With a friend like this ... Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in <em>Bernie</em>.
With a friend like this ... Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in Bernie.

Jack Black wants to play a psychopath, a sociopath … anything ending in ''-path'', really. He really wanted a role on Dexter, the American cable drama about a vigilante serial killer.

''I'm really into Dexter,'' he says. ''I was already sort of obsessed with the idea of a killer who is somewhat sympathetic.''

When King Kong co-star Colin Hanks got the gig as Travis Marshall in the show's sixth season, Black felt he had to look elsewhere. Enter director Richard Linklater, with whom Black had worked on School of Rock - the role he describes as closest to himself - with Bernie.

''It was Rick Linklater's passion project,'' Black says. ''He'd been working on it for 12 years ever since he'd heard about this court case about the most loveable man in Carthage, Texas, committing this murder, keeping her in the freezer for nine months, while he went about his daily business as though nothing had happened.''

The film's plot is prime evidence in the case for truth being stranger than fiction.

Bernie Tiede, a young mortician, arrives in Carthage and swiftly becomes the most popular man in town. Genuinely beloved. He even befriends the embittered but very wealthy town crone, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), becoming her only friend.

Then he kills her … and the town still loves him. Although Bernie is a popular, eccentric man who loves to sing, Black had to entirely re-imagine himself for the role, from his speech to his walk, which is noticeably altered.

''That was him, I was trying to channel him as well as I could,'' Black says.

''That was one of the fun things to do, to try and fully inhabit a character like that. It was a new twist for me. And I got to meet the real Bernie; I got permission from the prison to come and spend some time with him, interview him and just hang out for a while and kind of get his blessing.''

Now a father of two sons, Black has had to tone down his lifestyle. But the 42-year-old Californian still has time for his two-man rock group Tenacious D, who have just released a new album, Rize of the Fenix. And while Black still appears in big-budget comedies, he describes himself as a character actor more than a comedian and aspires to work with directors who will utilise that skill. ''I love me the Andersons, the Wes and the Paul Thomas,'' he says. ''I think it'd be amazing to work with David Lynch some day on some kind of a nightmare. Some surrealist film.''

And, of course, he still wants a part on Dexter.

GENRE Biopic.
CRITICAL BUZZ Film festivals have eaten up this bizarre true story and Black's excellent performance.
STARS Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey.
DIRECTOR Richard Linklater.
RELEASE Opens Thursday.

This story Autopsy-turvy first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.