If there's one person in Hollywood who needs no introduction, it's veritable icon Jack Nicholson.
In his new film About Schmidt (opening Dec. 20), the 65-year-old actor plays Warren Schmidt, a malcontent retiree and widower who embarks on a journey of self-discovery -- literally, while en route to his distant daughter's wedding, as well as figuratively, as the unlikely penpal of an underprivileged African orphan. Less edgy and more wistful than either of writer/director Alexander Payne's previous efforts (Election, Citizen Ruth), the new film co-stars Kathy Bates, Dermot Mulroney and Hope Davis.
Battling a cold and looking a tad groggy, Nicholson nevertheless loses the trademark shades and rolls up his sleeves to begin a recent interview.
Creative Loafing: On what level did you identify with this character? It seems he's a man who believes he has made no real or lasting impact on the world, but clearly you've made quite an impression in your own life and career.
Jack Nicholson: Well, I might not have identified with that particular aspect of the character, but I think I can understand it. I mean, like anybody else, I've certainly had times in my life where I've felt thwarted or dejected. I never have any trouble identifying with the characters I'm playing. In this case, I sort of looked at Warren Schmidt as the man I might've become if I hadn't been lucky enough to wind up in show business, you know? He's dealing with the kinds of issues that are always easy to identify with -- what happens when your loved ones die or move away, or when the normal activities of your job no longer drive your day. [He grins.] The other thing is, Warren comes to realize that you're not always identified by other people in the way you'd necessarily like to be identified, and God knows I could relate to that.
How would you like to be seen?
Naturally, as someone who's very charming and endearing and handsome and intelligent. [He grins.] Is that asking for so much?
This movie doesn't always show you in the most flattering light. What do you think of the poster and ads for the film, with this slovenly image of Warren Schmidt staring straight back at you?
Hey, it's sort of like what I go through when I look in the bathroom mirror every morning -- although I have to admit I'm more prone to stare at myself sideways. I'm always trying to find a better angle, you know? [He grins.] No, I actually like the one-sheet. I think it definitely speaks for the man and who he is.
Talk a little about the last scene in the film. Is Schmidt shedding tears of joy about finally making a difference in the world, or tears of regret that he hasn't?
All good work leaves you with those kinds of questions. I like that sort of ambiguity. I can tell you that my own personal feelings were definitely on the positive side of it. The only direction I got from Alexander in that scene was: "Don't smile too much." [He pauses.] Come to think of it, that was pretty much consistent with the way he guided the whole film. There's no pushing in this movie, you know? You hope there's a strong sensibility, a certain command or poise, but then you just have to trust the audience. That's why it was so great to be working on location in [Payne's native] Omaha. We didn't have a bunch of studio people breathing down our necks. This is the type of story that would be immediately dismissed in a Hollywood boardroom. There's a subtlety and humanity about this movie. It's about human frailties and aspirations. No one's blowing up or crashing their cars into the supermarket. [He grins.] That'll probably be my next movie.
As you get older, is it harder to keep finding challenging work?
No, I wouldn't say that. I mean, age is the first limitation on roles I've ever had to encounter in my career, but I hit that a while ago, you know? It's really about the writing. I suppose it's limited in a way to certain topics, but good scripts are out there if you really want to find them. There are always cosmetic approaches, wearing wigs or makeup and pulling this or stretching that in order to play an age difference, but I've pretty much had it with those [Hoffa] types of projects.
Have you ever considered plastic surgery?
Never. I'm an actor who they said was wrinkled and bald and everything else when I was still in my early 30s, you know? I mean, look at me. As you can see, I don't have any plugs or nips or tucks. Other people can do what they want, but I've always looked on that as a sort of mutilation.
You have such a prominent public image. Did this character offer you a chance to tweak that a little? How much of a role does that image play in your work, and how much control do you have over it?
The image or whatever doesn't have much to do with determining the roles I play, but I've always said that almost anyone can give a good, convincing, representative performance when they're unknown. It's just easier. The real trick to acting is after you are known, in my case to un-Jack the character and get the audience to reinvest in a new and specific fictional character. In that sense, I do take my public image into account. If you want to keep growing as an actor, part of the craft is learning not to just rely on those devices you already know will work for you.