Feature He may be approaching 40, but Jack Black shows no sign of abandoning the shamelessly immature sense of fun.
He may be approaching 40, but Jack Black shows no sign of abandoning the shamelessly immature sense of fun that's made him one of cinema's most popular comedy actors. Ahead of the release of his new film, Year One, the father of two and part-time rock star talks to John Hiscock about his favourite type of fan and the key to getting a laugh. Very little about Jack Black is straightforward; what you see is not always what you get. He can be childish, complex, exuberant, morose and outlandish, sometimes all within the space of minutes.
But Harold Ramis, who has worked with comic actors for the best part of 35 years and who directed him in his latest comedy, Year One, thinks he has him figured out. "Jack," he says, "is immature but he's not infantile; he just knows how to be silly." Told of the remark later, Jack Black thought about it for a long moment and then smiles beatifically. "That's a really sweet, sweet compliment."
Silliness is something on which the chubby, puckish actor has built a successful film career; his frenetic screen presence and lowbrow form of humour have won him hordes of fans among younger filmgoers and still astonishes his peers. "He's spent more time on screen in his underwear than any other actor in history," says Ramis. "He's totally shameless. He'll do anything," marvels Michael Cera, who co-stars with Black in Year One, which opens here on August 13.
Black himself is reluctant to indulge in any in-depth self-analysis. "I have flaws, but I've learnt that if you talk too much about your insecurities and your weak points, it comes right back to haunt you. All the things that you shouldn't have said just never go away. "I don't have anything to say about how great I am," he beams broadly. It is difficult to know when the rubbery-faced actor is joking. He will say something that sounds serious, allow it to sink in, and then he will giggle or laugh and it is difficult not to laugh with him. During our interview in a suite at New York's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, he talks seriously about his rock band Tenacious D, sings a couple of verses of the Beatles' song Dig A Pony, veers into a long, detailed and nauseatingly gross description of a stomach flu he recently suffered in London and tells of losing a python he was looking after for a friend.
At one point he unbuttons his jeans to show off the red and black striped underpants his wife had bought for him. "I'm not totally comfortable with my body but my acting is good," he says with a straight face. "I'm willing to go places to get a laugh and if it means being embarrassed, that's OK. "Unpredictability is the key to comedy. I strive to achieve it because I think laughter comes from being surprised, and the best comedy is when a comedian surprises himself, and it's not easy to surprise yourself. You have to be really relaxed and just let things flow from the subconscious and something will come out of your mouth that even you didn't expect."
The 39-year-old actor has flown into New York from London, where he is producing and starring in an updated version of Gulliver's Travels and enjoying the perks accorded to a big-time Hollywood filmmaker and star. "When you first start working in movies you think, 'What's going on and why are they spoiling me? I'm so pampered. I don't need this big trailer or these plasma TVs and all the things they're giving me.' Then very quickly you get used to it and then you get spoiled and start to think you deserve all these things and then you expect them. I don't know how it happens, but this industry has a way of changing people very fast. You start thinking things are difficult when really you're blessed with a very exciting, fun life.
"I can live without almost any of the pampering things and I still go back and do little internet short films with my friends so I like to think that I'm unaffected by Hollywood's ways." He sounds sincere, but then he grins as if to say, "I don't really mean that." Although it's easy to think of Jack Black as a relative newcomer to movie comedy, he has been working professionally for 27 years. The son of two satellite engineers, or "rocket scientists", as he prefers to call them, who separated when he was 10, Black grew up near the beach in Santa Monica, California and attended the private Crossroads School, a hothouse for blossoming LA intelligentsia and show-business children (past pupils also include Kate Hudson and Gwyneth Paltrow).
"When I was a kid I wanted to be an actor," he recalls. "I was the class clown at school and wanted to make everyone laugh. I would humiliate myself shamelessly to get a laugh. Laughs were like a fantastic drug to me and put me in a stage of euphoria. I loved performing, but I didn't fit the mould of the classic actor type." His stepfather encouraged him by taking him to auditions, pulling whatever strings he could and urging him to reach for his goals.
"It wasn't like he was a stage parent pushing me to go and make some money; he was just helping me to achieve my dreams." He admits he was lucky to have help in starting his career. "It's like a family business and if you have family or friends in the business, you're going to have some opportunities. I was lucky to make some good, creative friends who were able to help me early on. Like Tim Robbins, who got me my first job and who introduced me to John Cusack, who gave me a big movie break in High Fidelity. So it's just as much about the relationships I've made over the years as it is my growth as an actor."
His first idol was the Six Million Dollar Man, as portrayed in the 1970s TV series by Lee Majors. "I wanted to be bionic," he says. "Then, later the actor I looked up to was Jack Nicholson, who was probably my favourite of all time because of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. I loved that performance. Then later on in college I was really into John Malkovich because I was a theatre guy, and his performance in Death Of A Salesman with Dustin Hoffman [in 1984] was just mind-blowing. I couldn't believe how real he was and how funny and strange? yeah, I always liked the crazy performers? the Christopher Walkens and who's that dude who played Dracula? Gary Oldman. I like a little danger in my soup."
His first paid acting jobs gave him little chance to display his offbeat talents: when he was 13, he was cast in a video game commercial and then an advertisement for Smurf-Berry Crunch cereal. The same year, he appeared in a play staged by an experimental theatre group at UCLA, run by a then unknown Tim Robbins. Black later made his feature film debut playing a crazed fan in Robbins's 1992 political satire Bob Roberts, followed by performances in Robbins's dramas Dead Man Walking and Cradle Will Rock.
His big breakthrough came when John Cusack cast him to co-star in his adaptation of Nick Hornsby's novel High Fidelity, in which he turned in a high-energy performance as the obnoxious record store salesman and proved his musical talent with a surprisingly adept performance of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On. He turned his brand of adolescent humour into a string of one-dimensional broad comedies that failed to enhance his reputation or find an audience, but with 2003's School Of Rock, his role as a failing musician who took a substitute teaching job earned him a Golden Globe nomination and demonstrated he was capable of more than just outrageous, face-pulling humour.
More recently he had a pivotal role in Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, appeared with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet in the romantic comedy Holiday, and last year co-starred in the comedy hit Tropic Thunder. Married to musician Tanya Haden, who attended the same school as him, the couple have two sons, aged three and one, who join Black when he's filming on location. Not surprisingly, the majority of Black's fan base is preadolescent and he, in turn, reciprocates their attentions.
"I appreciate the children more than the parents, usually, because when a kid comes up and wants your autograph or is excited to see you, it just feels very? very pure and genuine. They never really want anything from me and they never want to give me a script or get them into a party or something. It's always just pure joy and I appreciate them." In Year One, which is produced by Ramis and the current king of raunchy comedy, Judd Apatow, Black plays Zed, a lazy, accident-prone hunter who, with his buddy, the nerdy gatherer Oh (Cera), is banished from his primitive village after eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. The two embark on a meandering journey through the ancient world, meeting historical characters along the way and ending in the city of Sodom. Because it is a Black vehicle, it contains some gross jokes involving bodily functions, but for the most part it is too amiable and laid back to elicit more than the occasional smile.
"I liked the script because it doesn't take anything seriously," says Black, "and Harold [Ramis] loves actors and encourages us to play." When Black is not acting, his personal passion is his band, Tenacious D, which is a serious rock band that he fronts with crazed energy, despite its offbeat and lewd material and its not-too-accurate label as "The Greatest Band On Earth". The band's self-titled album was a decent commercial success and led to opening slots on tours with the Foo Fighters, Beck and Pearl Jam, although a movie featuring the band, Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny, flopped.
Last summer, Black and the band played at British music festivals in Leeds and Reading, supporting Metallica. "Leeds was not so good because we'd never done a show that big before, and I was worried that the people at the back couldn't hear me or see me so it turned into an incredibly broad kabuki performance," Black recalls, miming exaggerated facial contortions and air guitar-playing. "Then I realised there was a huge television screen behind me and they could see every little subtlety. I learnt that lesson at Reading, and we had one of our best shows ever. I remember there was a train going by very slowly, and they were looking at who was on stage so we improvised songs to the train: we rocked the train.
"We'll do another album - don't worry, we're not going to do another movie - and I'd love to play Reading again some day." After Year One's New York premiere, the actor is due to fly back to London to resume work on Gulliver's Travels, which he is also producing. The film is very loosely based on Jonathan Swift's classic 1726 novel ("it's not so much a send-up as an update") and Black's character is a modern-day Gulliver, working in the post room of a New York newspaper, with dreams of being a big-time travel writer.
"He gets his chance when he is sent to Bermuda to write about the Bermuda Triangle, and of course he gets sucked into this inner-dimensional porthole and wakes up on the beach in Lilliput," Black explains. "That was our way into that world because when the book was written it was still conceivable there was an island somewhere on earth that had this race of tiny people, but we didn't think we could get audiences to take that leap with us so we needed a new way in.
"Before there was a script, we were thinking that maybe he's a space traveller and gets to another planet in a spaceship where the Lilliputians are but we decided to go with the Bermuda Triangle." Black had hoped to celebrate his 40th birthday later this month by performing with Tenacious D in front of 50,000 people at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco as the supporting act to Pearl Jam, but work commitments interfered.
"I thought that's a good way to turn 40: in front of a huge rock and roll audience. It would have been fantastic. But the moviemakers wouldn't let me because they said I might still be filming. I said, 'Come on, please, I'm a star, let me off for one day.' But they said, 'No, we paid you and now you have to work on your birthday.' I'm going to be bad in the movie on purpose that day. That'll teach them."
He is, however, forming other plans for his post-40 future. "My plan is to raise the babies, have some fun, make some more movies and maybe do something with my wife. Like puppet shows or something." Serious or joking? Only Jack Black knows for sure.