Jack Black is game for anything -- except vanity

Even as his 'D Train' movie opens, comic actor Jack Black is considering new places to take his gonzo talents

Jack Black gets some of his best ideas in the middle of the night.

In his younger days, he would often stay up until dawn, playing Scrabble over the Internet and letting his mind roam to strange places. Now that he's got kids — sons ages 6 and 8 — he's had to adjust to a less vampiric schedule. But ideas will still come to him unbidden in the wee hours.

"I had a weird thing last night where I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote down the words 'California King,'" the actor said on a recent afternoon at a restaurant near his home in Los Feliz. "I don't really remember what I was thinking, but it's a very good title. It's obviously got something to do with sex."

Wearing a T-shirt with a panther on it, his face covered with stubble, Black, 45, pulled out his smartphone and began scrolling through other ideas for film and television projects he's developing through his production company, Electric Dynamite.

There's a dark comedy based on a documentary about a polka singer who built a fortune on an elaborate Ponzi scheme. There's a biopic of the 1960s psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson, who was sent to a psychiatric hospital after a marijuana arrest and subjected to involuntary shock treatment. There's a TV series that would be "like 'Twin Peaks' in high school."

"It's all just stuff I'd want to see — and stuff that I think I can do," Black said. He paused. "There are lots of things I'd like to see that I don't think I should do. Like, I loved 'The Bourne Identity,' but if Matt Damon is unavailable for the next 'Bourne' movie, I don't think they should come to me."

Black knows his own strengths. Since breaking through to stardom in the 2000 comedy "High Fidelity," he has channeled his unique brand of likable devilishness and his flair for explosive physical shtick into broadly appealing hits like "School of Rock," "Tropic Thunder" and the animated "Kung Fu Panda" films. Though he's had a few sizable flops, like "Year One" and "Gulliver's Travels," over the course of his career, his movies have grossed nearly $3.5 billion worldwide.

But like his comedy peers Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller, Black has always had a more off-kilter sensibility than some of his more mainstream successes may suggest. Raised in Hermosa Beach and Culver City by two satellite engineers, Black fell in love with drama in high school at Crossroads (where he met his wife, cellist and singer Tanya Haden) and then cut his teeth as a performer in Tim Robbins' theater troupe the Actors' Gang.

Though his taste for risky, gonzo comedy hasn't always been shared by critics (his turn as a mustachioed Mexican wrestler in "Nacho Libre" comes to mind), in recent years he's become ever more determined to explore that side of himself.

Creative leap

Black's new movie — the indie comedy "The D Train," opening May 8 in Los Angeles — represents his latest creative leap. In the film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Black plays Dan Landsman, a middle-aged shlub who becomes obsessed with getting the most popular guy in his high school class (James Marsden) to attend their 20th high school reunion. Desperate to impress his peers and his family at any cost, Dan suffers an escalating series of public humiliations that are both hard to watch and hard to look away from.

"I've played lots of lovable losers, but Dan is a hate-able loser," Black said. "It's a pretty dark movie, but that's what I loved about it. I've read so many comedies, and none of them are funny to me anymore. It's got to be something that comes strong and hard and dark to penetrate my thick, nihilistic hide."

Black, who also served as a producer on the film, threw himself into the film's most cringe-inducing scenes (including a drunken sexual dalliance with Marsden) with total commitment, said Jarrad Paul, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Andrew Mogel.

"Jack is willing to do anything," Paul said. "He's the least vain actor we've ever seen."

Indeed, it was Dan's deep-seated neurosis that drew Black to the role in the first place. Though as a performer Black is famous for his utter lack of inhibition, offscreen he spends a lot of time in his own head and can sometimes over-think things. ("I have a little bit of a scratchy throat so I feel bad about shaking your hand," he said upon sitting down for lunch. "But I don't think I transferred any germs because my hands are super dry — and I feel like germs are transferred through moisture.")

While many stars would shy away from such an unflattering role, Black's longtime friend Mike White, who wrote "School of Rock" and "Nacho Libre" and also produced "The D Train," said he isn't surprised that the actor embraced it.

"I think Jack is at a place in his career where he's succeeded doing lots of different things, and now he wants to sort of explore and take risks," White said. "His tastes are not down the middle in any way. He's up for going down unexpected avenues, which I think is probably going to serve him well as far as career longevity."

Black will follow "The D Train" with another dark, offbeat comedy, this one on the small screen. In the HBO series "The Brink," premiering June 21, the actor stars opposite Tim Robbins as a State Department functionary in Pakistan with delusions of grandeur who becomes embroiled in an international incident that threatens to lead to nuclear war.

"He's this super low-level wannabe-CIA guy who's a sex hound and loves to smoke weed," Black said. "But by hook or by crook he finds ways to climb the corporate ladder."

"The Brink" marks Black's first major foray into the TV world. "Jack was on our wish list, but we never thought we'd get him," executive producer Jerry Weintraub said. "We just sent him the script, and, lo and behold, he said yes."

For Black, the size of the screen is of little concern. "I have no hang-ups that I'm known as this or that," he said. "Whether it's motion pictures, television or Internet webisodes, I've always felt like it's the same gig: just entertaining people and telling stories."

Anxiety spiral

Black's penchant for flights of wild comedy is counterbalanced by his penchant for flights of worrying. Last year, for example, he appeared as a guest on comedian Doug Benson's Internet stoner talk show, "Getting Doug With High," and — with his tolerance for pot no longer what it was in his pre-parenthood days — went into an anxiety spiral that rendered him nearly catatonic. The episode has been viewed 1.4 million times on YouTube.

"That was so embarrassing," Black said. He plans to go back on the show, but this time, he vowed, he'll be better prepared. "It's going to be like 'Rocky' — I'll be puffing bong loads at the top of the Philadelphia [Art Museum] stairs."

Black's tendency to agonize over things may partly explain why it's been four years since his last major starring role, a critically lauded turn as a small-town Texas mortician in Richard Linklater's "Bernie."

Still, the actor has hardly been idle. Among other things, he threw himself into his other career as half — with actor-musician Kyle Gass — of the cult heavy-metal-folk duo Tenacious D, releasing the 2012 album "Rise of the Fenix" and building an ambitious annual alternative-comedy event called Festival Supreme around the band. (The third Festival Supreme will be held in October at the Shrine Expo Hall.)

This year Black made an attention-grabbing appearance in the opening musical number at the Academy Awards. He has been approached in the past about hosting the telecast but says he has no interest. "Ugh, who wants that job?" he said, grimacing, adding that if one does poorly, "everyone hates you. If you crush it, then you could someday, what, become the host of a TV show or something? I don't know what it's for. It's so stressful. I had fun doing my little thing, but that's about the size of the commitment I feel comfortable with."

While Black is on the short list for virtually every comedy project in Hollywood, it isn't easy for him to find material he connects with on a deep level. In earlier years, he was offered endless numbers of roles as bong-toting roommates and John Belushi-esque party animals. These days, he gets inundated with countless offers to play wacky dads or variations on Santa Claus.

"I get tons of me-with-a-bunch-of-kids," Black said with a slight weariness. "There's a whole brand of cheese that comes along with that, obviously. I'm sure that Schwarzenegger was in the same boat after he did 'Kindergarten Cop.'"

Not that he's complaining. He already has two more big family movies on deck: the kid-friendly horror-comedy "Goosebumps," slated for release in October, and a third "Kung Fu Panda" film, due in March. "A well-written kids' project is just as cool as any other genre," he said. "Good is good."

That said, if he's going to remain creatively fulfilled — and ensure that he remains relevant in a business that can quickly kick comedians to the curb once their box-office drawing power wanes — Black knows he can't just wait around hoping that interesting projects come his way. Hence his growing focus on producing.

"All the best people are writing their own tickets: Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer, Kristen Wiig," he said. "The way it is now, you can't just come in and be a funny person. You've got to get involved."

Searching through his phone for the word "projects," Black ticked off more ideas he's trying to get off the ground. There's an animated series he's developing with the creator of the cult Adult Swim show "Metalocalypse." There's a TV show centered on avant-garde performance artist Jibz Cameron, who goes by the name Dynasty Handbag.

"It's a performance-art sitcom," Black said. "I know that sounds like a real winner, but you'll see."

He stopped himself and slipped his phone back into his jeans.

"I shouldn't be telling you all of my golden nuggets," he said with a small, mischievous smile. "Some of them are actual magic."

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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