Actor Jack Black

The Golden Globe nominee reflects on his turn in the indie film, Bernie—a performance that’s getting much Oscar buzz.

Jack Black has demonstrated his versatility by playing supporting and lead roles in a variety of films—from comedies to dramas. He proved his box office draw with a Golden Globe-nominated performance in the box office hit, School of Rock, and became a bona fide movie star in 2005's epic film, King Kong. Black is also the lead singer of the comedy-rock duo Tenacious D and lends his voice to various projects. While attending UCLA, the California native was a member of Tim Robbins' acting troupe and, through this collaboration, made his film debut in 1992. He's on Oscar watch for his turn in the indie dramedy, Bernie.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Jack Black to this program. The star of films like “School of Rock,” “Tropic Thunder” and “King Kong” has received terrific reviews for his performance in his latest project. It’s called “Bernie.” The movie, based on a true story, also stars Shirley MacLaine and McConaughey. It is now available on DVD. Here now some scenes from “Bernie.”

[Clip]

Tavis: When I first saw this, I could not believe that this is actually based on a true story.

Jack Black: Yeah, true story [laugh].

Tavis: See? I’m laughing already. Where do you find the humor in a story where a guy kills his wife?

Black: Well, you know, it’s not a traditional comedy, obviously, because it’s based on a true story. There’s a real murder here. You know, it’s a very serious subject, so you don’t want to make a mockery of the situation. You want to play it real, but there’s some very peculiar things about this particular case.

This is Bernard Tiede, III, the most popular guy in this small Texas town. Everybody loves him. He’s the least likely to be a convicted murderer. Not only does he murder her, but he hides the body in an ice locker and just goes about his daily business as if nothing has happened for nine months before anyone even asks, you know, where is Marjorie, cause she was the least popular person in town. She had a reputation for being super mean.

So there is some comedy in there, as the touchiest subject as it is. It took some subtle dancing around it, though, because you don’t want to, like I say, come out and make a slapstick comedy out of a real event where real peoples’ lives were affected.

Tavis: When you saw the script for this, what were your original thoughts?

Black: My original thought was I can’t wait to get back with my old pal, Rick Linklater, who wrote the thing, who directed “School of Rock.” So that was a great opportunity for a reunion with my favorite, you know, director to work with. I was real excited before I even opened the first page. But when I read it, it’s very original. It’s not like anything I’d ever read before. For one thing, it mixes documentary style interviews with traditional storytelling.

Tavis: That was effective, when you see these real-life people who really knew her, like the lady who said, “Oh, my God, anybody in town would have shot her for $5.” I mean, when you’re weaving that kind of documentary style into the storyline, I thought it worked.

Black: And it’s not just a bunch of actors. These are people from this small town of Carthage, Texas, that Rick really knew the fabric of this story because he’s from east Texas too and he wanted it to be a real authentic look at this small-town Texas gossip mindset and like the people of the town, and that really came through in the script.

Also, another thought that went through my mind is this is something that is far away from me. It’s very far from anything I’ve done in the past. You know, the character is super effeminate and from Texas and a mortician. It’s just all these elements that I’d never really touched on before. He murders someone. I’ve never played a part that has that kind of dark secret.

Tavis: I assume you’ve never murdered anyone.

Black: And I’ve never murdered anyone.

Tavis: Just asking, just asking [laugh].

Black: That’s one of the things that attracted me to it and also made me a little bit wary.

Tavis: I was gonna ask. Did any of that intimidate you or you saw all of that as pure challenge?

Black: Well, I’m intimidated because my career has gone in a different direction than that, obviously. I’m Kung Fu Panda, for Cry I [laugh]. You don’t want the Kung Fu Panda to all of a sudden be murdering people. That could really hurt business. But at the same time, you know, it’s good to mix it up. It’s good to take a little risk now and then.

Because of the gray area with this character in this project of, you know, he’s likable, but he’s also got this scary secret, that created opportunities to go places as an actor that I hadn’t done before. So in the end, I said fears be damned. I’m gonna try something new.

Tavis: Since you mentioned it, Jack, I get the sense for me, in fact, this small town of Carthage, Texas is a character in this movie.

Black: Yeah.

Tavis: I mean, so much of the flavor – I’ll let you explain it if you agree. I hope you do. But I get the sense that this town is one of the characters as well.

Black: Very much so. Yeah, Carthage, Texas, the townspeople, there’s a sense of community there. I guess it’s similar all small towns. I grew up in L.A., so I don’t really have this background to know what it’s like to grow up in a town like that. But there’s a trust there and when there’s someone who’s beloved like Bernie, everyone wants to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The movie’s very much about how a town can turn a blind eye to certain things if they love a person. They’ll really rally behind him, and they really did. In a way, they didn’t want to believe that he was capable of such a thing, but even if he had done it, they wanted him to get away with it and they wanted him back. They wanted him back in the community because he was such a good person in every other way.

He helped everyone out financially and also just taking care to help the families of the deceased because he’s a mortician. After he would give people these beautiful funerals, he would go and follow up with the families to make sure that they were all okay and you felt that love from the community around the time of the trial. You know, they all rallied around him and were devastated when he was convicted.

Tavis: I wondered when this thing came on whether or not you’d actually met the real Bernie. Thankfully, at the end of the movie, that question is answered with a little video of you actually talking to the real Bernie in prison. What was that experience like?

Black: It was a surreal experience. I had never been to a prison before. I thought it was important. You know, the director, Rick Linklater, before we started shooting, said, “You know, we could go visit him. Do you think we should?” I was like, “Yeah, absolutely” because not only could I pick up little hints about how to play him the way he walked and talked and I had some questions.

My main question for him that I knew the audience would be asking was, “Why didn’t you just leave?” She’s this horrible boss. He became her manservant, in a way, because she was the richest lady in town and she was jealous that all the old widows in town loved him so much. She wanted him all to herself, in a way. So she hired him as her assistant, but he basically did everything for her.

They were also kind of best friends and traveled all over the world together and had great adventures and good times, but eventually the relationship soured when she became too controlling and he couldn’t leave. That was my question. Once it started to super sour and you started having these feelings of like I have to kill her, that’s when you go.

It was very much the same, I think, as you get with these relationships. You hear about them all the time, these married couples who one of them murders the other one and the question is always the same. Why didn’t you leave this abusive relationship? And the answer is always the same. They fall into this trap. What do you call that relationship when it’s a codependency? I think that’s where they were.

They needed each other, in a way. This was his fatal flaw is that he had to be liked. He loved love and being loved by everyone in the community, including her, and he knew if he left her she would hate him and she would be hurt and he didn’t want to leave her and this is how I think of him.

He didn’t have a release valve like when some people when they get abused, they just bottle it up. They don’t say anything. They just turn the other cheek and slowly the resentment builds and builds, and he’s such a gentle, delicate soul that when it got to the breaking point, he just sort of exploded. It’s a cautionary tale, in a way.

Tavis: It makes me wonder whether or not you took anything away from doing the movie and/or meeting him that made you rethink whether or not, no matter how good we are, that each of us is capable of doing something. When you say this guy was so good-hearted and everybody loved him and he wanted to be loved, he obviously loved people. That was his life.

I think that’s why the town for so many months didn’t even consider that she was missing and then, when he was brought up on charges, nobody wanted to believe. You saw Matthew McConaughey in the clip we played earlier playing the D.A. who’s like everybody thinks he’s so nice. I mean, the D.A. had a hard time trying to convince people. The townspeople didn’t want to believe that Bernie could have done this.

Seems like every other day there’s somebody on the news, somebody gets killed or does something crazy and all the neighbors and everybody says, “I can’t believe he did that, I can’t believe she did that.” It’s like do you ever really know anybody? What did it say to you, though, about whether or not every one of us has that dark side in us?

Black: You know, it just says to me – that was the goal of the movie. When we started off, Rick said “I want to go on this journey and, when you get to the point when he murders her, that you would have at least some small understanding of how it was possible.”

Tavis: Well, you pulled that off [laugh].

Black: Yeah. Then, yes, to question all of us. Before we snap to judge someone who’s done a horrible crime, is it possible that all of us in the worst possible circumstances could be capable of something like that? So it’s about not judging people before really considering what the circumstance was and that not all murderers are created equal. We have a tendency in our society to just say murder? Cut and dried. Go away forever. Or maybe you should have the electric chair yourself.

But there’s different shades of gray. It’s not all cut and dried like that. For instance, was there premeditation? Was there a plan to get away with it? Was there a plan to get some kind of financial gain as a result of the murder? These are things that have to really be carefully…

Tavis: But, Jack, he put her in the freezer, man.

Black: He put her in the freezer.

Tavis: Under the pot pies [laugh].

Black: Yeah, no, it’s gruesome. But at the same time, he was preserving the body, you know. He wanted to give her a real funeral.

Tavis: And he said that.

Black: Yeah.

Tavis: Which I thought was hilarious. When you ask him why he did it, “I had to preserve the body. I wanted to give her a nice burial.”

Black: Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing. The other people in the community all had theories on what he should have done to get away with it. All he had to do was put a pillow over her head and say, “Oh, she died of natural causes in her sleep because she was so old.” You know, no one would have questioned it. There wouldn’t have even been an autopsy.

And she was so old, she was gonna pass away soon and he was the sole beneficiary of her fortune. He would have inherited it all. So it’s crazy for him to murder her and then, yeah, try to get the money. All signs point to he wasn’t premeditating this cold-hearted murder.

Tavis: Since, by your own admission and your fans obviously know this, that this is such a radical departure from what we have seen you at least at this point in your career, to what extent did this experience nudge you in the direction of doing other stuff, trying other stuff, stretching out a bit more in terms of roles in the future?

Black: I’m definitely open to it, yeah. I had a great experience. I don’t really plan out what I’m going to do in terms of what kind of roles. I love comedy and drama equally and music too, you know. I just sort of follow my nose to whatever seems really exciting at the time. Eventually, I might want to do a rock opera. I have a couple of ideas in that venue. You know, I have a band, Tenacious D.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Black: We’re always busy on the side cooking up plans and we actually just cut a jazz album that we’re planning on releasing at the end of November. That’s another change of pace.

Tavis: Tenacious D does jazz.

Black: No one believes it when I say it, but it’s real.

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Black: We’ve got a jazz album coming out because rock is dead, but jazz is back in a big way starting November 23 [laugh].

Tavis: How did you get into the music thing? You been doing this for quite a while, obviously.

Black: Yeah. Well, it started off with a love of musical theater. When I was a kid, you know, I was in the high school productions. It’s always gone hand in hand. Like I always say, I don’t think I would have an acting career if it wasn’t for music because my first big break was “High Fidelity” and I only got that part because I could pull off the musical number at the end, and people liked my band, Tenacious D.

That’s what got my foot in the door. Tenacious D is all music and theater mixed together and “School of Rock,” same deal. It has to be music and acting. It seems to be my calling card. That’s my win in.

Tavis: I think I read somewhere, Jack, though, with all due respect to those great movies, when you walked in to see Bernie, that the prisoners were yelling, “Nacho!” [Laugh]

Black: Yeah. Well, there was different factions. There were some people yelling “Nacho!” and others were, “No! School of Rock!” I was just glad to have some fans. In a situation like that, you want some friends on the inside.

Tavis: Yeah, I can imagine, I can imagine [laugh]. I’m gonna try to turn serious for just a second here. I’m doing this only because I’m curious as to your thoughts about this and I don’t want to submerge too deeply. I do these primetime specials for PBS every so often and I’m working on one now.

I’ve been doing an education series. I did one last year called “Too Important to Fail” about kids and education. If the banks are too big to fail, our kids are too important to fail. So I did a primetime special last year. Working on one now. I just got back from shooting the other day up in Washington State.

This one’s called “Education Under Arrest” and it’s a primetime special airing after the first of the year on PBS about the criminalization of our kids and education and why it is that the stuff that you and I would have been sent to the principal’s office for years ago now literally gets a kid a criminal record.

You get into a fight at school, you got a juvie record. You’re standing in front of a judge. A fight at school, an argument with a teacher, I mean, a few days of truancy. I mean, the basic stuff that we used to get in trouble for, again, go to the office or go sit in study hall for a couple of hours, these kids are getting criminal records for under this zero tolerance policy since Columbine.

You’re thinking, “Where’s Tavis going with this?” I’ve been talking to a lot of kids in filming this special who are in alternative schools. So now you know where I’m going with this?

Black: No, it’s still tough.

Tavis: I’m gonna tell you where I’m going. The kids that I’ve been talking to can’t cut it in the schools that they’re in, the traditional schools, or they want something different or they get put in a different school by a court in an alternative program. I read in your backstory that, at one point in your life, not because you were in trouble – now you know where I’m going with this.

Black: Yeah.

Tavis: It took you a while to catch it with me, Jack.

Black: Yeah, it always takes me a while.

Tavis: I hope what I read was true. At one point in your life, there was a decision made by you, your parents or somebody to put you in an alternative school. I want to be clear, not because you were in trouble, but you wanted to go to an alternative school. The traditional high school setting, for whatever reason, wasn’t working for you. Tell me a bit about that. I’m just curious because I didn’t know anything about that until I started reading this.

Black: Well, I was in trouble, but I wasn’t sent there. I knew I was in trouble and I elected to go to this school ’cause I knew I needed to turn things around and I needed a fresh start. Yeah, I stole some money from my mom and just felt so wracked with guilt and just horrible about my situation that I said – I don’t remember how I heard about this school.

There was this school in West L.A. called Poseidon. I wanted to go there and it was a small school for troubled youths. There was only about 30 kids on the campus and there was a therapist on the campus who would talk to the kids one on one in between classes. I went there for a year and it really helped me out. It turned my life around.

Yeah, there was also a great theater teacher there named Deb Devine who turned me on to some amazing parts of myself and I still work with her all the time. She’s got a program called 24th Street Theater and works with inner city kids in L.A. It’s something that’s important to keep in mind.

I think that’s a great thing that you’re working with the education system to help kids that are struggling. You know, I could have ended up in a much, much different situation if I didn’t get some help by some teachers that cared and a program like Poseidon.

Tavis: First of all, thank you for answering that question. I was hoping that what I had come across was true. I asked that because I’m gonna take this clip and show it to a lot of these kids. Who knows? We may even drop this in our special at some point.

But I think it’s fascinating and empowering for kids to see somebody who had some issues when they were young, who went to went to one of these alternative programs, but was able to get himself together. A lot of times, these kids go to these programs and they end up matriculating from these programs which is a great thing. Sometimes kids reintegrate back into their old high schools and they graduate.

But some of these kids just get lost and they just never make it because they think that, you know – anyway, I appreciate you answering that because I was fascinated when I came across that you had actually chosen to do that and had that experience.

Okay, so there’s Oscar buzz in case you hadn’t heard. I know actors are always a little leery of commenting on that because nobody wants to jinx themselves. But it must feel good, though, to know that your name is being bandied about.

Black: You know, it is very embarrassing.

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Black: But it does feel good. Feels good to hear nice things about your performance. Yeah, maybe we did something right. The way that I can get around the embarrassment of people saying nice things is just thinking it’s good for the production. All the people that worked on this thing, there’s so many people that I like it for them that we’re getting some kudos, you know. But, yeah, the buzz.

Tavis: The buzz is out. The movie is called “Bernie.” It’s out now on DVD starring Jack Black alongside two other great actors, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. Jack, I am honored to have you on the program. Thanks for being so open and transparent tonight and funny, as always. Next time you come back, you can maybe come back as Mitt Romney or something.

Black: Gotta pull up the pants real high for that [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. Thanks, Jack.

Black: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

[Clip]

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: November 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm