By Natasha Burton
This year Jack Black has played both a magnetized oddball slacker in Be Kind Rewind and a panda in Kung Fu Panda. In this month’s Tropic Thunder, Black takes on the role of Jeff ‘Fats’ Portnoy, an overweight Eddie Murphy-esque actor with a drug problem who stars in the fictional Fatties movie franchise.
What was it like working with an all-male cast?
I guess it was like going to boarding school, which I’ve never experienced. It was a bro-deo. It was an absolute sausage fest. But I don’t think that’s gonna be bad. Charlie’s Angles was really good and that was all chicks, and I was like, “What? I’m enjoying.” I think the ladies could like Tropic Thunder. I heard they liked 300, ‘cause of [all] the muscles. They’re gonna love it.
This character obviously spoke to you when you read the script.
Indeed. It wasn’t just the character. The whole script that spoke to me. I was like, “This script makes me laugh”. All the characters: the hip-hop artist, Robert Downey’s character and Ben Stiller. It was something I couldn’t pass up…even though I wasn’t going to get paid what I usually get…I had to do it because of history. I’d be so jealous if someone else did my part.
Did you collaborate on creating the look of the character?
I didn’t make the call on the blond buzz haircut. That was Ben’s obsession. I resisted it. I tried doing a blond buzzcut before, long ago, in a movie called Neverending Story Part 3. They dyed my hair blond just to see how it looked and I was like “ugh”. But then we did it in this one and it looked much better now. I’ve grown into this blond buzzcut. As you can see, I still have a little bit of the blond tips. This is still from the Tropic Thunder shoot.
When you get this many comedians on one set, does it become an improv free-for-all?
I was sticking to the script for the most part, but you got to tweak it and put it into your own words as the day goes on, just to keep it fresh. That’s my technique, to get stuff that’s off the top of your head. That definitely keeps it fun and Ben understands that. He understands the actor’s perspective. But of all of us, I’d say that Robert Downey Jr. was the one going off on the rails on the crazy train.
Him, or his character?
Him. Well, both, yeah. His character was the most challenging and risky and he brought a lot off the top of his head to the part.
What do you learn from working with someone like that?
Well he was bringing his incredible dramatic prowess to the role. Even though it’s a very, very funny performance, he did a lot of it whispered, mumbled. It’s one of those performances where he’s not too concerned about you understanding what the hell he’s saying. It’s like, “Whoa, what’s he saying?” If I learned something, it’s that you don’t have to get too bogged with diction. Mumble your way to an Oscar—it works every time.
What was it like working in Hawaii?
It was not easy. When we weren’t filming, it was paradise, so that was beautiful and fantastic. But most of the time, we were working, and we’d drive an hour and a half through real bumpy, muddy, like, ‘pbblth!’ And then like a river – ‘aaah!’ And then you get there and it’s swampy, and I’m in my underpants, and there’s mosquitoes and bug-spray everywhere and they tell me to climb up on this water buffalo that might kill you, and all kinds of shit that was not pleasant. But we got some beautiful locations, and stuff looked pretty great, like Vietnam, so that was great.
Do you think after this, you’ll work with Eddie Murphy on something?
Do you think he’ll hold a grudge against me? I don’t think so. I love Eddie Murphy. He’s really funny, and a brilliant actor. And I thought my trailer looked really funny. I was making fun of him, but I was celebrating at the same time. Didn’t you kinda wanna see Fatties Fart 2? When you saw the trailer, you were like, “That looks funny. It’s dumb and stupid, and fucking funny. I wanna see that fucking family go through some adventures.” It’s possible, isn’t it? Someone might actually want to pay for that movie to be made.
It won’t be New Line [which produced Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny and Be Kind Rewind].
No. Oh, I killed them. I destroyed. Not many actors can say they single-handedly destroyed a studio.
You’ve worked with some great co-stars. Who would be your dream co-star?
My dream co-star… Man, I’ve really had my pick of the litter. I’d love to do something with Larry David. He makes me laugh a lot. I imagine he’d be fun to work with. So damn funny. Especially if he wrote it. Maybe only if he wrote it.
How would you describe Ben Stiller as a director?
Ben is the ultimate actor’s director. He allows you the freedom to explore improvisations and stuff, but he also understands how to keep the flow moving. Like if you do a shot, it’s very disruptive to say “cut” and come over and discuss for five minutes what you did wrong. He doesn’t do that. He’ll do a shot and he’ll keep it rolling and he’ll say, “Do it again!” And you’ll just do it again, ‘cause you know, as an actor, what didn’t feel right and what you want to do to make it better. You’ll do it 15, 20 times, sometimes, in a row, without cutting. And you get to some real funny places that way, in a short amount of time.
The director in this film lost control of his cast. Does that happen?
I’ve never been on a movie where there’s been a full-blown mutiny, but I’ve been where the actors and crew have been grumbling about the director and how much they hated him. And that’s just as bad. Sends a bad energy throughout the set. Then again, I’ve heard about sets that had bad energy that turned out to be incredible movies. It’s a strange chemistry experiment, this movie-making business.
Are you still working on Year One?
No, done with that. Harold Ramis directed it. And the young, brilliant Michael Cera and me are wandering through biblical times. It’s in the spirit of the old Monty Python movies. Life of Brian, and such.
What kind of characters are you guys?
We’re just a couple of guys who are not famous, just wandering through. There’s a lot of famous people in the movie that we wander by and interact. Abraham, Cain and Abel, Noah, Adam, lots of peeps like that.
That’s a big time span.
Yeah, it takes liberty. As does the Bible.
When can we see School of Rock 2?
We’re developing it, but it’s not official. It’s gotta be better than the first one, and that’s not easy to do. Definitely don’t want to do it [just] because there’s money there to do it.
What else are you working on?
Got my babies. My family life. I got a lot of things in development, but I don’t like to talk about anything that’s not official.
You writing anything?
Just writing with my band. We’re going to England, to Leeds and Redding. Opening for Metallica. We’ll see how that goes. Hopefully we’ll survive. And then we’ll come back and do an Obama benefit on September 23rd. At the Wiltern Theatre [in Los Angeles].
Will the Obama benefit be a new experience?
No, we did one for John Kerry, and it didn’t work. Maybe we shouldn’t do it. We’re bad luck. We tried to legalize marijuana and that did not work.
Hypothetically speaking, in the biopic of your life, who should play you?
Well, I like the kid who played the young me in the Tenacious D movie. He did such a good job. Who else?
I think Emile Hirsch looks a little bit like you.
Emile Hirsch? Dude, I wish. I wanted to do a movie about an old dude nobody has heard of called Roky Erickson, from Austin, Texas. He went crazy and went into a mental institution. He was big in the ‘60s, kinda, in a band called the 13th Floor Elevators. He invented psychedelic rock. And then he went into an insane asylum, he did too much acid. And then he came out, ten years later, with all these fucking wacked-out songs. Crazy guy.
So Roky Erickson is like the American Syd Barrett.
Exactly. It’d be fun. I think if Emile Hirsch played the young, sexy Erickson. And I would [play him when he gets out of the asylum]. But, I don’t like the idea of, people looking [at me] and going, “Ugh, what happened?!” But it could be like my—did you ever see the movie, Shine?—it could be my Shine. And my Oscar! Finally! But Emile would probably get it for the first half of the fucking thing.
Tropic Thunder hits theaters Wednesday, August 13th.