With a comedy résumé ranging from quirky indies to big blockbusters, both live and animated, and occasionally musical, Jack Black has proven he’s got the chops to take on just about anything. Now he’s parlaying the persona and popularity cultivated in Tropic Thunder, School of Rock, Bernie, Kung Fu Panda and as half of the rock duo Tenacious D into a different realm entirely: his first starring role in a TV series.
In HBO’s darkly satiric geopolitical comedy The Brink (Sundays at 10:30/9:30c, premiering June 21st), Black plays Alex Talbot, a lowly Foreign Service officer in Islamabad, Pakistan who stumbles on information that could bring the world to nuclear war. The fact that humanity’s fate is in the hands of a stoner slacker like Alex, the hard drinking, womanizing Secretary of State (Tim Robbins), and a pill-dealing fighter pilot (Pablo Schreiber) is both scary and funny, much like the classic movie Dr. Strangelove, which inspired the series.
Black expounds on the role, his career, what’s ahead for Tenacious D and his love for Peter Sellers in this candid conversation…
“I had a great time even when I was like being waterboarded. Somehow we made that fun.”
What drew you to the series?
I was drawn to the material just because I hadn’t read anything like it before, and I hadn’t seen anything like it on television before. It was so new and different and original and the fact that it dealt with Middle Eastern politics and was a comedy was just very fresh and exciting. We had a lot of different directors like Jay Roach. I’ve always wanted to work with him. And he had very clear, cool ideas of what he was expecting from me. Tim Robbins directed the second episode, and we’ve got a great history. Bob Roberts was my first movie. I had a great time even when I was like being waterboarded. Somehow we made that fun.
What was that like?
Not very pleasant. I had some protections. But water did go up my nose.
What did you like about Alex?
You know, he’s a complex character. There’s a lot going on there. He’s a bit of a doofus. He’s a bit of a stoner. He’s a bit of a climber. He’s trying to climb the corporate ladder of the U.S. government, hoping to make his way into the CIA. He’s kind of a wannabe CIA dude. But he loves America, and he’s there for some good reasons too.
The Brink has been compared to Dr. Strangelove. Are you a fan of the movie and Peter Sellers?
I love Peter Sellers. I’m not anything like Peter Sellers—he’s a real chameleon. I’m not really that kind of actor. I do accents pretty well I think but it’s always clearly Jack Black doing an accent. I don’t disappear into these other personalities the way he does. I have an old Dr. Strangelove poster in my house. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I think the first movie I ever saw was Murder by Death with Peter Sellers. I’ve been following his magic from the beginning.
Were you looking to do a TV series?
Not necessarily, no. But when someone like Jay Roach or Jerry Weintraub is attached… the lines have blurred between quality television and quality film. And I realized I’d been enjoying watching my favorite series like Breaking Bad a lot more than going out to the theater. This has been a great experience in that you tell a lot more stories in a shorter amount of time. We shot for about three months and that’s the same amount of time you do on a film. Independent film is much quicker. You’re on a shoestring budget. We were out there for three weeks doing The D Train. You go to a place like New Orleans where they have the tax breaks. Those are exhausting days because you’re doing six pages a day and huge emotional scenes, but I kind of like that. You get home and feel like you really did something. On some big budget movies you do 45 minutes of acting and the rest of the time you’re in your trailer while they set up special effects. So I prefer the process of indie filmmaking. I look forward to doing more of those.
Would you do another season of The Brink?
Yes. We’re definitely hoping to run for years. We’ll see how it goes.
You’re a producer on it too—do you enjoy wearing that hat?
I do like to produce and I’ve done a few things, but I’m a bit embarrassed about my producer credit on this. I didn’t really deserve it. But I will say I did push hard to get Aasif Mandvi cast when I heard that he was up for the role.
Do you want to do more of it?
I like all aspects of bringing a story to the screen. I’m a control freak so I think I make a good producer. The D Train [credit], I did earn. It was tough to get going. We barely got that thing off the ground. The financing was pretty tricky. We got some European financiers and scraped together the production. I had my hand in the casting and development. I’m very proud of that one. I’d never been to Sundance before and it was a huge deal. Bernie didn’t get into Sundance and that was one of my best movies ever.
Are there sides to you as an actor we haven’t seen yet?
Yeah, there are things that I see that I’d love to be a part of. As an artist you’re always striving to do things that are new and show people different sides of yourself and surprise the audience. I’ve got a few more things I’d like to do. This is kind of a new genre for me, the political suspense comedy. There’s a new flavor there that I had a good time with. I’m a creature of politics—I TiVo Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow. I have passionate feelings about world politics and I’m up to date on what’s happening. It’s great to be able to have a show that deals with that world.
How about your music side? Is a new album in the works?
Yes, this year. Don’t worry, I haven’t turned my back on my roots. We have a concept—we have plans for a few different aspects for Tenacious D. I do have some pretty cool things in the cooker that I can’t talk about yet. This year is pretty much Tenacious D and focusing on our Comedy Supreme comedy music festival [in Los Angeles October 10th].
Do you have anything to do with the School of Rock cartoon show?
No. It’s cropping up in the weirdest places but I have nothing to do with any of it—it’s like one of my kids grew up and did something without my approval. No, my plate’s pretty full right now, and I don’t like looking back. I want to look forward.
Photo by Merie W. Wallace/HBO.