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Black humor sets Hollywood alight

by George Hadley-Garcia

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When asked if he thinks he could make a living strictly from music, Black responds, “I should try it. I should try it like for a year or so, as an experiment. But I have all these other commitments. I do movies. And I also do producing stuff, like in TV and also documentaries. I’m just sort of all over the place.”

As a singer, he has a unique style or method of often starting a song speaking quietly and slowly, then segueing into a faster and louder tempo. He also frequently does scat-type singing, and is a big jazz fan. But more than anything, Tenacious D resemble a real-life Spinal Tap, playing over-the-top mock-rock that combines genuine songwriting prowess with amusing lyrics. O n the subject of how he got his start, or what was his first big break, Black seems dazed. “Jeez, I mean . . . I don’t know, I’ve just . . . I’ve done so may things! It’s like I’ve lived a lifetime for two. Or three,” he snickers.

As might be expected, Black’s road to fame and fortune was not an overnight event. He allows, “Even people who like me have said, like, to my face, that they didn’t expect me to necessarily rise to the top. You know, ‘to be a star,’ quote-unquote.”

Black’s first movie was the politically-oriented nonhit “Bob Roberts” in 1992, a project tailored to Tim Robbins, today a good friend of Black’s. Roberts was a fictional folk singer running for U.S. president, and Black had a very small part as a Roberts fan, although he did sing backup vocals on the film’s soundtrack.

It was eight years later that Black had a professional breakthrough, with the film “High Fidelity.”

“Yeah, it was music that got me some people’s attention, in a way,” he says. “I mean, you wouldn’t expect me to hit it big in a remake of ‘Love Story,’ would you? And one thing I like and appreciate about the music field, and not just for me but for others too, is that looks are so much less important in music than in straight movies. You don’t have to be what my parents called a matinee idol to make it in a band or even as a solo singer. And I think that’s important, because — and think about it — most of the real music talents, the musical giants, past and present, they haven’t been the best-looking people on earth. Or even very thin — as if that matters,” he snorts again with a mixture of humor and mild contempt.

Today, Black would seem to be enjoying the best of both worlds, still making music but also taking on varied film roles. He provides the lead voice in the recent animation hit “Kung Fu Panda,” admitting, “Doing voices is so cool, because you don’t have to deal with your looks, your hair, your (standing on) marks, or anything physical except what comes out of your throat. You can create a character entirely out of your voice and your imagination. You’re not limited by what people see. That’s important to me, on principle. But it’s also real cool.”

He also stars in the comedy “Be Kind Rewind” (released in Japan on Oct. 11) as a man who gets accidentally magnetized and inadvertently erases videos all around him. This leads him to re-create each movie to replace the tapes.

“You can call it a technological comedy with heart,” says Black, who says he likes it when a movie “has more to it than just the boy-meets-girl thing, because let’s face it, that’s been done to death. These days, you need more substance than just that.” The movie was directed by Michel Gondry and costars include Danny Glover, Mia Farrow and rapper-actor Mos Def.

Is Black particularly drawn to offbeat projects such as this one and “Nacho Libre,” in which he played a Mexican cook and wrestler. (He also coproduced the movie.) Even when he’s in big-budget movies such as Peter Jackson’s 2005 “King Kong” remake, it’s fair to say that he’s not your typical leading man.

“Long ago, if I’d had that kind of ambition, I could have been thinner and stayed thinner and been a more typical or normal leading man,” he replies. “I do have OK features. I can look good if I have to. But you know, I like food. I love food! I like enjoying myself, though I wouldn’t want to get fat, and I think I know where to draw the line. There’s an old expression, and maybe we should bring it back: pleasingly plump. I know I’m overweight. So what? I’m not fat. And I’m not damaging my health — or not yet, anyway.

“I sure as hell wouldn’t want to have to go up and audition against other guys for thin roles. Even when I was younger. Like, I can’t believe, or part of me can’t, that next year I’ll be 40. The enemy camp! Besides, those guys, whether they’re 20 or 30 or 40, they look like Greek gods. They might be morons, some of them, but they look like goddamned Grecian gods. And it takes a hell of a lot of self-confidence to go up against that!”

One person with whom Black does compete for movie roles is Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman (who won Best Actor as Truman Capote in the film “Capote”).

“Oh, he’s good, he’s very good,” says Black with no trace of envy or rancor. But, he adds, “there should be more roles for hefty white guys.”

Black, for example, auditioned for the role of tabloid writer Freddy Lounds in “Red Dragon” (2002), one of the hit films featuring the character Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lector, played by Oscar-winner Sir Anthony Hopkins. However, the role went to Hoffman. But that was then; both actors are now playing leads rather than supporting roles.

Another 2008 film for Black is the adventure comedy “Tropic Thunder,” costarring him with Ben Stiller (who also directed and cowrote) and Robert Downey Jr. The film, which will be released in Japan on Nov. 22, is about a trio of actors portraying fighters in a movie war who suddenly have to fight in reality.

“It’s a wild and crazy movie,” chuckles Black. “Lots of imagination. It’s cool and it’s fun, big-time. And Ben Stiller is just a comic genius. On the screen, behind the screen; he rocks, man.” B lack’s wife, Tanya Haden, is the daughter of jazz icon Charlie Haden. The pair have two children; but regarding his home life, Black declares casually but firmly, “Oh, you don’t want to hear about that,” as if the topic would be boring to others.

When he was 10, Black’s parents divorced. He won’t go into personal details, but offers, “When people are intelligent and creative, I think there is more of a, what’s the word, propensity to want to make the most out of life. And you know, if the marriage has for whatever reason gone stale or gotten boring, then that sort of a person is more likely to say, ‘I want to start again, I want another chance in life.’ You know: a chance to be happy. Instead of just waiting it out. You know, waiting until one of you dies.

“For all we know, this is the only life we get, or the only one in this form — like a human form — and why endure something for a lifetime, especially if both of you want out? I know that for my parents, I’d rather they’d be happy apart than have to stick together all because of me and be unhappy. That wouldn’t be fair at all.”

When Black isn’t busy with movies or music or socializing, he spends time writing.

“Oh, I have a very fertile mind and imagination. I’m always coming up with ideas for movies; all kinds of movies, though kind of far-out ideas that might wind up being independent movies or even art movies, instead of the big-budget studio ones. And you know, if I don’t write the thing out or collaborate on the script, I might wind up producing or coproducing it.”

He did so with the 2007 satire “Year of the Dog,” about a woman and her dog, written and directed by Black’s friend Mike White, best known as the stalkerish gay man in the offbeat comedy “Chuck and Buck” (2000).

A lot of Black’s downtime is spent watching professional wrestling, of which he’s a big fan. He has a point he wants to emphasize, rather loudly.

“I know that it’s choreographed,” he says. “Sometimes people who don’t approve of it will inform me, like I never heard it before, that wrestling is prearranged, it’s choreographed, they’re not doing it all for real. Yes. Yes, I know that. And it’s OK. To me, that’s one big factor in what brings it close to being an art form. . . . Pro wrestling is very, very entertaining.

“I like to watch it better than I did doing it, like in ‘Nacho Libre,’ ” he continues. “I admire those guys, the way they make it look real and add this . . . oh, this sense of spectacle to it. And one more thing: if people want to criticize it, they should criticize boxing first, cos that’s where people do get actually hurt. Wrestling’s for fun, and for strategy. It’s showbiz. There was once a guy named Gorgeous George, and he made wrestling into a vanity thing, a one-ring circus. He was wild and crazy and flamboyant, and you couldn’t do that in boxing, because that’s more serious . . . and more bloody.”

Any other topic he wants to discuss? (Black is a natural talker, and says he usually isn’t crazy about starting to do an interview but hates to have to end a good one.)

Out of the blue, he states, “Michael Gondry is another guy who knows what moviemaking’s all about. He has what I think you have to have to make it, which is not just a vision of what you want to do. To me, that’s a given. But he also has showmanship.

“It’s a way of presenting something in a compelling way; to make people want to keep on watching, and when they’re done, to want to see more, to see the next thing you have to offer.”

Changing the subject entirely, he says, “And don’t think I don’t know how lucky I am to be a fairly ordinary Joe — even if I’m not as ordinary as people might imagine — but to have and to enjoy this fun and fulfilling, fantastic and even bombastic life and lifestyle! I know it, I do know it, man!”

“Be Kind Rewind” is released on Oct. 11; “Tropic Thunder” is released on Nov. 22.