Jack Black stars as R.L. Stine in Goosebumps. (Columbia Pictures)
There are few instances in which Jack Black, the star of the upcoming family film Goosebumps, may be upstaged, but starring opposite a puppet is one of them. At the press conference for the film, he shares the stage with Slappy the Dummy, a popular villain from the books by R.L. Stine on which the film is based, and the two bicker over everything from Black’s choice of his favorite scene in the film to his treatment of Slappy at the end of each shooting day, at which time Black would return Slappy to his trunk.
While Black, best known to audiences as a whirlwind of comic energy, is relatively subdued during the interview, the puppet cracks jokes, dishes about his co-stars, attempts to ignite a feud with Chucky from the Child’s Play series and even denies his own status as a puppet.
“What makes you think I would know anything about puppets? I’m just an actor trying to make a living. I have an audition next week to be an Ewok,” Slappy barks at reporters.
Slappy is one of the many frightening creations of Stine, whom Black plays in the film. Instead of adapting one of Stine’s many stories, Goosebumps has Black playing a fictionalized version of the author, who finds that the creatures he created have come to life. Black insists that, although, he is playing Stine, the version of the author in the film bears little resemblance to how he actually behaves in real life.
“He loved the script, and he didn’t mind that I was doing a much different characterization of him,” Black insists. “He has this great sense of humor, so he was fine with me portraying him as an antisocial grouch. He understands drama and the necessity to take liberties.”
When Stine visited the set for his cameo appearance, during which his only line was an ad-lib given to him by Black, the author proved himself an amiable comedy nerd with an encyclopedic knowledge of comedy going back to “Your Show of Shows.”
While Black may have not been the boisterous comic that one expects on screen, he nonetheless flexes his comedic muscles in response to a query about what things give him goosebumps.
“The size of the universe, and the survival of the human species,” Black deadpans, before going into an increasingly absurd answer about the end of the world. “I think about the inevitable death of any human being. Is there any hope? I mean, it would be sweet if we lived all the way to infinity, but we’re going to have to build a Death Star, because the sun at some point is going to engulf the planet, but that’s not going to be for a billion years, and we’d be lucky to live that long. So we actually have to build a couple of Death Stars and spread them over the galaxy.”
His precise comic timing impresses everyone but Slappy, who cuts Black short before he could theorize about humanity in the Death Star era.
Although Black is known for tailoring his films to more mature audiences, he found nothing different about doing a children’s movie, citing his work in School of Rock from 2003 as a similar film made for young audiences that exploited his talent.
“What was different about this for me was doing a character who wasn’t a lovable, squishy loser hero. This was the dark, brooding genius,” Black says, drawing out brooding to make it seem as if the word lasts for minutes. “I’m no stranger to entertaining the kids, and I think it’s because I have a lot of childish qualities myself. I’m a big man-child, so I can relate to what kids think is funny.”
Although Black claims to have based his portrayal of Stine on Orson Welles, wanting to give the character gravitas, he insists he is no method actor like Daniel Day-Lewis, who would dominate a family film with his technique. Black remains a man of simple tastes who, if given the chance to create something simply using his imagination, muses about what he would bring into being.
“Either world peace or a really good massage. Both of those are good, and who is to say which is better?”
Goosebumps releases in theaters Oct. 16.