It feels like we’re on the cusp of a Jack Black renaissance. 10 or 15 years ago (can you believe it’s been 14 years since School of Rock?) it felt like Jack Black was everywhere. Once we realized this guy could sing “F*ck Her Gently” and star in Happy Meal-friendly kids’ movies without missing a beat, the floodgates opened. And being the scene stealing ball of energy he is, it was probably inevitable that he’d get a little overexposed. That people would be less excited to see his face staring back from a movie lobby poster than they maybe once had been.
The 2010s were quieter for Black than the previous five or six, but he kept reminding us periodically why he used to be everywhere, in movies like Bernie and (for me at least) The D-Train. He’d show up in ways we hadn’t seen before while maintaining the charisma that made him famous. Certain comedy actors (and I think this is also true of Michael Cera and probably Will Ferrell), it’s almost inevitable that they become victims of their own success. Because there just aren’t many people who can do what Jack Black (or Cera, or Ferrell) does. Of course you want them in your comedy. And if you enjoy performing as much as Jack Black seems to, it’s almost impossible not to say yes too many times.
Hopefully his recent output has been modest enough that people can rediscover their Jack Black love, because he’s a unique performer. That he can be a rock star and a movie star, it’s easy to forget that he’s also really good actor, comedy or not.
His latest, The Polka King seems ideal to spur a revival. Based closely on a true story, Black plays Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant who becomes a local celebrity playing mind-blowingly cheesy polka shows for Pennsylvania’s blue hairs, which he eventually parlays into a Ponzi scheme, selling the old folks shares in the “polka empire” he’s building before it all comes crashing down.
With a goofy haircut and Yakov Smirnoff accent, Black plays Lewan as a charming, and maybe even kindhearted sociopath who just can’t help himself. He’ll do anything to keep the polka party going. It’s over the top but has the ring of truth (and is for the most part, pretty true), existing on this plane of comically heightened reality that only really works because Black and his co-stars — especially Jacki Weaver as Lewan’s mother in law — are fun to watch chew scenery.
I spoke to Black this week in a loud press lounge at Sundance. It was hard not to be a little awed. It’s not every day you meet a guy whose album you absolutely wore out in the early aughts. Sidling up in a puffy jacket and flat-brimmed baseball cap, Black turned out to be a slightly tough interview, and for the most unlikely reason: his lack of artifice. See, Black doesn’t seem to divide the world into strangers and acquaintances like most people. He seems to treat every new person he encounters like a college buddy he’s meeting for drinks. Which makes it hard to grill him. You feel weird giving the third degree when you’re just two dudes hanging out.
Before I could ask my first question, Black slapped me across the shoulder with the back of his hand, nodding across the room at someone I couldn’t see from where I was sitting. “Ad-Rock in the house. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Beastie Boy, three o’clock.”
And sure enough, when I leaned around the chair blocking my line of sight, there was Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. “That silver fox over there,” as Black described him. Horovitz eventually noticed Black and interrupted our interview to meet him. Black, in turn, made him sit for a selfie (“I want to send one to my wife, just to make her love me a little more.”)
And that’s how it is that I can boast of my one lifetime interaction with a Beastie Boy.
AD-ROCK FROM THE BEASTIE BOYS: Did you get a free hat?
ME, A NOBODY: No, I bought it.
Aaaand scene. That’s actually the most brutal kind of owning, when the person doesn’t even know they’re roasting you. These big celebrities think that they’re just handing out free Patagonia hats now? I had to pay like $25 for that. Yeah, man, brand new hat, thanks for noticing. I was trying to keep the snow out of my eyes. Unbelievable.
Below, Black talks about The Polka King, the most surreal concert Tenacious D ever played, and more.
Black: Should we lean closer to that, or can we bring that over to us?
I set it up so you’ll be able to hear from there, so you’re good.
Oh, you think so?
Yeah. I checked it.
You pretty confident?
I’m really leaning back right now.
I can see my levels.
All right. Cool. Ad-Rock in the house. Do you know what I’m talking about?
3 o’clock. No, 2 o’clock…. 1:30.
You a big fan?
It’s an obvious question, I know.
Dude, “Sabotage.” Need I say more?
I said you didn’t.
Okay then, bring it.
All right. So at the Q&A this morning, you said that you spent a lot of time Skyping with Jan [Lewan, who Jack Black plays in the movie].
Having talked to the real guy, did you feel bound by a literal interpretation of him?
No, you’re just trying to crawl inside. It’s all about motivations and, “Why do people do things? Why do people do the things they do, and what are they feeling while they do them?” Everything we said pretty much actually happened, so you could actually ask him, “Hey, what were you feeling like when… What was it like when you got stabbed?”
You have to get on the inside so that when you’re acting it out you know exactly what you’re f*cking doing. It’s good. It’s a resource. When you feel hemmed in… What were you asking me?
Is the real Jan different than the movie Jan that you’re playing?
In that I’m not the best actor in the world, yes, there’s differences, but I did my best to do it.