Jack Black has just ordered his second dinner. He’s stationed for the evening at a room in Miami’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, and claims the chef downstairs is the best, man. “He made me some crazy fried teriyaki chicken thing. I don’t know what it was called. It’s not teriyaki. It’s like chick katori—I don’t know. It was so good I wanted to order another dish to see if he could make two dishes that good.”
The calories are beside the point. He’s testing the chef—can he replicate this thing that brought me joy? This trait, his affection for experimentation, has quietly defined his career, beginning in the late ’90s when his band, Tenacious D, catapulted him to the top of both the rock and comedy worlds. That turned into a slew of starring Hollywood turns, but the big-budget stuff bored him, so he veered back toward the indie scene. Today he’s in Miami shooting a climate change documentary; he’s got a cartoon TV series in the works; and, now with a few boys of his own, he’s embraced kids’ flicks: Goosebumps last fall and Kung Fu Panda 3, out now.
He hasn’t stopped experimenting, which is another way of saying he hasn’t stopped pursuing projects that inspire real joy. “I’ve got a lot of pies in a lot of ovens, and a lot of fingers in a lot of pies.”
Q: You spent a good deal of your early career roughing it.
A: There were lots of highs and lows. I was in and out of my mom’s house all through the ’90s. I’d book a gig, and then I’d say, ‘All right, Mom, I’m all growed up. I got a job, and I’m going to get my own apartment.’ I’d live there for a few months, and there’d be no more gigs, and I’d go, ‘Mom, is it cool if I stay with you for another couple months? I just gotta get my sea legs.’
There’s this idea that artists have to be poor and struggling to create meaningful work. Was that true for you?
It seems like you could say that about any profession, really. The leaders in most industries came from humble beginnings, and their financial future was not secure. There’s something about desperation, a survival instinct, that leads to great things. So, yeah, basically my career is over now because I’m way too comfortable.
Do you really believe that?
I definitely feel like I’ve hit a plateau. I’d be happy if my tombstone was just like, ‘He was in School of Rock. He did a good job.’ It’s a double-edged sword, though. The quality of your work can also get better because of the material you have access to.
Like with Bernie a few years back, everybody was raving about your performance.
Well, thank you. That was an example of something I did basically for free because I wanted to. That’s the kind of freedom that kind of career offers.
Are you more interested in complex, nuanced roles now?
I am really interested in the darkness and light combination, but I also like to party down on something that’s just hugely entertaining, like Kung Fu Panda.
What’s appealing about doing a kids’ film?
I like to think that I’ve gotten more kids into kung fu than Bruce Lee. I’m not saying I’m better than Bruce Lee, but parents tell me all the time that their kids started taking martial arts classes because of it. Entertaining kids is every bit as satisfying as entertaining grown-ups. I kind of prefer it, in a way.
Do you have to tap into a different part of yourself?
Po [the main character, played by Jack] is definitely more naive than me. He’s basically just me as a kid. And Po is still a kid even though we’re on part three. Time moves slower in Kung Fu Panda land—he hasn’t grown a big-panda mustache. That would’ve been cool, but they don’t wanna let him grow up. I was like, ‘C’mon guys, let’s let him have some panda babies.’ And they were like, ‘Not yet, Jack.’
Is it fun for you to channel that youthful perspective?
Yeah, but it presents its own challenges. It’s best when it’s fun, and there’s an art to finding fun. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, don’t forget to have fun!’ You have to find it, and sometimes it’s hiding.
Has that gotten harder?
Maybe a little bit. The older I get, I have to dig a little deeper. But I still enjoy it, and at the end of the day it is a childish profession—pretending to be other people. If you let yourself, you can get a little self-conscious about that childish game.
How do you view your comedy? Are you providing people temporary relief from life’s struggles?
I just approach roles that resonate with me, and I happen to feel that way more about comedies than dramas. I’ve actually been getting into producing. I don’t need to be on screen anymore. I’d like to put on a show and have other people be brilliant and hide in the shadows and shed a tear—of pride and joy.