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