They say Hollywood is a lot like high school, and in the dark comedy “The D Train,” Jack Black and James Marsden explore how bringing even the hint of showbiz fame back to your class reunion can revive that teenage desire for popularity, in the weirdest possible way.
As the self-appointed chairman of his high school reunion committee, Black’s needy Dan becomes obsessed with convincing Marsden’s Oliver, the handsome bad boy who pursued his acting dreams and recently starred in a sunscreen commercial, to attend the big night. Dan is certain Oliver’s presence will lure more attendees, and permit him to bask in the reflected glory. However, with his efforts built on larger and larger lies and the former classmates’ long-distance lives becoming increasingly entangled, the pressures of fame, popularity and the need for acceptance threaten to send Dan’s life spiraling out of control.
Black and Marsden sat down for a press roundtable to take a look at some of their own connections to the film’s subject matter, a conversation that included their own class reunions, would-be big breaks – including a very special (and dark) episode of “Blossom” and a “Pitfall” commercial – and why even an actor the caliber of Jack Nicholson can’t pull off a role in a rock opera if they can’t sing.
What kind of experiences have you had with high school class reunions?
James Marsden: You know, I’ve been able to miss my reunions. I wasn’t against going but I was out of town working or something so I didn’t go. I would have gone, but the people I was friends with in high school I still kind of keep in touch with, so it’s less of “What’s so-and-so doing?” I haven’t been. [To Jack] You went to yours.
Jack Black: I went to my 20-year reunion and had a good time, but there was some anxiety, some of those old feelings that come rushing back and suddenly you’re a teenager again.
Marsden: Were the hot people still hot?
Black: Yeah, the hot people were still hot.
Both of your roles are very different from characters you’ve played before, so what attracted you to them? Were there specific aspects of the character that you could identify with?
Marsden: I love that both of these guys have their own form of desperation. My guy, who [Jack’s character] looks at like this super-cool James Dean-y success story in Hollywood, is actually sort of pathetic. Not pathetic, but he’s been run ragged by an industry that hasn’t been favorable to him. I like that element of it — the guy who’s not Colin Farrell, James Dean or whoever, but he so desperately wants to be that guy.
That’s what we do as actors, I guess. Everyone’s looking for their version of validation and someone to feel relevant and Dan (Jack’s character) comes into his life and makes him feel that way, because he brings me back to the days when I was the hotshot in school, so as odd a couple we are, we both provide something for the other person. Whether that’s catastrophic or combustible or not, it’s pretty good comedy, I guess. I just like the character because he wasn’t that. He’s cool but he’s obviously clearly flawed as well.
Black: I like my character because he wasn’t really likable, and that was sort of an interesting thing to see in a comedy. I hadn’t ever really read anything that was like that before. Usually, the formula is that you have to root for your hero in some way, and this guy’s kind of a turd, and you don’t really root for him. You don’t really like him.
Sometimes it’s difficult to watch him because it’s just scenario after scenario of cringe-worthy situations because he’s so desperate to be liked and loved, and there was something that was so interesting about that to me that I wanted to play. I’ve always been intrigued by those kinds of people in my life. When I see them — the least-popular people — there’s something interesting about that – and maybe it’s something in me that I am working out. I don’t know why I’m so interested in it but I find it very intriguing — a movie about that guy. That guy doesn’t usually have a movie made about him.
James, inherently people seem to like your character, but he’s not necessarily deserving of all the attention he gets.
Marsden: No, not really …I n the movie, he only gets attention from Dan and maybe the other guys back in high school. He has to be transported back in time to get attention, I guess. Hollywood hasn’t been good to him. But you’re right. It’s not like he’s charismatic. He’s just too cool for everything. But he brings me back to that world, and reminds me of my strengths. It’s like, “Oliver Lawless, you were the greatest thing …” He remembers it, and that’s appealing.
Everyone wants to have their ego stroked, you know, and he gets caught up in that same thing. He never would have thought about going to the reunion until Dan showed up and said, “You were a superstar, and obviously you’re a superstar now because you’re in a Banana Boat ad.” Oliver obviously doesn’t feel that way, but he can be kind of unlikable, actually. He’s just trying to figure out his way and for a moment, Dan makes him feel good.
What was your own Banana Boat commercial? That first thing that gave you a taste that something was happening in your career and people around you got kind of excited about that you got this gig? Whether it was a big gig or not.
Marsden: I did a date rape episode of “Blossom.”
Black: Oh, my God, that was it!
Marsden: I date-raped Blossom.
Black: Dude, you played some bad guys early on.
Marsden: What wasn’t [a big deal] when I was starting out? Everything was kind of a jokey, I don’t know. I had two lines on the pilot of “The Nanny.” I mean, I did an episode of “Saved By the Bell.” It was like, just do anything that comes your way.
Black: But “Blossom” …
Marsden: “Blossom” was a very special episode of “Blossom.”
Marsden: No, no. I didn’t really get a lot of attention for that. I mean, all my high school buddies would call: “I see you’re going to be on ‘Party of Five.’ That’s cool.” I mean, any job as an actor was great when you’re young.
Black: The first one was the one that gave me the taste. I had a commercial when I was 13 years old, I think. So that was like 1983. That was for Atari. There was an Atari video game called ‘Pitfall.’ Yeah. The kids at school saw me in that commercial, which was my whole mission, so it was mission accomplished. They recognized me, and I was super-famous and popular for about two days. Then it went right back – magically, it went back to the way it was before. Not so popular. Yeah, that was when the bug … I knew that I had to get more. It was just like a little taste of crack.
You two were also on the same episode of “Touched By An Angel.”
Marsden: That’s where the chemistry began! We had to be reminded of the fact that we worked together on that years ago. It was 1994.
Black: We worked on that in the mid-‘90s, and then we didn’t really keep in touch. It wasn’t until this movie that we were like, “Oh, yeah – we have worked together before.”
Marsden: And it wasn’t like we were just two guest stars in two different storylines. We were like the drug dealers. We were partners in crime in the episode.
There’s a great scene where James approaches Dermot Mulroney, playing himself, at a Hollywood nightclub, trying to give Jack’s character the impression you’re friendly each other. Dermot’s polite, friendly but mystified reaction is priceless. That’s has to have happened to you here and there, where you just don’t quite know where this person who’s approached you is coming from or what they’re after.
Marsden: I still get star-struck and see people and feel awkward and don’t really know how to talk to them. I got that way when I saw Jack again after 20 years. But you mean when people come up to you? If it’s happened to you a few times, you know the strange behavioral paths that people take to try to get into your world. As an actor you take note of that and then insert it into the movie, but I can’t think of anything specific.
Black: I try to spin it around, though. I try to spin it around and talk about them. It gets uncomfortable to talk about myself. And they’re like “I just have to say that the thing you did in that and that and that …” I’m like, “Yeah? What do you do? What’s happening with you? Cool.”
Marsden: The best is when they think you’re someone else. They’re like “I loved you in ‘Star Trek’!” And I’m like, “It wasn’t me!” And they’re like, “Yes it was you! Don’t lie!”
Is there a character that you would like to play that you have not played yet?
Black: There are a couple that I’ve got cooking, that I’d like to make. But I can’t tell you, because sometimes those things get stolen. I had one stolen. I wanted to make one so badly, and I was flapping my gums about it all over town, and I know that’s why he got the idea. Stole it! He shall remain nameless …I’d like to make a scary movie. I’ve got a scary one for kids going. I’ve kind of already done that, but a real scary movie.
Marsden: Psychological scary?
Black: Yeah … “The Shining,” “Silence of the Lambs.” I’d like to do a rock opera. That would be cool.
Marsden: What’s an example of that? Like, “Tommy”?
Black: I didn’t really like “Tommy.” I loved the album, and I loved when they played it live, but there was something clunky about the movie. And [Jack] Nicholson was just plain bad at singing. I know he’s a great actor, but you can’t act your way through a song. You actually have to know how to sing. You’ve got to actually be able to rock a song. He was using all of his acting powers to make up for the shitty singing, but it wasn’t working.
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