Jack Black on bringing 'the spicy mustard' to kid films like The House with a Clock in Its Walls
“If you watch him in a film like Bernie and The Polka King, you really see that he is doing what Robin Williams was doing,” he tells EW. “When Robin Williams made that turn of Dead Poets [Society], Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, but also does Mrs. Doubtfire, Jack is at that point in his career.”
For now, Black is content to do more family-friendly fare like Roth’s flick, written by Supernatural creator’s Eric Kripke. “Is there anything that I didn’t do that I would normally do in a movie that wasn’t for kids? No,” he says. “You want to bring the spicy mustard.”
Following R.L. Stein in Goosebumps and a teenage girl trapped in a video game avatar in Jumanji, The House with a Clock in Its Walls now sees Black as Jonathan, the warlock uncle to a recently orphaned 10-year-old named Lewis (Owen Vaccaro). Black talks to EW about working with Roth and “one of the most serious kickass artistes in the film world” Cate Blanchett, his first experience watching Alien as a kid, and making horror kid-friendly.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I was talking with director Eli Roth and he was mentioning a lot of these classic horror films that inspired him with The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Were there any horror films that spoke to you when you were little?
JACK BLACK: When I was little, I jumped straight to scary films that were way too scary. Actually, when I think about the early stuff that I watched, Spielberg was the one who introduced me not to horror, but the first beginning part of E.T. was scary before you know E.T. is a lovable, friendly alien. Also, Goonies, Gremlins, these were the movies and that’s what we were going for. Nowadays, there’s a lot of way too scary stuff that I don’t want to let the kids see so it’s cool to be part of having an option and it’s something that I’ve had fun doing before, that genre of movie that’s scary for kids.
What were some of those really scary movies that you immediately jumped to as a kid?
I remember when I was 10 years old I said, “I’m an adult now, I’m gonna go see a scary movie,” and I really wanted to go see Alien because the commercial was so rad. “There’s an alien egg and it’s about an alien. Dad, we gotta go see Alien.” And my dad’s like, “Oh yeah, you’re 10. I think you’re ready.” He didn’t know what we were in for. We went and we saw this thing and it was the scariest thing in the universe. I kept on having horrible nightmares. I was too young to see Alien, let’s put it that way. That was the one that left a mark.
You’ve done Goosebumps and now The House with the Clock in Its Walls, which balance the horror elements and the family-friendly fun. How do you find that sweet spot as an actor?
I just try to make it good, you know? I try to have fun. I think a lot of it has to do with relaxing and letting the spirit move you. And it’s tough when the camera’s rolling to stay in that zone, but yeah that’s the whole key to my approach. But I don’t really approach it differently than any other kind of movie because at the end of the day, whether your audience is kids or adults, it’s all about entertaining the audience and I try to bring that same energy to all the projects.
There’s always been a conversation about what’s appropriate for kids. Was there anything you had to pull back on in the script?
That’s the job of the writer and director to decide what should be said or done, it’s the material that you’re working with. I’m obviously not gonna drop F-bombs, and that’s taken care of for me by the writer. Is there anything that I didn’t do that I would normally do in a movie that wasn’t for kids? No. You want to bring the spicy mustard. You want to really give the best performance you can because kids are good judges of movies, too. And when you look at, I’m not comparing myself to him, but Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, that’s a creepy, scary performance sometimes when they go into that weird machine that’s like a boat that’s going through space and time and he’s screaming like a madman. He goes insane for a while. Is he going too far? No, he’s doing something that’s magical, that’ll last forever. I’ve gotta be careful of being careful.
Do you think kids are more capable of digesting more of these horror elements?
Things have changed obviously because of the YouTubes. Kids are exposed to some things that they didn’t used to be, so, sadly, yeah, there might be a little bit of a numbness. But this is an opportunity for us to curate a good scary experience that doesn’t include anything that’s too nightmare-inducing. That was definitely part of the appeal of doing the movie. It’s a movie you take the kids to and not worry that they’re gonna be too freaked out.
You’ve been in a Jumanji-like Goosebumps, Jumanji, and now a Goosebumps-esque The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Is there anything specific that appeals to you when you have teams of characters like these?
I think about, do I like the script? Is Cate Blanchett in it? Do I get to throw fireballs with my mind? These are the things that make me get up in the morning and look forward to going to work. I guess I do think about, does something in the character resonate with me? And it definitely did with this one.
What was your dynamic like with Cate Blanchett? How did you two typically work together on set?
Well the first day on the set that I met Cate Blanchett, I was really nervous because she’s the best actor in the world and I was a little stuttering and she was like, “Hey, we’re gonna have fun, right?” And I was like, “We are absolutely gonna have fun.” She just put me at ease right outta the gate. She let me know that she was here to party, that she wanted to goof off, and that she wasn’t gonna be afraid to play ’cause she’s known as one of the most serious kickass artistes in the film world. So it wasn’t a given that she was gonna be ready to party on the lighter side of the art form, if you will, and she definitely was so I was stoked.
What was your first impression when you heard Eli Roth was being courted to direct this movie?
He was already on board when I was approached and I was into it because he’s a master of horror. Yeah, he is known for doing stuff that’s too scary for kids, but that’s part of why I was interested. If you go with someone who’s never done a really scary movie, then you’re making a safe choice on the director. You want someone who knows the ins and outs of making people terrified because you can always make it less scary if you need to, but you can’t learn how to be scary if you don’t have that in you.
What were your day to days like with Eli? How did you work together?
He liked to talk about story, the stuff that wasn’t said, who these characters are, and I found that very helpful and informed my performance a lot. I liked that he trusted the actors to find things on their own. He knows the experience of being an actor because he’s also an actor. He’s an actor’s director where he knows if you over-direct an actor, it kind of ruins the experience. When a director gives you too much direction, they’re basically taking credit for your performance. It’s like, dude, let me do something! So yeah it was a lot of fun. It was particularly great to see him working with Owen because they had their own language. He sounded like a 10-year-old talking to him. Like, “That was great, but let’s do it again and this time use more avocado.” It sounded like nonsense, but Owen knew exactly what he was talking about and he would talk back to him in the same insane language and that spilled over onto the whole production. Everyone was having that kind of fun experience.
What were some specific examples of how Eli let you find things on your own with the character of Jonathan?
No, not anything that I would want to talk about. That really is just the process for me to get into character. It’s not really something that’s part of the story necessarily. But it’s helpful just to cradle to the current moment of the shoot what led to this particular story, and there was a family drama. In my case, this character was an outcast in his own family. His father did not approve of him going into witchcraft and he was cast out and he made his own way. It was helpful to talk about the details of that.
A lot of times these days actors are dealing with multi-film contracts. Have you had any discussions about what the potential for this franchise is? Are you signed on to do more sequels?
I am not under contract to do sequels, but I hope springs eternal that it’ll be such a huge hit that we will have to make a sequel — but that’s a jinxer to even mention it. I’m knocking on wood.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls is now