Jumpin' Jack Black

Hey, Jack. Jack!" A woman with a baby stroller is trying to get Jack Black's attention as he waits in line at a midtown Manhattan burger joint. "I've got a blast from the past for you," she says as he wheels around. "OK," he answers. "Hit me." The woman tosses out the name of someone Black apparently knew in high school. "No way," Black says. "Wow. How's she doing?" At first it seems like Black is just being polite and feigning recognition to save the woman (and himself) from an awkward moment. But then: "You know she broke my heart, right?" The woman laughs. She did not know. "Yeah," he says fondly, "she was my first official sexual experience." After the burgers arrive, Black grabs a booth and elaborates. "We were 17. Same high school. She was the girl who deflowered me. Who stole my sweet cherry." So what happened? "She lost interest, dude." Black makes a bear-hugging gesture with his arms. "I just held on too tight."

It's OK if you've never heard of Jack Black. He's not a superstar. He's not leading-man sexy. He's short and kinda round, with eyes that make him look like a bird of prey. But don't be fooled: this man can rock you like a hurricane. He can sing like Robert Plant--well, like Sammy Hagar at least--and he can act like John Belushi and tickle your soft spot like Elmo. Black doesn't have fans, he has acolytes. Most joined his flock for two reasons: his volcanic turn as Barry, the obnoxious record-store clerk in John Cusack's "High Fidelity," and his ingenious mock-metal band Tenacious D, who were cult faves on HBO and whose lewdly majestic debut album came out in 2001. Ever since, Black's fans have been waiting for that one vehicle that would catapult him to greatness, and instead they've gotten (1) "Saving Silverman," an awful movie starring Amanda Peet's cleavage; (2) "Orange County," a marginally better movie starring Tom Hanks's kid, and (3) the Farrelly brothers' "Shallow Hal," with Gwyneth Paltrow, in which Black was miscast as a suit-wearing blowhard.

But now, behold "School of Rock." Black plays buffoonish guitarist Dewey Finn, who fakes his way into a substitute-teaching gig for rent money and turns his class of 10-year-olds into a rock band. Screenwriter Mike White, an old pal, wrote the movie specifically for him. "Dude, I was born to play this part," says Black. "Everything about it lines up perfectly with my strengths. Which include rocking. Which also include being superintense and passionate about stuff." The key to Black's comic genius is that he truly loves what he mocks. His Tenacious D album is a flawless sendup of pompous rockers like the Scorpions and Dio--but the biggest joke of all is that the D's songs are better than theirs. On screen, Black has found something even funnier than winking at the audience: not winking.

The armchair psychoanalysis on Black is easy. After fighting for years, his parents split when he was 10, leaving him hankering for attention. He got his first acting gig, an Atari commercial, at 13. "I knew that if my friends saw me on TV, it would be the answer to all my prayers," he says. "Because then they would have to worship me and everyone would know I was awesome. And I was awesome--for three days. Then it wore off. But it gave me the hunger." After the divorce, his father moved abroad and started a new family. "Now he lives on an apple orchard in Washington, but I don't visit much. He used to be a satellite engineer." So he was a rocket scientist? "Basically. My mom, too." Wait, so Black is the child of two rocket scientists? "I know. I know. And I didn't inherit any of their brain power. But I have the power to rock. They're rocket scientists. I'm a rock scientist."

Given the bumpy upbringing, it should go without saying that Black, 34, can be a bit moody. When he arrives for this interview at 4:30 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, he has just woken up. He looks and sounds like death. All signs point to a hangover, but he claims he never left his hotel room. "I was watching movies all night," he says. "Just vegging, sittin' on my butt." Mike White, who lived next door to Black for three years in Los Angeles and shared an apartment with him during the "School of Rock" shoot, confirms this portrait: "Jack is always in his underwear. We had this really sweet pad, and I assumed we'd be raging through the night. But we didn't have a single party the entire time. I'm still pissed."

Being a hermit, though, is just Black's default mode. If you shove him into the path of people, he'll quickly remember that he actually likes being around them. He had a blast on the "School of Rock" set, although there was this one kid. "I don't want to rat out a kid," he says. "And, honestly, it wasn't really the kid, it was the mom. Ugh. Such a pain in the ass. She got my e-mail address somehow, so she's always e-mailing me, trying to find ways she can crawl up in my butt. Get out of my life, crazy lady!"

Odds are there won't be a part for her child in Black's next film project: "Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny," which he co-wrote with his bandmate Kyle Gass. "I think the script is kick-ass," Black says. "But then I was thinking yesterday, I've thought a lot of stuff was really kick-ass, and then they turn out to be huge bombs. I also loved the script for 'Little Nicky,' and I was so bummed when I didn't get it." Ouch. "It gets worse, dude. I f---in' loved the script for 'Freddy Got Fingered'." Come on. Really? "I swear. It was hilarious." That's OK. The one thing we don't want from Jack Black is good taste.