Nicholson Not Ready to Kick the Bucket Just Yet
by Paul Fischer
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Jack Nicholson is an iconic movie star in every sense of the word. Arriving to greet the press with his trademark sunglasses, the Oscar winning legend now teams up with another winner, Morgan Freeman in the heartwarming and at times ebullient comedy/drama, The Bucket List. Theyplay a pair of socially diverse men dying of cancer who strike up a friendship and are determined to spend their remaining months living, not dying. As Nicholson explained to Paul Fischer, he does not see his latest film as any kind of maudlin comment on death and mortality.
PAUL FISCHER: When you do a movie like this, does it at all bring home a sense of dealing with your own mortality, or do you ignore those things when you’re making a film about that?
JACK NICHOLSON: The first audience we screened it to said that this is a movie about living. I think, you know, one of the things about it that I liked is everybody considers their mortality all the time, whether they know it or not. That fear of the unknown drives you— I went to so many Christian Amerada lectures that illustrate this point that it’s phenomenal. So I keep on asking”did the movie stay with you?” Because we wanted to, even though it’s a comic approach, to have some resonance. But I think it’s these are interior, private conversations that we have with ourselves and that we haven’t really seen them on film before.
Like, we all, I’m sure, who’ve ever been to a funeral, have said, “Well, how do I want my whatever you wanna call it to be dealt with?” Do you want a big pink statue like this? Which was one of my considerations at one time. (laughter) Do you wanna be staked out on the top of a tree like an Indian and let the birds eat— you know, all these kinds of things, I know I’m nobody’s that different. So I went by the assumption these are things that people have consciously thought about it. And if you touch that chord, you know, this is what you get. My first acting teacher, said, “Your job is to provide a stimulating point of departure. This is what you do in a theatrical experience.” And I thought, “This’ll be a doozy, you know, for that particular element.” So, that’s what I think about it.
PF: There were certain aspects of the film, for instance, the head shaving that was cleave it was actually happening.
PF: But I found myself wondering afterward how much movie magic was involved in some off the other things. Particularly the skydiving sequence.
JN: Oh, we dove like son-of-a-guns. Fantastic. Fearlessly leapt out into the void, didn’t care, and so forth. (laughter) This is part of my new “lying” approach. (laughter) But you know, why I say that, and important and this is probably useless to you, because I’ve said this before. When I was first doing interviews I met Diana Vreeland, who was the editor of Vogue Magazine. And you know, the normal, uhhh, you know, complaints people have about interviews. And she said, “Well, Jack, you must not tell them the truth.” I said, “What?” She says, “Well, my guess is you’re going to be doing a lot of interviews. If you tell them the truth, very quickly you’ll become bored with your own life.”
PF: Do you have a bucket list? Or were any of the things that you wanted to do on this fictional list in the film?
JN: Love to see the pyramids. One of my favorite one-worders in this script is, if you kiss the most— well, how do you plan to do that, volume? (laughter)
PF: Is there’s like one character or one part that you really wanna do that’s on your list?
JN: You know, Morgan works on the stage. I haven’t done it since I was a kid, you know, but he told me he was gonna do something and I thought, “What would he and I do on the stage?” I thought, “J.B. is a natural for—for Morgan and I. You know, this is God and the Devil.” So—the voice of God, you know. (LAUGHTER). Because he’d show me the ropes, is really what I’m getting around to here, you know. I don’t yearn to work on the stage, but this one—
PF: Bob had an interesting compliment, I think, for you, Jack and that is, the difference between working with you on A Few Good Men and this, was 15 years of life experience.
PF: And—I think it’s very fair to say that an actor shouldn’t be limited by their own physical age, but what does that life experience do for you approaching a role? Could you—15 years ago approach this role the same way you did now?
JN: Well, you know, again, it’s an impossible question. I would approach it the same way, because 85 percent of whoever you play is identical to the character, whoever it is. Man, woman, or child. It’s the 15 percent that you have to find, isolate, and act, so to speak. So, you know, I would approach it from that point of view, since I’ve held it since I’m in my 20s, I guess that was. You know, I mean—obviously, would be different, I mean a lot of this movie was informed by my being not what I thought I would be, an excellent patient. But rather, a poor one. That happened by coincidence just before this movie. Nothing—as frightening as what these fellas had to go through, but, you know, I mean another one of my favorite lines is—this guy who sets up this whole system in hospitals and how they’re run, when they ask him about it, all he’s got to say is, “Well, I’ve never been sick before.” (laughter) You know, which I think says a lot about everybody. You know, suddenly you think you’ve got it and now you’re in this situation, Jesus Christ. (laughter) Well, acting is hopefully that every day. You know, sure, I mean you’ll have an idea about what this is and what that is, and then your deepest yearning is to come in and to be shocked out of your system by what actually occurs.
PF: How selective are you In the kinds of roles you decide to take these days, and how have your perceptions of acting changed in the last—several decades? Are they very different than actually what they used to be?
JN: Well, hopefully, yeah. I mea a friend of mine once said something that I’ve always remembered: “People don’t understand. I’m dying to have my mind changed.” You know, I thought that was strong.
PF: Are you selective about what you take on?
JN: Absolutely. You know, and the criteria changes. You know, on The Departed, I went into what for me is forbidden territory, because it occurred to me— a different way. In acting class, you’re taught an actor takes the space, right? It’s a Zen. You have to go through a lot of classes to know what they mean, but this is apropos of change. On The Departed, this thing went through my mind, as everything goes through repetitively. And I thought, “Well, my space is this.” They did not hire me because there was no part for The Departed to play a part. They hired me to kick this movie in the ass, knock it sideways and put it into the realm of possibly popular.
Well, you know, this is something an actor can’t think about. I mean you know, I mean you can’t say, “I’m gonna make a hit movie.” You’re as dead as you could be. But once I get a forbidden thought, it will not go away. So I just went with it. I would be doing everything to block that thought out. But now I just let it in, because when you make a lot of movies you want them to be different.
These are all things that you’re not meant to do. Like I hate careerists, when you’re working with them. “Well, I got a little show I’m gonna do in Arizona,” all that is like I wanna kill the person. (laughter) But, you also have to accept the reality. You know, I’ve been saying for a long time, “No, it’s not that.” Anybody can be good once, twice, if they’ve got some talent. But once you have to “Un-Morgan” the part, or “Un-Jack” the part, that’s when you’re in the pro game. When you can suspend who they think you are and re-involve them in a new story. This is really our job at this point in our body of work, so to speak.
PF: What are you doing next, Jack?
JN: Don’t know— that’s what I do based on my means and position. Free times, now. I asked Richard Burton one day, because it was in my mind the first time I thought about retiring or I’m this or that. And I knew he’d been acting since he was 15. I said, “Well, Richard, how much time have you had off?” And he was in his 50s, I think. And he said, “You mean ‘off’ off?” I said, “That means am I negot—” You know, people say, “Are you working, Jack?” Well, I’ve been working on this—you know—this—is not work, it’s work. And he said, “Two months.” And I said to myself, “Well,” and I’ve done this intermittently. When I’m done, sometimes I just stop. I don’t read scripts, I don’t talk scripts, I don’t do banquets, I don’t do anything. I stop. And really, it’s about what I said before. Nobody else does it.
PF: Will you direct again?
JN: Only if somebody asks me.
PF: Are you hoping Jason Kidd comes to the Lakers?
JN: It’s all entertainment to me. (laughter) If I could influence it, I would. Certainly he’s a good ball player. But we got a much better team as they’re starting to realize that people will all now reach—change their opinions. I got a dream for them. Here’s what I know about the Lakers: we’ve got a lot of players. You know, last year you throw out—we only had our starting lineup 15 games out of 82. Just throw it out. I said this about them last year. The year before then, we would have knocked Phoenix out in the playoffs but they shot 60 percent. Don’t matter who you are. If Phoenix is gonna shoot 60 percent, goodnight. And they did it for three games in a row, that’s why they took them. But up till there, we were killing.
PF: Will we ever see the third Chinatown movie? Any chance?
JN: I don’t really know. I mean there’s certainly not— every once in a while there’s a little twitch, but there’s no strong movement about it.
PF: Is there a character you wanna revisit again? Is there another character you’d like to revisit that you’ve played?
JN: I thought about revisiting three of them as a certain unit of work. You know, ones that were unresolved. Billy Buddusky This thought came to me because Ponikson wrote a sequel to Last Detail. A lot of movies in that period where the form of the movie was— well, they just went off. And because they were all about different eras, I thought, “Here’s an actor’s trilogy.” You know, as a literary conceit, in other words. Where did Bobby DuPix from Five Easy Pieces go? Did he go to Europe and play the piano? Did he stay, what did he do? And who he was, was very typical of America at that moment. Same is true of the military guy in Last Detail. So this, to me, is always the one advantage of sequels. I got a million ideas. (laughter)
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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