Jack Black and I are in Barcelona and he’s asking me about food. We saw each other the day before in front of the Arc de Triomf, him with Nick Jonas, me with my brother James.
“Where’d you guys end up? What’d you have?”
“The classic burger,” I say.
“You had the burger! I had some paella negra,” he says, in an exaggerated Spanish accent.
“I hear you only have paella on Thursdays,” I say.
“What?! I didn’t know there was a rule! Shoot, man!” Only he doesn’t say shoot.
We’re here to talk Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which Black co-stars in along with Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillen and Nick Jonas. The film is a sequel to the 1995 classic children’s film starring the late Robin Williams. When first announced, the proposition of a sequel seemed risky, a world best left preserved rather than revisited.
“When a film has a cultural legacy like this, when people love a film like this, when people think back to Robin Williams and his role, do you hesitate at all?” I ask.
“No, I didn’t hesitate. That’s the way of the industry now. They’re looking for brand names that are powerful, have a built in audience and a built in love so that people know what to expect. It’s a business move really. I don’t really care about that. I’m just reading the script for the quality. It’s like, is this a page turner? Do I want to know what happens next? Is it funny? This thing checked all the boxes for me. I was like, this is a rad exciting script. I know I’m going to love it, my boys are going to love it, and the character jumped out at me as something that I knew what to do with. I wanted to play this character as very funny.”
“As you’re saying, the industry is changing. They’re going for a lot more familiar IP. Does the way you approach acting change? Does acting fulfill you in the same way that it did when you were first starting out?” I ask.
“I don’t approach it any differently. Storytelling, putting on a show, that’s just in my blood. I don’t really care what the venue is, what the delivery system is. If I’m doing a big motion picture for a 100 million dollar budget, it feels the same way as doing a five dollar budget on YouTube. It’s always the same thing. You’re just trying to figure out the science of telling a story. Putting on a show. It’s always the same high for me.”
The sequel is directed by Jake Kasdan, a tenured comedy director with whom Black has worked on multiple films.
“He had you as Paul McCartney in Dewey Cox, which is incredibly underrated as well. One of the best soundtracks of all time,” I say.
“My fondest memory with Jake was in Orange County,” says Black. “That was one of my early roles. That was a big funny character for me. I loved working with him. We had a good groove going in between takes. His notes were always really helpful and creative. I just like his comedic mind. He goes way back to the Judd Apatow days before the movies.”
I throw in a couple of the early cult TV shows Kasdan worked on. “Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared…”
“Freaks and Geeks, man! He’s this juggernaut that I always jump at the opportunity to work with. This was a great one, because he said, ‘I’m doing Jumanji, will you read this! I read this script that he did a draft of and as I was reading it I thought, ‘oh my gosh, my character is actually a 16 year old girl!’
“I had been working on this 16 year old girl character for no reason for years just because I thought it was funny, just with friends and stuff. I would flirt with my friends and just be a teenage girl who was really popular and knew it,” he says in his teenage girl voice. “I was like, ‘you don’t understand. I was born to play this part. I have this. I know what I’m going to do.’ It was very exciting for me.”
“In approaching that teenage girl character, it’s a tricky balance,” I say.
“Why?” Black says in a bombastic skeptical tone.
“Taking on a female character…”
“What’s tricky about it?”
“...But not just doing a parody of women, or a parody of a woman trapped in a man’s body. You’ve got to bring the comedy but not just be a parody as well.”
“Oh right,” says Black. “I know what you mean. Everything’s a delicate minefield nowadays but that just gets in the way of comedy. If you’re worried about stepping on toes—I don’t really think about that. I just think about what’s real about it. If I was really a girl trapped in this body what would that be? Then I let the chips fall where they may.”
“Talk to me after the movie comes out, maybe I’ll change my tune.”
“Yeah, let’s see how Twitter takes it, right?”