Jack Black is back on track

Transition challenging from supporting actor to rising star

— Jack Black can barely keep his eyes open.

Between getting ready to play his biggest role so far � the title character in next year's Farrelly brothers' comedy "Shallow Hal" � and releasing the debut album of his faux folk duo Tenacious D, he's not getting much sleep these days. And the cross-country red-eye flights and publicity push for his new movie, the dark comedy "Saving Silverman," leave little opportunity for naps.

"I snuck in an hour at lunch," the bleary-eyed Black said on a recent afternoon, lounging on a couch in a worn-out black T-shirt, baggy pants and chunky tennis shoes.

Even in his zombielike state � he dozed a bit while sitting with his eyes closed in a makeup chair before a photo shoot � Black's impish sense of humor shines through in sporadic glimmers.

"I really didn't want to wake up. I mean I got up and it was paaaaain-ful. My publicist called and I was like, 'Ouch. OUCH!' So here I am, fresh as a daisy."

Such is the life when your star is rising, and rising fast.

But the 31-year-old actor � universally labeled a "scene-stealer" for his turn as a know-it-all record store clerk in last year's acclaimed "High Fidelity" � maintains the laid-back attitude that comes from growing up in Hermosa Beach, Calif., just outside Los Angeles.

Like many actors, Black said he craved the attention he got from performing as a child, and appeared in plays through high school. Two years as a theater major at UCLA, though, taught him he didn't belong in college.

"I was an awful student and also, yeah, it was just a waste of time. ... It wasn't for me. I slept through everything. I did some stuff in there that I was proud of. I had some good plays.

"It's a shame because I never even got to look through the thing and go, 'That sounds like an interesting class,"' he said, jokingly dropping his voice an octave.

Soon afterward, he joined Tim Robbins' Los Angeles acting troupe, The Actors' Gang. Robbins put Black in the first movie he directed, the 1992 mock political documentary "Bob Roberts."

The Actors' Gang is also where Black met Kyle Gass, with whom he formed Tenacious D on the stages of small Los Angeles clubs.

The band consists of Black and Gass, strumming acoustic guitars and singing in supple harmonies. Their sound hearkens to the politically charged folk music of the Summer of Love, songs of justice and peace and freedom.

Really, they're just goofing off, singing of sex and Sasquatch and smoking hash.

Tenacious D (a name the duo took from basketball announcer Marv Albert's description of tough defense) has spawned a cultlike following � Web sites, groupies � along with several HBO shorts that aired in 1999 and an album due this summer.

It's also what got Black the role of Barry in "High Fidelity," in which he snags the spotlight from big-name stars John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones and even his mentor, Robbins. And that's what changed his career.

"It was kind of a whirlwind. I got a lot of offers, a lot of things got easier. I'm still feeling the effects of it. I got 'Shallow Hal' from that. I got 'Saving Silverman' off of that. I got a way bigger paycheck off of that."

A $1 million paycheck, to be exact, for "Silverman," in which he and Steve Zahn play buddies who try to keep their third pal, played by Jason Biggs, from falling for the wrong woman. He doesn't brag when he talks about the money. The words slip in slow, surfer-dude speak from his tongue.

"It was the magic number, but then after I got it, I wished that I'd gotten nine-ninety-nine instead, 'cause a million is kind of, it's a flag, and it's newsworthy all of a sudden, and I don't want it in the news. It would have been way better to be just under that and not be newsworthy."

"Silverman" director Dennis Dugan says all the attention hasn't gone to Black's head.

"He is relentless in his search for the perfect joke and the perfect character and making sure the joke is within the style of the movie, within the reality of the character. He'll call at 3 in the morning with new ideas," said Dugan, who also directed "Big Daddy" and "Happy Gilmore."


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