Bernie - Jack Black
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) © 2011 Millennium Entertainment

Over a decade ago, in the small town of Carthage, Texas, one its most beloved residents, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the assistant funeral director and Sunday school teacher, murdered an affluent widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).

Bernie frequently traveled with Marjorie, who was perhaps the most despised person in the town. He managed her banking affairs, and for nine months after her death kept her businesses going, until the police found her in an ice chest.

Written and directed by Richard Linklater, who worked with Jack Black in School of Rock, this quirky comedy uses many of Carthage’s real residents, who knew Bernie and Marjorie, in the movie.

I spoke with Jack Black about his unusual role, in which he gives one of the best performances of his career.

As Bernie isn’t known, how important was it that you capture his personality?

Bernie - Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) and Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) © 2011 Millennium Entertainment

I wanted to get it as close to the real deal as possible. I had a lot of videotape, Rick supplied me with.

He’s a really incredibly popular, well-loved guy in this small town in Texas, and there is tons of video of him conducting services at the church, and I was able to have that to research, which was helpful. And also I got to meet him in person.

What is your perspective on his relationship with Marjorie?

I think that the money did play a part in it, because that’s the big question when you watch the movie, ‘Why didn’t he just leave if it was so horrible?’ He was seduced by the money and being able to live this life with her, and being able to help other people, that was a big part of his thing.

He wanted to be loved by everyone to a degree that was unhealthy for him ultimately.

Do you look for projects where you can sing, and with all the gospel music in this, is that what we can expect next from your group, Tenacious D?

Bernie - Jack Black
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) © 2011 Millennium Entertainment

We did do some writing after we finished wrapping this movie, and actually I think there is a little influence on one of the songs called The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Cage. It almost takes on a Biblical tone.

I love music and I love to act. I do look for things where I can show off, I guess. But what attracted me to this one was mainly working with Rick and working with Shirley, that was an irresistible combination. I love both of them, they’re heroes to me.

Were you nervous the first time you walked on the set to do a scene with Shirley MacLaine,  who is a legend?

I was fortunate to meet Shirley a couple of months before we shot and just talk with her and go through the script. Obviously I was nervous to meet her because she’s one of my heroes, one of the great actors of all time.

I was glad that she put me at ease really fast, because you’ve got to get over that whole legendary thing if you’re going to actually work together. It’s impossible if the whole time you’re just praising the god that is Shirley MacLaine! You’ll never be able to have a realistic dialogue between two human beings.

It was definitely one of the most fun experiences with another actor.

You use the ambiguity of Bernie to great effect. People don’t seem sure about his sexuality, they don’t know why he prefers the company of the older women, why he spends money on other people rather than himself. Did you ever get any understanding of Bernie and who he was?

Bernie - Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black
Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) © 2011 Millennium Entertainment

With any part you just try to put yourself in the shoes of the character, and I was looking for clues for what you were just asking about. I felt like a key was if you live your whole life hiding a part of yourself, then it makes it easier to compartmentalize things later on.

After he murdered Marjorie, maybe it was easier for him than it would have been for other people to just put her literally in a compartment, an ice chest, just put her away and go on living his life for nine months as if nothing had happened. He was used to that through his whole life.

It was interesting getting to know him a little bit. He lost his mother when he was two, and he even said the words, ‘I never had a mommy.’ His father died when he was fourteen, he remembers going to his service and being obsessed with the protocol and everything to do with the funeral service.

That’s where he got interested in the funeral business. It’s just interesting to get to know somebody. Where does any of that come from? I don’t know.

Can you talk about how your opinion changed about this story from reading it in a newspaper, once you met Bernie? Do you find yourself landing on the same side of the issue as the town’s people who, even at the end, were defending him through the trial?

Bernie - Jack Black
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) © 2011 Millennium Entertainment

Yeah, I could definitely see the appeal. The guy’s very magnetic, very charismatic and sweet. It was very strange going to see him in the prison.

In the prison the maximum security is packed with scary dudes that are capable clearly of all kinds of violence, and then there’s this gentle giant in the middle of it all.

It’s like, ‘What are you doing here? What happened to your life that you could have done something to be in this situation?’ He’s the most popular guy in the prison, people love him. He’s running Bible study in there and he’s teaching people how to cook.

Does he feel disconnect from the world?

Yeah, I mean, he didn’t know who I was! What kind of life is this? He said, ‘Who’s playing me?’ The guy’s been in prison for twelve years.

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Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.