It’s a little after midday in LA, and Jack Black is fresh from the red carpet at the world premiere of his latest film, Kung Fu Panda 3.
‘Nice to talk to you,’ says Weekend, down the line from chilly Britain.
‘Good talking to you, so far,’ says Black in his native California drawl. ‘Though it’s a little early to say it’s nice to talk to me. You don’t know what I’m gonna be like yet.’
Fair enough. But it’s going okay so far, right?
‘It is,’ he laughs. ‘So far it’s been very cordial.’
The morning screening has been a rare chance for Black to catch up with co-stars Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Lucy Liu, Brian Cranston, Kate Hudson and JK Simmons – who he never actually got to meet while making the film.
‘We all work in isolation – that’s the way it is with big animated features,’ he explains. ‘They get one star at a time, because it’s got to be all about that actor for that block of time. I did get to hang out with everybody during some of the promotion – but I’ve still never met Jackie Chan [who plays master Monkey in the franchise]. It’s my third movie with Jackie. We’ve grossed over a billion dollars together, but we’ve never had one handshake.’
He might not have met Hollywood’s go-to martial arts superstar, but has being a kung fu panda taught Black any chopsocky moves? Could he take a guy out if he had to?
‘You know, I have learned some kung fu as a result of Kung Fu Panda,’ he says. ‘I felt like it was part of the process; that I should get a little yin and yang in my game. So I found a dude who taught me some moves. But I’m pretty rusty right now.’
The film – in which our ursine hero (Black) is reunited with his biological father (Cranston), and has to train a village of pandas to defend themselves against Simmons’ powerful spirit warrior – is the classic DreamWorks mix of action and comedy. It’s funny and sweet, and the animation – mixing eye-popping CGI with traditional oriental art – is genuinely stunning. It’s the sort of film you imagine kids will still be watching in 50 or 100 years time. Does Black find that kind of celluloid immortality attractive?
‘What are you saying, that the reason people want to be actors is it’s a type of immortality?’ he asks.
Well nobody wants to be insignificant, do they?
‘Maybe that is subconsciously why people want to be famous,’ he muses. ‘But, you know, wanting to be famous and wanting to put on a show are two very different instincts. And when you put them together, a lot of times that makes a really bad show.’
In the past, Black has said that ‘putting on a show’ leaves him with such an adrenaline rush, he’s unable to sleep at night. Is it a kind of addiction?
‘Yeah, it is. But it doesn’t feel like an addiction that’s bad for you. It’s the best kind of drug.’
He’s tried plenty of the other kind, of course. Born Thomas Jacob Black in Santa Monica in 1969, by the age of 14 Black was stealing money from his mother to fund his cocaine habit. He was subsequently enrolled in a private school for ‘troubled’ youths where, by his own admission, he was able to ‘press the re-set button’.
Having dropped out of college to join Tim Robbins’ experimental theatre group The Actors Gang, Black started picking up work on TV shows like The X-Files and Northern Exposure. After minor roles in more than a dozen films, his breakout performance came as a hilariously antagonistic record store clerk in the 2000 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.
The following year, he was Gwyneth Paltrow’s leading man in the Farrelly Brothers’ comedy Shallow Hal, and went on to take star billing in the likes of School of Rock, King Kong, Nacho Libre and, in 2008, the first Kung Fu Panda. More recently, he’s made a conscious effort to move away from frat-guy goofballs, earning a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of a real-life killer in Richard Linklater’s Bernie.
He’s combined all this with ongoing vocal and guitar duties for Tenacious D, the semi-ironic rock duo he formed in 1994 with his friend Kyle Gass. (He puts much of his love of rock and roll down to his elder brother, Howard, who died of AIDS in 1989, aged 31.)
Given the strength of his turnaround – from wayward teen to ‘serious box office’ – what would the current, 46-year-old Jack Black say to his adolescent self?
‘I don’t know but I’d better figure that out ’cos it’s coming soon with my kids,’ he says, with a rueful laugh. ‘I don’t know. Life is a strange journey. You can’t really… Yeah.’
Black has two sons, Sammy, 9, and Thomas, 8, with his wife, the artist and musician Tanya Haden. Are they Kung Fu Panda fans?
‘Oh god, I don’t really force my movies on the boys,’ he says. ‘They like them, but I think they’d like them more if I wasn’t in them. They did enjoy this movie, though. They just wouldn’t ever admit it.’
Which movie stars do they like?
‘They love Will Ferrell. I haven’t told him that,’ he adds. ‘Maybe he’ll read this.’
Despite being ‘an adrenaline junkie for performing’, Black insists he’s happiest away from the spotlight: ‘I like to hike. I like to hang out with my boys, and make out with my wife. I like to eat a delicious meal, **obviously**. Those are my simple pleasures.’
Does he have any burning ambitions left to fulfill?
‘No, I’m pretty much done,’ he says. ‘I just want to have some fun. I have a couple more albums to write with Kyle. A couple more movies, maybe. Then ride off into the sunset.’
‘Yeah, maybe I’ll be a painter, or an animator. I’m a real doodler.’
He talks about Tenacious D’s Festival Supreme, which he and Gass ‘have hopes of turning it into the Glastonbury of comedy’. ‘I enjoying producing,’ he adds. ‘Getting involved in stuff I’m not in. Putting on the show without being in the show. That’s sort of where I’m headed.’
It’s hard to tell if he’s joking. Let’s hope so, because you can’t help but think Jack Black still has more to give. Though, on the plus side, it will mean more opportunities for Will Ferrell, so at least his kids will be pleased.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, March 10, 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend