How Jack Black became the most popular girl in school

If Jack Black were able to choose an avatar to represent him in real life, he says he might pick the street artist Banksy.

“To be so anonymous and so on the cutting edge,” he muses. “And a rock star. That’s hard to pull off.”

It would be great if he could switch fame on and off, not that he’s complaining.

“But this is really more about my fascination with Banksy. To be able to get a career going without a public profile is an amazing thing.”

Black plays an avatar in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, an updated take on the original Jumanji film of 1995 that starred the late Robin Williams. Williams played Alan Parrish, a man who had been imprisoned in a board game since he was a child and is catapulted back into the real world, bringing the game’s dangers and predators with him.

In the new film, Jumanji is a video game; four disparate teenagers start playing it and suddenly find themselves in the game’s jungle. More than that, they are inside the bodies of their carelessly chosen avatars.

Black’s avatar figure is cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon, a rotund chap wearing a waistcoat and a pith helmet. In “real” life, he is Bethany, the most popular girl in her school.

Bethany is horrified to land in the jungle empty-handed: where is her phone? She is even more aghast to discover, thanks to the mirror surface of a handy pond, that she is now a fat middle-aged man. “But she learns something about not judging people by how they look,” says Black. “That’s all I’ll say. She becomes a team player.”

As it turns out, he started cultivating his inner drag teen long before Bethany came along.

“The first time I started working that character was way back, like 25 years ago, I was a theatre major at UCLA. I was hanging out with a friend and for some reason I just went into the character of this girl and started flirting with him. It’s just very funny to me; I’ve always thought it would be fun to play that character one day.”

When we meet, the film has yet to be finished, but you can imagine Black making a lot of satirical mincemeat out of a valley girl. No, he says; he didn’t want to do that to his female mini-me.

“But once you start getting careful, you stop being funny. So I just do the best I can, try to play it real and let the chips fall where they may.”

Black never went to the kind of school Bethany attended. He went to Poseidon, a private school for students who didn’t fit into the state system, then to Crossroads, a progressive alternative school favoured by parents in the entertainment industry.

As a teenager, he was a big fan of Bertolt Brecht. Later he dropped out of UCLA to join Tim Robbins’s cutting-edge group The Actors Gang.

Banksy isn’t the only artist who comes up in our conversation; we take a surprising detour to Edvard Munch. It turns out he spends a good deal of time in galleries with his wife, Tanya Haden, who is a painter. I have a suspicion he might be happier talking about art right now than about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

But he does like to entertain. It was Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity (2000), by Black’s own estimation, that tipped him into stardom. He played a supporting role as an outrageously rude music know-all working as an assistant in a record shop owned by John Cusack.

During the shoot, people would come from all over the studio to watch Black’s rushes; rumour has it that Frears kept bumping up the character once he found out how good Black was.

“He’s so unexpectedly delicate,” Frears said later, “he can play very subtle shades whilst at the same time being a hooligan.” Later he was able to give that range full play as a slacker supposed to be teaching music in Richard Linklater’s School of Rock (2003), the film that remains Black’s defining moment.

Black’s persona is so broadly comical – and he has that most prized of comedians’ props, a funny face – that it is easy to forget that he has a respectable backlist of indie films, such as Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Linklater’s Bernie (2011), that were much darker, more dramatic and complex than the classification “comedy” suggests.

Bernie, in which he portrays a venal funeral director, earned him a bouquet of awards nominations but passed through cinemas very quickly, possibly because both audiences and distributors were bamboozled by the idea of a crime story starring Jack Black.

Inevitably, his performance in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is being compared with that of Robin Williams in the first Jumanji film.

Williams has always been an inspiration, Black says.

“Those parts where he was larger than life, playing those desperate characters or insane characters was when he really shone the brightest in my opinion. I definitely am drawn to those kinds of characters as well.”

But Williams always hankered to play complicated dramatic characters; Alan Parrish himself is a tragic kind of clown. There is nothing tragic about Welcome to the Jungle; the story is played for fun and adventure. It’s the Black comic turn at its simplest.

Which is why it’s more fun to talk about avatars. Black has one reservation about becoming Banksy: he doesn’t know what he looks like. Given that is his special power, there is no getting away from that.

Special powers are crucial, of course.

“I’d like to have Quentin Tarantino’s writing ability,” he says. “Man, what a writer. But I wouldn’t want him to be my avatar. I just don’t think he would fare well in the jungle. I think he would be the first one to be squeezed to death by an anaconda.”

He thinks again. “But man, could he tell the tale!” And that, in the end, is what counts.