The master of Hollywood mirth has gone all serious with his role in Richard Linklater’s brilliant Bernie. But LWLies finds that he’s still committed to the funny.
LWLies: So, it’s been two years now since you made Bernie...
Black: Yeah. Two years, and still here, fucking still talking about it.
That’s great though, shows it really means something to you.
Yeah, but this is 'the job'. This is the job of the job. The making of the movie is what you do for free.
So what were your first impressions of Bernie Tiede from reading the script? Did they change much after meeting him?
When I first read the screenplay, I was intrigued because it’s a mixture of documentary and regular live-action storytelling. I love Dexter and Breaking Bad. Dexter’s a show about a killer, one you really like and sympathise with. So I was intrigued by the subject matter, I thought this was really my kind of thing. I was, however, a little worried about playing a murderer because I’m not used to playing people with so much grey area in their likeability stakes. It’s much more comfortable, and you feel safer if it’s a character that everybody likes.
The film’s mostly on side with him though.
Yeah, he is liked by everybody in the town, but he’s got this dark secret. He’s a murderer. He murdered this little old lady, and I quickly got over that because it was a great script, and Rick Linklater... I would crawl through glass to work with him. He’s my favourite.
Do you think that maybe Bernie seduced and charmed you guys into liking him as much as he did the people of Carthage?
We definitely fell for his charms. We went and met him in prison. I just wanted to go and get his blessing, you know, because when you’re playing someone real, someone that’s still alive, you’ve gotta match the mental image with the real person. I mean, you don’t have to. I’m like Bernie. I don’t want someone being angry with me, I wanna make sure we’re cool.
Yeah, how he maybe charmed you guys as much as the townsfolk.
I was thoroughly charmed, yeah. I really liked him. Meeting him, I could tell why he was the most popular guy in town. He was magnetic and charismatic, he was gentle and warm and friendly. You wanna be his friend. Did he hypnotise the town? Was he a con man? I don’t think so. It’s real. He genuinely cares about people and wants people to be happy. To a fault. His fault was that he puts everyone’s happiness ahead of his own, including Marjorie, who was his best friend and his boss. They had this relationship, this very close relationship. They travelled the world together. Really what he should have done, once the relationship went sour and got abusive, was just fucking leave, but he just couldn’t do it because he’s got this thing where he wants people to be happy. He didn’t wanna leave her hating him, so he stayed with her, and he didn’t have a release valve for when people treated him like shit. He never fought back, so it just slowly built up, and my theory is that he just snapped. The classic temporary insanity.
And he’s still inside now?
He’s still inside now. He deserves to be in prison. He murdered a person. But our feeling is it’s been enough time. Thirteen years is a long time to have been in prison. There was no premeditation there, he isn’t a danger to society. In fact, the whole town wants him back because he’s done a lot of good. He can do more good outside than in. There are people that have done less time for murder, premeditated, multiple offenders. He didn’t get a fair trial, that’s all. He didn’t get a fair trial, and it’d be nice to see him get one.
Do you think he’d have got a fair trial in Carthage?
Maybe too fair [laughs].
Speaking of Bernie’s boss, it must have been pretty cool working with Shirley MacLaine? You spoke somewhere of her amazing comic timing. Is that something you share, or did she have a lot to teach you?
She’s better than me, I have a lot to learn from her. When I was talking about timing, there was this time we were in front of a big audience at a screening of the movie doing an interview with a moderator, and she was just working the room. She had stories and she knew how to drop the punchline and make the whole crowd explode.
But you were working a crowd of like, 3,000 last night [at a Tenacious D gig].
Yeah, but I’m not a jokey guy. I don’t tell jokes, I just sort of... with behaviour... try to find comedy in situations. But she’s from the old school. That said, as much as I like her Billy Wilder flicks, she doesn’t have anything quite like Computerman on her CV.
Irma la Douce would have been immeasurably improved if she’d fought Jack Lemmon with a computer on her head.
Exactly. Thank you for noticing that. Fuck man, you really did do your homework. What else did you watch, man?
Well, we did get to thinking that Spielberg missed a trick by waiting for Daniel Day-Lewis to go cobbling up a mountain and grow a beard, or whatever the fuck he does, when if instead he’d just watched the first 90 seconds of Awesometown, he’d know that a Washington movie was the only way to go.
I know at least four people that would have watched that movie. I don’t know why my phone never rang for Lincoln. I’m known for my fucking historical performances.
Did you see my Benjamin Franklin?
You didn’t see my Drunk Histories? Maaaaan...
We watched seven of your films, give us break. We couldn't find that one.
I believe it has been immortalised on Funny Or Die.
There’s been a lot of talk about this being a departure for you. Does it piss you off that comic actors only really get taken seriously once they’ve 'proven themselves' with a dramatic role?
That’s true. There’s no respect for the clown. Even the word clown is like an insult now. 'That guy’s a clown'. You only say that if you wanna insult someone. You never say, 'I love that guy, he’s such a clown'. It sounds bad. What happened? It’s like the word 'liberal' in the United States. Somehow the right-wing made this word ‘liberal’ into some fucking horrible word. Worse than 'fucking'. The world hates a clown. So fuck the world, I guess… I don’t know where I’m going with this. There’s an art to clowning. It’s rewarded in other ways, obviously. Just not in the respect department. Maybe that’s the way it should be.
Do you miss the variety of roles you had at the start of your career though, the diversity of things you were offered when you were just starting out, compared to now?
Really I was just taking whatever I could get. I was just trying to survive at the time. I just needed to pay the rent. If a Waterworld came up, I’d jump for joy because I was gonna be able to move out of my mom’s house. There was no rhyme or reason. There was no plan. Now the opportunities are still out there to do more things. I pick and choose a little more conscientiously. I’ve got a family now, I’ve got my boys. I can’t go gallivanting in Hawaii for shits and giggles.
Do you find yourself wanting to do more kids' stuff now you’re a dad?
No. My interests haven’t changed in terms of that. They’re not gonna see my movies until they’re older anyway.
How old are they?
Four and six.
Have they seen Kung Fu Panda?
Yeah, we did watch Kung Fu Panda but that’s about it.
So Mr Show was really important for you starting out? You launched Tenacious D out of that?
We were doing Tenacious D live at that time, but they saw us perform live and asked us if we wanted to be part of that show.
And your first bit was...
... 'Don’t stick your dick in that hole'
That’s the word.
You did a fair bit of hoofing in Mr Show, and again in Bernie.
I’ve got some musical theatre in my early days, that’s how I know how to do it. I was Pippin.
Would you do it again?
Well, Shirley MacLaine says we should do a musical version of Bernie. A dark musical comedy on Broadway. Sweeney Todd style.
I was into that, I thought it’d be great. But those things take years to develop.
And all the rehearsal.
Are you much of a rehearser?
Yeah. Gotta be. I love to rehearse.
The Music Man sequence in Bernie, it looked like a lot of work went into that.
Yeah, a fair bit. We didn’t have time, we were crushed for time. These low budget, independent features, you gotta squeeze the value. We worked with a local choreographer from the community theatre in Austin, Texas who taught me some moves and worked with all the dancers. But we only had a few hours.
So Kaufman next, right? Frank or Francis?
I hope so, it’s tough getting the money together, but yeah, that’s the plan.
Even with someone like yourself attached, it’s that hard to find the money?
And a bunch of other great actors. It’s just because the script and the subject matter. It’s just too good. When I say too good, I mean it’s just too dark and real and strange and wonderful. Investors don’t think it’s a safe bet. The industry has changed. It’s not enough to be brilliant any more. You have to be a sure thing. It’s just so short-sighted, so shitty. If I was a billionaire I’d throw the money at it.
But how much does a movie like that cost? Thirty million?
Like, 20. You got 20?
Next time, eh? So what about Tenacious D? What’s next for them?
We’ve got another record coming out in November called 'Jazz'. It’s an exploration of deep, dark jazz. Smooth jazz. It’s vinyl only but will then be available on iTunes a few weeks later.
Just lastly, the stuff you did with Dan Harman, like Computerman and Laser Fart, that’s some pretty out there stuff. Do you find there are fewer platforms to really let those surreal, anarchic tendencies rip? Even the D movie, are there constraints in film that prevent you from going as far as you’d like?
With the D movie, we did go fully as far as we wanted to. We did everything we wanted to and it was a financial and critical failure. So that taught us never to do that again. Just kidding. It taught us… It didn’t teach us anything. I’m proud of that film, I think we did a great job. Our next chapter will not be on film because of the red tape that we fucking built up from signing our souls over to the devil to make that film. We’ll probably do some internet content on YouTube. You’ll be seeing us soon.