Jack Nicholson: The Badass Hollywood Star

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Still, Rebecca is thirty-five, and you'll be sixty-one in April.
I'm not rationalizing my point of view. In fact, as a younger man, I thought the older-man thing was kind of unhip. I thought, "I'm not going to fool myself like this when I get to be . . . XYZ."

Did you discuss solving this onscreen with Helen Hunt?
Helen came up to my house to meet, since I hadn't – I'd never seen her television show [Mad About You] and hadn't seen Twister yet, either. And what I remember about that was just how relaxed she was. We talked about the more disconcerting things in the parts – obviously, the age disparity. We both felt that I could come down a little in age and she could come up a little and that, hopefully, it would not be a problem. I have a resistance to the cliché of the older leading man with the obligatory love interest. If I don't think a scene is right, then I'll try to get it out. But I think this relationship is very well-acted. It's really a textbook acting situation.

Hunt has a distinctive sexiness that is hard to define.
It's very real. First of all, she's not, you know, blatant about it. I think that's why she has a very strong female following. She asked me in one spot where she had to laugh in the picture to say something offscreen when we got to that point; when we got there, I just said, "Tits." And she went higher than a kite. I also wanted another ending for the picture, and she agreed. I hope Jim doesn't shoot me for saying this. When they walk to the bakery, I wanted to turn to Helen and say, "Warm rolls." And she would say, "Wet pants." Of course, they correctly censored me on that, but, I mean, she liked it. They were looking for unpredictability, and I thought that would cover it.

Isn't it unpredictable enough – or just plain risky – to play an obsessive-compulsive character like Melvin?
It doesn't feel brave when you're doing it – it just feels awfully hard. That moment when the character clicks, which usually happens the first week of a movie, never occurred here. We kept peeling it and peeling it. I'm a studio Method actor. So I was prone to give some kind of clinical presentation of the disorder. But Jim Brooks never wanted it so in front. And I can understand that. You don't make a picture, you know, to save the world. But studying the classic obsessive-compulsives was very useful. They're very good at hiding their particular disorder. This was one of the symptoms of this mental problem, and somehow, metaphorically, it helped me. I like to kind of hide the performance, just to make it different. A lot of my performance of the disease is simply not written. I might be wriggling my fingers where the cameras can't see, but it energizes what I'm doing.

And your fellow actors, too?

Greg Kinnear jokes about how he and the other actors were victimized because they'd always have to talk to the press about working with you, about JACK!
Yeah, Greg, Helen and Cuba Gooding, they're great at answering that dang question. It's like I'm this statue, like Jesus. Every time they get asked about me, I want to just shrivel up and die. It would kill me, frankly, if I felt like I was starting to grow the moo of a sacred cow. I think that might be the one thing that might stop me from working. But they were great to me. I had great collaborators, and we banded together when necessary on the picture, like actors do.

What about you and Jim Brooks? Word has it you locked horns more than once.
I have a close relationship with Jim as a friend and as a worker. I adore him. But we were having such awful difficulty early on. And, you know, I'm at a stage where I don't know what the hell I'm really doing half the time. And I just thought, "Jeez, we're having such trouble." I quietly said, "Look, Jim, if you feel like you've got to replace me, don't worry about it."

How did he react?
He laughed – he thought I was crazy. He was having the time of his life as I was broiling. You get in a place in work where you have to feel free to saying anything. It's important to the craft. And I'm more than capable of saying things that I wish I hadn't. I made one or two slips with Jim, just to vent. It never affects him. He only cares about the work, and his tank never gets empty. Sometimes you can just kind of outwork somebody. This is not going to happen with this bird. He just doesn't stop. For instance, after the first preview he called me and said, "They laughed all the way through – it's too funny." I'm thinking, "Yeah, this is a comedy, Jim." But he was right. I watched what he did: He brought the heart of the picture into focus. That's really where Jim is.

You had a funny line at the Golden Globes, telling Brooks that winning the award would buy you another ten years to –
Yeah, to misbehave. Which I hope people know I don't really mean. I hope you realize that everything my co-workers say about me is, in fact, not puffery. I am a rather serious professional man.

You really arrived as an actor in 1969, alongside Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. Now he's your main rival for the Best Actor prize at the Oscars, on March 23rd.
Fabulous news. Fabulous news. You know, he called me right after he made Ulee's Gold and said, "Please, Jack, go and see this picture, and this, that and the other thing. You'll be proud of me." And, you know, I was. Very. He did a great job.

Will it be funny to sit and look over at him, knowing you're in competition?
Yeah, yeah. You know, I've been through this gambit so often, I've got rationalizations for everything.

It wouldn't be that hard to cheer if he should win?
With Fonda winning an Oscar? I'm delighted. I'm delighted for anybody who wins an Oscar, because I'm not somebody who minimizes that, you know.

You mean you didn't play any coy games on the way to winning for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1976 and Terms of Endearment in 1984?

You'll happily walk up there again?
Yeah, of course. I mean, I don't touch the money at halftime, but should that be, I'll be delighted.

At the Golden Globes you toted up two bathroom jokes and a Jim Carrey imitation – what was goading you to do something wild?
I can't remember – it was such a blinding experience. There's something about it that makes you wacky. I don't know what the dickens it is. I guess it's just standing there, you know – all these lights going off.

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