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Black magic
Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black from the movie Bernie. Picture: Deana Newcomb.

Jack Black is not exactly the first person that springs to mind when it comes to playing a real-life murderer. Best known for taking on lovable characters in romantic comedies such as Shallow Hal and The Holiday and voicing the roly-poly, karate-chopping Po in the animation Kung Fu Panda, it could be said the US funnyman is more at home delivering punchlines than punches.

So it's not surprising to hear Black admit he was somewhat nervous about the possibility of losing fans when he signed up to play a real-life Texan mortician who murders his girlfriend in director Richard Linklater's dark new tragicomedy Bernie.

"It was a tough call," Black says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, where his two young sons, Samuel, 6, and Thomas, 4, are vying for his attention.

"I have mostly played lovable characters and I don't really like to stray into villainous areas. Whenever I feel the audience might be turning against me, I get a little squeamish but I had to play this role.

"I have a bit of an obsession with crime stories and psychological stories that deal with murder. I just find it fascinating - the question of what compels someone to commit a murder."

Based on an article by Skip Hollandsworth that appeared in a 1998 edition of Texas Monthly, Linklater's film tells the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale of Bernie Tiede, a beloved member of the small town of Carthage who befriends the wealthy, recently widowed and extremely cantankerous Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).

Bernie, a well-dressed, upstanding man in his late 30s, and elderly millionaire Marjorie - widely considered cold and unpleasant by the folk of Carthage - are an unlikely pairing but they soon become inseparable.

However, the friendship turns sour when Marjorie's constant and sometimes abusive need for Bernie's attention begins to impinge on his social life.

Once the life and soul of the East Texas town, Bernie becomes a practical recluse until one day he is unable to take Marjorie's possessiveness, nagging and put-downs any longer and snaps. While the rest of Carthage is quietly going about its business, he walks into his garage, picks up his rifle and shoots Marjorie in the back four times.

For months, his crime goes unnoticed as Bernie makes excuses for his partner's absence while using her money to support local community projects.

However, his cover is blown when Marjorie's stockbroker becomes suspicious and demands a search of her house, where officers find her body in a meat freezer.

That Tiede found it hard to express his feelings of humiliation until it was too late is something Black says he can relate to.

"I feel like Bernie's fatal flaw in the story is that he doesn't have the release valve," he says. "When he's mistreated, he doesn't tell people how he feels. He just bottles it up and puts it away - because it's so important that he be liked.

"I have that germ in me too where I need to be liked. It bothers me a lot if I feel like someone's mad at me. It'll eat away at me and I'll lose sleep over it and try to make it right."

The 1996 murder of 81-year-old Nugent by her 39-year-old "close companion" Tiede sent shockwaves around the small community of Carthage.

Tiede confessed to the murder and in 1997 was sentenced to life in prison. Such was his popularity among the townsfolk, many of them jumped to his defence, with some even asserting Nugent deserved to die.

However, when it came to making a movie about the events surrounding the murder of an 81-year-old woman, those who lived through the dark chapter in Carthage's history understandably had their concerns.

"When Richard was scouting for a location, he saw a church sign which said 'Murder is dark but not comedy'," Black says. "I guess there was some curiosity about the film because of the casting. I am primarily a comedic actor so some people were concerned that I was going to make light of a serious subject."

It's testament to Linklater, who co-wrote the script with Hollandsworth, and Black, however, that those closest to the story have endorsed the film.

"There was a relative of Marjorie's who confirmed she was a pretty tough customer and that we were actually taking it easy on her," Black says. "He said she was actually much meaner in reality. And no one else that I know of has stepped forward and said 'Hey man, that's not true'."

Indeed, when it was released in the US earlier this year, Bernie, which features interviews with some of Carthage's actual residents, was met with largely positive reviews.

Nugent's nephew Joe Rhodes wrote in The New York Times Magazine that "except for a few insignificant details, it tells the story pretty much the way it happened".

The only negative response seemed to be from local district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, played in the film by Matthew McConaughey, who went on the record to say Bernie was not historically accurate, nor did it tell Nugent's side of the story.

Black says Bernie simply focuses on the consensus opinion of everyone involved in the real case and takes his hat off to Linklater, who spent 12 years carrying out research on the film. "Richard is a man with such vision and takes a very patient, long view of subjects," he says of Linklater, his director on 2003's School of Rock.

As for Black, he tapped into his own interest in psychological crime stories to deliver one of his best performances to date, aided, he says, by the opportunity he had to visit Tiede in prison, where he discovered his real-life character was as popular as he was in Carthage "teaching cooking classes and leading prayer groups".

"I had the opportunity to see him walk and talk and get a lot of hints as to how to play him accurately," Black explains.

"I also got to pick his brain a little about what was going through his mind during the time he was with Marjorie and why he didn't just leave.

"I guess it's the same response you get when you ask anyone in a bad relationship, there's a co-dependence there.

"And there was a lot of love there too, with all the insanity.

"He was a people pleaser and there was some part of him that wouldn't let him leave with her hating him.

"I guess he didn't have a release valve for all his pent-up anger, it just slowly built up.

"He did a horrible crime and he deserves to do time but, ultimately, there's still a lot of good in him and I've found myself rooting for him.

"I want him to find some peace of some kind."

Bernie opens on Thursday.