WHEN Jack Black says he wants to tell you a sad story about his childhood, the natural reaction is to brace yourself for a grand, loopy lie that will leave your face hurting from laughter. But what if it's really true? Or does that really matter? Anyway, here he goes:
"I went to a Renaissance faire when I was just a child. I remember there was a woman there dressed as a wench" -- right there he enunciates like a wrestling announcer channeling Olivier -- "and she's on top of a wooden platform. And there's a tightrope, and if you can walk the tightrope you can make out with the wench. I was too young to even be trying to make out with a wench, but I thought that was something."
Here comes the sad part: "Everyone was in costume, wizards and the like. I was dressed wrong. I was dressed like a clown. I was like a Bozo-clown, not a jester-clown. I was a modern clown in Elizabethan times. I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was my sister's fault. She dressed me. I was like 9, and I felt like an outcast."
And there you have it, a worthy secret origin for Black, who took the shame of that youthful clown trauma and turned it into a truly warped and wonderful screen career. The chubby, Puckish actor who grabbed the moviegoing audience by the lapels in "High Fidelity" and perfected his comedy stage-dive with "School of Rock" has two new films, one a surprise and the other a project that pretty much defines his core sensibility.
"The Holiday," a romantic comedy that premieres Friday, has Black making a pivot toward the mainstream that would have Billy Crystal nodding in approval, and "Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny" serves up the go-for-baroque adventures of his spoofy heavy metal band, coming off sort of like "Bill & Ted's Excellent Spinal Tap." The first film reaches out with a wink to women, but the second gets rope burns trying to make out with wenches.
Black is a busy man these days. He is a newlywed and first-time father with a 5-month-old son, and "The Holiday," which also stars Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet and Jude Law, has pulled him through the junket wringer in recent weeks.
"The Pick of Destiny," meanwhile, took more than two years to finish with its assorted reshoots, and its status as Black's personal passion (he wrote and directed it) put him in fast and furious mode to promote it. He toured with the band (which is fronted by him and his longtime straight-man pal, Kyle Gass) and the shows, including two sold-out nights at Gibson Amphitheater, are no joke, despite the screwy and lewd material: They bring elaborate sets and strong backup talent, and draw crowds that bang their heads as if Black Sabbath or Motorhead were onstage.
It's all funny business but that doesn't mean it's not serious too -- the soundtrack to the movie debuted at No. 8 on the U.S. pop charts, and at Gibson a lot of the fans sang along with every word and toasted the band with beer cups and joints held high.
"It is the greatest spectacle since Pink Floyd's 'The Wall,' " Black said with just the right tone of grandeur and deeply sincere falsehood. "It's the greatest rock 'n' roll ever unveiled. It's like 'The Wall' and Styx's 'Mr. Roboto,' which a lot of people thought was crap but I know it was genius."
The 37-year-old Black seems to have his mental radio stuck on the classic rock of KLOS-FM and the Colonnade seats of the Forum, circa AC/DC's "Back in Black" tour. He's an L.A. kid through and through. He grew up in Hermosa Beach, attending the private Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, a favored hothouse for blossoming L.A. intelligentsia and showbiz kids. After a run through UCLA he landed in Actors' Gang, the troupe led by Tim Robbins, which led Black to his screen debut in the Robbins political farce "Bob Roberts" in 1992. Today, he's one of Hollywood's top funny guys.
Black was sitting next to a fruit plate in a trailer behind the Shrine Auditorium. He and Gass were a few hours away from taking their Tenacious D shtick to its largest audience ever with an appearance on the American Music Awards, a creaky show that, it turned out, desperately needed their spectacle. Onstage, Black was as reserved as a nitro-burning funny car, but in the quiet of the trailer he was hushed and yawning. He was a bit ragged from traveling the previous night (the band had rocked in San Francisco), and the laptop in front of him was loaded with behind-the-scenes "Pick of Destiny" footage for him to review for the eventual DVD release.
Considering his rock-excess persona onstage, seeing Black bleary brought to mind the suspicion that the night before had been filled with some Ozzyian bacchanal, but Black shook his head. "I've cut out all playtime. I'm not one of those people that needs wall-to-wall work, but the last few years have been intense because there were too many things I couldn't turn down. So to do it all, I have to go to work and then go straight home to family. And it's all OK because work is an awful lot of fun."
Putting it all on the line
BLACK certainly looks like he's having fun on the screen, whether as the wrestling nut of "Nacho Libre" or the guitar-goof substitute for another guy in "School of Rock." But he said that in a number of his films (he wouldn't say which), he winced when he saw that the moments on-screen weren't as funny as the ones on the cutting-room floor. That's why he wants to do more Tenacious D movies if the public wants them.
"Most of the time as an actor making movies -- it's a great job now, don't get me wrong -- but it's the director's vision and writer's vision. The actor collaborates and participates to a certain degree, but it can be frustrating when you feel like, 'Man, I would have directed or written that part differently.' But in those situations, it's not my role to blow the diva horn."
With "Pick of Destiny," though, Black is finally being as Black as Black can be. "It's all me this time. So I got a lot riding on this one." (The sour news for Black is that "The Pick of Destiny" didn't live up to its name in its opening week; it finished 11th at the box office and took in just $3.2 million while showing on 1,900 screens.)
As for "The Holiday," director Nancy Meyers, who memorably bottled up Jack Nicholson's alpha male for "Something's Gotta Give" and let the air out of Steve Martin's manic balloon for the "Father of the Bride" movies, had Black in mind when his character was created. In the movie, Law may be the eye candy for the ladies, but it's Black's character who woos them with the best lines and a baby brand of wolfish charm.
"She wrote it for me and that's flattering," he said, again with the Alistair Cooke act. "It's not within my usual realm of experience. But, I was, like, this is a chance to try something different and to work with Kate Winslet, who is a great actor."
Black said he wasn't shopping for a resume line that said "romantic comedy." "I don't really think like that. I go by the script and most of all by the director. A great director can take a crap script and make something interesting out of it. A bad director will make a bad movie every time."
Black has been working on his next volley of projects, including a trippy Michel Gondry film about a fellow whose magnetized brain erases a video-store inventory, leading him to act out famous film scenes to entertain an aging customer of the store (oh, not that plot again). There's also a Noah Baumbach project that Black describes as the sequel to "The Squid and the Whale." "To me, it's all about the directors, I don't care what the project is."
Black has certainly been working with eye-catching names. He hailed Stephen Frears, who gave him his breakthrough role in "High Fidelity" ("That was the movie that kicked into gear for me, for sure, and I didn't even want the part") and Richard Linklater for "School of Rock" ("That was some of my funniest stuff ever, I'd say"). Working with Peter Jackson on "King Kong" was "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said.
Then, as Black does, he launched into a long tale -- with Medieval inflections -- about his bike-riding adventures in tight shorts through the jungles of New Zealand. The big climax: "And there I saw a message written, 'Frodo Was Here.' You know, what's-his-name wrote it. That was a lot of pressure. I couldn't escape the legends of yore."
It seemed like a good time to ask if he ever considers making, uh, serious movies. Martin and Crystal both started with stage yucks but set their career course toward heartfelt cinema, while Jim Carrey, Bill Murray and Robin Williams yearned at points in their careers for roles that would make people stop laughing at them.
"That's not me," Black said. He stood up and began to stretch. It was close to donning-the-spandex-for-the-show time. "The serious roles get you the prizes, but I don't care about the prizes," he said. "Comedy is where I live."