Jack Nicholson – Interview

Jack Nicholson – Interview

Julian Schnabel


Jack Nicholson could have retired long ago. He could have hung up his hat on his many awards, basked in the glow of movie history (even before his 12th nomination for About Schmidt, he was already the most-nominated actor in Oscar history), and holed up in his Beverly Hills bungalow above all the hustle and bustle of Hollywood. But luckily for everyone, he hasn’t gone anywhere and, at 65, is at the top of his game. In the past year alone, he’s worked with one of the movies’ edgiest young directors (Schmidt’s Alexander Payne) and sharpest comedians (Adam Sandier, in this month’s antic Anger Management), demonstrating a penchant for artistic evolution and experimentation. But as Nicholson tells Julian Schnabel, and as five of the legend’s colleagues tell us, as much as his role choices and costars have changed, some things about the man remain the same: He loves to learn, makes a hell of a friend, and can’t get enough of life’s little pleasures.


JACK NICHOLSON: Hey, Julian. How are you?

JS: I’m okay, how are you doing?

JN: I’m doing fine.

JS: Okeydoke. I made a list of some things to talk to you about.

JN: Okay.

JS: What battles are worth fighting?

JN: Is this the first question?

JS: [laughs] Yeah.

JN: Well, a girlfriend once told me never to fight with anybody you don’t love.

JS: [laughs] Okay. Now, I remember calling you after I saw About Schmidt, and I was so enthusiastic about what you did with the performance that I forgot how depressing it was. [Nicholson laughs] So Jack, tell me: What makes you decide to take a role?

JN: It’s always an accumulation. You know, I had read the book [About Schmidt, by Louis Begley] quite a while before. Then, when [producer] Harry Gittes got Alexander Payne and [cowriter] Jim Taylor involved, I read the script, which was very good. Different from the book, of course. I was an admirer of Alex’s, and Harry is one of my oldest friends-so as I say, it’s an accumulated thing. When it’s good.

JS: What’s one of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave you?

JN: My sister Lorraine told me–I was undecided as to whether to stay East and go to school or come to California–“If you stay around here, you’ll always be Jack Nicholson, and you could be a big fish in a little pond, but it’s better if you go to a big pond.” [both laugh] That was her way of nudging me out of the nest, I think. I don’t know if it’s the best piece of advice, but it has worked out the best, anyway. I’ll tell you one thing: Don’t ever give anybody your best advice, because they’re not going to follow it.

JS: [laughs] You’ve

“I see Jack every morning. I have a picture of him and his little girl in a frame set in the top of a box that sits on my bathroom counter. So every morning, when I wash my face, I look at it.

One day we were doing this scene in [The] Witches [of Eastwick, 1987] where he invites me for lunch. Before we were ready to do it, I had this huge panic attack. I went and knocked on his door, and I said, ‘Johnny, I need to talk to you. I am having an awful anxiety attack. What happens if I can’t do this scene?’ He said, ‘Well, we’ll just close up for the day and we’ll come back and do it another day. It’s not a problem. But why don’t we just sit here and talk for a while?’ The moment he said it wasn’t a problem, I felt perfectly fine. I’ve worked with a lot of really good actors, but I think his personality allows him–maybe it’s his personality and his experience and his confidence–to be so sweet. Witches was a rough time–the director and the producers really didn’t care about us, so we would go to Jack, and he helped us work on the script. And sometimes he would bring us lunch and come in and sit while we were all getting our makeup done, listening to us gossip. He said it reminded him of when he was li ttle and would sit around listening to women in his grandmother’s beauty salon.

He’s an incredible, dedicated actor. I mean, from the very first thing I saw him in, which was Easy Rider [1969], he’s been the focus of whatever scene he’s in: It’s like Jack and small kids and little dogs. [laughs] He’s really cool, but his edges are round. There’s a softness about him. He’s not cool by affectation. That’s why actors love him, fans love him, and the academy loves him.”

“When I was at my low, Jack insisted that I be his date at the Academy Awards when he was up for Ironweed [1987]. I didn’t want to go. The last time I was there, I was nominated for an award, and this time everything was going wrong. He said, ‘I want you to be my date. I want to walk in with you tonight.’ So I said, ‘Can I call you back in half an hour?’ So I call Sue Mengers, and I say, ‘Sue, Jack wants me to be his date at the Academy Awards; I don’t want to go.’ And she says, ‘Listen to me, Evans: If you don’t go with Jack tonight, move to Palm Springs.’ So I called Jack back and I said, ‘I’ll go on three conditions. One, you’ve got to pick me up in a limousine and you have to have caviar and champagne in it.’ And he says, ‘What else?’ ‘You’ve got to take pictures with my help and my kid.’ He says, ‘Okay, what’s the third?’ And I say, ‘You’ve got to promise one more thing. You can’t try to fuck me on our first date.’ He wanted me to go down there on his arm because he wanted to show everybody in the indust ry that I was his guy and he was my guy. We went to the Governors Ball, and table by table, he walked me over to everyone, his arm around me, saying, ‘Evans, he’s the best,’ just to give me my confidence back. It was one of the best nights of my life.

Another story: When I had a stroke, I was in the ICU unit. One night, Jack walks through the door and says, ‘You’re going to be okay.’ Two nurses and an orderly come in, and say, ‘We don’t care if you’re Jack Nicholson–you can’t be in here!’ So he turns around and winks, ‘I’ll be back.’ Twenty minutes later, he comes in with 20 pizza boxes, sits down with the nurses and the orderlies, and eats with them–and then they let him come in. I was half paralyzed, and he was looking at me, laughing, saying, ‘There’s a lot of chasing yet to do. You’re going to be okay.’ We laid there for an hour on my bed.

He has a million-dollar smile and a billion-dollar brain. It truly is a million-dollar smile. He doesn’t have to open his mouth, but once he does, the price goes higher. There are very few actors who can do drama and comedy and be equally good at both. He’s a genius. He can recite poetry, philosophy, statistics on sports, on film, on art. He knows how many fights Joe Louis had, who he fought, and what round the fighters were knocked out in. He can recite from Keats, from Nietzsche. He’s the most astute, self-educated person I’ve ever met. When he made Batman [1989], he just didn’t play the part of the Joker–he studied Nietzsche for months. He’s the best actor on the screen today.

Without asking him–I had to tell him not to do it–Jack got my house back for me. He got on a plane and flew over to Monte Carlo to meet the guy who owned the house, and the guy would see him for only 15 minutes. The guy was shaving, so Jack had to go into the bathroom. He got down on his knees and said, ‘Mr. Murray, please, will you give Evans back his house?’ And the guy said, ‘Are you crazy? I bought the house. Why should I sell it? Are you telling me you flew all the way over here just to ask me to give him his house back?’ ‘Yeah, I did.’ He said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ Supposedly the guy went all over the south of France that summer and said, ‘Can you believe Jack Nicholson flew over and bent in the bathtub asking for this guy Evans’ house back?’ But he sold me the house back. And when I got back into it, I found a drawing Jack did, and it says, ‘Back Home. Beautiful.’

I can’t call him a friend. What we share isn’t friendship. Or loyalty. It’s character. Deep character. He’s part of my soul.’–ROBERT EVANS (continued from page 148) been a friend to many people, and your friends often talk about what a great friend you are. Was there a certain moment in your life that made you understand the importance of friendship?

IN: I can’t think of a moment or turning point, but you know, I always have valued friendship and had a sense of what it means. I’m still in touch with friends from my childhood. A good friend is a great treasure, and that’s an area of life I feel very rich in. I am blessed. I have a lot of good friends.

JS: As I think about your body of work it seems to me that humanism is a common thread–Schmidt being a prime example.

JN: I think that’s what distinguishes Schmidt, really. In the movies now, so much of what is appealing to an audience is the dramatic or has to do with science fiction, and Schmidt is simply human. There’s no melodrama; there’s no device, It’s just about a human being. And in the simplest form. Alexander’s approach to the movie was that he wanted to take a very average kind of guy, and through the course of the picture, strip everything away from him, one thing at a time, and see where it left him.

JS: My mom died a couple of months ago, and since then my father’s been living with us. He’s 91 years old now, and as you know, his name is Jack, too. Watching him gauge his energy level, deciding what battles he wants to fight and what conversations he wants to have, made me think of your performance in About Schmidt.

Recently, we went to my brother’s 60th birthday party down in Mexico. I wanted to say something nice to him and to his family, and there were complex feelings involved. I found myself thinking about your speech scene in About Schmidt. One of the most compelling things about that scene is that Schmidt is saying a bunch of things that we as an audience know are exactly the opposite of how he feels. The medium of film can convey a true feeling that’s outside of the words that are being spoken.

JN: What’s interesting about acting a scene like that is that the person playing the part always knows that he’s not going to do what he intends to do, which in this case was stop the wedding. The character has to feel like he is going to stop the wedding, and then over the course of the speech kind of… fail.

JS: I think what’s so beautiful about that scene is how beautifully he failed.

JN: Thank you. But he has to believe that he’s not going to fail when he starts–it’s a particular kind of acting problem. But that’s also just great writing, nonliteral writing, and any time the movie’s about human beings, the actors are going to have more fun doing it. And the other thing is, Schmidt is a comedy; it has a wryly humorous approach. It’s the audience who sees how mendacious and/or ludicrous what the guy is doing is, and his own self-deceptions, and they’re able to laugh at it. And once again, that’s a talent of the moviemaker.

JS: It’s great. It’s smart comedy. Now, tell me about your role in your new film Anger Management, opening in April, with Adam Sandier. You really seem to be drawn to comedy lately.

JN: Right. Actually, the picture I’m working on now with Nancy Meyers–we’re in our second week–is a comedy, too. I wanted to study comedy, to go over and join the clowns, and now coincidence has presented me with comedic material. Also, I had always liked Adam’s work and was curious about it, because it’s the kind of comedy I didn’t know about. I approached it as a learning experience. I told Adam, “Look: I’ve got my own ideas, but I’m coming over to see what you do. I want to see how this works.” Working with Adam in this picture, which is kind of antic comedy as opposed to a dark, wry comedy, was, in a way, defying my own conventions. I feel like every once in a while you have to do that. Otherwise you settle in.

JS: You’ve always been somebody who doesn’t want to just illustrate what he already knows but who is always throwing himself out into something different.

JN: Most of the early part of an actor’s career, you do the jobs you get. But once I had a choice, I already understood that to have some kind of range is an actor’s self-preservation. You have to make a lot of different kinds of choices. Sometimes, when you have success, it traps you–and this is something that I think is really specific to the movie business. You don’t even know it until you’re in it, really. I sort of understood that when I first started: that you shouldn’t repeat a success. Very often you’re going to, and maybe the first time you do, it works. And you love it. But then you’re trapped.

JS: I think you’re doing something right. And I guess some others feel the same way. Schmidt is your 12th Academy Award nomination. Do you think the awards mean something?

JN: Of course they mean something. But what they mean is hard to define. I can tell you that I’ve just always flat-out liked them. It’s one of those grand occasions. I asked John Huston about them once, and he said that his attitude was based on respect for those who came before you.

JS: I think that’s a nice way to look at it. Was there a performance or something you were involved with that you really loved and felt was ignored or overlooked by the Academy?

JN: No. I’m the last guy in the world to feel overlooked by the Academy. Though some of the performances

(continued from page 151)

that I have been recognized for were in pictures by great moviemakers–like The Shining [1980]: Stanley . the film’s director] was the overpowering talent there. He did not get good reviews, but time has shown that the movie has had a lasting effect. And I saw a documentary on Jimmy Hoffa recently, and I was proud of the work I did in that picture [Hoffa, 1992].

JS: Yes. You matched him gesture for gesture. Your mentioning Kubrick, who lived most of his life in England, brings me to an idea I made a note about: You’re the rare American actor who’s worked with a lot of non-American directors.

JN: I’m a New Wave baby.

JS: I love that.

JN: I’m a New Wave baby, so I got very stimulated by foreign film. All the great moviemakers: [Francois] Truffaut, [Jean-Luc] Godard, [Alain] Resnais, [Robert] Bresson, and Jean Vigo . . . These filmmakers woke my generation up to the broadness of the medium, really. When I was young, it was a very exciting time for moviemakers–I guess you’re always excited when you’re young–but it was good synchronicity. And then we had all the Italians–[Michelangelo] Antonioni and [Luchino] Visconti and [Federico] Fellini and [Roberto] Rossellini…

JS: All the “ini’s.”

JN: [laughs] All the “ini’s.” You loved Rossellini, and you found out why. I like his work because his camera is always the perfect distance from the scene. You think about that, and you start seeing it a tremendous amount. And Roman Polanski, he has become a friend of mine. And Milos [Forman]. I met Milos hanging around the film festivals; his Loves of a Blonde [1965] was playing. It’s just rich, you know? Stanley was always fascinated with what the young moviemakers were doing. He’d have been all over Alexander Payne. He loved other moviemakers. He was always very giving to them, and most of those guys I mentioned were–are–too. I love that spirit.

JS: Do you think it’s possible to make a political movie nowadays that can sort of shape the times the way Easy Rider [1969] seemed to? I don’t know if it was a political movie, but it seemed to be.

JN: I’ll tell you a political film I was going to make.

JS: Okay.

JN: And I’d make it in the unempathetic way they made them in the ’60s. I went to the Moscow Film Festival, and I had a bodyguard there so that the environment would be all safe and glamorous, with celebrity dinners and wonderful people dressed up. And being new to Russia, I was looking at it, thinking, What is Russia all about? Well, it’s too big to know what it’s about, Jack. Just look around. I gradually got to know the bodyguard–they warm up slowly in Russia–and I learned he was a paramilitary guy. And then, just before the end of the festival, he said, “Jack, I’m not going to be able to finish this job. My cousin will take over for me.” I wondered what happened. And when the festival was over and I got back here [to L.A.], I read that there was a big gunfight in Chechnya the following week. And, of course, I immediately knew that that was where he had gone. So, I’d take that and juxtapose the events. That guy would be my central character. You can’t make a stronger political film than that. That’s a po litical film. I know a few people in Russia, and, really, gravel pits and buildings look alike. You might want to shoot in Indiana.

JS: [laughs] Right.

JN: See what I mean? Once you started juxtaposing the backgrounds, you would have a highly political film.

I’ve always taken the same approach, which is, if I felt in my heart that I had a movie I really wanted to make, I would get it made. Now, a lot of that had to do with coming through Roger Corman’s organization and learning that there are many ways to make movies inexpensively. Couple that with the fact that the form was being exploded for us by the New Wave–Godard’s various ways of doing things, the depth of Ingmar Bergman … The New Wave really came from what you find a lot in painting, where the mistake is suddenly what gives something the shade and the resonance.

JS: Exactly.

JN: That was just the intellectual climate of the time. I mean, I was in the middle of it, and I didn’t even think about it as an intellectual climate. It was just the climate. So every time I’m thinking about directing a movie, or talking to somebody like Sean Penn about directing a movie, I still have that voice in my head that says, “I can do this movie for $20,000 or $20 million.” Look at all the tremendous ideas in student films, or in the films you see when you watch the IFC channel. One thing I really feel is that if I could think of a short film, I would be very proud of myself. I love shorts.

JS: [Henry David] Thoreau said if he had had more time, Walden would have been shorter. No–I guess that was Mark Twain talking about his own work.

JN: [laughs] Yeah, beautiful. You know, in all honesty, we all have our favorite forms. I would have to say, as a young person tasting material, O. Henry, with all those weird, paradoxical twists, really hung me up. The world’s full of ideas. Listen, Julian, you can call me back in a little while, but I have guests arriving for dinner.

JS: Oh. Okay. That’s nice of you, but I’m sure we got it. Thanks, Jack. Great talking to you.

JN: Yeah, I love talking.

JS: Okay. Bye, darling.

JN: Okay. [laughs]


“Jack’s one of those guys you know you can depend on, who you can call in the middle of the night, who wouldn’t ask any questions and would be there for you.

One of the things that’s really great about Jack is that he didn’t go through a college situation where he inherited someone else’s way of speaking–he’s self-educated. Everything that comes out of his mouth has a perspective that can’t be duplicated. It’s almost as if he speaks in code. [laughs] And he’s got such a wonderful sense of humor–he makes me chuckle all the time. It’s the kind humor that not only makes you laugh, but makes you nod your head, because there’s always a truth to it.

I think he’s the personification of cool. He manages to keep a great sense of humor about everything and not take himself or anything too seriously. He’s authentic. Original. And he’s a survivor. He’s always learning, he’s still incredibly curious, and he’s humble. You just don’t find that combination in people, especially in this business. Through all his ups and downs, he’s had that twinkle in his eye. He’s always had a sense of irony, and he’s always had kindness. There is no pretense to him. It’s like his home: He’s got all this priceless art on the walls just there to be appreciated. There’s no fuss–just like with Jack.” — SUSAN SARANOON

“My favorite fella. Period.” — SEAN PENN

“Jack was very vigilant about the character of Warren Schmidt. And we had a perfect synshro playing off one another. He’s a real pro. He’s respectful of other people’s personas and working methods. Lately, we’ve been at these awards shows, and I’m just very proud to sit next to him. And now, since the Oscar nominations have come out, he’s so pleased. He’s very proud of the film and of his work–and he’s so excited for me. I’ve done a lot of publicity for Schmidt in the last few months, and I’ve never really found one great way to describe him. To me, he’s human. Ours is a delicate connection, and one that’s very dear to me. So I’m kind of shy about calling him. He sent me a lovely arrangement of orchids this week as a thank-you, and I want to do something nice for him. I don’t know what yet–I don’t think it’s going to be flowers–but I want to give him something special, a memento from our working together.

From the beginning, in Five Easy Pieces [1970] and n Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest [1975], he’s created these indelible characters that are as wildly individual as he is. He doesn’t do it in every single role, but there are + some incredible performances that take our breath away. Somehow, he manages to make you forget for a little while that he’s Jack. And I think that’s an incredible feat considering the fact that he’s been so celebrated–he still manages to imbed himself in these characters.

My favorite Jack moment in a movie would have to be from Cuckoo’s Nest when he is getting his medicine from Nurse Ratched and he hammers the counter from underneath like he’s got a hard-on. I love that moment. And, personally, there was a moment when we were at the New York Film Festival last fall, on a panel, and the very first question directed to me was: ‘Was it your idea to be nude in that hot tub?’ And I said, ‘When Alexander [Payne] told me I was going to do a hot tub scene with Jack, I said, “Only if I could be nude!”‘ The whole place broke up. And Jack leaned behind me and said, ‘Way to go, baby!’ And then there was the moment at the same panel when this guy in the front row kept saying ‘Mr. Nicholson, Mr. Nicholson,’ and Jack leaned forward into the microphone and said, ‘Call me Jack.’ I loved that. ‘Call me Jack.'” — KATHY BATES

Julian Schnabel is an artist and the director of Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000).

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