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Black on Black

Jack Black knows a lot about rock. Just don't ask him about no Blue Cheer, broham.

Jack Black first appeared on film as a fanatical Young Republican in Tim Robbins' 1992 Bob Roberts. Black, then only 23, had already mastered his ability to be simultaneously creepy and comic, a round mound of menace leering in a perpetual deep-focus stare beneath eyebrows that appeared to twitch independently of each other. He was a nobody then, an extra cast because of his association with Robbins' troupe of actors that had come out of UCLA. Exactly a decade later, Jack Black was invited to host Saturday Night Live, where, during his monologue, he would sing a song of Jack Black and proclaim himself "the most talented man that the world has ever seen...like a cross between a lightning bolt and James Dean!" Much happened during those 10 years, not least of which was Jack Black becoming a rock god in his folk-art-metal duo Tenacious D and a movie star--or both in the brand-new School of Rock, in which he plays Dewey, a failed rocker-turned-fake-substitute teacher who teaches cutesy kids their AC/DC rather than their ABCs.

Black spent most of the '90s in a baffling amount of C-grade movies doomed to air on Cinemax in perpetuity (among them Airborne, a friggin' Rollerblade movie in which he plays baddie to Seth Green's "Fruity Two-Shoes," and Waterworld), then inched his way up to small roles in movies so big they swallowed him whole. With Stephen Frears' adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity, Black at last had a role that seemed to suit him less like a turtleneck sweater one size too small than a ratty T-shirt just the right size. As Barry, the ill-tempered record-store clerk with no patience for middle-aged men buying "I Just Called to Say I Love You" for their teenage daughters, Black was a rock-and-roll bully brandishing his fetishism like a flanged mace. He teased customers who didn't know their Jesus and Mary Chain from their Echo and the Bunnymen and taunted shoppers coveting rare Captain Beefheart vinyl. Beneath his bluster, Barry was nothing more than a wannabe rocker--front man of Barrytown, a secret singer of soul songs wantin' to get it on like Marvin Gaye.

It is here, then, our conversation with Jack Black begins--wondering if School of Rock doesn't feel to him like some informal sequel to High Fidelity. A word of caution: You do not interview Jack Black as much as you experience him. To ask him questions and expect rational answers is a mistake. Sometimes what you will receive instead is an invitation to engage in a staring contest, which he will win because he will take it seriously, whereas his interrogator will not know what to make of this struggle of wills and will look away in shame. "I'm one of the best stare-ers," he says, as though announcing he, too, is the god of hellfire.

Black in the flesh is precisely what he seems on the movie screen, in such films as High Fidelity, Orange County and School of Rock, and on the concert stage: sweetly sarcastic, delightfully peeved, always between blowing a gasket and blowing your mind. Black, even when sitting down and doing absolutely nothing, will forever have the look of a man about to take a hair-waving guitar solo before kicking over a stack of Marshall amps.

It is impossible to convey the energy with which Black speaks; it's like trying to describe a hurricane to someone who has spent his life roaming the desert. Italics don't do him justice, don't express the roaring ecstasy and rage and irony and glee he can muster when he plugs in and turns up.

The whole time I'm watching School of Rock, it seems to me that it's like watching Barry, that this is what Barry might have done the day after High Fidelity ended.

Barry was way more on the outside looking into rock, judging all the other people, but, yeah, at the end of School of Rock he gets in there and starts to perform. I think the difference is Barry maybe had a little more evolved taste in music. Dewey Finn, the character I play in School of Rock, is definitely learning towards the metal--the love of metal. It's a subtle difference. I know they may seem the same; they may look the same. Dewey is a little thinner than Barry.

I'm assuming that Mike White, who wrote Orange County, wrote School of Rock for you.

Yeah, he wrote something that was very Jack Black-specific. There's not many of us song-and-dance men around, especially not many heavy-metal song-and-dance men. There's only, like, two or three.

Was it important for you to find something that let you put the rock in a movie?

Mike wanted to play to my strengths, and music is definitely one of my most effective weapons in my handbag of entertainment tricks. We wrote the Tenacious D script, too. I'm planning on shooting that as my next movie, but when he showed me this one, I just couldn't pass it up, 'cause there's not many good writers, period. And I don't get calls from the Coen brothers or from the Wes Andersons or the Paul Thomas Andersons or...  

Basically any of the Andersons.

None of the Andersons calling me.

School of Rock is the best thing Richard Linklater's done since Dazed and Confused, maybe because it has that same sort of anarchic spirit to it.

Dazed and Confused is, like, seminal, one of the great high school comedies. There's that, and there's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and then I can't really think of anything else that's up in that category.

Not Rock and Roll High School.

OK, I'm embarrassed to say I never saw Rock and Roll High School. I guess I should have seen it...

It's not very good, but it does have the Ramones.

Good, but I probably should have watched it for research purposes, you're thinking.

Why would you?

I shouldn't. Here's why I wouldn't: What if I ended up copying it?

Well, there's not a lot to copy.

It's not laziness on my part. It's not wanting to copy. [Jack Black stares at me for a minute, saying absolutely nothing.] I guess I felt like you were accusing me of something.

I'm not accusing you of anything.

I went on the offensive; my walls came down. But when Linklater agreed to do it, we breathed a sigh of relief, because even though the script is really funny, just doing a movie with a lot of kids there's a huge danger that it's going to slide into the cheese ravine--a ravine filled with cheese and corn--and I didn't want to drown in that ravine. And we knew when he jumped on board, you know, all his films have a great amount of integrity and, like, a sort of a juicy believability. I just made that up. It didn't sound that good: a juicy believability.

Are you more Black Sabbath or Blue Cheer?

Definitely Sabbath, because I don't know who Blue Tear is.

No, Blue Cheer.

Blue Cheer? I know Blue Oyster Cult. Blue Cheer? Are you making these up?

No, no, no, no, no. Blue Cheer, you'd love them. They're awesome, one of the greatest metal bands of all time.

I'll scoop it up, but I'll tell you now, that's a horrible name for a heavy-metal band.

So you and Richard would have discussions about...

I knew he wasn't going to let it fall into the ravine of cheese and corn, but I was worried, because I've never seen in any of his movies any super-broad comedic performances. This is kind of his first foray into, like, what do you call it? I don't want to say commercial...

Mainstream.

Mainstream film. I mean, what's-his-name was really funny in Dazed and Confused...

Matthew McConaughey?

McConaughey. But it was kind of subtle, and I wanted to bring a ridonculousness to the role.

Well, you're bound to be the opposite of McConaughey, since he's stoned the entire time.

I'm surprised you didn't want to talk about my word--ridonculous.

Hey, I think it's an awesome word. I'd just like to let it slide, and hopefully it will catch on...

Good. Because that's the way you start new words...

You don't acknowledge it and you just...

My bad. You can edit out my overanalyzation.

Do you take criticism from directors well?

I do have a lot of rage in me, and negative criticism is the way to tap into it, which is good if, you know, I'm playing an angry character.

High Fidelity was the first time it seemed a director let you be on screen who you appear to be off screen.

High Fidelity was the first time I was like, "OK, I'm gonna go all the effing way. Come hell or high water, I'm going to do what I think is going to be the strongest choices." And after that I had some more opportunities, but you don't get those cool projects too often. The Rolls-Royces only drive by every blue moon.

It seems to me you are nothing but natural instinct, and it strikes me that maybe it's hard for people to tap into, which maybe makes it hard for you to find things that will satisfy you.  

Well, I wanted to do more things like that. That's the problem. It's so general, and the hardest thing is figuring out what you really want, because you know, generally, "Yeah, I want to do something cool like that," but you have to really home in on exactly what you want to do, and then it's not so hard to do it. But, yeah, figuring out what you really want is the first thing in the Jack Black Success Plan. The second thing is relaxing. And that's easier said than done.


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