GQ, May 2003
Jack the Rocker: Star of US box office smash School of Rock, Jack Black is the chunky comic the big screen has been missing for far too long.
Photograph by Danielle Levitt
The Active Fat Man is an illustrious comedy tradition, dating back to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, even Ancient Greece if you have the time. In living memory, we have had the Johns (Candy, Goodman and Belushi); Sam Kinison, Jackie Gleason, Lou Costello and Oliver Hardy, not to mention our own, the peerless Benny Hill – men of mirth, mass and manic motion who don’t need a killer punchline to bring the house down. They need only pull a face and run out the door, disco dance or roll around on the floor. The Active Fat Man is at his funniest when he exhibits an unlikely agility as well as a hysterical relish for his fatness. Very often, he’ll take off his shirt and jiggle his jolly paunch.
Lately, the lineage has suffered its share of tragedy. Belushi, Kinison and Candy died young, and ever since Chris Farley followed suit – the last American of heft and humour filled a plus-size casket in 1997 – our generation has wanted for an Active Fat Man worthy to carry his considerable torch.
Until now, that is. For Jack Black, the star of School of Rock, hath arrived. He’s not so perilously fat as a Candy or a Farley – “chunky” is how Black describes himself – nor is he a seasoned sketch-comic like Belushi, or a stand-up like Kinison. But with the right material, and sufficient snack food to see him from brunch to lunch, he epitomises the Active Fat Man. He’s intense and noisy but sweet at heart, with a manic edge and a penchant for appearing shirtless or in his underpants. You may remember Black as the oaf in Orange County, Gwyneth Paltrow’s chubby beau in Shallow Hal or the highly sprung record shop guy in High Fidelity. You may also know him as ‘Jables’, one half of the comedy folk-rock duo Tenacious D. But wherever you’ve seen him, he’s hard to forget – once he’s on screen you can never tell what he’s going to do next. Already critics are comparing Black to John Belushi and it’s true, he has much more than initials in common with the hell-raising Albanian. But more of that later.
“Hey. Er… What’s up?” Black walks in the door, looking like the anaesthetic’s just wearing off. Knackered. And there I was hoping he’d charge in, all jokes and mayhem. As School of Rock director, Richard Linklater warned: “the only time I ever saw him peeved was when he didn’t get enough sleep. This is a man who likes to recharge.” It seems 10 am on a Saturday is a bleary hour when you’re used to rising at the “crack of noon”.
“Er… Yeah. I was… um.” He rubs his eyes. His hair’s mussed and he forgot to shave. “Up… Er. Late… Ha ha.”
We’re in a bland hotel suite in Beverly Hills to promote School of Rock, which is essentially a continuous Jack Black performance. And to use the official jargon, it ‘rocks’. Even if you don’t really do PG feelgoods, especially about American school kids, School of Rock is so well crafted, so attuned to its inner scamp that only the bitterest cynic could resist. Black plays Dewey Finn, a jobless slacker who dreams of rock and roll glory. But then his band fires him and he faces eviction, so he scams a substitute teacher gig at an elementary school by pretending to be his drippy flat mate, Ned Schneebly (played by Mike White who wrote the film). When Finn realises that his class is full of musical talent, the movie takes off – if only he could teach the class how to rock, they could yet win the forthcoming Battle of the Bands …
And so begins Dewey Finn’s crash course in rock, much of it improvised by Black on the spot. The kids watch Hendrix videos and listen to Black Sabbath for homework. They learn about “sticking it to the man”, the power stance (“an ancient technique”) and Pete Townsend’s windmill action. And along the way to storming the contest, Black coaxes the shy from their shells and gives the fat girl confidence to sing, somehow steering clear of treacle as he does so, which is no mean feat. It all works because Black is utterly believable as Finn. And no wonder. Turns out they’re virtually the same guy.
“Dewey is 82% me, I’ve figured it out scientifically,” he says. “He’s basically me without any of the success I’ve had.” For Black, Finn is an apotheosis – a part written for him, honed specifically to his talents by Mike White (Orange County, Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl) who was his neighbour for three years in Los Angeles. “I was friends with his girlfriend, Laura,” says White. Laura Kightlinger is a comic actress and writer (Will And Grace) herself, as well as a tall drink of water. “So I’d go over and bum cigarettes and he’d peek in. He was usually playing videogames in his underwear.”
White has made a keen study of Black over the years. He first exploited Black’s party animal side in Orange County, a side he’d seen before in Saving Silverman – both supporting roles, both standout performances. School of Rock, however, allows Black to unleash his maniacal zeal for rock, which is no put-on, as fans of Tenacious D well know. Like Finn, Black is prone to widdly air guitar solos, climactic flurries of spoo – as Zappa called it – from a standing start. He’s like a cartoon the way he zap-jolts from inertia to high gear, releasing his inner rock god as though from a spring. His eyes light up, he does tricks with his eyebrows, he starts headbanging and leaping about. The result is part Belushi (another brow-master) and part Tasmanian Devil with a slice of Meatloaf thrown in.
Black’s actual rock career began in the mists of the early 90s just as he was inching his way into the acting business. He was part of Tim Robbins “Actor’s Gang”, where he met Kyle Gass, a portly guitarist roughly 10 years his senior. Neither one had a girlfriend at the time, and when Gass left the Gang in a huff, they started hanging out and getting stoned. “I was the student in the band. Cage (Gass) taught me guitar. We smoked a lot of weed in those days, I can tell you.”
By the time they got their act together, they realised it was all wrong. “I wrote a song about a girl that dumped me in college and it was fucking crap. Really serious and crap. So I said ‘fuck this, dude, let’s write the greatest song in the world, and call it ‘The Greatest Song In The World’’. Then we realised it was impossible, so we said, ‘OK, we’re going to write a tribute to the greatest song in the world’. And that was it. We struck oil. It was like a fucking geyser of inspiration and from that geyser came every lick, every lyric, it flowed like wine and manna. We cracked the code, the theory of rockativity. Oh, we drank deep from the goblet.”
“Actually that’s a point. I don’t own a goblet. That would make a good gift. My birthday’s on August 28th. Nineteen sixty-nine.”
Ever since “Tribute”, Tenacious D has bumbled along slowly – it took Cage and Jables (Gass and Black) a decade to record their first album. With Black’s burgeoning celebrity, however, and a loyal following of Hollywood trendies, the duo has ticked off at least one of its earliest ambitions– to hang out with proper rockers. Their eponymous debut album features Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters on drum and guitar, the Phish keyboardist and it was produced by the Dust Brothers. “Yeah, and we opened for Neil Young,” says Black. “OK, we didn’t actually open for Neil Young. But we met him. For me, rock was always an amazing party that I couldn’t get into. Until I met Kyle, and I realised that our way in was to make fun of it.” To mock it? “Yes.” But to mock with love? “Indeed.” With loving mockingness? “No, not the last one. That was too much.”
“The D”, as fans call them, particularly enjoy poking fun at early metal, the rock of myth, monsters and medieval mumbo jumbo. It’s a good joke. Two fat guys in their underpants singing “Fuck Her Gently”. Or “Dio” who “sang songs of wildebeest and angels. It’s time to pass the torch.” If nothing else, the D put to shame the earnest efforts of so many actors before them – Crowe, Reeves and Bacon, stay back after class.
Inevitably work has long begun on the Tenacious D movie. “That’s next. I’ve written it already,” says Black, a trifle smug that he’s got his homework in on time. “It’s called the Pick of Destiny. Yes, a guitar pick, yes. It’s basically the true story of how we became Tenacious D but with some fictional elements to add spice. It’s not a rockumentary, we would never tread on Spinal Tap.” Is it like the Howard Stern film, Private Parts – a truish story where everyone plays themselves? “No. That was exactly how his life went but maybe watered down a little. We’re going to water it up! I’m talking Lord of the Rings type shit. This is a quest to become the greatest rock band in the world. I’ll give you an exclusive: Satan’s in the movie. We’ve never met him but his agent says he’s booked.” Word is, Black is also courting Meatloaf to play his father.
With his ‘D’ hat on – not literally of course, that would be stupid – Black loses all humility. Not only is the D the best band in all creation, but he, the lead singer, has superpowers, as he explains on last year’s single “Wonderboy”. I put it to him that he’s gifted enough, what with all the acting and singing. “And doodling,” he adds. “I’m a triple threat.”
So why make up superpowers?
“I love superpowers. If I had a choice, I’d have laservision, power of flight, cloak of invisibility, telekinesis and mind-reading. Ha ha. Oh yeah, and never-die power.”
That’s a silly amount of superpowers.
“I know right? You get too many superpowers and everything becomes boring. That’s why Superman’s not as good as Spiderman, he’s just too powerful. Oh no, here comes a meteor. Better move the earth out of the way. Boring boring. That’s why I like guys who just do one thing. Like Flash, who runs at the speed of light.” Black grins. This superpower stuff is fun.
“Hey, what about David Blaine? That guy really wants you to believe he’s got superpowers. He’s gotta be starting a religion by now, some L Ron Hubbard cult, you watch. Because that’s the message he’s sending, like he’s the next Jesus. It’s not enough to be an amazing, brilliant, genius magician. No, he wants “oh my God, you’re not from this planet! You’re a superhero!” That’s what he thirsts for. That shit is fucking funny to me. If I wasn’t making fun of rock, I’d be making fun of that.”
Isn’t religion a bit of a dicey subject?
“To me there’s no difference between the bible and a big fat comic book. If it wasn’t for the Devil, it would be so boring.”
Whether Black was raised on Sunday school and frequent canings, he won’t say. He doesn’t speak much about his early years. But poverty, was not an issue, by all accounts. He was raised in Redondo beach, South California, by two squabbling scientists, which might explain why Black is obsessed with the speed of light. For a moment during the interview he wants to discuss Schrodinger’s cat. When his folks’ divorced, Jack moved in with his mother’s eight-bedroom house in Hermosa Beach, just down the coast, where he lived around lodgers, among them a journalist with a dog that could catch Frisbees. He mucked about at school, of course. “I liked the film class,” he reminisces. “That’s pretty cool to have a film class at high school. But I wasn’t much good at anything else.” Nevertheless, he majored in theatre at UCLA, dropping out after two years to join Tim Robbins’ Actors Gang. Slowly, things began to happen for the funny man. He met Gass and the D was born. Robbins has cast him in everything he’s directed – Black’s movie debut was as the obsessed stalker in Bob Roberts. But progress was bitty, nonetheless. In 1999, for example, he shot a TV pilot with Ben Stiller called “Heat Vision and Jack” – the story of a man and his talking motorcycle. No studio picked it up.
“I’ve always been an entertainer,” he explains. “I did try telemarketing once – something to do with whales – but I got no sales and quit after a week. When I wasn’t making money entertaining, I’d just run home to my mom’s and crash there until something came up.”
It was only in 2000, when he started bouncing between the frat boy loafer parts and filling the time in between with Tenacious D gigs, that business started to pick up. The Farrelly brothers saw High Fidelity and cast him in the lead for Shallow Hal, an odd and surely deliberate twist, since the Active Fat Man was now fun-size beside the fat-suited Paltrow. “I don’t think it’s my best work,” Black has said about his big break. “I’m used to playing tweaked characters, someone a little askew. It’s just not what excites me, to play the Everyman.” Black himself knows that he only shines when his Active Fat Man can do his stuff.
But it’s a measure of Black’s breadth that his kings of comedy are not the most obvious candidates. “I love Gene Wilder. He was the fucking funniest because his intensity was real. Same with Richard Pryor, especially in the early stand-up. Who else was kickass? Peter Sellers. But I’m not like any of those guys. I’m more like Chris Farley or John Belushi.” He has Farley’s manic edge, and Belushi’s wild-eyed intensity. Not to mention the eyebrows.
But where both Farley and Belushi were comedians first, Black is an actor, and a serious one at that. For example – many an actor in the full bloom of fame might rush to avail himself of the limitless females and drugs that are now at his disposal, but Black remains with Kightlinger, his girlfriend of seven years and has no reputation for excess. Tenacious D are well behaved on tour. Directors love working with Black because he’s so studious and committed. Richard Linklater describes him as “a cross between Jack Nicholson and Belushi. He’s more of a perfectionist than maybe people think – not easily satisfied with himself which I like in an actor.” Mike White, too, can see Black hitting a lot of notes in his career. There’s Envy, next year, in which he stars opposite Ben Stiller and Rachel Weisz as a neighbour who makes a heap of money with an invention. But in the future, there may be some surprising options for the Active Fat Man.
“He’s not always wound up like in his movies,” says White, “but he’s always funny. He has a fear of not being funny. He has that neurotic nature of a comedian. Like he never left a message on my machine that wasn’t funny. And on set, we had a lot of down time with the kids between scenes, and Jack was always trying to entertain them. He told me: ‘I’m terrified of kids being bored in my presence.’ But that doesn’t mean, he’ll stay a clown forever. He’s so versatile, I can see him playing Dylan Thomas or someone in the future. He’s definitely going to stretch himself.”
Black himself isn’t in the mood to discuss his future ambitions, not right now. He’s still in rock-world, focussed first on School of Rock and then on the Tenacious D movie, of course. But does he not harbour a secret yearning to be stretched as an actor? Play a retard maybe?
He snorts. “Well, it’s no secret that, yeah, to get an Oscar you have to play at least one retard. And it – may – be – time. It’s RETARD TIME! Let’s GO! It’s actually in development right now. It’s called The Retard.”
To make his point, he does an impression of, what he considers the best on-screen retard to date – Leonardo Di Caprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He tilts his blocky head to the ceiling, pulls an immense gurn and starts spluttering and shrieking and flapping his arms. With deadly timing, the Paramount publicist walks in to wind up the interview, catching him full splutter. The smile on her face freezes, she doesn’t say a word and sheepishly backs out of the room. By which time Black is done.
“That’s a helluva retard,” he says, wiping his chin. “Spit, snot, the whole fucking lot. Oh and by the way,” he confides, leaning in. “Retard’s not a nice word. We’re already in trouble.”