He is a friend to the elderly, Sunday school teacher, church choir extraordinaire…and he does something very very bad.
As part of a round table discussion at SxSW where the film premiered in March, Black talks with us about morgues, Lindsay Lohan, taking on the role of a real life person for the first time and working with Shirley MacLaine.
“Bernie” will hit select theatres in New York and L.A. on Friday (April 27)!
How did you get involved with this role and how did you go about in your preparation for it?
You know Rick [Linklater] was talking about it for years, it was something he was thinking about doing and we were talking about “School of Rock 2”, trying to figure out how we could do it and we never really cracked the nut to get it right. But then he was like ‘there is something I would like to do now, this “Bernie” movie I’m working on.’ So I read it and I was struck but its originality and dark humour, something I’ve never really dipped my toe into before, this level of darkness. And I was like ‘Yeah let’s do it.’ But really I would have done anything because I love Rick.
Some people have said that they think it’s an old people’s movie given the age of some of the main characters. I totally disagree. Do you think it’s an old person movie?
No, if anything I think it’s got sort of a real punk rock sensibility. I think some of the rebellious youth might be more into it, and some of the older folks might not. I don’t know, it’s hard to say, maybe no one will like it [laughs].
So in the movie you play Bernie, and you got to meet him, did he charm you in real life?
I was charmed, I could see why he was the most loved man in town, and he was the most loved man in the prison, as far as I could see. He’s there leading the bible study and teaching people how to cook gourmet meals, and he’s just active. He’s a caring person. And it only confirmed our feeling about the story; he’s basically a good person that had a bad day.
So you’re out on set, you’ve got time to kill, Matthew McConaughey likes to party, Jack Black likes to party, what’s it like to party with Jack Black?
It’s nonstop. For example right now I’m coming off a mixture of cocaine and heroin I took with my cob salad. [laughs]. No. Sorry to say I don’t really party anymore, I’ll have an occasional celebratory J, a nice glass of wine with my steak. Now I have kids and I’ve mellowed with age. I still have the powers of rock deep within my soul, and I enjoy a party, but nothing to write home about. I know you were hoping for a more exciting answer.
Speaking of the power of rock, so much of your contribution were hymns and gospels, how much did you enjoy doing that?
I actually loved it, I loved doing those songs and Graeme, the guy in charge of the music, was instrumental in that we went over to his house and jammed a lot. The next Tenacious D album is a gospel album [laughs]. Okay that’s not true, but I can definitely see it creeping into my future music work. There is some great untapped music there. Did you know the dude from Gomer Pyle is an incredible gospel singer? I didn’t know that!
There are plenty of chances to be funny with this movie but you’re also playing a real guy. How did you balance being funny with making sure you’re the guy?
You know, it’s a dark comedy, but I never really thought of it as a comedy. I just thought of it as a real story and I tried to keep it real, and let the comedy happen where it will. But it’s mostly a lot of dark terrain to traverse there. I didn’t really think about the category and what would get the most laughs. I wasn’t in that mode.
Did Rick have you work with any actual corpses for the opening scene?
I tried to but there are strict rules about civilians going into mortuaries and being around dead people, you can’t just do that. You can’t just pull the Hollywood card and go ‘Yeah, I’m an actor though’.
Unless you’re Lindsay Lohan. That was her probation – she worked at a morgue.
She did? Maybe I should have gone through mortuary school or something. But I did talk to a mortician and did the research through other ways. Maybe someday I’ll be as good as Lohan! [laughs].
What was your first meeting with Shirley MacLaine like?
She’s passionate. She’s full on. She’s not, what’s the word I’m looking for…she was really into it. When we first met it was me, her and Rick down in Santa Monica. She’s got a place in Malibu and I have a place in the Hills and we met at this hotel where Rick was staying and we read through it. I was nervous because she’s a legend. “The Apartment” is one of my favourite movies.
And she’s worked with very few people recently; do you consider yourselves lucky she chose to be a part of this project?
Oh definitely yes. It was one of those things that when Rick first said it, it was pie in the sky, never going to happen, that would be cool. We’re not going to get Shirley MacLaine. And then all of a sudden we have Shirley MacLaine. My pulse was definitely going. But she is full on. She had questions that I was like ‘Oh yeah, I should be asking those questions too.’ Just really getting deep in the character. And she felt like Marjorie, the character that she’s playing, was misunderstood. That everyone in the town was a bunch of gossips, and she was the victim. She’s not the bad person people were claiming her to be. She was coming at it from a different place than we were. She said she didn’t want to be like Nurse Ratched [laughs]. And that’s what you want; you want them to feel like they’re the good guy. She wanted to show that this woman was right, even though she was a bitch. And it was my job to be as caring and loving as possible, and it’s a battle between the two of them – who is going to win?
After spending time with Bernie, were you surprised that this guy was capable of doing what he did?
I wouldn’t say surprised, but I was surprised at the warmth that I felt meeting him. I was nervous because I had never played a real character before, and there is a lot on the line for him. He’s in prison, basically for life, and I have to go in there and play him, and there is a tremendous amount of pressure because there has been precedent for some people’s cases being overturned or getting off or getting lighter senses from the strength of a film. So you know there’s that anticipation in the back of people’s minds. But at the same time you want to focus on just telling the story and not get caught up in what might make all parties happy, you have to think about what’s the best for the film.
Do you think Bernie was wrongly accused?
No he definitely committed a crime and deserved punishment. But I don’t think all murders are created equal, I don’t think he’s a threat to society, and I think he’s done enough time.
My fantasy is that he adapts so well that he’s made it so that prison life is something acceptable to him.
Well he’s definitely making the best of it, but it’s not a good situation for his health. He has diabetes now and the nutrition is not great. There is not a lot of sympathy for prisoners and they don’t get any fresh fruits or vegetables, so a lot of people get sick in prison, and it ends up costing the tax payers more because they have to be treated. And it costs way more money to treat the illnesses of diabetes and other things you get when you don’t have proper nutrition. So he’s trying to be a proponent for better foods in prison instead of just Doritos and junk food. You know the prisons have all these deals with junk food vendors so it works out good for them but in the end it’s just a big expensive mess.
“Bernie” is a great film that is quite a departure for Jack Black, check it out in limited release soon!