Animal magnetism

With his larger-than-life turn in King Kong, Jack Black proves he can do more than monkey around for the camera

Photo: Mark Mann

Jack Black has spent the past year and a half fighting off giant insects, mammoth spiders, surprisingly fierce-looking brontosaurs—and one gargantuan, pissed-off primate. But the beast this hyperactive actor is confronting at the moment is of the bovine variety. Keep in mind, however, that this is no ordinary cow.

"Dude, they have kobe beef burgers here!" Black exclaims, glancing over the lunch menu at the Four Seasons Hotel's restaurant. "That's the type of beef that gets a serious rubdown by Swedish masseuses, right? Like a serious deep-tish workout! Here's the thing: You want your food to be happy before it gets served to you. If it's upset or pissed off about something, the meat is a little on the sour side. But the kobe cows are kicking it coolio. I bet you it's so good that if you made a burger out of me after I ate it, I would taste superdelicious."

While that particular culinary experiment remains to be attempted, there's no denying that Black is feeling nothing short of ecstatic right about now. The whirling-dervish comedian-musician, 36, has graduated from stealing movies in supporting roles—like the snobbish record-store clerk in High Fidelity (2000) and the boneheaded, Neil Diamond--obsessed kidnapper in Saving Silverman (2001)—to carrying them on his bulky shoulders, as he did in the 2003 sleeper hit School of Rock. The debut DVD from his parody-metal duo and self-proclaimed "greatest band ever," Tenacious D, has gone platinum, and a fictional movie about the band's exploits—Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny—is in the can. (It's scheduled to arrive in theaters next year.) And then there's this little ape film he's in....

To say that Peter Jackson's $200 million remake of King Kong is among the most anticipated releases of the year is an understatement. Fans and film geeks have been buzzing wildly ever since Jackson announced that the classic beauty-and-the-beast story would be the follow-up to his megasuccessful Lord of the Rings trilogy. And who better to play Carl Denham—the megalomaniacal movie director who spirits writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), wanna-be starlet Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and the crew of the SS Venture off to Skull Island—than Black? "It's the role he was born to play," Jackson said recently, and watching Black match wits with the CGI-rendered Kong, you almost feel sorry for the upstaged ape.

While a lot is riding on his highest-profile role yet, Black isn't the least bit fazed when he sits down to talk with TONY—which is a good thing, because the movie's premiere is only hours away. "Just bear with me while I chow down on this kobe," Black says, biting into his cheeseburger. "That red carpet is, like, five miles long, so I gots to get me some protein!"

Time Out New York: Do you remember the first time you saw the original King Kong?
Jack Black: Well, the first time I was aware of this creature called King Kong was when he was in that movie where he fought Godzilla—what was that movie called?

TONY: Um...King Kong vs. Godzilla?
JB: Yeah, that was the one! Kong was getting his ass kicked by Godzilla, and then he got electrocuted and got some super-duper monkey muscles...and who won that fight? King Kong did! So immediately, I was impressed. Then I saw the 1976 remake with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. But I never sat down and watched the 1933 version in its entirety until I heard that Peter Jackson was remaking it.

TONY: Really? It's a classic.
JB: When you watch it now, it's like an amazing antique. I'd compare it to the first pinball machine versus the latest Xbox game—it doesn't have the kick-ass graphics, it doesn't have the bells and whistles, but it's a beautiful piece of art from a creative mind. Yeah, the stop-motion animation is kinda Gumby-like, but there are still a lot of how did they do that? moments. You can just imagine what the audiences in 1933 were thinking when they saw this action-adventure monster movie with dinosaurs and a giant ape. They had to have been freaked out.

TONY: Why do you think the original still has this iconic appeal?
JB: I was fascinated with monsters as a kid, and I think the movie taps into that for a lot of people. It's a lot like superheroes for young boys, the obsessions with the biggest and the strongest. And Kong is the king of all the monsters. He's like the Zeus of Monster Jungle! He can do whatever he wants: throw his own feces, grab a comely wench...

THE KONG SHOW In the new version of King Kong, Black plays the film director who drags the big ape off to New York.

TONY: He's also a pure manifestation of the Id.
JB: That's it! [Excitedly] He represents the beast in all of us. We all pretend to be civilized and live above the animal world, but secretly, we're just hunting for the next meal and frenzied sexual experience and... [Pauses] I'm sorry, what was I saying?

TONY: You were talking about the ape...I think. But the way you play Denham, it's almost like he's the real monster.
JB: That was our intention: to make Kong a little less of a monster and more human. But Denham is more of a monster and less human. That's the big flip-floperoo in our version. Both Peter and [co-writer] Fran [Walsh] wanted the moment when I see Kong to be the point when everything turns in the character. Denham has found his meal ticket and nothing is going to stop him.

TONY: You've mentioned Orson Welles was a big inspiration for your take on Denham. Did you steal anything from directors you've worked with as well?
JB: [Suspiciously] Are you thinking of somebody in particular?

TONY: Maybe a little Tim Robbins?
JB: Ha! Well, he has a lot of Orson Welles in him, so yeah, maybe a bit. Maybe a little unconscious pinch of Tim! When we first started talking about the role, I kept thinking he should be like P.T. Barnum. Peter kept saying he should be a cross between Welles and Willy Loman! [Laughs] The Orsonian integrity and the Lomanian search for validation. There may have been a touch of the Weinsteins in there, too. But I won't confirm that. Or deny it.

TONY: Since we brought up Tim Robbins... You cut your teeth doing plays in his theater troupe in Los Angeles, the Actor's Gang. Do you feel like your years of treading the boards taught you how to run away from stampeding dinosaurs?
JB: [Laughs] You jest, sir, but when I started doing movies, I had to unlearn a lot of that theater training to deliver something that seemed filmable. It didn't always work. But my real training started when I was six years old and playing in my backyard. It's like, Oh, there's a giant gila monster coming after me and I've got to shoot it with my laser beams! Basically, I've been rehearsing for running away from gigantic stampeding dinosaurs for 30 years.

TONY: Only now the backyard is a $200 million movie set.
JB: Exactly! We'd be on set getting ready to shoot tommy guns at make-believe monsters, and Peter would grab a gun to show us how. You see this grown man screaming and running around, and you think, We're all just kids here in Pete's backyard, playing a game called King Kong that goes on for eight months. I mean, if you saw a full-grown man acting like a hyperactive kid outside of that environment, you'd be saying, "What an idiot! That guy is a total douche, he needs to grow up!" But little do you know, that may be an action-adventure fantasy filmmaker just preparing for his job, man.

TONY: Were you surprised when you got the call that Mr. Lord of the Rings wanted you to be in his next movie?
JB: I had been mad that I never heard about the auditions for the trilogy. I played Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit at summer camp when I was nine; I already had experience! I would have gone out for a role as a hobbit, or...the troll, maybe. So I put my agent on notice: "Look, next time Peter Jackson is doing a fucking masterpiece, could you maybe give me a heads-up?" Three days later, my agent calls me and goes, "Jackson is remaking King Kong. He wants to interview you for a role." My head almost exploded.

TONY: You and Adrien Brody were roommates during the shoot, right? Was he always brandishing his Oscar?
JB: It's true, he lived with me for three weeks in the house I'd rented in New Zealand because his own apartment there had a bit of a mold problem. I can confirm that it was quite stanky. He was going to get a hotel room, and I told him, "Stay in the Jack Black pad; it's huge." And he never whipped out the golden rod! I'll tell you that he's a kick-ass cook. I became his sous chef while he fixed these really delicious meals. We even invited Naomi Watts over one night and we were going to double-team her. [Pause] Not sexually. We wanted to jointly wow her with our cooking expertise.

TONY: Thank you for the clarification.
JB: We wanted to wine and dine her with all of our powers. There were fine wines and delicious sauces involved. She was blown away.

TONY: And what was the deal with the rumor that you were going to get Dave Grohl to play Satan in the movie?
JB: Did you read that on the Internet too? I need to find out who started this. What I'd said was I wanted Grohl to play Satan in the upcoming Tenacious D movie! Now people will go to King Kong thinking, [In a nerdy voice] "I wonder how they are going to handle the devil sequence!"

TONY: What's the Tenacious D movie about?
JB: This is my baby. It's called The Pick of Destiny. The story is that we—the D—want to be the greatest rock band in the world, and we're trying to figure out how to get on the level of the Beatles, Beethoven, Sabbath, Zeppelin. Then my partner Kyle makes a discovery while looking at album covers: They all use the same guitar pick. It's the Pick of Destiny! So we embark on a quest to find it. I like to think of the movie as the Lord of the Rings of rock comedies.

TONY: That sounds...unbelievable.
JB: There's even a fight between Satan and a magical wizard that we totally stole from Lord of the Rings! [Pause] Actually, Pete might not be too happy when he sees it. I'd better make sure my lawyers are on full alert.

King Kong is out now.