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The Bucket List - Jack Nicholson interview

Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JACK Nicholson talks about growing older in movies, the appeal of The Bucket List, working with directors such as Rob Reiner, Martin Scorsese and the late Stanley Kubrick and finding the right balance in his performances.

He also talks about the difficulty of doing comedy right, switching on the tears in movies and some of the things that might be on his own bucket list…

Q. With About Schmidt, Something’s Gotta Give and now The Bucket List you’ve played characters who have been forced to change their priorities as they’ve reached a certain age. Are casting directors trying to tell you something or have your own priorities changed as you’ve got older?
Jack Nicholson: I think the world is trying to tell me something! But your priorities do change whether it’s from character or loss of facility. I’ve never been able to figure that out. But as a successful actor I haven’t talked to a casting director for about 25 to 30 years [laughs] – you don’t have to, they just come and offer you the part.

But literature in general is pretty limited in terms of people beyond 50. There aren’t a lot of stories. I do read quite a bit and all through the ages…. when I read someone talking about a person that’s 65 in a book you’re meant to take from it that he’s an ancient person. It always makes me laugh because that’s a young guy to me right now. I sort of had a chance to fail for a long time as an actor. And one of the things that I did was that I never wanted to get trapped trying to repeat a success. It’s the death of an actor.

It happens to a lot of actors where they do something and then somebody wants them to do a similar thing again. But once you do it the third time, you’re trapped. So right from the beginning… With Easy Rider, the character was older than I was really; and in the next picture I would drop back, then go older and drop back because I think for most of my working career people didn’t have too much of a sense of exactly how old I was. Now, you can’t drop all the way back to 35 anymore.

I remember when I first started getting this question, I said: “No, I’ll tell you, I always look for a vacuum to fill [in order] to break conventional wisdom.” So here’s what I noticed. I wanted to bring sexuality to middle age characters because with the attitude to “father knows best” [in movies] I don’t know how they thought all those children came into being. They never took their pants off! So that’s the only thing I did in terms of conscious thinking about shaping [my career]. I thought that was an area where there was a lot of room to move in – bringing sexuality to those types of characters.

It was the original thing that I talked to Martin Scorsese about on The Departed – you know, let’s give this character a sexuality. Of course, I might have overdone it there [laughs] – but I don’t think so. Incidentally, I also knew there was a famous gangster there and sometimes I feel that limits a performance. So, I deferred all questions about this gangster and I did no research about him. My design for the character was a king gone mad, which was why there was all the leopard skin and all that business. But after a while I found that there was nothing in any research about this kind of sexual madness and I found that I’d made a pretty accurate projection about the guy.

Q. What appealed to you about The Bucket List?
Jack Nicholson: What I liked about it was the poles. You go all the way from being slapstick to that pretty straight eulogy for Morgan [Freeman]. And that’s one of the challenges: we always talk about balance. I’ve done dramatic scenes in comedies before where we’ve just had to take it down because it’s never recovered from it. I was snot all over the wall in As Good As It Gets [laughs], so I was told to take it down a little bit because it didn’t fit. But it did fit here.

Q. The film is marvellous because it makes it very clear how important it is to find joy in your life. Can you tell us how you went about finding the personal joy in your life and what it was?
Jack Nicholson: It’s difficult for people sometimes to recognise when they’re happy. People sometimes seem to me to be afraid to be happy. I think the kind of life I’ve led that every day – so long as there’s not overwhelming tragedy in it – you have some joy. It’s not always about you. I mean I took particular joy in the faces of all the pundits who predicted that Hilary Clinton was dead in New Hampshire. Watching them scurry gave me unanimous glee [laughs]. But it comes from a lot of angles. I saw my daughter in a play just before I left. I snuck up behind Dennis Hopper to scare him and he turned around and he’d just see his son playing Lenin in a play with an axe in the middle of his head. So, it comes from a lot of different places. I mean I’m happy that I’m alive when I wake up in the morning. After that it’s horrible for a few hours, which we’re still inside of!

Q. You seem to enjoy a great chemistry on-screen but your characters are completely different from who you both are off-screen. How did you go about creating that chemistry? Was it by working against each other?
Jack Nicholson: I have a personal maxim that I always use, which is to assume the other actor is perfect while I’m working with them. If you don’t, you won’t be immediate – and the object is to be immediate. Sometimes I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in editing but I think the particular performance I do best in editing is to improve the performances of all the other characters – just in terms of timing and tuning it up. If you’ve done it for any amount of time, the better everybody is, the better you are. There’s no doubt about that.

Q. Rob Reiner has mentioned you did three takes at the most. But you’ve also worked with Stanley Kubrick [on The Shining], who was known for doing many. Which do you prefer?
Jack Nicholson: For me, I like to do every take a little bit different. As I told Stanley: “If you think [take] 100 is it, believe me 101 will be better!” But that was just to psych him out, actually. But one of the problems is that a director can fall in love with that process, so I sometimes in the 20s almost have to do an intentionally bad take otherwise they’ll never stop! Rob went so fast on this and it was fine. I liked it because I had a bit of an energy problem before we started. I’d been in the hospital before, so on the one hand I was very glad not to be in the grinder so to speak, but on the other hand it was like one take – maybe we should do it again. But you sense what Rob is doing. Very early, I sensed that I wasn’t going to get much pyrotechnical help from the camerawork because this was a two-hander. It was going to be on me, so there was a simplicity to it. When you’re just sitting or lying there, an actor knows that you’re going to have to come up with a performance.

But I think that’s one of the virtues of this picture: it’s not pyrotechnics… the script is very subtle. When you do something subtle, people don’t always notice it. I thought that Nancy Meyers’ script for Something’s Gotta Give was by far the best script in terms of reading it and saying: “My God, a moron could play this part….” She’s on the committee at the writers’ guild but she got absolutely no attention for that. I read a lot of scripts and eventually they can become a good script but most of them get re-written and re-written and then worked on in the morning and all that. But when I read that script I said: “Gee, I’d love to be intelligent but there’s not much to criticise in this script…” So, simplicity is often overlooked.

Q. We haven’t often seen you cry in films. How difficult was it to find that emotion?
Jack Nicholson: It just took off on me, to be honest with you. I got a good break there. Sometimes when you shoot so far out of continuity it can be difficult. But this was shot at the beginning and it was one of the scenes that I worried about how I was going to play. I was standing there and just looking at the pictures of a young Morgan and on take two I just went off. So, it was a lucky break because I didn’t have to worry about it anymore for the whole length of the production. I think we even took it back a little bit [smiles].

Q. Do you subscribe to the view that comedy is one of the hardest things to do?
Jack Nicholson: Well, I just watched Morgan and it looked pretty easy for him to do. But yes, comedy is much more difficult frankly. With comedy, you have to do it right. In a drama, there’s a lot of different ways to succeed in a moment. But comedy comes from reality. You can’t try to be funny. Rob [Reiner] and other directors I’ve worked with are professional humourists. I’m not. I’m a funny person but if you said to me, “be funny”, I’d be at a loss.

Q. If you had to make a list of three things you’d like to do before you die, what would be on it?
Jack Nicholson: I don’t make lists. Some of the things came relatively late in life. I wanted to live long enough to see the children graduate, go to high school and stuff like that. I always wanted to speak another language, learn how to cook, stuff like that.

Q. Have you managed to learn how to cook?
Jack Nicholson: Well, I was a short order. I worked professionally as a cook but that was hotdogs, hamburgers and so forth [laughs]. But I still have to learn I think. I had one experience with a woman on a very long counter in New Jersey. She came in and said: “I would like pancakes…” I didn’t get a lot of orders for pancakes, so I made it and they came out this high [gestures]. But I tried to sneak them by her and she looked at it and said: “What is this?” So I went like this [swiping them away with a gesture]: “Make your own goddam pancakes!” It’s my leading failure as a cook.

Read our review of The Bucket List

Read our interview with Morgan Freeman