Dude Awakening

updated 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Some actors fret that their careers will disappear. Jack Black worries that he will. "I've told everybody I know that if I get kidnapped, take the ransom money and offer it as a reward for catching them," says Black, only half-kidding as he reclines—eyes shut tight—on a sofa in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. Suddenly he pulls himself upright and opens his eyes wide. "So kidnappers beware: There is no reward for returning me. There's just a bounty on your head!"

But it's Black himself who should soon be raking in the dough. After years of playing wild-eyed best friends and second fiddle to stars like John Cusack and Gwyneth Paltrow, the occasionally paranoid actor, 34, has finally found a role, in his new comedy School of Rock, that harnesses his outrageous comic gifts. He plays Dewey Finn, a loser musician who poses as a substitute teacher at an upscale private school and opens his students' minds to the world of rock music. "I am, in fact, not just making a very funny movie. I'm saving all the children in the entire world," Black bellows. "I'm not saying I want the Nobel Peace Prize. But if they give it to me, I will accept it."

Yet despite Black's manic personality—he appeared on the Aug. 28 MTV Video Music Awards dressed as Michael Jackson—"people wouldn't imagine how sensitive he is," says actor-writer Mike White (The Good Girl), who wrote the film's script two years ago for his then neighbor. "Not just sensitive like you can hurt his feelings, but he likes to make people feel welcome. He's a thoughtful person." Adds 11-year-old Angelo Massagli, who plays Frankie, the band's "head of security": "He's pretty laid-back, like a teddy bear. He's a very sweet man."

But his over-caffeinated roles in films like High Fidelity and Shallow Hal, and his hard-rocking folk band Tenacious D (which hilariously sends up the likes of Styx, Rush and Triumph), have earned him a very different reputation. "People scream at me, 'Hey, let's party. Come on, I have joints and alcohol,'" says Black. "It's my fault. I give off an I'm-crazy-and-I-want-to-party-and-wrestle-you vibe. But I don't party as much as people think. I'm definitely not a wake-and-baker." In fact amping himself up takes effort. Says Black: "I have to face my inner demons every time I go to do a show."

As a result, Black has become "a bit of a hermit," he says, and frequently attends movies at odd times, when he's likely to be alone. "I'm scared of crowds," he adds. "I really do need some relaxation, I'm just not very good at vacationing." Instead he takes a mental break with his Xbox. "He loves video games so much that when he's playing, I say he's working," says Kyle Gass, his Tenacious D bandmate. Black also wants to work at keeping his weight under control. "I'd like to be thinner," says the 5'7" Black, who is "hovering around" 200 lbs. but would like to get down to 180. Then, channeling one of his fans, he adds," 'That's what's so cool about him, he doesn't care if he's fat.'" A moment later he lets out an anguished cry: "I'll give you the scoop, man. I do care."

At least his relationship with writer-comedian Laura Kightlinger is in great shape. They've been together for seven years but have no plans to wed. "Not because there isn't a lot of love there," says Black, "but it didn't work out for my parents [Tom and Judy, both satellite engineers], and that put a bad taste in my mouth." The L.A.-born Black, who was 10 when his parents split, got into showbiz after landing a spot in an Atari ad at 13. His next gig, however, in a Smurfberry Crunch cereal commercial, wasn't so cool. "I lost all of my indie cred," he jokes. "In it, I was being pulled along in a red wagon. I quit going on auditions after that."

He stopped acting but started acting up. By 15, "I had a little problem with cocaine, and I stole some money from my mom," says Black, who was sent to an alternative school in Culver City, where a therapist and an acting teacher got him "back on track." He transferred to Crossroads private school and graduated in 1987. After spending two years at UCLA, he left to perform with the Actors' Gang, a troupe spearheaded by Tim Robbins, who cast Black in his film debut, as a crazed fan in 1992's Bob Roberts.

While working with the Actors' Gang, Black met Gass, his future Tenacious D counterpart. "We were archenemies at first," says Black. "We both wanted to be the musician of the group." Once they worked out their differences, says Gass, 43, "we used to hang out in my studio apartment, play music and dream about being rock stars." The band—named after the term "tenacious defense," a stock phrase of sports announcer Marv Albert—soon developed a cult following as well as a short-lived HBO series, Tenacious D, in 1999.

Black, who will costar with Ben Stiller in the comedy Envy, opening early next year, plans to make a Tenacious D movie with Gass. "After that, I don't know," says Black, who shares a three-bedroom Hollywood Hills home with Kightlinger. "I just go right in front of my nose. Hopefully in 10 years, I'll still be rocking. Better to burn out than to raise a family."

Johnny Dodd and Ruth Andrew Ellenson in L.A.

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