Playing a gospel- and musical-theater-loving geek in “Bernie,” Jack Black got to trade in Tenacious D’s metal madness for hymns and “76 Trombones.”
He took to the part so well that he’d like to revive “Bernie” as a stage musical — and the audience at Tuesday night’s packed special showing of "Bernie," part of TheWrap's Awards Screening Series, quickly realized he wasn’t joking.
“She liked my chopssss,” Black said of his co-star, musical-theater veteran Shirley MacLaine, comically drawing out the last consonant. “Shirley has an idea that we could turn this into a real dark musical for Broadway.
A little limited Broadway run. Could you see it, the whole thing as a musical?” For the benefit of the packed crowd at the Landmark Theater, Black improvised a possible lyric in his best rock-operatic voice: “And she’s driving me insaaaaane!”
But Black isn’t naïve about the likelihood of “Bernie: The Musical” coming to fruition –even if the film does get an awareness boost from possible Oscar nominations.
He, for one, doesn’t have the patience. “The problem is, with the good Broadway musicals, it takes like five years of workshopping and writing, and who’s got that kind of time? I’d like to do it like next week, if possible! 2017?”
Black admitted that he hasn’t done any musical theater since he did “a little ‘Pippin’ in high school” but answered in the affirmative when a fan asked if the Great White Way is on his bucket list. “I would like to do Broadway,” he said. “Did you see ‘Book of Mormon’? I’d love to do a really funny musical — a rock opera if possible. Did you see ‘Pink Floyd The Wall’ –not the movie, but when Roger Waters did it live? I think that’s what I’d like to do. If I ever was able to write my magnum opus, it’d be a funny version of ‘Pink Floyd The Wall.’”
“Bernie” is like a funny version of “Sunset Blvd" — with a little “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” thrown in — although the true-life tale is hardly all played for laughs. The fact that the lovable title character shot his aged girlfriend/keeper to death is hardly glossed over, and the serious moments provided an admitted stretch for the usually comedic actor, as did Bernie’s walk, Texas talk, and ambiguously gay inflections.
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“I’m just really sick of playing myself in movies,” Black admitted at the Q&A with TheWrap's Awards Editor Steve Pond. “I put on a different costume and mask and found it a little easier to go to some emotional places when I was pretending to be somebody else.”
Writer-director Rick Linklater wrote the original drafts of “Bernie” well before he ever met Black. This was unlike most of the actor’s projects, which have been tailored to his outsized man-child-rocker persona — including the first collaboration between the director and actor, “School of Rock,” which was written by Black's pal Mike White.
The version of “Bernie” that made it to the screen grew out of a failed “School of Rock” sequel, of all things.
Linklater went back to his native east Texas to attend the real Bernie’s murder trial in the 1990s and “was just so moved by the story, he wanted to make it 15 years ago when all this happened, but he couldn’t get the financing for it,” Black said. “So he put it on the shelf. Then I was talking to him about trying to get ‘School of Rock 2’ up and going…” The audience tittered, as if thinking Black might be kidding — but crafting a sequel to a comedy that grossed more than $80 million in 2003 dollars is hardly a kidding matter.
“We were slowly walking away from the sequel — we gave it the old college try — and Rick said, ‘Well, wait a second, Jack, before you go, I’ve got this other script that’s collected some dust I would really love to do right now. I think you’d be great as the lead character.’ I said ‘Let me read that thing,’ and was like, ‘Oh man, that’s not “School of Rock 2.” That’s a horse of a different color there!’”
Black spent a couple of hours meeting with the real Bernie at a maximum-security prison. “I already knew from the script that he was gonna be a nice guy, but I was still surprised by how sweet and nice he was. I said, ‘I can see why everybody in town loved you.’ In a way, I think that was his undoing. He was too sweet. He was so nice that, when he was treated badly, he would never say ‘Fuck you.’ He would just slowly take it, and the resentment built up over time.”
The complete absence of malice presented a hurdle for an actor not known for playing doormats, do-gooders, or naifs. “Luckily…he was a public figure and there’s tons of video of him singing to congregations and doing Bible readings and things of that nature. Before I did any of the scenes, I would close my eyes and imagine how Bernie would approach it. And sometimes I know I would fail in that I would let a little devilish mischief creep into my eyes, and that was the biggest challenge.
"I know I didn’t quite nail it sometimes. Because when you meet him, you go, ‘This guy couldn’t harm a hair on a bunny’s head.’ So I was extra-worried that I was gonna let something [darker] creep in there. I did my best.”
On location, “by design, that was Rick’s plan to have all the people from Carthage, Texas there as the Greek chorus. There were people coming up and giving opinions on him. It definitely kept you on your toes when you had people around that knew him, and it’s a strange sensation when all the extras have little tips for you.”
Bernie was a mortician, but Black’s research stopped short of the morgue. “You’re not allowed to be with corpses unless you’re a licensed mortician,” he pointed out, sounding still disappointed. “You would think that a man of my fame and stature would be able to bend the rules a bit, but I was unable to gain access to the unliving.”
Pond pointed out that MacLaine comes back in the film, even after her shocking death scene: “My understanding is she was very particular about how she looked when she came back.”
“Well, you know, she has very specific beliefs about the afterlife,” answered Black, drawing knowing chuckles with that possible understatement. “So when she came back in spirit form, she had a lot of particulars about the way her hair looked, and the way that she would choose to come back was all very important to her."
He added, "There was actually an alternate ending. She wanted to come back at the very end of the movie, after you see me walking down that hall. You would then see me go into my cell and sit down and I look over and there she is, just sitting there in my cell with me. It was very cool, but it was very dark and ominous in a way that Rick didn’t want for an ending … We shot it but didn’t use it … Maybe it’ll be in the 10-year anniversary release: ‘Shirley’s Cut.’”
Pond asked Black of “Bernie” represented “a move to claim the center” in a career that, remarkably, veers between hard-R and G-rated material.
“I guess so,” said Black. “but it’s more drifting toward the darker side. I wouldn’t bring my kids to see it. But I have gone back and forth. I do the R-rated band Tenacious D and then I’ll go do a little ‘Yo Gabba Gabba’ for the little ones, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. I seem to be able to go back and forth and no one sticks me in a pigeonhole.”
Or do they? Although the Wrap’s screening crowd was film-industry-heavy, at least one young audience member wanted some rawk, and asked during the Q&A if Black would sing something.
Black was amused by the request. “’He’s gonna throw down some jams!’ Is that why you came? Were you thinking there was gonna be a Tenacious D concerto?” And, of course… he obliged, singing: “’Well, it’s 3 p.m./Time to lug the gear/Got to get it on the stage/My muscles flex/My fuckin’ sweat will save the day…’ I’m sorry, I don’t have any clean lyrics.”
Bernie would have blanched, but there may be a few guild members buying their first Tenacious D CD.