Get ready to see Jack Black play gay. Well, closeted.
Filmmaker Richard Linklater (Slackers, Waking Life), the director of the new black comedy Bernie, has worked with the portly funnyman before—most notably in School of Rock—but never in a role like this. For starters, Black is playing Bernie, a closeted mortician living as the manservant/male companion of wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) in small-town Texas. Kind and generous, Bernie is the most popular man in town—but when he befriends the cantankerous and demanding Nugent, townspeople’s eyebrows are raised. And when Bernie’s had enough of Marjorie’s abuse? Well, lets just say she meets a tragic end.
It might sound like the plot to a Lifetime movie, but it’s based on a true story: The saga of Bernie Tiede was profiled in a 1998 Texas Monthly story by Skip Hollingsworth, who co-wrote the script with Linklater over the past ten years.
Bernie is a classic closet case—when he was arrested for Marjorie’s murder, police found explicit videos in his home—but Black didn’t play it up for laughs: “I never really thought about it that way,” he told Queerty. “He never said that he was gay and, in that community, I don’t think there’s many flamboyantly out-of-the-closet gay people. ‘Keep it well-hid’—that was definitely part of his character. So I tried to keep it subtle.”
But like a good gay BFF, Black did kind of become MacLaine’s bitch in real life: “We fell into the roles of the movie,” he says. “I kind of became the 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, if she needed a hand to walk from here to there. I never actually gave her a foot massage [like Bernie does in the movie], but a little hint of that relationship was happening.”
Below, Queerty’s Evan Mulvihill chats with the 42-year-old actor about working with Maclaine, meeting Bernie Tiede in prison and unleashing the “real” Jack Black.
What drew you to this story of a middle-aged homosexual who basically snaps and kills this mean old lady?
The story itself was so compelling. This was the most like guy in town, who’s the least likely to commit a murder. Add to that—he puts the body in a freezer for nine months. There’s just so many question marks.
This is the first time we’ve seen you play a real person. Was that hard?
There’s a lot of pressure to play someone who’s real and alive. If it was just a made-up part, I wouldn’t feel bad about acting like an ass sometimes. I don’t want it to be a smear at all, I want it to be accurate.
Click through for the rest of the Queerty interview with Bernie star Jack Black
Photos; Millennium Entertainment
Did you feel like you were turning into Bernie off-camera?
Nah, I’m not really that guy. Well, maybe a little bit. But I don’t like lose track of time, like, “Where was I?” You know, those people who sink so deep into their character that the real Jack Black disappears.
When we watch your performance, it seems like Jack Black is just dying to get out. How do you hold it back?
How do I hold back the real Jack Black? Maybe that is the real Jack Black. Maybe those other times I was forcing a clown show. But the real Jack Black is like Sean Penn. How about that?
That is my secret weapon. Whenever I bring out the ‘stache, my most powerful performances come to life. I don’t know if you saw Nacho Libre, but it’s like a superpower when I grow it.
In the beginning of the movie, when you’re driving and just start singing along in the car. It communicates this giddy happiness that’s so central to Bernie. Did Linklater just put you in the car?
It’s a great song. It’s got a great bounce to it. It was fun to sing along to it. It was important to Rick that I know every lyric. I was like, “Really? Can’t I just come in and out?” He goes, “He would know every lyric. Bernie would know every lyric.” So I really studied it hard. I’m not really one of those people that remembers lyrics or jokes. Even my own. I’m in the middle of trying to remember all the new album.
You mentioned how sweet Bernie is, but he did commit this heinous crime. Was he a con guy who was there to take advantage of a vulnerable old lady or was he just a nice guy who couldn’t take her abuse anymore?
I think it’s more the latter. He was a sweet guy who was a real pleaser. He liked people to like him, to a fault. To a degree where it’s better maybe just to leave her and let her hate you than to stay and let things get as bad as they did. I do think the corrosive 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 had become accustomed to the money. He liked having money, mostly to give to other people. I mean, 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. It was seductive, yeah, but I don’t think it was devious, like he made plans to get all her money by killing her.
Bernie doesn’t do a very good job of covering his tracks. Do you think he wanted to get caught?
I think he was relieved when he got caught, for sure. He’s afraid of everybody hating him, and the huge shitstorm that was about to hit his life. I’m sure he was conflicted with that.
You actually got to meet Bernie Tiede in prison, right?
Yes. It was a relief to see that he was, in fact, a sweetheart. It felt it was reinforcing our theory of what he would be like. But it was very surreal. I had never been in a maximum-security prison before. Lots of hardened criminals in there, doing hard time for hard crime. And then there was Bernie, who’s just this big sweet soft gentle mammoth of a man. He didn’t really fit in with the general population in there, to say the least. It was good just to connect with him and talk with and listen to his accent and his behavior; ask him a few things about his life.
No. I didn’t feel like it was any of my business. I should’ve asked more questions, but I’m kind of a shy person. I don’t like to probe.
What was it like working with the legendary Shirley MacLaine?
Shirley is a hero of mine. I was always been a fan of her performances, going way back to The Apartment. It’s rare that someone can be that beautiful and that talented. There was no one hotter than her back in the day. She’s hands down the most talented and hot. It’s a powerful combination. She’s like a Jack Nicholson level of awesome. She put me at ease early on. She would laugh at all my dumb jokes and make me feel like I was worthy.
You reunite with director Richard Linklater on this film. What happened with the proposed School of Rock sequel?
I’d love to do a School of Rock sequel. We’re just trying to figure it out. We never came together and saw eye-to-eye on what that story would be. [But] never say never. At this point, I think it would have to be about how rock is dead and how it’s Stewie’s job to figure out how to bring rock back to life somehow.
So what is your next project?
My next Tenacious D album comes out next week. And then we do a world tour. Well, we’re going to do all of the United States and then Europe. We’re not going to Australia or Asia. Then I’m really hoping to get started on the Charlie Chaplin movie right after the Tenacious D tour.