Comedian and actor Jack Black has performed in what is perhaps his greatest role as Bernie Tiede, a man famous for being affable, altruistic, and downright lovable — as well as a convicted murderer in the 1996 death of 81 year-old widow Marjorie Nugent in Carthage, Texas. All of Black’s talents collide in Bernie, a semi-biographical dark comedy costarring Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey, which made its theatrical release on April 27, 2012.
In a roundtable setting on the afternoon of Monday, April 23rd, members of the press spoke with Black about what it was like to meet Tiede in person, and the process of bringing this complex character and story to life.
What was it like when you first met Bernie?
Well, it was a relief to see that he was in fact a sweetheart — as it had been written in our script. It felt like it was reinforcing out theory of what he would be like. It was very surreal; I had never been in a maximum security prison, which was pretty intimidating. Lots of hardened criminals in there doing hard time, for hard crime. Then there was Bernie, who is just this big, sweet, soft, gentle mammoth of a man. Yeah, he really didn’t fit in with the general population in there, to say the least. It was good to connect with him and talk with him, listen to his accent and his behavior, ask him a few things.
Did you find yourself channeling him on set?
No…well, a little bit. I don’t lose track of time and all of a sudden become, like, “Where was I? What time is it?” You know, like someone who sinks so deep into their character that the real Jack Black disappears. I’m not like that.
It does seem though that the real Jack Black is looking to burst out of the seams. How do you contain the real Jack Black?
Maybe that is the real Jack Black. Maybe all those other times I was forcing a big clown show. The real Jack Black is like Sean Penn, you ever think about that?
What about the moustache, that’s not the real Jack Black?
The ‘stache is my secret weapon. Whenever I bring out the ‘stache, the most powerful performances come to life — I don’t know if you saw Nacho Libre. The ‘stache is like a super power when I grow it.
Can you talk about creating your walk? I personally fell that there is a metaphorical significance behind it.
Well, you have the one that is very straight and stiff, while the other flairs out to the side.
Yeah, I don’t know what that was about. That really did just come to me. Really, only a couple of times do you get to see the walk, in the movie. I don’t know, I can’t really speak to the walk.
At the beginning of the movie you are just driving along singing a song, and you’re so happy and joyous. Was that something where Richard [Linklater] said, “Let’s just drive around and you do what you want?”
It’s a great song. It’s got a great bounce to it and it was fun to sing along to. It was important to Rick [director Richard Linklater] that I know every lyric. I was like, “Really? Can’t I just come in and out…” He’d say, “No, he would know every lyric, Bernie would know it all.” So I really studied it hard. I don’t remember lyrics very well. I’m not one of those people who remember lyrics or jokes.
Even your own?
Even my own — I’m in the middle of trying to remember the entire new album. But yeah, being able to see that part of Texas, and see those types of particular pine trees, just to see how enthused he is at the beginning of the movie, begin part of the community. It kind of tells the story of who he was, before the movie even starts.
How do you see Bernie? Do you see him as someone who had this planned, or that it was all just an unfortunate circumstance?
I think it’s more the latter. Bernie is a guy who is a real pleaser. He liked people to love him, to a fault. To a degree where it was — maybe it [would have been] better to leave her and let her hate him, rather than to stay and let things go as badly as they obviously did.
What was it like working with Shirley MacLaine?
Shirley MacLaine is a hero of mine. I was always a huge fan of her performances going all the way back to The Apartment. It’s rare that someone can be that beautiful and that talented; her performance is so good. There was no one hotter than her, back in the day. Hands down, she’s the most talented and hot — it’s a powerful combination. So it was a thrill to work with her; she’s like a Jack Nicholson level of awesomeness. But she put me at ease early on. She would laugh at all my dumb jokes and make me feel like I was worthy.
Did you find yourself trying extra hard around her?
Definitely — we kind of fell into the roles of the movie. I kind of became her Bernie to her Marjorie. I took care of her needs. Made sure she was always comfortable and attended to, if she needed something cool to drink. I never gave her a foot massage or anything, it never went that far, but a little hint of that relationship was happening.
Did you study gay friends of yours to create Bernie?
I never really though about it like that, no. It was in the back of my mind, but he was not flamboyantly out of the closet. He never said that he was gay, and in that community, there aren’t a lot of flamboyant out-of-the-closet gay people. In east Texas, you keep it well hidden, and that was definitely part of his character. I tried to keep it subtle.
So you didn’t ask him when you met with him?
No, I didn’t feel like it was any of my business. I probably should have asked more questions in general, but I’m sort of a shy guy. I don’t like to probe.
How else did you prepare, beyond meeting with him?
I got to see a lot of videotapes of him, because he was a public figure and there were great videos of him conducting ceremonies and leading the congregation in singing songs. So I studied those a lot for the accent and for behavior.
You keep referring to him as a character — do you consider him more a part than a person?
I was always aware that he was a real person. There’s a lot of pressure when you’re playing someone who is real and alive. They can see it and judge it — although, they’re not going to let us play the movie for him in prison, which I’m bummed about. I wanted him to see it and see what he thought about it.
Why won’t they let you?
Don’t know. They told Rick that it was not going to happen.
What’s the most challenging aspect to playing a real person?
Just the pressure in the back of your mind, wanting to get it right. If it was a made-up part, I wouldn’t feel bad about acting like an ass at times. I don’t want it to be a smear in anyway, I want it to be accurate.
Did you talk to any of the actual townspeople before hand, or did you want to keep those views out of mind when preparing?
Well, there are actually townspeople in the movie, so I was able to interact with them, but I didn’t actively seek out friends and family of Bernie to talk about this.
Did you do any research into being a devout Christian?
Well, I studied the songs, obviously. I did not do any bible study, but I felt like I was familiar enough with that to play someone who is really into Jesus. Sorry to say, there was not a lot of time spent in the church.
What actually attracted you to the part?
Well, it spoke to me. When I read the script, I could hear his voice and I saw a way to play it in an interesting way. The story itself is compelling: you have this guy who’s the most loved guy in the town, that is the least likely to commit a murder, and then he puts a body in a freezer for nine months. There are so many question marks that make it interesting.
Do you think Bernie wanted to get caught?
I think he was relieved when he got caught, for sure, But he was afraid of everybody hating him, and the huge shit storm that was about to hit his life. So I’m sure he was conflicted with that.
Do you believe he had any devious intentions, even if it was just for the money?
I don’t think so, but I do think that the corrosive and corrupting power of money was involved. On the one hand, he wanted her to love him. So he didn’t want to leave her and risk her being angry. In addition to that, he did come accustomed to the money, and he did like having money — mostly to give to other people. He enjoyed going on trips with her, but mostly he just liked giving it all away and seeing the effect it had on other people. So it was seductive, it kept him there with her, but I don’t think it was devious; he didn’t have plans to get all her money.
Were you allowed any input as the movie was being made?
We had some collaboration in the rehearsal process. While we were making the movie I would express concerns about certain elements. I would ask if we were building it up enough, whether she was mean enough. Should we add a scene where she is being more oppressive? Of course, he said no, he thought it was fine. He had written the script years before I came on board, I wasn’t involved in that part of it.
Knowing Bernie, an knowing the outcome and all the aspects of the story, if you were one of the townspeople at the time it all happened, would you have been one of the ones who said he wasn’t guilty?
No, he’s guilty. He deserves to do time; the question is, does he deserve to do as much time as someone who was caught calculating the whole thing? There are people out there who do less time who are much worse offenders. I don’t think he is a danger to society; he could come out and no one would have to worry about the cold-blooded killer Bernie Tiede.
How much time did you spend with Bernie?
A couple of hours. We walked around the prison with him and he showed us his workshop. They gave us a lot of leeway because of the Hollywood Jack aspect. We got to go to his cell and meet some of his friends, and then we got a room where we could talk for about 45 minutes.
Now that you’re a dad, does it effect how you choose roles? Is that why you choose to do something like Gulliver’s Travels?
Not really. I know a lot of people do, but I would have done these types of movies whether or not I had kids. I wanted to do Gulliver’s Travels just for fun, for me. This one, obviously, I did not do for my kids. I don’t really want them to see me in anything, kids movies or adult movies. It’s too much of a weird head-trip to see your dad all big, up on a screen. The next thing you know they’re gonna want acting classes.
What is your next project?
Well, the Tenacious D album is released next month and we go a world tour. We’re gonna do all of the US and then Europe. Nothing in Australia or Asia yet.
What about the rumors of a sequel to School of Rock?
Yeah, I’d love to do a School of Rock sequel; we’re just trying to figure it out. It just hasn’t come together, and we’ve never seen eye-to-eye on what that story would be — but never say never. At this point, if we did a sequel I think it would have to be about how rock is dead, and it’s Dewey’s job to bring rock back to life somehow. I’m also looking forward to getting started on this Charlie Kaufman movie after the Tenacious D tour.