The Total Film Interview - Jack Nicholson

Anyway, Nicholson's done the other stuff. Since earning an Oscar nomination for his star-making support turn in 1969's Easy Rider, he's scared us witless (The Shining), made us examine our morals (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Postman Always Rings Twice) and encouraged us to confront our dark sides (The Pledge). His is a career that's spanned no less than six decades, won him three Oscars (as well as nine nominations) and allowed him to play as hard as he's worked.

Hardly surprising, then, that the 66-year-old Tinseltown icon should assure us his party days are well, truly and finally over. In the evenings, he just likes to kick back and watch the basketball on TV; during the weekends he'll play with his youngest kids. He still has some vices left (a packet of cigarettes lies next to a mug of coffee on the table before him), and he's still driven by an intense energy, which he says is now channelled entirely into his work. Indeed, when Total Film meets Nicholson at his New York hotel on a crisp November day, he's relaxed, verbose to the point of rambling and happily subdued.

As happy, in fact, as he is to send himself up in Nancy What Women Want Meyers' latest rom-com, Something's Gotta Give. This sees him playing perennial bachelor Harry Sanborn, a man so insistent on only dating women under 30 (sound familiar?), he has a heart attack when he realises he's fallen for Diane Keaton's middle-aged writer. There are jokes about Viagra, a love rival in the unlikely form of Keanu Reeves - and Nicholson even gets to bare his rear end... Suffice to say, he likes the movie. A lot. But he's not too keen on the title.

"I wanted it to be called Attack Of The Heart," he says, in the nearest thing he comes to a grumble during our time together. "That would have been good. I mean, we all wound up with this title which everybody has trouble remembering - which right away tells me I'm not delighted with it." It's a movie, though, which he firmly believes will help people forget their troubles for an hour or two. And that, quite frankly, is more than enough for Mr Jack right now...

Something's Gotta Give follows Anger Management and About Schmidt as your third comedy in a row. How come?
The way I reacted to 9/11 was I decided I didn't want to do any movies that are sad or critical. I decided I didn't want to make my living depressing people or making them go home sick, so I just decided I wanted to do comedy for a while and study it for a while. It doesn't mean everybody should do that, but that was my reaction.

How did you relate to the character of Harry in Something's Gotta Give? He's a bit like you in many ways...
The same way I react to all of them. I assume most of the characters I play are exactly like me so I don't have to act about that. But you know, comedy is much harder, it's a lot more exacting. You can't just be real and you can't just use the same kind of techniques you use to fill up a regular scene. So technically I related to it differently. Nancy [Meyers, Something's Gotta Give's director] talked to me a lot while writing the script, though. She likes to write for a particular actor so certain amounts of it were actually extracted from those conversations, I imagine.

Aren't people just going to say, "It's Jack and beautiful young women... He's only playing a version of himself!"?
Well, they say that to everybody. It has nothing to do with me; I don't know what it has to do with. I mean, in general, I'm not into categories and generalities. I'm into specific people and that's the way it's always been.

But there are similarities...
Well, let me see... He is very set in his specific way of life, he is a nightclubber and he is all of those things which, of course, I have been in my time but I no longer am. But he's different down on the beach than I am [laughs]. And I've never had a heart attack, so that was something I had to investigate.

You researched just what it's like having a heart attack?
Yeah, and then I had to do it from a comedy sense. One thing I learned from As Good As It Gets, where the central part of that story is the man's disease, is that you can't be completely real because the more disease there is, the less funny it is. The more you graphically, in a kind of Method-acting way, present those realities, the less laughs you get. The main part of this job was to be as vital as the script was, to be as sharp as it was, to get the moments that are there because it's a wonderful script in the great classic tradition - you know, Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Mike Nichols, this whole line of American moviemakers. I think it's something that America does very well, those kind of movies.

Tim Burton's Batman was a very big movie for you. How do you look back on that now?
Around the time of Batman I realised I was fooling around careerwise. It was great work and a great film but I didn't want to be seen as this crazy, Joker figure anymore. I think I had a conversation with myself, a real heart-to-heart, and decided I didn't like people thinking of me as a fool. I'd done such good work, whether it was Goin' South or One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest or Easy Rider... But I think I was kind of losin' it a little in the quality department. I was doing some movies that I should have backed away from.

Previously, you'd worked with a lot of great directors - Bob Rafelson, Milos Forman, Roman Polanski - who weren't driven by the studios so much as by their own vision. Is that what you miss these days?
I think there are still people like that. None of the people you mentioned is any more a personal director than Sean Penn or James L Brooks or Nancy Meyers. I mean, Nancy is tough with her vision. She has a very clear one, she has total integrity. It's the uniqueness of the movie that makes it personal to me. These people here, to take the three I've mentioned, are unique. The amazing thing about Jim and Nancy is that they're also understood by a lot of people and that's really the toughest trick in the movie business.

In terms of actors, who really impresses you today?
Sean Penn. I love Benicio [Del Toro]. I made Sean keep so much of Benicio's scenes in The Pledge because I was just so crazy about what he was doing. I fought for every frame of it. I kept thinking, "Oh man, he is so out there, it's unbelievable." He's with Sean in 21 Grams and I would say that Benicio's performance is the most interesting performance of a religious character that I've ever seen.

I hadn't worked with Keanu before and when actors get famous for one thing... But there are no mistakes at that level of acting. People don't get to be movie stars if they're not good. I knew Harrison Ford would be huge. And I always call Harrison the John Wayne of his generation because as an actor I know how hard that stuff is to make believable. You can't not admire Julia Roberts. You can't say that the two Toms are not wonderful actors; you can't...

In an interview recently, you said you were devastated at the way some American reviewers had described your physical appearance in About Schmidt. Do you really care what the critics say?
What anybody says about the work that you spend a year on means something to you. You know, mainly you start off and you want people to love what you do and if they don't you feel unloved [laughs]. I would have to say I'm thin-skinned with a lot of calluses grown over the top of it. I mean, I'll always feel it but it's very hard to get me to react to anything like that. The Jersey boy never leaves you [laughs]. You never hear anybody from New Jersey complaining about it!

You've said before that the word "icon" is bandied about too much - but it's surely valid in your case, not just because of the work you've done, but more because you've lived the way we expect movie stars to live...
[Laughs] Yeah, that's why I wanted to be one!

There are a lot of younger actors that don't seem to enjoy and embrace it in quite the same way...
Well, I think they'd like to. You know, I was a late big-time success, I was in my early 30s. Up until then I was a film-festival rat. And for an American, when he begins to travel, that's a wonderful elixir. You begin to meet people, artists and so forth, from other countries and I was particularly fortunate in that - Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, all those guys were guys I met as a festival rat. And after a year or so I started saying to them, "Look, we had better start developing our own social graces." It's like, to enjoy something you have to invest in it, you can't just pick up a tennis racket or a golf club, you have to invest time in your own leisure or by the time you're 50 you're going to be really bored. And I think that's what's hard.

Why in particular?
I don't really know, but my sense of that about people younger than me is that the decentralising of the town of Hollywood hasn't helped them. I remember when [ex-girlfriend] Angelica Huston and I used to entertain together, we had a lot of friends and there were always a lot of people coming and going into Los Angeles. But since then it's become very hard to even know about a party or whatever that is not really professional. I was very rigid about my own parties; I never had a professional party at my house. I don't think my agent, who is a good friend of mine, has ever been to a party at my house.

Why don't you like "professional" parties?
Well, I'm against cronyism, and I had to learn that early on. Like, I don't have an entourage, because I saw the negative effects of those things. You know, "Hey, Jack, give me a hand." That's not the answer to life. Other than that, I don't have anybody in the movie business that can stand in front of me and say I ratted or finked them out - nobody. I never fucked anybody over in my whole life like that. I've never lost a friend over work. I come from a small-town environment and I remember my childhood impressions that, if you were a conniver or a fink or whatever, everybody knew about it and you were a louse for the rest of your life. So I never lost those values in some way.

You just mentioned festivals and, of course, it was the reaction to Easy Rider at Cannes in 1969 that effectively changed your life...
Yeah, Easy Rider made me a movie star, like that [snaps fingers]. It's talked about a lot but I don't think it really happens to people in real life much where they suddenly know, "Wait a minute, I'm a movie star, my life's totally different now..."

Was it scary?
No, I'd sort of given up on it. I already had a commitment to direct a picture, I was sort of well-thought of as a young writer, I'd been working for a while and I'd made a meagre living of some kind, but I wasn't really doing what I would have liked to have done as an actor or imagined I could have done as an actor. And then it just changed my life and I knew what to do. There are good things about being a later success. I got to watch other people's mistakes, form my own views about what if this happened or that happened and they were good views... I don't know how anybody who becomes an immediate, overnight success recovers from that.

On the flipside of that, what do you think are the bad things about being a late success?
I think my friends would tell you I'm pretty wilful. Like when I go past a line of photographers and they say, "Look this way," there's that original part of me that wants to look down and say, "Don't tell me what the fuck to do." That will never not be part of my inner voice. That's part of what causes problems to begin with, but later on it works for you a little bit. You have to know how fortunate you are - whether you deserve it or don't deserve it is a whole other kettle of fish. And I am obsessed. This occurred to me later in life, frankly, because I was having too good a time to notice that I was obsessed.

Obsessed with what? Work?
Yeah. I'm like a mad perfectionist about it, I'm very hard on myself about it and I'm never really satisfied with it in the shop. Outside the shop I can be happy with disaster or at least pretend I am. But in there, I like to keep it light, I like it to not be so depressing that nobody can breathe. But I don't want to fool around either. Some people say, "Oh, it's a family." Well, it's not a family. It's a job and it's exacting.

Is that an old-school way of approaching it all, do you think?
Well, I was fortunate. I made a lot of friends before I was rolling. I was always attracted to older people that were already there, like Sam Spiegel and Billy Wilder. I just got there in time to know them and have a chat or two with them. And they talked about class a lot. This was an important thing to them and you don't hear it so much anymore. In their community, class was more important than success. This was their benchmark and they all had that in common and their main counsel was only the picture was going to be important - not who you fucked at lunchtime, or did the president come there, or whatever it was.

In the early days of your career, you were writing a lot. Did you think that was something you might have carried on with, as opposed to acting?
No, it wasn't and you can see it in the performances. You can see this young guy sort of trying to hurl himself sideways up on to the screen, you know what I mean? That's where I was with Roger Corman. I simply wanted to do it and I had no idea how. I mean today, if somebody asked me, "How do you get started in the movie business?", all that I could tell them is, "Well, there are no mistakes." As I said earlier, no one who is no good has ever become a film star. No matter what they say about 'em. Believe me, on closer inspection you will find they are good at things, or they are not there. There are too many people who want to do it for someone who is no good to succeed at it.

It's been a while since you directed. Are you tempted to get behind the camera again?
No, because I've been acting. I certainly haven't directed as much as I thought I might like to, though. Because I liked to be in charge of a movie. I've never been particularly modest or retiring about my own abilities. I think I'm capable in the job.

Would you say you're content?
Yes. The work has been very good for me. That's what I like about the movie business: you're always in contact with wonderful and interesting people. And there are a lot of things still left to do. I mean, I never have a time when I don't think there's something that I'm not doing. For instance, I've worked almost every day for the last three years, which is unusual. It's been so long since I've been a social butterfly that I'm not receiving the volume of invitations I used to because people by now assume, "Oh, he's not going to come anyway..." I'm not isolated, but I certainly spend more time alone. There's nothing wrong with it. You know, I love the company of people. I always have and always will, it comes with my family. But earlier in life I might have got a little nervous if I was alone for a day or two in a row. I might think, "Where are they?" Now, I just go on doing naturally what I do.

Do you ever think about retiring?
If I did, I wouldn't say anything. I'd just go ahead and do it. But if something came along that I like... I don't have to work. But there are always good things coming my way.

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.