Is this Jack Black’s first gay role? As a small-town Texan teddy bear who goes off the deep end, it might be. But, because the real-life man he’s playing isn’t out, we may never truly know.
Enter “Bernie,” an offbeat black comedy based on a true story of a flamboyant people-pleaser who befriends the local she-devil, and then turns on her. As the titular mortician who is, as one townie calls him, “light in the loafers,” Jack – known for fun-loving roles in “School of Rock” and “Tropic Thunder,” and a hilarious kidnapping cameo in last year’s “The Muppets” – is totally non-Black, playing Bernie Tiede with understated finesse, an effeminate lisp and an endearing touch.
We got Black on the phone for an exclusive chat about his maybe-gay turn, what he has in common with Bernie and how LGBT rights is a “no-brainer” issue for him.
Was giving Shirley MacLaine a pedicure the gayest thing you’ve done in your career?
Yeah, that was pretty gay. I wasn’t really thinking gay or straight while I was doing it. I was really just thinking about giving the best pedicure that I could. I thought that I was damn good. Were you shocked at my proficiency?
Very much so.
Key is blowing off the excess. That was just instinct. I think maybe I did pedicures in a past life.
Does your wife make you give her pedicures now?
No. My wife gave me a pedicure the other day. That’s true love, man.
The music in the movie isn’t exactly anything like your hardcore comedy band, Tenacious D. What was it like to go into flamboyant musical-theater mode for those?
It didn’t feel that much of a departure for me, actually. Those songs, I loved singing them. It was a blast. I think they’re actually pretty catchy tunes. (Sings) “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” I loved singing that, I got into it. There’s something really joyous about singing about our savior.
You’re biased. You were Jesus in Funny or Die’s “Prop 8: The Musical.” Speaking of which, how did that come about?
I had worked with Marc Shaiman on the Oscars; we did a thing with me and Will Ferrell where we were presenting for Best Original Song. Anyway, I knew Marc Shaiman so he called me up, I believe, and said, “Hey, we’re doing this thing on Prop 8,” and I was like, “Let’s do it.”
Why was this important for you to be a part of?
It’s a rights issue. I’ve got a lot of gay and lesbian friends and family, so it’s personal to me when people and the government start talking about them as less than. It just seems like one of the no-brainers in our society. There are not a lot of no-brainers where you’re like, “This is right and that is wrong and I’m definitely on this side,” where you want to go out and sing about it and do things. But it feels good to be on the right side of history.
The community Bernie lived in speculated that he might be gay. Do you feel, despite how adored he was, they would’ve turned on him if he were out?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. But it’s not a town that had, at the time anyway, a lot of people out of the closet just being who they really were. But the love was pretty intense, so I think he would’ve remained popular if he had just come out. I mean, there would definitely be some haters; there is lots of homophobia in that neck of the woods.
Did you shoot in the actual town of Carthage, Texas?
We shot it near Austin. We never went to east Texas, to the actual place. It’s a lot different, actually. If you’re in and around Austin, that’s sort of a blue oasis in a sea of red – that’s where I would live if I lived in Texas. I actually would love to live in Austin. It’s pretty groovy, pretty open.
What did you make of Shirley MacLaine’s character, Marge?
They were just friends. (Bernie) volunteered that they had never had any sexual relations, that they were just friends and travel companions. He was her servant; that was their relationship. It was more of a master/slave relationship than a true friendship, but there was an element of love and friendship there, too, and there was a codependency.
One of his character flaws is that he has to be loved; he was the most popular in this small town for a reason – because he wanted to be. He wanted everyone to like him, and she was a tough nut to crack. She didn’t really want to like him, and he had to work on her. If you didn’t like him, he’d make it his life’s mission to get you to like him. I think he was truly afraid that if he ever left her that she would hate him, and he couldn’t live with that – so he stayed for an unhealthy amount of time until he just snapped.
What’s your take on Bernie’s homosexuality as it’s implied in the film?
You know, I met him and I talked to him and that is a question I probably should’ve asked. But I didn’t want to. It just felt personal, like none of my business. I don’t want to ask someone their (sexual orientation); that’s for him to say. I mean, I’ve got my feelings – obviously I felt like I was playing him accurately – but he never came out himself, so I wouldn’t be bringing him out if he didn’t want to come out. It’s such a big part of who he is, and the character of Bernie, I feel like he’s got a secret he’s been living with his whole life. In a small town in east Texas, you’re not gonna come out and be all open. That speaks to the secrets that we carry.
Well, do you know of any straight men who would get pedicures and listen to show tunes and make curtains?
Let me think about this. Wait a second. I’ve got two out of three there. I’ve got a big musical-theater background from high school. I was a big musical-theater nerd; Ben Vereen was my hero. And pedicures – I love a pedicure. Someone’s gotta scrape off the cement down there on the heel. It’s like the surface of Mars down there. As for curtain making, that’s where I draw the line. I just have no interest in that. But I am sure there are straight dudes who have the trifecta under their belts. I’m certain of it.