Marjorie Nugent

Photo courtesy of Castle Rock Entertainment.

When one looks back on the work of Jack Black, there’s a tendency for Black to come across as irritating. After all, his work is often one-note, loud and abrasive, and even when Black manages to tame his act into something recognizably human, it can still get stale quickly. However, “Bernie” represents something entirely different for Black, his first portrayal of a real-life figure, and it makes for the best performance of his career.

Inspired by an article in Texas Monthly, “Bernie” tells the story of Carthage, Texas’ most beloved resident, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). Bernie has a habit of befriending local widows, but his relationship with the notoriously acidic Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) becomes something much more parasitic and needy than simple friendship, until Bernie finally snaps under the weight of Nugent’s demands and murders her. It’s here that District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) gets involved, determined to convict Bernie for a crime that all of Carthage refuses to admit he committed.

“Bernie” director Richard Linklater has worked in almost every genre at this point in his eclectic career, but “Bernie” is one of his finest films, an unapologetically black-hearted examination of what drives a gentle man like Bernie to murder. The film moves at a quick, easy pace, but what makes it stand out is how Linklater completely understands how small-town Texas really works — the social ebbs and flows, the barrage of colloquialisms and the deeply entrenched beliefs about how things should be. It’s the authenticity of the small details that gives “Bernie” its unique sense of humor. Linklater layers in interviews with Carthage residents, portrayed flawlessly by the actors of the film.

With the titular role, Jack Black has a very hard line to walk, keeping his character sympathetic without neglecting to acknowledge the gravity of his mistakes. Black’s performance lacks his usual abrasive nature, and he portrays Bernie with a gentle charisma and hilarious falsetto voice that makes it very clear why the entire town of Carthage is drawn to him. It’s a strong, unusual performance from Black, especially as Bernie is ravaged by the anguish stemming from his crime.

Matthew McConaughey leads a strong supporting cast with his playful, bewildered performance, and Shirley MacLaine is wonderful as the stubborn, crotchety Mrs. Nugent.

At this point, Richard Linklater could make just about any film he wanted, and it would probably be entertaining. His strength for capturing an infectious, nostalgic sense of time and place is undeniable, and his actors are never wasted or underused. “Bernie” is a film that showcases Linklater at his best and a truly hilarious slice of Texas life, one that every native Texan will undoubtedly enjoy.

Printed on Friday, April 27, 2012 as: Small town murder takes on big screen

Actor Jack Black arrives for the screening of his film “Bernie,” at AMC Loews 19th Street, Monday, April 23, 2012 in New York.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

In Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” Jack Black plays title character Bernie Tiede, a real-life Carthage, Texas, resident who was driven to murder by his increasingly parasitic relationship with local widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Black completely and totally embodies Bernie, and much of the schtick found in his film career disappears here in favor of something much more human and likeable.

The Daily Texan participated in a roundtable interview with Jack Black during last month’s SXSW Film Festival.

The Daily Texan: How did you get involved with this role and what kind of preparation went into it?
Jack Black: You know, Rick [Linklater] was talking about it for years. It was something that he was thinking about doing for years, and then we were talking about doing “School of Rock 2,” we were working on that, trying to figure out how to do it, and we never could crack the nut to get it right. So he was like, “You know, there is something I’d like to do now, this ‘Bernie’ movie that I’ve been working on.” So I read it, and I was struck by its originality and dark humor, something I’d never really dipped my toe into before, this level of darkness. Really, I would have done anything because I love Rick and wanted to work with him again.

DT: Some people have been saying that they think it’s an ‘old person’s movie.’ Do you agree?
Black: Is that what the campaign is saying? An old person’s movie? If anything, I think it’s got a real punk rock sensibility. I think some of the rebellious youth will be more into it. Some of the older folks might be ... It’s hard to say. Maybe no one will like it.

DT: Did you, as an actor, get as exhausted taking care of Shirley MacLaine as Bernie did with Mrs. Nugent?
Black: Did I get as exhausted as Bernie taking care of Shirley MacLaine? That’s a real loaded question! (laughs) Of course not. I did get into the role. We inhabit our characters. We... Actors. (laughs) I got into it, she got into it. She was in character a lot in between takes; we’d stay in there. I was her servant at times, taking care of her needs and shielding her from the prying eyes of the outside world and making sure she was comfortable and all her needs were met. Was it as hard for me? No, obviously not. I never had flashes of “Leave me alone! Let me out of here!”

DT: Can you talk about the film’s Texas setting and how that affected your portrayal of Bernie?
Black: The locations were so important to Rick. He was so familiar with this story. He had visited Carthage and went to the trial. He saw when the verdict was brought down. So he painstakingly recreated that locale in Bastrop County. There were a lot of similarities to the location. It just felt good to know that it was accurate. I felt like I was in good hands. Was it important? Yeah, definitely. It wouldn’t have been the same if we were on some Hollywood studio lot. It felt like I was ... immersion acting.

DT: You have a background in rock, but much of your musical contribution to “Bernie” was in hymns. Did you enjoy doing that?
Black: I loved it. Loved those songs. Graham [Reynolds], the guy that was in charge of the music, was instrumental in that I went over to his house and jammed a lot. We listened to tons of gospel, and this next Tenacious D album is a gospel album. (laughs) That’s not true. But I could definitely see it creeping into my future music work. There’s some great untapped music there.

DT: You got to meet Bernie. Did he charm you in his own way?
Black: I was charmed. I could see why he was the most loved man in town. And he was the most-loved man in the prison, as far as I could see. Everybody loves Bernie. He’s there, leading the Bible study and teaching people how to cook gourmet meals. He’s just active. He’s a caring person, and it can affirm our feeling about the story. He was a basically good person that had a bad day.

Printed on Friday, April 27, 2012 as: Jack Black delves into darkness behind 'Bernie' character

Jack Black stars in Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” as the real-life Texas murderer Bernie Tiede. (Photo courtesy of Millenium Entertainment)

In “Bernie,” Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater’s newest film, Jack Black plays real-life Texas criminal Bernie Tiede, a mortician who strikes up an unlikely friendship with millionaire Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). When the friendly, unassuming Bernie is driven to murder the curmudgeonly Marjorie, District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) swoops in to pick up the pieces.

The Daily Texan participated in a roundtable interview with Richard Linklater and Matthew McConaughey during last month’s South By Southwest Film Festival.

The Daily Texan: How long ago did you find the Texas Monthly article that inspired the film?
Richard Linklater:
I read it when it came out. I think it was December ’98? I immediately called the writer, Skip Hollandsworth, started talking about the story and, at that point, there hadn’t been a trial. At that point, it looked like Bernie was going to get off, and that was kind of a joke. That was the angle of that article. They weren’t going to be able to get a prosecution. I went to the trial and went through the whole process, that’s all very personal to me. I was at that courthouse, I saw what the jury looked like. A lot of the dialogue, what Matthew’s character says in the trial, that’s all firsthand.

DT: Did the material from the townspeople come from actual interviews?
So much of it. Skip, in his journalistic work, had a big file full of interviews. The people in the movie are a hopefully flowing mix of actors, people from the area who knew of the story, and some people who were next-door neighbors or knew Bernie.

DT: There are so many quotable moments.
A lot of those jokes were in the actual transcripts of interviews Skip had done. I got that idea of town gossips reading all that because, if you think about it, Mrs. Nugent’s not around and Bernie can’t defend himself, so it’s a gossip chain that the story is absorbed through. I thought, “I’ve never seen a movie that told its story through town gossips,” because that’s really strong in a small town. It’s a huge social element and I thought it was appropriate for the storytelling.

DT: Matthew, your character is kind of the voice of reason in the movie. What’s the importance of having that guy who tells everybody else, “You people are nuts?”
Matthew McConaughey:
Voice of reason? That’s what is really interesting about the whole story. Cases are moved all the time because they don’t think they can get an acquittal. This one was moved to try and get a guilty verdict. In research, you’re not finding many other cases like that. You talk about where you’ve got the info from. You’re getting it from the people. And then, Danny gets in there and, as a good prosecutor would, paints a different picture that may or may not be true. They work to get the verdict that they’re after, so he kind of exaggerated, really. Bernie wasn’t a serial killer, but it worked! This was my first time to prosecute [in a film].
Linklater: He was like, “I’m always getting these guys off that I think are really guilty. Finally, I can nail somebody.”

DT: With this character and your character in “Killer Joe” [another SXSW film], it really feels like a departure from the kind of roles that people associate you with.
McConaughey: I’ve tried to stay fluid with my career choices. I was looking for some things that were different, offbeat, not straight down the line comedies. “Killer Joe” was a great script that came off the page for me. I could taste it. It was something different. Independents are better stories, more interesting stories for me right now, and that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do more studio pictures. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to do more romantic comedies down the line.

DT: You guys worked together before on “Dazed and Confused.” What’s it like working together again on this film?
We’ve got real trust in each other. I really feel like he brings out the best in me. I like to listen to him. We like to play verbal ping-pong. We have a real shorthand, and it’s fluid. From the beginning, in “Dazed,” there’s not a demarcation line between behind the camera and in front of the camera. There’s just an easy flow. It’s very fun for an actor and creative.
Linklater: I like getting those calls from Matthew, too, as he’s building up that character. It’s fun. We can talk forever if he wants to. Wherever he’s at in his development, I’m glad to be there any way I can be.

“Bernie” releases April 27. Check back next week for an interview with Jack Black and a review of the film.


Printed on Friday, April 20, 2012 as: Linklater, McConaughey discuss background behind 'Bernie' film