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Jack Black's dramatic turn

Funny man Jack Black sat down with NBC's Stone Phillips and talked about 'King Kong, ' comedy, and a career as unpredictable as he is .
Jack Black (left) with Peter Jackson
On the set: Jack Black (left) with director Peter Jackson (right)Pierre Vinet / Universal Studios

What kind of man would trick people into boarding a rusty old ship leaving New York, risking their lives and his own on a treacherous voyage in search of a lost island? What kind of actor could play such a man?

"King Kong" director Peter Jackson says the choice was clear to him, even if it surprised everyone else, including the actor himself.

Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: So how did you land in one of the biggest budget films of all time?Jack Black, actor/comedian: Yeah, I know, how the hell did that happen?Phillips: Did you pinch yourself when you were cast by Peter Jackson?Black: You know what?  Yeah, I’ve been pinching myself a long time now.  But that one required a super extra pinch to make super... I had to go for a purple nipple on that one to make sure I was awake—Ahh!

If Jack Black is surprised to find himself in "King Kong," who can blame him? After all, he’s best known as that crazy comedy guy, not star of an epic adventure tale.

Phillips: How much of a departure is this role for you? Is it like anything else you’ve done?Black: No yeah, I’ve never done anything like this. And I felt good in it. I felt like “Yeah man, I can relate to that. I can do that. I like screaming at the top of my lungs and running as fast I can from monsters.” It was like, perfect.

Black plays Carl Denham, the driven movie director who leads the expedition to Skull Island and the exploitation of Kong back in civilization. It’s a role filmmaker Peter Jackson says Black was born to play.

Phillips: When he was asked why he cast you, Jackson said your character, the filmmaker Carl Denham, is a reckless, unscrupulous, obsessive, passionate genius, enormously charming and funny, and in his own way, sincere.  Given that, he says, you were the obvious choice.Black: (laughs) Phillips: Reckless, obsessive genius— can you relate?

Black: Reckless and obsessive I can relate.  Genius? What kind of person would say, “Yeah, I do see myself as a genius.”  But no, I don’t. Phillips: He also told us that you are one of the most modest people he’s ever met, and that he’s not sure you have any idea how good you are.Black: Yeah, I guess sometimes I feel like, “Ah, that was good. I had a great feeling about that scene or that performance.” But it doesn’t last, that feeling of confidence. It fades.

That’s hard to believe, considering the 36-year-old actor has a reputation for filling the screen with intense comic energy in films like “High Fidelity,” “Shallow Hal,” and  “School of Rock,” the last which earned him a 2003 Golden Globe nomination.

We got a chance to see him at his zaniest a few weeks ago—in the mask and tights. We caught up with him on the set of “Nacho Libre,” the film he’s now making in Oaxaca, Mexico.

He plays a priest who moonlights as a wrestler to raise money for a Mexican orphanage.

Black: This is the story about this guy who has this deep and powerful spiritual side, but also has this side where he wants to kick ass and be a powerful wrestler hero. And those two parts are at war with each other. I’m thinking Oscar.

Phillips: None of these guys can take you, can they?Black: Naw, dude… maybe the big tall dude in the executioner outfit…

All through our interview, Black made it hard to keep a straight face. And he’s been that way since he was a kid, growing up in Hermosa Beach, California. His parents divorced when he was 10 years old, and Black says he became a classic cut-up.

Black: I really wanted people to pay attention to me and like me. And the class clown thing, you know? There’s a weird desperation to the class clown when you really investigate it. Why are they trying to be the clown so much? They’re filling some kind of hole.

The young class clown would soon take his talents to another level, making his first TV commercial at age 13, for an Activision video game.

Black: I remember I prayed to God.  I was like, “Just let me be on TV.” Let my friends see me on TV in a good thing.  I like, if I’m funny a little bit on a commercial and then I don’t need to act ever again.  "Just let them see me." And then it worked.  I got the commercial.  I was on TV.  My friends all saw me.  And then I was a kind of a star at school for like three days.  And then it faded away and I was hungry and I had to like make another deal with God.  I remember it still.  It was like, just last night I was lost in a jungle with Pit Ball Harry. And then I did another commercial right after that, that was a real bummer — for Smurf Berry Crunch Cereal.  I did not get, you know, the high fives at school for that one.  It was kind of a lame gig.  But it taught me a valuable lesson: not to do lame gigs.  (Laughs)

But a career in Hollywood was not what his parents dreamed of for their youngest child. They weren’t exactly your show biz types.

Phillips: I’m not sure I have ever met anybody who’s parents are both rocket scientists.Black: Yeah, my mom worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.  And my dad worked on some stuff that he can’t talk about.  He told me secretly.  But I can’t tell you.  Oh I shouldn’t have told you that he told me.  He might lose his special clearance.  Doesn’t matter, he’s retired.  Phillips: So how much of that brain power got passed down to you?Black: (Laughing) Very little.

In fact, Black says he was a terrible student and dropped out of UCLA in 1989 to pursue acting.  Surprisingly, he leaned toward drama early on, honing his skills as a member of the actors’ gang, a theater group co-founded by actor-director Tim Robbins. Robbins would later cast Black in the 1992 film “Bob Roberts,” and then three years later, in another small part in “Dead Man Walking.”

Phillips: So early on you were thinking drama?Black: I was thinking whatever. You know I just liked acting.  It wasn’t until I started doing my own thing— Tenacious D— I have a band/comedy band Tenacious D, and I started to discover my own voice.

In 1994, he and fellow actors’ gang member Kyle Gass formed the duo called “Tenacious D,”  a comic send-up of a self-important rock band.

It may have started as a joke, but they’ve  become a success despite themselves, packing concert halls and selling more than a half a million copies of their debut album.

Phillips: I mean you started it as a parody. And you developed a real following.Black: Yeah, it was so awesome when we started making money off of it. ‘Cause it was like, “Wow, we can make money off the dumb things you make up at home.”    Phillips: Well, I was kind of hoping you’d sing a few lines for me.Black: You want me to bust out a tune for you?  I wasn’t gonna bring it up.  But I actually wrote a little song about you.  It’s not a full song.  [To the tune of the theme from "Transformers"] “Stone Phillips more than meets the eye...” I stole it from "Transformers," from the 80s.  That toy, Transformers, but I put in Stone Phillips.  ‘Cause I think there’s more to you than meets the eye.Phillips: I’m touched that you would give that thought.  Really how much time did you spend coming up with that?Black: Took me a few hours to work out the composition, but it needs more lyrics. (Laughing) It needs a second verse. I still don’t have the other lyrics.

All laughs aside, Jack Black is now poised for the biggest moment of his career— the release of "King Kong," and all the hype and high expectations that go with it.

Phillips: With "King Kong," what do you think is at stake for you personally for this film—with taking on something this big, attaching your name, being one of the leads?Black: Yeah, there’s a lot at stake, but I always feel that with every movie. I always feel like this could be my last movie, because it’s such an awesome job and there are so many people in line behind you to take your place if you suck one time. Phillips: And the scale of this movie, and all the money that’s been poured into it doesn’t make you any more nervous?Black: I’ll take responsibility... No, that’s fun, man. That’s like playing in a really high stakes poker game. It’s more exciting than playing for 50 cent ante. The stakes are up, and you could feel it.    It felt like, yeah, man, we’re following up what? "Lord of the Rings"? Let’s do this man! You know how when you go on a roller coaster ride when you’re a kid and you’re like “That was so fun I wish it went on. Can I stay on and go again? And they’re like ‘No, go stand on another four hour line.’” This movie was like a roller coaster ride and it just kept on going. And I didn’t want it to end.

When "King Kong" hits theaters in two weeks, the ape may get top billing, but the success of this $200 million plus remake of a classic will also depend on a little "Black" magic.

Phillips: If "King Kong" hits it big, can we look for you in Titanic II?Black: (Exhales). I didn’t want to bring it up… but we’re already in production.

He’s only kidding about “Titanic II,” but with Jack Black, you always get the feeling he’s up to something.  As one movie critic put it,  “He has the least reassuring grin since that other Jack— Jack Nicholson.”