Contrary to popular belief, Jack Black did not burst into the movie world as Barry, the blustery, wisecracking record store employee in High Fidelity. He definitely made himself known in that film with a goofy, bravura performance, but Black had already been building a movie career for almost a decade, starting with a small part for his pal Tim Robbins in Bob Roberts.
With School of Rock, he gets his second lead, after hitting it big in the title role of the Farrelly Brothers' Shallow Hal. Once again, he cashes in on his ability to fashion a character that's both raucous and sweet. His failed but enthusiastic rock 'n' roller, Dewey Finn, can unnerve anyone who gets in his way with an arch of the eyebrow and a twinkle in his eye, much like a young, portly version of Jack Nicholson. But because almost the entire cast opposite him is made up of fifth-graders, Black had to achieve a level for his character that would make him exciting and funny and believable as a faux substitute teacher who brings rock music into an otherwise dull classroom.
"I was good with them because I'm kinda like a kid," says Black. "I'm a big, stinky kid, and I'm kind of an animal, too. So I can work with animals or kids. I have no problem."
But when Black actually was a kid, before he discovered the joys of acting, he was a troublemaker. He's not exactly proud of those days, but he'll talk about them, because they indirectly led him to making movies.
"I had some problems when I was a kid," he says. "I got involved with some bad people, doin' some drugs, stealin' money from my mom. I was in a bad way."
He ended up going to Poseidon, a Los Angeles school for troubled youth, during the ninth and tenth grades.
"It wasn't like a ritzy private school," he says, leaning forward and arching one of those brows. "It was a place where they sent ya if things was goin' bad.
"But there was a silver lining," he adds, smiling, referring to a teacher there named Debbie Devine, who picked up on Black's natural acting talent.
"We did improv there, and she always pushed me to try different characters and voices," he recalls.
And he remembers that she gave him some advice.
"She said, 'You're really hilarious, and you could do this. But I encourage you to write, I encourage you to direct, to do all the stuff. Because just acting is a much harder deal. Everyone in L.A. is acting, and it's too competitive. It's not realistic.' So I took her advice. And later I wrote a lot of songs and sketches with my band Tenacious D."
Black believes that the satirical -- and often blatantly foul-mouthed -- power duo he formed with his longtime friend Kyle Gass led directly to getting his foot in the big time.
"I got parts here and there before that," he says. "But I got High Fidelity off the strength of the Tenacious D stuff."
Actually, he did a lot of acting before that. At UCLA, he tried Shakespeare, acting in but not exactly appreciating Much Ado About Nothing. He had a part in Winterset, a play he refers to as "pretty boring." And he enjoyed being in an underground play called Mud.
But an even earlier stage brush was with the company that came to be known as the Actors Gang, founded by Tim Robbins.
"When I was in high school, one of my teachers was involved in the Actors Gang," he says. "And I kept in touch with him. I was kind of an Actors Gang groupie -- not that I would have sex with the actors, but I would hang around the theater and see any of their plays eight or nine times, and wish so badly that I was in the company. While I was in college, I got a little part in one of their plays, and later on I was in one of their plays that went to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival."
The tips he learned there, and the chops he picked up in small parts in films such as Waterworld, Dead Man Walking and Enemy of the State gave him expertise, built up his confidence, and taught him how to work with directors. All of which made it easier for him to give a funny and heartfelt performance in School of Rock for director Richard Linklater.
"There's always a strange relationship with any director," admits Black. "I don't like being told what to do, but sometimes I need something. So it's a strange balance. I think Rick and I had a good one. I like to be able to do whatever my instincts are telling me. But if I'm in trouble, then I'll ask the director. It has to be an even collaboration for it to be fun and good."
The movie is fun and good and, according to Black, was fun to make, but he can't help bringing up the next film he'll shoot, tentatively called Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, co-written by Black and Kyle Gass and director Liam Lynch.
"Being in the arts was the only thing I ever really loved," he says. "I'm lucky that it worked out, because if I didn't get a career going in the arts, I would still be living at home at my mom's, just eating American cheese and playing video games."