If you’ve ever set foot inside a record store, you know people like Barry and Dick. Barry and Dick—or as Rob calls them, “the musical moron twins”—work for Rob in Championship Vinyl. Both have an encyclopedic knowledge of records and music in general. Dick is happy to introduce you to some music you haven’t heard before. Barry will just chastise you for not having the same taste as him. Both clearly know a lot more about music than you do.
In the world of High Fidelity, Barry is clearly the comic relief. As the over-the-top know-it-all, he always seems to be in direct conflict with either Rob or Dick, given just how borderline obnoxious he can be at times. Much of Rob is internalized, from his rage to his reflection. Dick is more meek and soft-spoken than Barry.
Barry is the ultimate smartass who has no qualms about telling you your music tastes suck, should he be offended by them. But the character of Barry has to also have enough redeeming qualities so you can believe that Rob would put up with his nonsense for as long as he has. There’s an endearing passion that brews in Barry. The endearing nature of this passion is so strong, in fact, that he can back up—or at least get away with—the music snobbery that looms on the surface. You know that there are redeemable qualities that lay underneath his brash demeanor.
For author Nick Hornby, Barry was a character that was very easy and a lot of fun to write. It all sort of generated organically. Here is a guy who says funny and stupid things throughout the entire book but then manages to back it all up in the third act by proving all the naysayers wrong and having some solid musical chops.
But for an author, that’s as far as it goes. He didn’t have to think about who could play a part like Barry because he didn’t have to find someone to play Barry. It stayed within the page.
“When I first met D.V. and John,” recalls Nick Hornby, “I said, ‘I don’t know who you’re going to get for that guy.’ Because I thought he’s not a real person. And D.V. said, ‘Well, I know that guy!’”
Cusack, Pink, and DeVincentis first met Jack Black in Los Angeles where they were all part of Tim Robbins’ Actors’ Gang.
As Pink remembers, “D.V. and I did this show called Carnage a year later. And then I had to go back to Berkeley. I’m not sure if they extended right away or they remounted it, but Jack Black replaced me.”
Jack Black’s brand of humor was visible even then. They got to witness the birth of Tenacious D, as Black and Kyle Gass would play on the second floor of the theater in East Santa Monica after the show wrapped for the night. Just the mere mention of Jack Black would elicit laughter out of the trio. They watched “Jack be Jack” everywhere from up onstage to late-night hangs at Canter’s Deli. As far as they were concerned, he was already a star. The rest of the world just had to catch up and discover him, too.
It was Robbins who first put Black on the big screen, where he played a memorable part in Robbins’s film Bob Roberts in 1992. However, their professional relationship predated that by about ten years. When Jack Black was eleven years old, he did a play that was directed by Robbins, who was fresh out of UCLA at the time. The play was Inside Eddie Pinstock. Black and Robbins would of course go on to work together many times after this.
Following his big leap into the world of cinema, Black started popping up both on TV and in the movies where he had roles in Demolition Man; The Cable Guy; The Neverending Story III; Waterworld; The X-Files; Mars Attacks!; Cradle Will Rock; and Enemy of the State. Simultaneously, Tenacious D was just starting to gain some underground traction after appearing on Mr. Show w/Bob and Dave. This eventually led to the D getting their own HBO series in 1997. But even as things were taking off, Black still needed to have a break-out role. The role of Barry was just what he needed.
“When we were talking about casting for Barry,” recalls Pink, “I know that there were other names out there and I don’t know how Jack’s name came up, but we were like, ‘We’ve got to get Jack Black to do this. He is the perfect person to play this role.’”
“I already knew that he was a great musician and singer and a great comic actor who was about to explode,” Cusack has stated. “But I felt like I had this secret weapon because no one really knew that he could rock that much. So the book was perfect, and I thought, This is the perfect role for him.”
Yes, there were indeed other names that either auditioned for the role or were at least considered for it. Names on the shortlist included David Arquette, Mike O’Malley, David Cross, Zak Orth, Zack Galifianakis, Dave Foley, Jason Lee, Sam Rockwell, Liev Schreiber, James LeGros, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Some of the names, such as Hoffman, were also considered for the other member of the record store’s motley crew, Dick. However, Stephen Frears admits he couldn’t quite decide if Hoffman was better suited as Barry or Dick.
To cast the film, Frears enlisted Victoria Thomas. Thomas had previously worked with Frears and Cusack together on The Grifters. Additionally, she had worked on various other projects over the years starting in 1984 with Repo Man. She followed this up with Sid and Nancy, as well as Beverly Hills Cop I; Edward Scissorhands; Indecent Proposal; The Piano; Ed Wood; Tin Cup; Mars Attacks!; Con Air; Bulworth; Enemy of the State; and with Frears again on The Hi-Lo Country.
Like Cusack, DeVincentis, and Pink, she had known Jack Black through all the times that he’d auditioned for her over the years. She felt that he was perfect for the role of Barry.
In the novel, the part reads as being—as Stephen Frears recalls—“a lot more aggressive.” When he first read the script, which somewhat tones down Barry’s more aggressive tendencies, Jack Black could see a number of similarities between himself and the character in the script.
“He’s kind of a scraggily vagabond,” Black recalls. “I could relate to that. His lifestyle is kind of a Bohemian ne’er-do-well. He’s a trickster. He’s a class clown at the record store. And he’ll push a joke too far, all the way up to the level where he’s about to get slapped. Or he actually does get slapped.”
Unsurprisingly, though, when they floated the name by Frears, he was unfamiliar with Jack Black. “I said, ‘Who should play this part?’ And the boys said, ‘Jack Black.’ And I said, ‘Who’s he?’ And he came to see me and I said, ‘Well, you’ll be fine.’”
As DeVincentis recalls the meeting, “Jack comes in, he sits down, and Stephen looks at me and goes, “This is him?” I go, “This is him.” And Stephen looks him up and down and goes, “Alright. You’ll do.” Imagine Jack looking around confused. “Excuse me? What?” And Stephen was like, “You’re fine. Great. We’ll have you.” And Jack’s like, “You want me to read or anything?” And he’s like, “Absolutely not. You’re fine.” And Jack gets up and leaves. I was kind of nervous because I knew it was right, but didn’t he want to know?”
So Jack Black got the role on the spot. He then wound up turning it down.
“I got the script and I read it,” remembers Black, reflecting on his surprising decision to turn the part down.
“And I was just worried that, at the time, Tenacious D had a full head of steam, and we were getting great crowds and were playing to big houses. And I had, in my mind, a legitimate rock-and-roll career, separate from film and television, that I wanted to protect. And to do a movie about music, playing sort of a music critic and talking about some of my heroes like Kurt Cobain, just all those elements made me nervous about messing with this thing that was my own little crown jewel of my life and career up to that moment. I was hesitant to fuck with that.”
Victoria Thomas got a call from Jack Black’s agent, Sharon Jackson. The gist of the message was clear. Thomas was informed that Jack didn’t want to do the film. She then got frustrated with Jackson for not trying to calm him down and help alleviate his fears. Jackson told her, “Well, it’s Jack. This is what he wants to do.”
As Cusack saw it, he might have been frightened by the scope of it. While he was obviously no stranger to acting by this point, this would be inarguably the biggest role he had yet to take on in the film world. Cusack also did his best to try and alleviate his fears, assuring him that with the team that they’d assembled, he didn’t have anything to worry about.
In hindsight, Jack Black agrees that fear was a factor. “If I’m really being honest with myself, I was terrified of failing. I was terrified of being bad in this movie and also terrified of working with Stephen Frears.”
Much like DeVincentis, Jack Black was a huge fan of Stephen Frears. He recalls having seen Dangerous Liaisons 12 times because he was obsessed with John Malkovich and wanted to be just like him. But then the idea of working with Frears started getting into his head. Black started questioning whether or not he was good enough. That was another big reason why Black wanted to take himself out of the running. It was all based on fear.
As Frears recalls, “I got a message saying that Jack Black doesn’t want to do the film. I said, ‘Don’t be so stupid. Have him call me.’ So Jack called me. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And he said, ‘Well, you didn’t make me audition. When I audition, it makes me realize that I can do it,’ or words to that effect. So I said, ‘Well fine. As it happens, I’m coming to Los Angeles next week. So you can come and audition for the part.’ So he went from having the part to being up to the part.”
“I told him about my fears,” Black adds.
“And he just thought it was funny that I was passing. Because it was obvious to him and to anyone in my life that this was a no-brainer. And it would be a huge mistake to bail on it for any reason other than I just didn’t like it. And that was not the case. I loved the script and I love Stephen and I realized that I was just passing on it out of fear. And that was not a good reason. And so I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’”
Later on, Frears finally asked Black why he was actually pushing back. According to Frears, Black said, “I earned a good living keeping my head down. And you were asking me to stick my head up.”
At the end of the day, there’s a great deal of irony in Jack Black passing on the film that brought him as much attention as High Fidelity did. He was clearly always going to break out. Even when you watch some of his earliest performances, such as playing Matthew Broderick’s best friend in The Cable Guy, you are immediately drawn to him whenever he is on-screen. On the screen he has this ability to have you completely buy into whatever he is selling through his physical mannerisms, his facial characteristics—such as his wild eyebrows—and his overall demeanor.
He received no better opportunity to break out than High Fidelity. It’s akin to watching somebody being shot out of a cannon. The raw electricity that passes through him can be seen from miles away. And it’s that very intensity that allowed him to walk away with the film.
Excerpted from Top Five, copyright 2023 by Andrew Buss and published by Applause; reprinted with permission.