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.
[Horovitz interrupts the interview]
Horovitz: Is that even recording right now?
Black: Can you believe it? I told him, “We should bring that over here,” and he assured me that this microphone is so powerful–
Horovitz: That’s really far.
Black: You could be way the f*ck over here.
Look, you can see the bar right there
Horovitz: It’s not plugged in.
Black: He can see everything that happens.
Horovitz: There’s two missing holes. That is not plugged in.
Black: You don’t see anything going– Look, this guy’s a pro.
Horovitz: Yeah, no, I know.
Black: He knows his LED lights.
Horovitz: Is this for something important? Am I interrupting your interview right now?
No, no, don’t worry about it.
Black: We’re doing it for a little publication called Uproxx.
Horovitz [to me]: Did you get a free hat?
No, I bought it.
Horovitz: I’m trying to get a free coat. [I guess because it was cold.]
Black [to Horovitz]: You know I was just talking about you with Jason Schwartzman.
Horovitz: Yeah, he’s an asshole.
Black: He said that when you guys would do interviews he was scared to talk because he was with you. He would wait until you talked and then he would pipe in.
[We’re interrupted by an event photographer who wants to get Jack Black and Horovitz in the same picture. I chivalrously move out of the frame before the photographer can beg me to. They eventually take a selfie and Horovitz moves on.]
(from left: Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, Jack Black. Slightly out of frame: Vince Mancini)
Okay, where were we?
I don’t know. We were talking about Jan.
Oh, yeah. Is there any difference between my portrayal and the real Jan Lewan?
Well, yeah. Was the movie trying to do the real guy?
Here’s one difference: Let’s be honest, I’m about 50 pounds heavier than him. And that was a creative choice. I thought that really expressed… I mean, I had to gain a lot of weight for this role. [Black closes his eyes and leans back, with a pained expression on his face.] I’d say he’s probably a little sexier than me. He was a real… He’s like the Tom Jones of Polka. You know what I mean?
Yeah, I know what you mean.
He was out there, the ladies would swoon. Yes, they were 80-year-old ladies, but still.
I think a couple years ago you were here for The D Train, which I loved–
Thank you. I liked the way you say that, though, “Which I loved. I don’t know why nobody else…”
Well, that was going to be my question? Were you disappointed with the reception to that at all? Because I was.
Oh, yeah. You always want your babies to succeed. We did our best. You do your best, you see where the chips fall.
So, similar to with this movie, do you think audiences have a harder time excepting comedies that aren’t a pure, broad, high concept thing?
I don’t think of these films in the same category, really.
Just in the sense that they’re comedy, but also—
It is a dark comedy, but I think The Polka King is a lot more accessible than a lot of the other indies I’ve done, in that it’s not a total downer. You know what I mean? I think that there’s a lot to love in the movie. I think it could actually reach a greater audience than some of the other indies I’ve done. For instance, when I think about promoting this movie, I actually look forward to it, because I know what I want to do. I want to get out there and play some polka music, blow people’s minds. I think that’ll make people curious about the movie. “I want to see that shit. That looks f*cking crazy.”
Did you pick up any polka talents while you were making this?
Oh yeah. My polka chops are strong. I’m ready to go on the road.
Any accordion playing?
No, bro. My accordion’s weak. I did take some lessons, but no. My wife’s [musician Tanya Haden] much better than me at the accordion.
She plays the accordion?
Yeah. She plays the squeezebox. Daddy never sleeps at night. [No idea whether the accordion thing is real or if it was just a setup for this joke. either seems possible.]
Do you feel pressure, when you’re in a movie, do you feel that there’s a pressure when people show up to it that they’re going to see a “Jack Black movie”?
Simple. Simple answer. So you’re not worried about staying on brand?
Oh, boy. Let me think about that question for a while. Let’s have a silence here while I think about that question. Worried that they’re thinking, “Oh, boy, here comes a Jack Black movie.” I guess I worry that people… Not on this one. This one really fit me like a glove. I don’t think anyone’s going to be distracted by me being in this role.
I ask that because I wonder if maybe people went to The D Train and they were like, “I like that, but it wasn’t like a Jack Black movie.” Or something.
Maybe. Maybe it would’ve been a huge hit with some other actor that you’re thinking of.
Okay. Are you okay with people turning this movie into a Trump metaphor? That seemed to be the theme of the Q&A.
It just seems that the world changed to fit the movie. We weren’t thinking about that at the time while we’re making it, but God, it really resonates with our times, doesn’t it?
I feel like everything for the next four years might be a Trump metaphor.
Nope. Next question.
Could you ever see yourself doing a cheesy Vegas style show or Atlantic City style show [like Jan Lewan]?
I have thought about doing a run on Vegas with Tenacious D, if we could come up with the perfect Vegas show. It would be pretty fun actually. It’s a fun place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. It would be fun to do a limited run in Vegas or on Broadway or something like that.
Are you still playing with Kyle [Gass]?
Yeah, we’ve been working on an animated series, post-apocalyptic comedy. That’s pretty rad. You can expect to see that drop sometime in 2018, if we’re being honest with ourselves.
Speaking of the D, I was in Australia around 2002, and I think you were probably legitimately the biggest rock star in the world at that time and place. What was the most surreal experience that you had with Tenacious D?
The most surreal? Probably Germany. We had some great audience turnouts in some of the different places in the world. The craziest was most definitely Germany. We played this festival called Rock am Ring. We went on late. It was right before Metallica. It’s a f*cking power slot. A hundred thousand screaming people knowing the lyrics, it was very strange. It felt good. It was a f*cking tough night, because Kyle got a case of the Bell’s palsy.
Before the show?
That morning. He woke up with Bell’s palsy. We’re like, “What the f*ck is going on?” The medic was like, “Well, you know, it could be Bell’s palsy, but it could also be spinal meningitis. We really should have him checked.” I took him down to the clinic and they said, “We still can’t rule it out without a spinal tap. We really think he should go down and have a spinal tap at the… We have the best f*cking spine hospital in the world actually, just in the neighboring town in Hamburg or Frankfurt,” or wherever the f*ck we were. We’re like, “Okay,” and we went on the stage, and half of Kyle’s face was drooping, and we were out there, f*cking rocking.
He still could sing and play guitar?
No, he was freaking out. It sounded to him like a nuclear explosion was happening in his ear, because that’s a thing that happens when you get facial paralysis. Your eardrum gets a paralysis and loud noises sounds like f*cking Godzilla. I don’t know if that’s surreal or just shitty.
Well, having to get a spinal tap before you open for Metallica seems very metal.
It was one of those things where it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Is that supposed to be flipped? Who cares. Next question.
Was there anything about Jan that was so over the top that it wouldn’t have been believable in the movie?
A lot of the movie’s unbelievable already. Was there anything that we cut out that was too unbelievable? No. There was a concert where he came out in Vegas, Trump’s theater plaza at his hotel, comes out on horseback, and he’s singing on horseback. It’s f*cking dinner theater, there’s 80 year old people sitting there and you’re thinking, “He doesn’t look entirely in control of this horse. This could end tragically, but it looks rad.” The showmanship is powerful, but it was a great metaphor for his whole career. You’re on fire, people love you, but this is dangerous. You’re out of control.
Did you spend any time in that part of the country, in Hazelton or in Pennsylvania?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t go to the source. We shot it all in Rhode Island. Have you been to Hazelton?
I’ve not. I’ve never been to Pennsylvania.
Have you ever jammed to polka?
Not really. The whole time I was watching this, all I could think of was the polka jam in Groundhog Day, when you sing that song [“The Pennsylvania Polka,” which is in both movies].
That’s right. That’s one of the few things people can think about.
Did you learn a lot of polka when you were researching this?
Yeah, I did lots of YouTube searches. There were some great soloists. You’ll find some unbelievable musicianship in there. All of a sudden, you’ll be seeing this f*cking insane… like the Eddie Van Halen of clarinet, just ripping and shredding and his jaw dropping solos, accordions, sax. It’s fun. It’s fun to go down that road.
What do you think the wider world is missing in their non-appreciation of polka?
It’s very pure, happy music. We don’t have a lot of real, straight-up happy music, and I think people really respond to it when they hear that kind of thing. I think that’s why Pharrell’s song was such a breath of fresh. That song “Happy.” People f*cking hungry for it. I think this movie might help them adore a little breath of fresh. I can see your skeptical grin, but you watch.
I was just thinking of another question.
You watch when we bring f*cking polka back.
It did give me a greater appreciation for the form, although I don’t know if it works if you’re not drunk and eating sausage.
Right. No, that definitely helps. You definitely want to have a pint and a kielbasa on a stick.
It feels like you maybe scaled back your movie output compared to five or six years ago, is that a conscious thing?
No. I was not consciously going, “I got to pump the brakes.” I just wasn’t interested in the things that I was getting offered. Offers were still coming in, but nothing that I was really like… I have the benefit of a side project. I can go rock with Kyle for a year and a year and a half and be completely satisfied creatively. Maybe that’s part of why I wasn’t on the scene as much.
Do you think you’ve gotten choosier with projects?
Yeah. It’s really got to flip my boat. Maybe I’m just getting old. It’s no country for old men.
I’ve heard that.
One of my favorite actors of all time, Gene Wilder, f*ck, man, what happened those last 30 years? We never saw him at all. I think he was doing theatre and stuff, but he’s one of the greatest actors of all time. Then, at a certain point, some people just go, “Eh.” He’s definitely getting offers… before he died, he’s definitely getting offers.
Well, when you’re comfortable…
Yeah. It’s comfortable. Life, there’s different priorities. Life’s too short to be on a shitty movie I guess is what it comes down to.
Do you ever have any troubles in your own relationships like Jan, where you feel like you’re hogging the spotlight, or you’re with someone that feels like you’re hogging the spotlight?
Oh. Yeah, I’m familiar with that sensation. That comes with the territory, with entertainment industry. It’s a blessing and a curse.
So, what, you just have to find someone that’s okay with that?
Now you’re getting very personal.
You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.
I don’t know. I guess you’d have to ask my wife. Next question.
Have you been able to see anything else at the festival while you’ve been here?
No. I’m going to go see Mike White’s movie with Salma Hayek tonight [Beatriz at Dinner]. That’s really all I’ve got on the docket. My friend Tim Robbins’ son has got a movie here, a short, that I might try to sneak into after that, but then it’s midnight. We’ll see. Seems like it’s a good movie.
Are you guys buddies from The Brink?
We’re buddies from way before The Brink. We’re buddies from when I was like 13 years old, actually. I auditioned for a play that he was directing. And I got in, called Inside Eddie Binstock. He was just graduating from college. I was 13. Then, years later, I audition to get into the Actors’ Gang theater company. That’s his political theater activist theater company. I got in and did some plays there. My very first film role, 1990 or ’91, was Bob Roberts, his first film that he directed, had a juicy little role, went to the Cannes Film Festival. Me and Tim go back to the beginning of my career. He’s been a very cool guy to have as an ally. It’s very lucky, actually, that I stumbled onto his path.
Are there anyone else that you get starstruck around and you feel like you have to take a selfie with, that maybe aren’t Beastie Boys.
I was trying to think, did you see Snowpiercer?
Okay, remember the woman who was the school teacher? She doesn’t look herself, because she was f*cking–
Yes. Thank you. I can never remember her name. I would be starstruck if I came upon Tilda Swinton, because I just think she is the f*cking tits.
Yeah, that’s fair. Cool, man. [Black’s publicist apologizes for taking Jack away, and I thank them and put my too-new hat back on and start packing up my equipment.]