He works hard for the funny


Spotlight on: Jack Black

December 08, 2006|By Geoff Boucher | Geoff Boucher,Los Angeles TImes

HOLLYWOOD — HOLLYWOOD-- --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 fair 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 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 movie-going 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 opens today, 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, 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 (fronted by him and his longtime straight-man pal, Kyle Gass) and the shows are no joke, despite the screwy and lewd material.

Black, sitting in a trailer behind the Shrine Auditorium, was a few hours away from taking the Tenacious D schtick to its largest audience ever with an appearance on the American Music Awards. 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, and his laptop was loaded with behind-the-scenes Pick of Destiny footage 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."

Black certainly looks like he's having fun on the screen, whether as the wrestling nut of Nacho Libre or the guitar-goof substitute teacher in School of Rock. But he said that in a number of his films, 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 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.)

As for The Holiday, director Nancy Meyers, who memorably bottled up Jack Nicholson's alpha male for Something's Gotta Give, had Black in mind when his character was created. 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 [bad] script and make something interesting out of it. A bad director will make a bad movie every time."

Steve 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."

Geoff Boucher writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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