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Easy rider: The Jack Nicholson interview


Since he turned 70 last year, Jack Nicholson says, he's been thinking a little about writing his memoirs. In the past, he always thought doing a book of his life would "be a bit like taking a picture of the Grand Canyon; it would get in the way of being there".

These days, though, up in the hilltop house on Mulholland Drive that has been his home for three decades, he confesses that some nights, with the big sky overhead and the ravine down below, Picassos and Warhols on the walls, he gets to thinking: "Well, Jack, you have met a lot of people over the years, there might just be interest out there in you recalling some of them . . ." All he has got so far, he confesses, however, is the first line. He grins his canine grin, leans forward, raises the world's most famous eyebrow and recites it with relish: "It seems to me that my life has been one long sexual fantasy," he pauses, leers for effect, "but more of that later . . ."

It's an odd thing to sit in front of Nicholson; his face is like one of those Oscar-night obituary screens -- as he talks, you see his greatest scenes pass quickly across it: a hint of the Cuckoo's Nest mania of Randle P McMurphy, a wild eye from The Shining's Johnny, the stone stare of Colonel A Few Good Men Jessep, a sudden Joker and the small bitternesses of Schmidt.

Happily, there is not too much of his current movie, The Bucket List, in which he plays, for dark laughs, a terminal-cancer patient opposite Morgan Freeman, etched on it. In the first half of the film, before he goes into remission and travels the world with Freeman, ticking off all the natural highs they crave before they kick the bucket, he looks shockingly decrepit: bloated, bald from chemo, Brando-esque as he shuffles to the bathroom in a gaping hospital gown to cradle the porcelain and throw up. I wonder how he felt watching himself on screen, all that pallid flesh, his face like a Lucian Freud of the morning after.

"I have looked better, I agree," he says, drily. "I had that experience, too, on About Schmidt. I really got myself into a mess for that picture as well and every day I would look into that mirror and think, terrified: 'What if I get stuck in this character? What if I can't get back to me?' Then, I guess I have always looked kind of extreme up there. In my whole career there was only one time when a director said to me: 'OK, come right down the pike and just look beautiful, Jack.' That was Ken Russell on Tommy. But film is all about losing your dignity. The last thing you want to do is be self-conscious about it, that would kill it all."

Does he often watch his old films?

"It is," he says, "tremendously hard to look at your work. They did a retrospective at Telluride and showed all the movies and I couldn't bear it; I had to leave the cinema. All I could see in the early films, before Easy Rider, was this desperate young actor trying to vault out of the screen and create a movie career."

Does he still recognise that character in himself?

"It's a continuum, of course. But then you live a varied life as a known actor. You would be a pretty stiff kind of guy if just some of the best of that didn't rub off on you along the way," he says.

When was the last time he met someone who did not know who he was?

"It's been a while," he says. "But I used to. I remember how that felt."

He certainly has not had the experience on his recent trip to London. The night before I meet him, he has led a crush of fans and paparazzi from the film's opening in Leicester Square along Piccadilly to The Wolseley restaurant, where he had a dinner appointment with friends. His strategy for dealing with the crowds is, he suggests, to give them exactly what they want, to "be Jack" -- by which he means the shades, the grin, the hint of recklessness. In one newspaper photo, Nicholson's famous mouth hung open like a sea creature as he turned from climbing into his limo to snog the wife of an autograph hunter; the young brunette was puckered up and apparently ready to be swallowed whole.

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"Ninety-nine per cent of the time for the last 25 years, I have neither gone in or out of a door without there being photographers there to capture the moment," he says, in the voice that makes everything sound like a gangster laying out his last will and testament. "I'm not going to start complaining, but the smoking ban has left me with a problem. I can't light up in a restaurant, but if I walk outside I have 50 photographers two feet from my nose. What am I to do? I would go blind from flashbulbs by the time I finished my cigarette."

The law, I suggest, needs a Jack-shaped loophole.

"Oh, I'll find it," he says, with sudden venom. "You see: I'm real nice, ultra-polite, raised by women, but inside," he lowers his voice to gravel, conspiratorial, "I'm a right cunt. I take some delight in hearing them say, 'Jack, Jack! Over here! Over here!' and not moving a muscle, so they all get exactly the same picture. I don't even give them the real smile, I give them the fake one. I remind myself that they want those pictures in case I die, so they can make some money. They are not taking them to send to their aunt."

Having allowed himself this rant, Jack is back smiling. It is what he does best: remind you instantly of the feral beneath the charm. He may not be quite as nimble as he was, but he is still as quick. It's tempting to think he will never change, but these days he has a sense of Jack's limits. He has been talking elsewhere of a recent shift in his persona. "I can't hit on a girl in public like I used to," he noted. "I never thought words like 'undignified' would come into my own reflections on myself, but I can't do it any more." Is it, for him of all people, terribly strange to be 70?

"The only strange thing about it for me was when I had my 70th birthday; pretty much for the first time in my life, I felt young for my age."

I quote to him an interview he once gave to Rolling Stone about how he feared he was getting on a bit, not quite the hell-raiser he had been. He was 37 at the time.

He laughs. "Well, you might say it's been a very protracted diminuendo, but my character has improved as I have slowed, I think."

Are we yet in what might be called "Jack's late period"?

"Well, when all the current world situation came about with 9/11," he says, "I made a very conscious decision to really study comedy. I thought there would be a lot of revisionist half-baked responses to the times -- along with some astute ones -- and I did not want to go there. I was at that first memorial show [a fundraiser for families of the victims of 9/11] that George Clooney put together and I had a chat with [actor] Adam Sandler there, and with James Brooks [director of As Good as it Gets], and we worked out this plan."

The plan, basically, was that at times like this, people wanted to smile. "With the exception of The Departed," he says, "since then, I have done five or six comedies in a row. This, though [The Bucket List], is one of the toughest subjects for a comedy you could imagine: two old guys in a hospital ward with terminal cancer. The money-people always ask: 'What's the risk?' They did not have to ask that here: it is a very high tightrope walk in terms of style and tone."

Though neither Nicholson nor Freeman ever looks in danger of falling too far in the film, their stunts -- some of them literal (their "bucket list" includes a stock car race and a Himalayan climb) -- don't quite add up to drama. Some of this has to do with them playing entirely to type. Nicholson is a curmudgeonly old millionaire with a wreckage of marriages behind him; Freeman is the wise old family man, the car mechanic who should have been a history professor, doing those mesmerising voiceovers that can make the tiredest bit of self-help platitude sound like the wisdom of the ages. It could have been Lemmon and Matthau, but it isn't; still, if you want to see a ropy premise for a film covered up by two extraordinary screen presences, it is well worth a look.

Ever the pro, Nicholson tells me that, despite a lack of critical support ("it's not a darling"), The Bucket List had the second most positive screen test in Warner's history. In his seen-it-all way, he presents the film as a classic in screenwriting: "The characters start off in very different places and the events of the story change them. I reflect back to Morgan's character, how good his life is and he makes me see things that are missing in mine. That is the bare bones of how you write a screenplay: he teaches her this, she teaches him that, they come to a resolution . . ."

Director Rob Reiner, who also coaxed from Nicholson his greatest ever piece of scene-stealing at the close of A Few Good Men ("You can't handle the truth!"), tells me how, at the beginning of every day on set, Jack would spend an hour going through each line of the script with him, obsessively rewriting, reworking. When they were done, "Morgan would pick it up, in his Zen master way, glance at it and say, 'OK, I can do this.' And away they went."

Nicholson and Freeman had known each other since, as Jack says, they "were both quite wild young men", but they had never worked together. The film, if nothing else, is an ambition fulfilled.

"Morgan is a big hugger," Reiner recalls, "Jack is not. On the last day of shooting we had just shaved Jack's head for the hospital scene; it was quite dramatic. Morgan came across: 'Oh no, we are not going to have to hug now, are we?' says Jack. And Morgan looks him straight in the eye and says: 'This has been a dream come true for me,' and Jack looked back and said: 'Likewise' -- and they hugged each other."

"Sometimes," Nicholson suggests, "I have to drive films. With Morgan, we just floated."

Reiner suggests that he wanted Nicholson to be as close to himself as possible in the film. Is that how Nicholson thinks it worked out?

"People talk about stretching yourself. A lot of the time stretching leads to overacting. You always start from yourself. After that, relaxation, and the ability to react; that's all you need to know."

Given relationships that have brought five children from four partners, and countless other romances ("I like each year to date a nice range of women," Nicholson says, and, "I only use Viagra when I am with more than one"), it would be an understatement to accuse him of having trouble with commitment. He has, though, always stuck with one thing through thick and thin: his work.

His secret is simple, he says. "When I get to feeling I am in free-fall, I will take some time off: no phonecalls, no scripts to read, nothing. I remember talking to Richard Burton about that [not long before Burton died]. He said he had maybe been off three months total since he was 15. Every time I stopped, often at quite a black point, I would eventually get back to the same place: I do this because I love it, no other reason."

Nicholson had been quoted in the paper as saying of the death of Heath Ledger: "I warned him." Is this what he meant?

"No," he says. "What I actually said was: 'I warned them.' I had a bad experience with those sleeping pills [that Ledger apparently took]. I react strongly with any kind of down-side medicine. I took one of these pills and had just gone to sleep when I had a phonecall to go to an emergency at a friend's house. I jumped up, went outside and, some time later, I woke up in the driveway where I had slowly rolled up against a wall about 50 yards from my house. It sounds amusing, but I live in the mountains, and it could have been worse. I didn't know Heath Ledger, but I know those pills."

When Nicholson mentions his house, a few times as we talk, it sounds like a kind of extension of himself. He christened that part of Mulholland Drive "Bad Boy Hill" a long time ago, though now he is the last bad boy standing: when his next-door neighbour Marlon Brando ("the patron saint of our profession") died, Nicholson bought his house for $5m and bulldozed it. The third member of the old gang, Warren Beatty, lives down the road, a family man, the doting father of four. Nicholson, solitary, is king of the hill.

He fills his home with art. "I bought in the last season a Braque, and that famous Manet drawing of Edgar Allen Poe, and a Cezanne drawing," he says. "I enjoy it, though everyone has their choking price. Recently, I was bidding in my bedroom, lying there, and once I went past $10m, I started to feel the sweat come on all over. In the end, it was a relief not to get it."

Reiner explained Nicholson's "steady routine" these days: "He's up at 11 or 12, he stays out late at nights, and he goes to all the Lakers [basketball] games. He has a lot of friends. He's an artist in every way, he's not just an actor, and a painter, and a writer, but he's also an artist of life. Given what he went through in his early life, it is a miracle he can stand up on two feet at all."

What he went through was this: having been raised in Neptune, New Jersey, he was well into his late 30s when he discovered from a journalist that his "mother", who was 39 at the time he was born, was actually his grandmother, and his "sister", who was 17 and an unmarried showgirl, was his mother. No one knew his real father; his "grandfather" was an alcoholic. Both of his "mothers" had died of cancer by the time he learned the truth.

At one point, modifying one of his own lines, uttered to Helen Hunt in As Good as it Gets, I wonder who in his life has most "made him want to be a better man"? Was it Anjelica Huston, his lover of 17 years?

"No," he says. "It was long before Anjelica. I was raised by two strong women. I heard all I needed [about women and men] on their knee. I heard: "You think this prick would have treated a man like this in a business deal?" In that way, I got to feminism long before the newspapers."

Nicholson makes an unlikely feminist, but that's how he explains himself to himself. He says, looking back now, he was glad he didn't get to the truth of his childhood earlier.

"I'm a little ashamed to admit that. But I'm an introspective artist and I found all this out in my 30s when I could handle it. My main emotion was gratitude. I was pleased I did not have to go back because they [his "sister" and his "mother"] were both deceased. So I had nothing to resolve as such."

You wonder about this; but anyhow most of Nicholson's therapy has been on screen, a good deal of it primal screaming -- "I'm always aware when they're trying to write a 'Jack' scene," he says. "You know: 'Let him run wild."' This continual release is why he will never stop working, of course, though he fears a little there are no great roles for old men -- "Death, retirement and disillusionment," he grumbles. Should even they ever dry up, though, there is also the role that has sustained him all these years, his masterclass: being Jack.

'The Bucket List' is out now

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