Cherubic Jack Black probably isn't a casting director's first idea for the part of a real-life murderer. Yet that's exactly the role he plays in Bernie.
Black reunited with his School of Rock director Richard Linklater for the off-kilter, true-crime musical comedy in which he plays Bernie Tiede, a big-hearted funeral director who was a pillar of his East Texas small town. In 1996, Tiede snapped and killed his longtime companion, Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy, malicious, detested widow played by Shirley MacLaine.
Black explains the creative challenges of playing this part.
WHEN YOU WERE FIRST APPROACHED ABOUT THE PROJECT, WERE YOU BEFUDDLED ABOUT WHAT THE TONE WAS GOING TO BE?
Yeah. It comes from very serious subject matter. It's about a real murder case. So you've got to tread lightly when you're going for a dark comedy based on real events. It's tricky terrain, to say the least.
Obviously there were deep, emotional scenes that were challenging and there was some concern that I wouldn't be able to pull it off. But I'm actually a pretty emotional guy, even though I'm known for being a clown. When I go to the cinema, I'm the first guy to start crying.
I've got a deep reservoir of emotion inside me. It was just relaxing and letting it flow.
A LOT OF WHAT HAPPENS TO BERNIE IS ABOUT BOTTLING UP HUMILIATION. DID YOU IDENTIFY WITH THOSE FEELINGS?
I have that, too. I feel like Bernie's fatal flaw in the story is that he doesn't have the release valve. When he's mistreated he doesn't tell people how he feels. He just bottles it up and puts it away - because it's so important that he be liked.
I have that germ in me, too, where I need to be liked. It bothers me a lot if I feel like someone's mad at me. It'll eat away at me and I'll lose sleep over it and try to make it right.
He got trapped in an abusive relationship, like a lot of people do. People say, "Why didn't he just leave?" That's always the question that's asked when there's an abusive relationship that ends in death. There's thousands of murders that happen every year between loved ones, husbands and wives and family members. There's almost always a history of abuse and the answer why they don't just leave is complicated.
He was co-dependent with this woman. Instead of leaving and taking care of himself he just stayed. I have that, too. I'm guilty of not really expressing how I feel sometimes.
HE ATTAINED A NICE LIFESTYLE WITH HER BUT THE FILM NOTES THAT HE WENT OUT OF HIS WAY TO LAVISH GIFTS ON OTHERS, AS IF TO TRY TO BUY THEIR FAVOUR. WAS THAT MORE IMPORTANT TO HIM THAN HIS OWN COMFORT?
Yes, and the whole town loved him. That's a quality he still has to this day. When we went to visit him in prison he was the most popular guy in the prison.
Everybody loved Bernie. He was teaching classes and making the prison a better place to be. I wanted to meet him face-to-face because I was looking for clues. I wanted to listen to his accent and see the way he walked and talked and moved.
I asked about what his relationships were like, what his life was like, what would lead him to this horrible crime when he seemed the least likely to commit a crime like that. He snapped. He bottled up too much and never released. When you meet him and spend time with him, you definitely get the feeling he's not a danger to society. But he did a crime and he did deserve to do time. Did he deserve a life sentence? I don't think so, but sometimes that's what happens.
DID MEETING THE TOWNSPEOPLE IN CARTHAGE, TEXAS, HELP YOU SEE BERNIE THROUGH THEIR EYES?
It was a great benefit to hear their stories of love for Bernie. He was the most liked guy in town.
DID YOU EVER SING FOR SHIRLEY MACLAINE?
I was just practising the songs from the movie and lots of gospel. She was really into it, saying we have to take this movie to Broadway as a musical. Can you imagine me murdering Shirley MacLaine as a musical? It could be really heavy and funny at the same time. That's on my bucket list, to hit Broadway in a classic musical some day.