In the upcoming Goosebumps movie, comedian Jack Black stars as spooky storyteller R. L. Stine, whose ghoulish creatures—previously confined to his bestselling children’s books—are unexpectedly brought to life by a teen neighbor (Scandal first kid Dylan Minnette). With the help of Stine’s daughter, Hannah (Israeli actress Odeya Rush), a race ensues to capture the author’s manic monsters from wrecking havoc on their small town. It’s a comedy-fueled horror (due Aug. 7, 2015) that promises to channel Goosebumps’ kid-approved brand of scary while pleasing grownup loyalists of the 1990s franchise.
The School of Rock star—who reunited on Goosebumps with Gulliver’s Travels director Rob Letterman—talked to Entertainment Weekly about getting into character as Stine in the live-action reboot and his own love of scary films.
While chatting about his return to family fare, Black divulged how he’s polished his signature brand of kid-friendly humor and in the process, revealed how he might not be the only actor-comedian in the family.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve done so many kid’s movies—the Kung Fu Panda franchise, School of Rock. Why sign on to do another kid’s movie like Goosebumps?
JACK BLACK: Well, I read the script, saw my friend Rob Letterman was directing it and I thought it was great. It’s funny and scary—something that would be great to take my kids to. And something that would be fun to make. And I had never read any of the R. L. Stein books as a kid because I grew up before then. I’m an old man, I’m 44. So by the time the books rolled around, I was in college and doing shows, theater around the country and stuff. I was more into Nirvana and [laughs] more mature things. But after I read the script and signed on to do the movie, I read some of the books and they’re great.
Are you generally a fan of horror or scary books? Or scary movies, even?
Yeah. My favorite movie of all time is The Shining. Love that movie, the psychological terror. Nothing is scarier to me than someone with a screw loose! And [Jack] Nicholson was so amazing in it. So yeah, there’s that element about this movie. I play R.L. Stine, who’s not in any of the books, but he’s an essential character in this movie, which is all about when all of his characters come to life. It was kind of a great way to bring out all of the scary beasts and monsters from all of his books in one movie.
Did you feel any pressure at all thinking you’ve got to sound or look like a person who is still alive?
I didn’t really because even though I’m playing a real person, this is obviously a fictionalized version of his life and nothing that happens in this movie actually happened to him, other than him writing all the books. So I felt like, I was just going to approach it as a character, doing what I thought was most dramatically interesting and right for what was needed. I also got to meet R.L. and he’s a really great guy. Really smart and funny and sweet. But I made [the character] more of a sort of curmudgeonly dark, brooding beast master. So from the very beginning, I was taking liberties. I think he’s cool with it though. [Laughs] He’s been on set and he actually did a little cameo. He saw what I was doing and he was digging it. Or at least he pretended like he was digging it.
Can you tell me anything about who he’ll play?
I don’t know if I can…
I hope you got a couple of his books autographed for your kids?
Of course I did.
Yeah. I felt bad, though, because he had a huge stack. Everyone on set wanted his autograph. And I just added my books to the pile.
There’s got to be some perks to the job, right?
It seems like you’ve been more deliberate in the types of movies you’re making these day. Can you tell me about that and why out of all the projects that come your way … you wanted to do this?
This is just the one that seemed like the most fun. I’m looking for projects that compliment each other. I mean, I’m doing different things at the same time. I’m doing a little independent film with my friend Mike White producing called Day Train and that’s going to be a much different, like, sort of along the lines of Bernie where its darker and hard, R-rating. So I felt like I could do one that was more geared towards kids and have some fun in that way where it’s still got some dark elements but its definitely lighter fare. It’s good to just mix it up so you don’t get stuck in a rut.
The appeal of the original book series was that it was scary, but in an age-appropriate way. It was approachable. Nowadays, though, in cinema, its hard-core horror and that’s about it.
Well, kids like scary movies, but you can’t take them to what are the big scary movies now where Satan comes out and bites your genitals off. Those movies can actually leave you mentally scared; that’s not for kids. But kids still like to get a little thrill and a little danger, so you need projects like this.
There’s no doubt that R.L. Stine knows what will spook kids, in addition to making them laugh. And one could say the same about you…
I don’t know if I’m an expert, but I’m definitely comfortable in that world having done School of Rock and Nacho Libre. But these movies, I approach them the same way I approach an R-rated comedy, in that I try to be as funny as I can. I’m not playing down to a family audience ’cause kids have a good sense of humor.
I think a common mistake is approaching a family comedy like some type of romper room, slow talking, super dumbed-down,’super clownish. I don’t believe that’s the way to do it. I make it as funny as possible. Obviously there’s no F-bombs, we keep it clean in the language department, butf unny is funny.
Do your kids ever influence what type of projects you take on?
No. They don’t get specific with what they want me to do. I’m not like going into the think-tank and going okay, where should Daddy’s career should go now? Do my own little market research at home? Nope. I also don’t force them to watch my movies. If they come across them on their own, that’s cool. I’m not going to be like okay, ‘Here’s School of Rock. Here’s a movie that daddy’s very proud of.’ Oh god no, I wouldn’t force them to do that.
But there must be no end to the comedy in your house… That would make for a great film.
In our own house, my oldest, Sammy, my 8-year-old wants to be on YouTube. He already has the bug. He wants to put on a show and he wants people to watch. He asks, “Can I be in a movie too?” I say, “Well, yeah, what do you want the movie to be about?” “A dragon and a bat.” “Okay, let’s write that.” So we’ll write a script and shoot a little movie on the iPhone. That’s about the extent of that.
One thing I wanted to talk about was Jillian Bell, who stole some great scenes in 22 Jump Street and appears in Goosebumps. She’s is definitely a comedian on the rise. What can you say about her style of comedy?
Yeah, I love her. She’s just very instinctual. And very free. I feel like her comedy comes from the moment. She clearly prepares but she leaves a lot of room for what happens at the time. You can tell from take to take that she’s mixing it up and going with her gut. It’s a brave kind of comedy. A lot of people micromanage every little joke and gag they do, down to the micron, the atom. And that’s a fine way to approach it, too, I guess, but the people that really take it to the next level are like Jillian, who are just sort of seeing where the scene takes them on the day. It was really awesome to watch her work, actually.
Can you tell me about your relationship in the movie?
Yeah. I don’t want to give too much away but she plays Dylan Minnette’s aunt. He’s our romantic lead, our hero boy who’s from New York and moves to this small town where his aunt lives.She’s a funny colorful personality and we meet at one point during the film. Let’s just say there’s a little chemistry there.
The ’90s are definitely coming back with old favorites like Goosebumps. Do you have a childhood staple you’d love to see brought to the big screen?
If I really had a great one, I wouldn’t tell you because I’d try to go make that happen myself! But the first book that I really loved when I was a kid was A Wrinkle in Time. A little sci-fi gem. That would be a cool movie. Has anyone tried to make that into a movie?
I don’t think so—but that would be great.
Well, I better call my agent quick before this article comes out.
And what else do you have going on?
I have a comedy music festival that I curate with my buddy Kyle Gass of Tenacious D. that’s going to be Oct. 25 in Los Angeles. It’s going to have a ton of amazing comedians and musicians and sketch-comedy people. That’s exciting for us. We’re trying to turn it into a kind of annual event and become like Los Angeles’ premiere comedy festival. That would be pretty sweet, wouldn’t it? Like Perry Farrell with his Lollapalooza.We have to think of what to call it. Maybe Comedy-Con. How about Comi-Con?
I think that’s taken.
Well, something in that vein.
You’re also working on something new for HBO, right??
Yeah, I’m doing a TV show on HBO right after this. I’m going to do this thing called The Brink and its basically a comedy but also a drama. I don’t want to say dramedy.
It’s a comedy set in war-torn revolutionary Pakistan in the possible near-future where we are as a world on the brink of a third World War. That doesn’t sound funny but then again, neither did MASH. It’s kind of in that vein, where its funny but it’s also a dark commentary on the world of politics.I’m not playing a Pakistani, I’m playing a low-level CIA dude who’s stuck over in Pakistan tying to stay alive. And Tim Robbins is playing the Secretary of State. It should be kind of cool. That will be all shot in Los Angeles. Somehow we’re going to make L.A. look like Pakistan.
This interview has been edited and condensed.