Jack Black on the ‘surreal’ experience of coming face-to-face with ‘Bernie’

“Not all murders are created equal,” said Jack Black of the surprising true story behind his black comedy “Bernie,” which Millennium Entertainment recently sent out as a screener, kicking off the 2012 awards campaign season.

The film tells the tragicomic story of Bernie Tiede, a beloved East Texas funeral director who befriended an elderly widow and was later convicted of her murder. What makes his story unusual is that Tiede was so popular in his community that the prosecutor was forced to request a change of venue.

Tiede is currently serving a life sentence in prison, where Black visited him in preparation for the film. It was the actor’s first experience visiting a prison, and he admits he was intimidated. “There were a lot of rough customers in there,” he said. “And it was surreal to see Bernie in there, because he’s such a sweet guy, soft and gentle giant, comes off as a guy that wouldn’t hurt a fly … It just didn’t seem like he belonged there.”

Black and director Richard Linklater were sensitive to concerns about making a comedy out of the real-life murder case and, indeed, Tiede himself was skeptical: “Certainly, when he looks back at his experience over that time period, he probably doesn’t think any of it is funny. He was a little puzzled by that aspect of it … [but Linklater is] not the type to make a sensationalist, exploitative movie.”

Tiede has yet to see the finished film, and Black is unsure if and when he will. “We wanted to premiere it there, at the prison, have a screening of it,” Black explained, “but the powers that be at that particular prison said it was not going to happen.”

“Bernie” is the second collaboration between Black and Linklater, who previously worked together on the 2003 comedy “School of Rock.” Black, Linklater, and “School of Rock” writer Mike White were brainstorming a possible sequel to that film when Linklater offered Black the title role in “Bernie.” And after working with him twice, Black hopes to collaborate again: “You never know what the future holds for Rick Linklater, but I’m definitely open to it. My door is wide open.”

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Black’s performance as Tiede also includes gospel singing, which was virgin territory for the Tenacious D frontman. Up next for the musical duo is a jazz album to be released in November, but a Tenacious D gospel album is probably not in the cards. “You can make fun of jazz,” Black said, “but you can’t make fun of Jesus.”

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