Films

An afternoon in the company of Jack Black, the most mischievous man on the planet

Photography: Will Bremridge

Jack Black went out last night. “I went out last night,” Jack Black says. “I did a little gambling at the Barth-elona casino across the street. And I shouldn’t have.” On cue comes a seismic yawn, the yawn of a lion, a Jack Black-sized yawn. “I won a couple of hundred Euros. I walked away with the casino’s money in my pockets. You ever see The Desolation of Smaug?” I am confronted for the first time by those eyes in their manic state. “I was like Bilbo leaving the fucking lair of the fire-breathing Cumberbatch – furious over his stolen jewels. ‘Sorry about that, old man – I take-a your jewels.’”

You’re already getting an idea of what it’s like to be in the company of Jack Black. Earlier in the day, at a 9.30am press conference for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, he probably wasn’t drunk, but if you told me he had been, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. As he and Nick Jonas were introduced to the stage, speakers belted out the resolutely on-brand ‘Welcome to the Jungle’. “In the jungle… welcome to the jungle,” Axl screeched. And, just as “Watch it bring you to your sha-na-n-” built up, the music faded out to silence, which irritated Jack Black – for Jack Black had been rocking. “Never stop before the sha-na-na-na-na-nas,” he faux-admonished the orchestrator.

Over the course of the press conference, an event he unquestionably stole, he then did all of the following: claimed that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is better than Avatar; declared, “We should cancel this whole thing” after accidentally saying, “The script is equal farts” instead of “equal parts”; pretended to burst into tears when asked why he feels driven to make people laugh, crying “FUCK YOU… This is a catastrophe”; and high-fived about a dozen journalists as he left the room. It is no exaggeration to say that he looked on the verge of crowd-surfing. Jack Black is in the business of pumping things up.

It was Texas hold ’em last night. No limit. “It’s all about folding,” Black says, a man who has clearly put some thought into the matter. “You fold fold fold till you get that sweet motherfuckin’ ace 10 off-suit. And I just tippy-toed into the hand. A pair of 10s. Flop. Unflop. The guy bets. And I’ve got a possible straight if the jack hits. So I call. Next card is an ace. Problem is, now all they need is a jack and they win because they have a straight. I call, even though he bets a lot. And what comes on the river? A motherfuckin’ ace.”

An afternoon in the company of the mischievous Jack Black

It’s not just the gambling that’s made Black tired. Jetlag and caffeine are working in tandem to play havoc with his equilibrium. “I’m really tired but I’m also weirdly amped,” he says. “I think I had five cups of coffee, and it’s powerful here in Spain. So I may die here.” Would it be untrue to say that he all but falls asleep once or twice during our conversation? It would not. Would it be untrue to say that at one stage, halfway through explaining his character in the new Jumanji film, he comes to a complete standstill and looks like a website failing to load? It absolutely would not.

“And now it’s my turn and I say – instead of ‘All in’, which is what you’re supposed to say – ‘Todo’: which means ‘everything’ in Español. So I am just such a fuckin’ badass: international, speaking a different language, pushing my chips to the centre. And the dude stares at me… for a long time…with hatred in his eyes… trying to decipher: does this piece-of-shit actor from Hollywood really have the ace 10? Or is he bluffing?”

It takes only a crooked smile and a flick of those devil eyebrows to convince you that Jack Black, however tired his eyes may be, is made up of more energy and mischief than any other man on the planet. When Black emphasises a word for comic effect, you can feel it coming: the elastic eyebrows form a V, and he relishes the word, his tongue poking out, the top and bottom sets of his teeth never touching. His mouth moves like yours does when you are cartoonishly miming a secret to a friend.

“And my face shows nothing,” he says. “Just a perfect stone wall of emptiness. But if you look closely, the pulse is banging in my neck vein. And he says, ‘Call’. He pushes his money in to see what I’ve got. And I show him the nuts – the Stone. Cold. Nuts. And I feel a little bad, actually, as I take all of the money.” He does not sound like he felt bad in the slightest. He sounds like a man filled with delicious glee. “That,” he says, “is how it went down.”

Jack Black

Jack Black isn’t a sit-back-because-oh-boy-have-I-got-a-zinger-of-a-story-about-this-movie kind of actor. “I can never remember the amusing anecdotes,” he says. “It’s always my worst subject.” He’s wrong. Far from being a flaw, it makes him all the more endearing, our chat almost entirely devoid of rehearsed platitudes. What you get with Jack Black is something altogether less predictable. For no one’s benefit but his and mine, he commits to a mesmerising rendition of a Jumanji theme tune he and Nick Jonas worked on during filming. 

A glassy-eyed look comes over him and he fixes his gaze on a point on the far side of the hotel restaurant. “Joo-ma-a-a-anji… he warbles. “It’s the jungle insiiiiiiiiiiide your so-o-ul… somewhere deep inside at the end of the world…” Black goes somewhere else when he falls into a reverie like this, as he does when we take shots of him in the sunlit hotel garden in the late afternoon: while we set up a new spot for photos he sits alone on a lounger, burbling away to himself, lost in a sort of endless soliloquy. He’s there, but he’s elsewhere.

In this Jumanji sequel, Black shares the screen with Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart and the man who can lay claim to being both People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive 2016 and just possibly the next president of the United States. Dwayne Johnson was the captain of the ship on the set of the film, says Black: “He’d get up on the bow and make an announcement to everybody with the voice of a god. He’s like Thor, the God of Thunder. I’m more of a one-on-one mischief-maker.”

It is hard to imagine two actors who look more dramatically dissimilar than Jack Black and Dwayne Johnson. This chasm in shape and size ignited a kind of awe in Black: “I was always hungry and I was just checking out: what does the most fantastic physical specimen on Earth do? I said, ‘I wanna look like you, bro. What are you eating right now?’” 

He unveils an impressive impression of The Rock’s taut baritone: “‘Just some protein.’ ‘What have you got there? That looks pretty delicious – is that steak chunks in gravy?’ ‘No, this is buffalo. It’s a lean meat. And just some white rice.’ ‘I would have thought brown rice for you.’ ‘No no no. White rice – it burns cleaner.’ He really knows his stuff.” The food was ready for Johnson whenever he required it, Black says. “Any time that he needed some fucking buffalo and white rice – it was happening.” He reflects. “I need a buffalo guy in the wings.”

Welcome to the Jungle begins with a quartet of teens having to clean their school basement as part of a detention. They discover ‘Jumanji’, a video game (no one plays board games in 2017, grandad) that sucks them into another world and turns each of them into the avatars they have chosen. A pretty blonde called Bethany is given Jack Black’s rotund, professorial body, a fact with which she is less than pleased. “I’m an overweight middle-aged man,” she (he) says in utter horror. 

The film gives Black, usually a curiously asexual presence on screen, the chance to sass things up to high heaven. And, having his photo taken in the Barcelona sun, there is actually something more than a little sensual about him. No one asks him to pour a glass of water over his face, but he does it, working the camera like the pro he is and relishing the moment with erotic abandon.

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Jack Black

Staring down the barrel of 50, Black is in that curious stage in a high-energy comic’s career trajectory: beard flecked with grey, his more physical roles a few scrolls down his IMDb page. So does he continue to prance around and ham it up to high heaven? Or does this rock star begin to mellow and follow the lead of a comic like Jim Carrey into more – inverted commas here – serious acting? 

He scoffs when I ask him what he’ll be doing in his eighties. “I don’t predict that I’ll make it to 80,” he says. “I’ve always thought a good age to shoot for was 69. Maybe 70.” He doubles back. “I’m sure if I make it to 69, I’m gonna change my tune – no one wants to die, ever. But my school of thought was: I’ve seen people rock in their forties; I’ve seen people rock very hard in their fifties; I’ve seen people rock in their sixties. But if I’m being honest, have I ever really seen anyone rock in their seventies and later?” Keith Richards? “Is he rocking hard? The answer, if you’re being honest, is sadly no. I wouldn’t say that to his face though, ’cos he’d probably fucking shiv me. I’ve heard he’s a violent man with a blade.”

There are no doubts that, 48 or not, Black is still rocking harder than most. He pulls off the same trick in the photoshoot as he did in the press conference: it is difficult for your mood not to be transformed by half an hour of his sheer force. No one makes more use of their face than Jack Black. No one can turn it on quite like Jack Black. “I love to put on a show,” he says. “I love to be part of it. That’s my drug, the creative process. I like to make things. That seems like the whole point of life. If I’m not a part of it, I feel like I’m not a participant in life.”

This is what he does. Command situations. Make a fool of himself. His professional existence is to be the gleeful, energetic child that most of us think we must leave behind when we age. Seeing Jack Black, being hit with The Jack Black Experience, feels like we are that child again, boundless and unhinged, making stupid faces in the sun.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is at cinemas from 20 December