The first time movie audiences saw Jack Black, who receives his Walk of Fame star on Sept. 18, he made an impression before he even opened his mouth. Black was 23 and making his film debut in the 1992 political satire “Bob Roberts,” playing a nervous fanboy of Tim Robbins’ right-wing presidential candidate. While his wealthy mom does most of the talking, Black silently commands our focus, staring, swaying, smiling too big, laughing too fast, and glowering at anyone competing for his idol’s attention. He’s unpredictable, electric, and the type of funny that feels like a dare. It’s every character Black would go on to play in one scene: a clown on the knife-edge of danger. Finally, Black gets an opening to speak: “We got a band!” Even that was prophetic.
Black was brand new to the movies, but he’d already known Tim Robbins for a decade. He was raised in Hermosa Beach, Calif., by two satellite engineers — his mother worked on the Hubble Space Telescope —which inspired him to come up with a scientific explanation for why their only child was born to entertain.
“They’ll probably be able to find it in the DNA someday, ‘Oh, this is the need-for-attention gene!’” Black has joked.
When he was 9, his parents took him over to family friend’s house for dinner, and afterward, Black played his first improv game. He got hooked on performing.
When an adult tried to teach him to play chess, Black concentrated on making solemn nods and squints that would persuade people he was a genius, even though he lost the game. He’d go to school wearing wires sticking out of his shirt sleeves to convince the other kids he was bionic, and for a talent show, he sang a parody of “My Sharona” called “Ayatollah” in sunglasses and a headscarf.
He rigged his bedroom with strings tied to books and props in case he could convince his classmates to come by for a séance. “I wanted them to believe in magic, and I also wanted them to believe in me.”
In middle school, he persuaded his parents to let him phase out Hebrew school as he auditioned for commercials. “I just thought that I would be happy if the kids could just see me on TV once,” Black says. “There was probably some kind of insecurity driving that.”
At 13, he made a deal with the casting gods: Let him get one part and he’d never act again. He got his dream gig, the ad for the Atari game Pitfall! in which he wore a safari hat, and then immediately broke his promise by scoring a Smurf-Berry Crunch cereal spot, too. He also joined Robbins’ theater company, the Actors’ Gang. Robbins immediately gave the charismatic kid a part in a play he’d written and directed, but Black quit halfway through the run. He was terrified he’d screw up the show. Not that dropping out made him feel better. Now, in addition to battling his self-destructive anxiety, he was scared that Robbins, the first adult who truly believed he could act, would never forgive him.
“Fear is good — it keeps us alive,” Black once said. “There’s a tremendous amount of terror before every performance, which is strange because it’s the path I’ve chosen.”
For a while, he tried to fight it. After he quit Robbins’ play, Black tried to become a burnout. By the eighth grade, he was sniffing glue and doing LSD and coke, sometimes more than one at once. He’d lie back in bed and watch chess pieces float around in his head. “My life was quickly swirling around the toilet bowl about to be flushed.”
Freshman year, his parents put him in a school for teens in trouble where Black would sit in the back of his theater classes with his arms crossed. Slowly, that drama coach, Debbie Devine, broke through his defenses and gave Black the confidence to care again. And Robbins gave him a second chance, too. When Black graduated, he rejoined the Actors’ Gang, which invited him to tour Scotland with the troupe. Another member, a musician named Kyle Gass, agreed to teach Black guitar. Black paid him in cheeseburgers. Eventually, Robbins realized that the scared teen had learned to channel his tension into becoming disciplined and focused. Robbins recommended Black to his agent, and gave him that perfect showcase in “Bob Roberts”— Robbins’ own high-stakes directorial debut, and a major show of trust. “Jack really has a fervor in his eyes that I find so compelling and frightening,” Robbins says. “The psychopathic eyes of the truly devoted.”
|Black stars in the upcoming “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” top, and received a Golden Globe nomination for “Bernie,” above.
Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment/Universal
After “Bob Roberts,” it took him another decade to find his footing in Hollywood, accepting inessential bits in giant would-be blockbusters including “Demolition Man” and “Waterworld.” Instead, he was focused on the band he and Gass had officially formed in 1994: Tenacious D. The “D” stood for “defense” — a line they stole from NBA commentator Marv Albert — but the band also became Black’s defense against feeling he had zero control in his own career. Onstage with Gass, he was proud to be doing something great. They were a joke band, sure, but Black could rock a crowd.
None of this sounds like the biography of a great goofball comic. But it’s exactly why a Black performance is so compelling and frightening. It’s a self-doubting actor putting everything he wants to be — and everything he’s afraid he might be — onscreen. A performer who purges his paranoias by playing loud, brash, cocky morons who don’t care, or even notice, when they look like fools. A faux rock star who swaggers that he’s the best in the world, as though mocking himself for believing he’s a good singer (which he is).
Tenacious D earned Black splashy parts in comedies that he didn’t respect. “Shallow Hal,” he groaned, was “my big break, and my cross to bear.” Black now had the blessing and curse of approachable celebrity, the kind where strangers felt comfortable interrupting him in his quiet, meditative moments and expecting him to be funny. He was told he was the next John Belushi or Chris Farley — compliments with a sting. “There’s other fat guys nobody compares me to,” he sighed. “Nobody says Orson Welles.” He told GQ he dreamed of a fame button he could turn on and off.
There is a Jack Black type, yet he’s annoyed when filmmakers lazily ask him to “do your Jack Black thing.” He loves challenges and contradictions, not what he’s dismissed as “Gimme that beer!” roles. And it’s why some of the best work he’s done has been playing real life, lovable frauds such as Texas murderer Bernie Tiede in “Bernie!” and Jan Dewan in “The Polka King.” These fascinating characters are so over-the-top, that audiences might think they can’t possibly be real. Black grounds them in his own truth. Bernie earned him a Golden Globe nomination, yet when he talked about getting Tiede’s blessing, Black joked, “He wasn’t prejudiced against my work because he hadn’t seen any of it. He’s been in prison the entire time I’ve been famous.”
But there have been many movies that knew exactly what to do with Black’s crazy charisma, starting with “High Fidelity” — even though when director Stephen Frears offered Black the part of a snotty record store clerk, at first, he panicked and said no.
“You didn’t make me audition!” Black explained. “Auditioning gives me confidence.”
Onscreen, he looked plenty confident, entering the shop wailing on an air guitar before cranking up “Walking on Sunshine” and swirling his pelvis so fast he could have whirled into orbit. Richard Linklater’s “School of Rock” was the first hit to maximize all of Black’s strengths — the obsession, the aggression, the ego — and let him reveal a skill that would shape the next stage of his career: He was great with kids. Kids love him, too: see his turns as horror author R.L. Stine in the hit “Goosebumps!” or check out his upcoming role in the adaptation of the popular Edward Gorey book “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” hitting theaters Sept. 21.
Black’s megahits including “Jumanji” and the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise have given him the freedom to try darker, more emotionally twisted indie roles, such as the under-appreciated agonies of 2015’s “The D Train.” His describes his approach to acting using food. If he likes his work, he “brought the mustard.” If he doesn’t, he “only brought some mild cheddar sauce.”
As for the way he withholds his energy until the minute the director calls action, that metaphor is even more elaborate: “You have to heat up the performance right before the cameras roll,” he says. “You want to serve it nice and hot. You want that bubbling and that crispness that you get in the broiler.”
To those analogies, let’s add another. Black is the pineapple jalapeño pizza of Hollywood, a talent deliciously at odds with himself. Congrats to Black on his Walk of Fame star. As for Hollywood’s second major honor, he’s quipped, “Maybe someday the Oscars will have a category for comedy and I’ll have a shot. But if I had to choose between a shiny statue or putting on a great show that everyone agrees is an incredible thrill ride, I’m going to put on a show.”
What: Jack Black receives a star on the Walk of Fame
When: Sept. 18, 11:30 a.m.
Where: 6441 Hollywood Blvd.