Moviegoers can see a former student here share the big screen with some of the biggest names in Hollywood in a quirky tale about a murdered, rich eccentric in East Texas.
Though he has no lines, Charlie Stewart appears opposite Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine in “Bernie,” a black comedy about the 1996 murder of Marjorie Nugent, an 81-year-old widow who was as unpleasant as associate funeral home director Bernie Tiede was popular.
The film is based on the January 1998 Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth.
Director Richard Linklater tapped Hollandsworth to co-write the script.
The Houston native, whose 20-film career has included a number of only-in-Texas tales such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Newton Boys,” both with McConaughey, also directed “School of Rock,” with Black.
Other directorial credits include “Slacker,” and with fellow Texan Ethan Hawke, “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.”
Black portrays Tiede, MacLaine portrays Nugent and McConaughey portrays Danny “Buck” Davidson, the Panola County district attorney, who prosecutes Tiede for Nugent’s murder.
Stewart portrays the widow’s son, Rod Nugent Jr., in three scenes: Rod Nugent Sr.’s funeral, the burial of Nugent Sr. and Tiede’s murder trial. Nugent Sr. and Jr. are each identified as Dwayne in the film.
Stewart said he does not know why his character was renamed, but said the filmmakers may have changed the name for legal reasons.
In the film, Nugent and Tiede meet at her husband’s funeral. In the months following the funeral, Tiede showers Marjorie with gifts and attention despite her scorn.
Eventually, Nugent warms to Tiede, who accompanies her on vacation, manages her finances and becomes heir to her multimillion dollar estate. Nugent becomes increasingly possessive of Tiede, who seizes on murder at the end of a very slow burn as his only way out.
Stewart said he did not research the story prior to the October 2010 filming in Bastrop, however, he looked up the Texas Monthly article as soon as he finished filming his scenes.
“Bernie” is not Stewart’s first on-screen role: he previously appeared as an extra in the 2004 film “Friday Night Lights” and the 2006 television series of the same name.
Stewart, president of Handshake Management, an Austin-based company that manages folk musicians, said he answered a casting call for four middle-aged men from Third Coast Extras, an Austin-based casting company, and was selected for the role by Linklater.
When Joe Rhodes, writer for The New York Times and Marjorie Nugent’s nephew, visited the set in Bastrop, he took photos of Stewart because of his uncanny resemblance to Rhodes’ cousin Rod Nugent Jr., Stewart said.
“He said I looked enough like his cousin that it scared him,” Stewart said. “That’s probably why I got picked.”
He said shooting this film was a more personal experience than other projects he has been involved with.
“Most times, when you’re an extra, the filmmakers say, ‘hey you, sit there, blah, blah, blah,’” Stewart said. “Linklater said, ‘Charlie, when McConaughey says this, look at your aunt and daughter.’
“He took time to give personal time to his extras, and that’s what makes his movies so special.”
Stewart said Black, McConaughey and MacLaine were “all very approachable, all very down to earth.”
Of Black, Stewart said, “If you look at him and look at the real-life Bernie, it was a very good match.”
He said McConaughey does not break character on set, not even between scenes. “Once he has his costume on, he’s good to go,” Stewart said.
Some of the principals of the movie have reacted negatively to the movie’s comedic tone: KLTV.com reported in “Carthage residents react to Bernie movie” published March 7 that the real-life Davidson did not appreciate the filmmakers’ approach to the material.
"He (Tiede) put Ms. Nugent in a freezer, then went and preached in churches and went around as if nothing had happened. If it was a dark comedy; you can't make a dark comedy out of a murder," Davidson said.
“Of course, Danny Buck’s not going to like it; it hits real close to home,” Stewart said.
Nugent’s family has attempted to distance themselves from the film and discussion of the murder: in The New York Times article “How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze ... ” published April 12, Rhodes reported that Rod Nugent Jr., who Stewart portrays in the film, declined an interview.
Later, Rhodes received a letter from Rod Nugent’s lawyer, Charles M. Hosch, who said he wanted to read the finished article before its publication to “weigh every syllable ... against the strictest requirements of the law.”
Aside from the reaction of those portrayed in the film, Stewart said he has received positive feedback.
Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates movie reviews and calculates an average review score, rates “Bernie” at 89 percent among critics, indicating acclaim.
Although he was unable to attend the premiere June 16, 2011, at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Stewart attended its showing March 14 at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, where he said attendees pointed him out in the crowd after the showing.
After the film’s limited release April 27 and wide release May 4, the former radio-television-film major said he attended a showing with friends. After the film finished, a man sitting in the same row recognized Stewart.
“The guy just looked over and said, ‘Wow!’” Stewart said. “Even though I had a small part, how often are you in the same theater as someone who’s in the movie you’re watching?”
Despite the wishes of his father, Charles “Doc” Stewart, a former DJ at KSEL 950 AM in Lubbock, Stewart decided to pursue music as a career.
“Father said, ‘Charlie, you’ve got to get into a legitimate job like pimping: There are fewer prostitutes and more money,” Stewart said.
Stewart attended this college intermittently from 1985 to 1995.
During that time, he volunteered as a DJ at KSYM 90.1 FM, this college’s radio station, where he made contact with musical acts, and began booking musical acts at clubs around San Antonio, experiences that helped him when he established Handshake Management in 1995.
“If there’s anything I have to say, it’s that SAC changed my life, even though I never received a degree,” Stewart said. “It formed the foundation of what my life has become. I can’t be more emphatic about it.”
“Bernie” is showing through July 5 at Santikos Bijou Theatre at 4522 Fredericksburg Road and through June 28 at Regal Fiesta Stadium 16 at 12361 Vance Jackson Road and is also available for pre-order at www.amazon.com.