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Bernie Tiede was a mysterious man. Beloved by everyone that knew him, he was convicted of murdering an 81 year old widow back in 1996. While he acted effeminate, nobody knew if he was actually gay and many people questioned the nature of his long-time relationship with the woman that he ended up killing and storing in a freezer for nine months. So when Jack Black was preparing to play Tiede in the new Richard Linklater film Bernie he had to decide whether to keep the man a mystery in his own mind, or know the answers to the questions and keep them to himself.
Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jack Black to discuss his role in the film, which is due out later this week. Check out the interview below in which the comedian talks about meeting the real Tiede before performing in the film, how the production compared to working with Linklater on School of Rock, and the inspiration for his character in the upcoming Charlie Kaufman movie Frank or Francis.
A couple years ago you’re rocking out with Satan in the Tenacious D movie, and now you’re spreading the gospel of Jesus in Bernie.
Yeah! I don’t know how this movie is going to go over in the bible belt as far as the preachers and pastors. I don’t think this is going to be their favorite movie [laughs].
But it must just be real thrill as an actor to be able to gun the gamut like that.
It is fun to run the gamut. Yeah, it does feel good to stretch and do new things.
This is your second movie with Richard Linklater, your first being School of Rock, which was obviously a very different kind of movie. Was your experience working with Linklater as a director different this second time around as well?
We had a similar relationship. We had a shorthand, I knew that he was going to want to rehearse a lot and we were able to go through all the scenes well in advance of actually shooting them - with all the actors, which is a rare bonus. And he made adjustments to the script as we rehearsed them, when things didn’t sound just right we’d tweak it. And yeah, it did felt the same, but I should clarify, as I do in all of the interviews, this is not School of Rock 2. Don’t bring the kids. It’s very dark.
And how exactly did he approach you about this film? It’s a very different character than the ones we normally get to see you play.
Well, we were actually talking about School of Rock 2, we were trying to crack the nut and get that script in a place that everybody agreed on, and we kind of just got to a standoff where everyone wasn’t seeing eye to eye. And then he said, “Hey, well I do have this other thing that I really want to make, do you want to do this instead?” And I read it and I was like, “Yes! Let’s do it!” He just handed me a script. There was no elaborate pitch.
When we got to Texas a few weeks early for all the various costume fittings and make-up tests and rehearsals and things of that nature, he said, “Do you want to meet Bernie?” And I was like, “Yeah! Let’s do it. If I can meet him, I want to meet him.” Just because it would be irresponsible not to! You gotta get the face-to-face, get the blessing and pick up any personality and behavior that could be useful. So it was very early.
Some actors would turn that down only because they might not want anything to interfere with their interpretation of the character. Was there any hesitation at all on your part?
I mean, I can understand why someone wouldn’t want to go to a maximum security prison, but as far as playing a person who’s living, a real person, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to meet the person. You have to do it. If you don’t do it I think you’re just being lazy.
What was your first impression of Bernie? When you first saw him what was the first thing that went through your mind?
Well, as I stepped into the prison I was very intimidated because the guards are all very intense and eyeballing you, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going through these various levels of security. And there’s these signs up there saying, “IF YOU ARE SEEING TO BRING IN ANY OF THE FOLLOWING, YOU WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW.” And you’re like, “Fuck, do I have matches in my pocket? My wallet? What?” And you’re just on edge from the very beginning. And then you go in and you see some of these people who are in prison, and there are some serious customers, man. There’s a lot of face tattoos – clearly there has been some murder going down on these people’s resumes. And then you see Bernie. When I finally saw Bernie I was like, this gentle, soft, just sweet, sweet man. This buttercup of a man. It’s like, “What are you doing here?” And talking to him, he just has a gentleness and a softness to his tone. And you could see the appeal, why people would like him and be around him. His charisma is very gentle, it’s not like a showman. A sweet guy.
And he really is an enigma. In the movie there are the questions brought up about his sexuality and the real nature of his relationship with Marjorie, and they are never really answered because only Bernie really knows. Did you come up with answers to those questions during the preparation process or did you keep it a mystery in your head as well?
No, I tried to answer them. I don’t like mysteries, I like to know. I don’t like ambiguity. So that was something I was working on the whole time, make it make sense to me. How could he do this? Why could he do this? And try to build my own narrative underneath, in the subtext. So even if it’s not explicitly laid out in the script, hopefully in the character study little clues will pop up of how he could be capable of such a thing.
I do think that he is homosexual, and I think that his relationship with Marjorie was complex in that he’s a pleaser. And he was the most popular person in town for a reason: because he wanted to be. He wants everybody to love him and he wants everyone to be happy, particularly he wants everybody to be happy with him. He wants to be liked, and Marjorie was a very tough nut to crack. She was the one person in town who didn’t really like him, or so he felt. So he made it his life’s mission to get her to like him. And he started to thaw her heart, he started to get into her good graces, and she became dependent on him. And then she became very greedy and became very jealous when the other old ladies in town wanted time from him. She shut it down, she built a wall around him, and said, “You’re mine now,” basically. “You’re a possession of mine.” And he was conflicted because on the one hand he wants his freedom, he wants to be able to go out with other people and have a life outside of working for Marjorie, but the money was seductive. He did like the life that was afforded to him and also, more importantly, I don’t think he could leave her or let her down or make her sad or hurt her.
I’m also a huge Charlie Kaufman fan…
And I’m super excited for Frank or Francis. I was hoping you could talk a bit about the film and your character.
It’s an amazing script about Hollywood in a way I’ve never seen it written so succinctly before. It really gets to the core of celebrity as a sickness, and the United States’, in particular, obsession with celebrity. And it centers around a few different characters, it’s an ensemble piece. Nicolas Cage will be playing one of the biggest comedians in the world, who is going through a little career struggle, a little midlife crisis. And Steve Carell, who is basically playing Charlie Kaufman – a filmmaker who was being hailed as one of the great minds of our time and I’m the blogger who just fucking hates him [laughs]. But really he’s just jealous of him. He thinks he can do it better, but never actually does anything but criticize.
Have you started the research process for the role?
A little bit.
What kind of stuff have you been looking at?
I can’t tell you. There’s someone that Charlie thought has the right voice for my character, and I have reached out to that person to try and get an interview, just to talk with them, and he has said, “No, I am not going to talk to you.”
Are you going to still base it on him?
I might have to do some subversive, underground research without him knowing it. I would send a spy. You’re seeing why I couldn’t tell you, because now I’m worried that this is going to get out. This guy might read it…I didn’t tell him what I needed to research it for, it’s a little bit dishonest. I just wanted to hang out for a while with him and record his voice.
Now I’m incredibly curious.
You wouldn’t know him! It’s someone that he heard on NPR one time.
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