SCHOOL OF ROCK - with JACK BLACK
Movie Feature by Susan Hodgetts
The larger than life Jack Black makes a surprisingly quiet and sedate entrance - no fuss, no noise. Dressed, aptly, in a black shirt, he sits down before we've even noticed him. The four kids accompanying him are here to promote the new movie SCHOOL OF ROCK, in which Black plays a phoney substitute teacher who'll do anything to get a band together for a Battle of the Bands contest after being sacked by his band mates, even if it comprised of a class of school kids. The kids, all with solid musical backgrounds, were all sourced by the producers and casting director precisely because they were musically talented. Joey Gaydos Jr (Zack), Kevin Clark (Freddy), Caitlin Hale (Marta) and Maryam Hussan (Tomika) seem just as polite and make just as little noise as they enter by Black's side. It seems everyone's on their best behaviour today. But it doesn't take Black long before he's pulling in the laughs.
A natural and easy wit, he's got us feeding out of his hand almost instantly before he even says much, like snakes to the charmer. Listing his musical inspirations as Simon and Garfunkel and Black Sabbath (and Abba, prods Clark), "oh yeah, thank you for reminding me," deadpans Black, "it was 'Take A Chance On Me', that was my first song that I enjoyed," and he immediately breaks into a jokey rendition of the Abba song.
Black says, "I couldn't have done either [music or acting] if I didn't have the other one. I didn't really have an acting career before Tenacious D (Black's own real life rock band) and the thing about Tenacious D is that people like that there's a theatricality that we do in that. So it's always been a combination [of the two]."
When compared to current cult rockers The Darkness Black says "Oh I really like Darkness. I don't think we influenced them, but I think we have some similarities in that we both make fun of rock while loving it intensely. They're great though." At which he breaks into one of their songs, to more laughter.
Considering the character of Dewey Finn was written for him, Black insists he was unaware of any additional responsibility. "It makes it easier, if there's a really good writer who knows you well and writes in your voice. A good piece of writing protects you from being bad. [Mike White's] like a tailor who tailored me a suit of heavy metal armour so I could go into battle and slay the giant wildebeest. He kept on writing while we were filming, working closely with [the director] Richard Linklater, who had certain things he wanted that he didn't think were there. I think with good movies the director's always gonna do a little writing, the writer's gonna do a little directing and the actor's gonna do what he's told. No, I like to get in there and collaborate too. I like to throw in a couple of little flavour nuggets of my own. Yeah, everyone should collaborate a little bit."
With the part so closely linked to him, just where does the character of Dewey Finn begin and Jack Black end?
"First of all, I think Dewey is me 5 years ago," admits Black, "basically before I had a career when I was a little more desperate and frustrated. The difference is, you know, I make fun of rock and Dewey would never make fun of it, he loves it too much."
On comparisons to John Belushi, Black remarks, "I am always flattered if people compare me to John Belushi. The comparisons are aside from the fact that we're both chubby and I have a powerful eyebrow technique. I guess we both have a similar raunchy energy but I think the thing that was great about Belushi was just that you loved him. I wasn't even thinking about how great a performer he was as much as "wow! I'd like to hang out with that guy!" He had a great high hangability quotient and if I have that that'd be great. I'd want to."
It also seems that Black's turned into somewhat of a sex symbol. "Really? That's absurd. Well, I'm well over 13 stone, truth be told at the moment I'm pushing 15 stone and if a man at just over 5 foot 6 and 15 stone can be attractive to the opposite sex I guess I'm a hero, a hero to men!" he exclaims. "I'm heavy and short and I've never done any stage dives in my performances [with Tenacious D]. If I dove into the audience it would be like throwing a bowling ball out there. I think I would injure someone. Be hard to catch. I've always wanted to though. All the greats have taken the plunge. But [my dive in the movie] was based loosely on an actual event. I went to see a reunion in LA of The Cult, they were playing and the lead singer took a dive. It was at the Viper Room and it was just a bunch of jaded Los Angelinos out there that didn't catch him and he just plummeted straight to the ground and that was so hilarious."
As far as his own real life teachers go, Black reveals, "My acting teachers in high school were the most influential. There's one Debbie DeVine who was a little bit crazy but she loved what she was teaching so much it was really infectious. That was the first time I really paid attention and it didn't feel like school cos whenever it felt like school I would immediately fall asleep. There was a teacher that I would like to go back in a time machine and throttle. I needed the restroom one time, and she said "No, you should have done that at recess! You wait young man! Then she went back to writing on the board and a kid next to me said just go man she won't even notice, I do it all the time. Just go and I said "Oh no, she'll catch me and I'll be in trouble." He said, "Watch, I'll go," and he snuck out but I couldn't do it, I was too scared. Then I pissed in my pants, sitting in that chair. Then I ran home."
As for any lessons that he would give kids himself, Black says "If you want to do stuff in the arts and make a living in the arts, I think it's important to do as many as you can. I think if you focus on just one thing it's not good to put all your eggs in one basket and all the arts feed each other, so it's good to do everything."
Black's not impressed by the false wannabes that the POP IDOL generation has thrown up, either. "You know, that's like a lottery. I think that's a way to be famous but it's just basically a karaoke contest. None of those people are writing songs. I don't care that I'm not going to buy any of their records. I'll buy the records of the people who wrote those songs. I don't think it's a good thing or that it furthers music in any way."
The kids are unsure about how they'll use the movie on their resume, but Clark says he'll use it to "buy my way into stuff!" However he later settles on "I probably want to be a musician so I can use this as a demo to show that I can play."
Caitlin Hale, the most petite looking of the bunch, just relishes the experience for what it was and explains "It was great to say I was in a movie and I learned a lot from it. I did some acting before but it was my very first movie."
De Gaydos Jr laments that he doesn't have any teachers like Jack Black. "Not at all. Mostly you know just tight laced women..."
Black admits to loving Oasis "when I saw them in Vegas, except they didn't play Wonderwall and that bugs me when the band doesn't play the hit! When they say noooo, that's what they want us to play, we're gonna do this other thing and show them! He also loves Radiohead's sullen Thom Yorke. "You know I worship [him]. We [his band Tenacious D] were on the bill of a Neil Young benefit concert in San Francisco, and Thom Yorke was doing a solo performance playing Radiohead songs on his acoustic guitar and on Neil Young's piano. That was one of the best things I've ever seen. It was so good. But then he was really mean to me afterwards.
"Understandably I was kind of a psycho fan approaching him, saying "look Thom I just want to say that was really moving" and he walked away. But then later I heard that he's famously cold, it's not just me he despises, but the whole world."
On the compromises of doing SCHOOL OF ROCK and working with younger actors he says, "I didn't use the f word or anything. I guess you could say that was a compromise. That was a challenge. I didn't show butt crack like I did in HIGH FIDELITY. So I guess I've sold out. He's not showing his arse crack!" he yells. "So much for the real JB!" and then continues more seriously, "It's still me, this is more me than any of my movies really."
But Black will, disguised amongst the humour, admit to the insecurity driving him.
"I was very young when I discovered acting and the attention it could garner. I'm a Jew and we had Passover dinner at a friend's house, and then afterwards the friend host announced it was time to play the freeze game. It's basically an improv game where you go up and say freeze when people are doing something. Then you come out of the audience and tap the person you want to leave and take their body position. And you say I'm a dog, or whatever and then someone else says freeze and it keeps on going like that. I kept on saying freeze cos I just wanted the attention" he says hammily and with a puppy dog face, "because there's a black heart in my hole that needs to be filled. My parents were loving but for some reason it wasn't enough. There's a gene in my DNA that says I need more attention and love than most."
The kids clearly enjoyed working with Jack Black. Hale says "He taught me that you can have fun on set, be yourself and to enjoy it as long as possible."
De Gaydos Jr says, "He can make anybody laugh. If you're sitting in a room with him you're almost guaranteed to laugh at some time."
Clark seems to hit the nail on the head. "He's just a kid like one of us. He'd be acting younger than some of us sometimes."
Black is equally as praiseworthy of his co-stars, when he says seriously, "Honestly it was a great experience because now I've made a few films and I'm used to working with actors that have done tons of movies, are really jaded and punching the clock, and just approaching it like any other job. But these guys were really psyched to be there because it was their first movie and it was pretty exciting. Maybe it rubbed off on me and made me feel like it was my first movie in a way."
As to what makes Black himself tick in terms of comedy, he says "Just so you guys will know what I'm talking about," and proceeds to describe that man, that too familiar boss from hell, THE OFFICE's [TV series] David Brent. "That was kicking my arse pretty good, that made me laugh hard."
It's good to see he's getting something back.