Interview: Jack Black as “Bernie” – AFI Fest

By November 10, 2012AFI Film Festival

Anthony Breznican, senior writer at EW, sat down with the multi-talented Jack Black at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to discuss his role in the indie feature Bernie. The film is written and directed by School of Rock’s Richard Linklater and features a star-studded cast with Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine, and Black playing the title role. In the Q&A he discusses what it was like to play a real-life criminal, the challenges he faced and how he got his big break in the biz. Here are some highlights from the chat and, oh, he’s just as hilarious in person. 

Breznican: This film is based on a true story. Where did you start with trying to become this character “Bernie?”

Black: I read the script and I was nervous about it when I first read it because I’ve never played a murderer before. I usually play it safe being the likeable character. I was intrigued by the idea of a lovable killer. I really like, did you ever check out, this TV show Dexter? I that love aspect of crime, you know, drama…

Breznican: Where you’re invested in what would otherwise be the bad guy?

Black: Exactly, the grey areas. I guess the first question I had when I read [the script] was, ‘Why did he do it? Why didn’t he just leave?’ He’s clearly in this abusive situation. That was the first question when we actually went to the prison to meet Bernie. The sense I got, it’s just not that simple. People get in co-dependant relationships and that’s what happened there. They needed each other in some way.

Breznican: When you go in to talk to someone you’re portraying in film…is it awkward? How do you break the ice in conversation?

Black: It was very awkward. It was necessary though. You’re playing someone real, you’re telling their life story. You want to get their blessing, even if they’re a murderer. You want to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to make a mockery of your life or anything. And see if you can pick up some clues and hints on how to portray it accurately. I was worried he’d say, ‘I do not approve of this. I don’t want this project to happen!’ But he was ok with it so I’m glad we made the pilgrimage to the maximum-security prison.

Berznican: Tell me about the challenges of playing a different entertainer [Bernie], than what comes naturally to you?

Black: (After singing a few lines from The Music Man) In high school I was Pippin! So I’m no stranger to that world. We had some similarities. But I did have to suppress my devil inside…my mischief. With Bernie, there was no pre-mediation for the murder. I look back and sometimes I may have let it slip, that devil.

Breznican: What was it like working with Shirley MacLaine?

Black: Shirley MacLaine likes to channel the character, to inhabit. She spent time imagining. I’m more of a rehearsal guy. I would do rehearsals alone, see what happened on the day.

Breznican: With Bernie, were you looking for something other than a “Jack Black” role?

Black: Well, Tenacious D is buffoonery added to the real me. Bernie was a breath of fresh air. It opened up stuff.

Breznica: What makes you want to try new things?

Black: I get sick of playing me. With School of Rock 2, I didn’t want to mess with [the original film]. And Rock is so dead right now. Who’s the King of Rock? School of Jazz! I have a new jazz album out…mention that…

Black continued to answer some audience questions discussing his first commercial for Smurfberry Crunch Cereal. Don’t get your hopes us. He guaranteed, “I’ve destroyed all copies of it.” But perhaps the best insight Black gave was about the beginning of his career. He laughed when discussing “these 25 year old kids” coming up to him asking how to get an agent or, “should I get new head shots?” He assured, “It doesn’t end at 30!” He didn’t get his big break till he began creating his own material with Tenacious D. He urged, “Write the kind of thing you want to be in.” Note taken, Black.

Bernie is currently out on DVD! Check it out!