“Once I start talking, I can’t shut up,” Jack Nicholson told this writer recently in an extensive (and rare) conversation that covered everything from the Lakers to the late great John Huston.
In part one of the Nicholson interview, the icon recalled “Chinatown” and hypothesized about a conclusion to the yet-unrealized Jake Gittes trilogy. Here, in the conclusion of the conversation, the 70-year-old three-time Oscar winner talks about facing mortality in the movies (he portrays a cancer patient alongside Morgan Freeman in the upcoming “The Bucket List”) and in his own life; why he’s “furious” about Heath Ledger playing the Joker ; and responds to Francis Ford Coppola’s accusation that he, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are “living off the fat of the land.”
Nicholson was the consummate gentleman and great storyteller in our conversation. An easy laugher (and is there a more famous laugh than his?), he managed to project graciousness and that legendary Nicholson self-confidence all in one fell swoop. Near the end of our time together, he whispered almost conspiratorially, “You asked interesting things, and I’m delighted with my answers.” And why not? He’s Jack.
MTV: I can’t think of another actor who so embodies the Oscars. There’s something comforting about seeing you there every year.
Jack Nicholson: I’m somebody that’s always liked the Oscars. I always looked at them as being good for everybody. Win, lose or draw, it’s a wonderful thing. It creates debate. Of course it’s a collaborative form, so how could there possibly be such a thing as “best” in acting? There’s always somebody else in the scene.
MTV: Your close friend, Marlon Brando, had some strong opinions about that very topic.
Nicholson: As do a lot of my friends. They don’t like the competition. I’ve come to resent the fact that it takes three months of the year [to deal with the Oscars] if you’re involved. I’m a nervous wreck when I’m around any public occurrence, actually. Most times [when nominated] I felt I knew whether I was going to win or not. It’s the nights when you don’t really know that are nerve-racking. [He laughs.]
MTV: I think it would surprise many people to hear that you are nervous at the Oscars.
Nicholson: I am. I have a good time, but it’s the fact that if you’re a nominee, you may have to make a speech. That’s the thing that makes me really nervous.
MTV: “Chinatown” earned 11 nominations, including one for you as an actor. Only Robert Towne won, for his screenplay. Was that an enjoyable [Oscar] night despite all the losses?
Nicholson: [He laughs.] It wasn’t that enjoyable. I thought that was what would happen. In fact, I told ["Chinatown" producer] Robert Evans, “We’re going to get a lot of nominations. I don’t know how much we’ll win.” Of course, I feel we should have won them all, myself included. In fact, I don’t even remember who won the Oscar for actor that year. [Editor's note: Art Carney won for "Harry & Tonto."]
MTV: Your next film, “The Bucket List,” could very well have you back in the running for awards.
Nicholson: It was a difficult thing for me. I wanted to work with [director] Rob [Reiner] and Morgan, but I got a little medical issue before it, and I kind of panicked. I didn’t know if I’d have the endurance. I got crazy a little bit. [Editor's note: Nicholson was reportedly hospitalized for a gland infection in 2006.]
MTV: The film is about men facing their mortality. I’d assume those thoughts were all the more front and center for you then.
Nicholson: I won’t say that I didn’t use things that I found in my time in the clutches of medical situations. [He laughs.] For sure. I thought it was very adventurous of Rob to think about making a comedy about dying. And I like to be adventurous. It got to be a very personal film. It’s got a lot of things in it that people think about that aren’t articulated. For that reason, it’s got some good spunk to it. And of course, if you’re going to make a comedy, you better make them laugh. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I feel pretty good about it.
MTV: You didn’t become a star until your early 30s. Are you thankful that stardom didn’t come earlier?
Nicholson: I think it was an advantage to me because you get to learn. I worked in [Roger] Corman pictures. Nobody expected much from them, but you expect a lot of yourself. I look at it in every sense as an advantage. I didn’t look at it that way when I was living it. [He laughs.] In retrospect, I look at it that way.
MTV: Today it seems stardom is assigned to actors much earlier.
Nicholson: It’s a different world in every way. I don’t make lists, but there are a lot of young actors and actresses who are wonderful. The stardom part? A) you have to be good at it; b) it has to do with how people respond to you. This is an unpredictable element. You can’t force it. It’s who you are. It’s the decisions you make.
MTV: What do you think of another actor, Heath Ledger, playing the Joker in next summer’s “The Dark Knight”?
Nicholson: Let me be the way I’m not in interviews. I’m furious. I’m furious. [He laughs.] They never asked me about a sequel with the Joker. I know how to do that! Nobody ever asked me.
MTV: It was never brought up?
Nicholson: No. It’s like, in any area, you can’t believe the reasons things do or don’t happen. Not asking me how to do the sequel is that kind of thing. Maybe it’s not a mistake. Maybe it was the right thing, but to be candid, I’m furious.
MTV: I’m surprised to hear you sounding competitive about a role like that.
Nicholson: Well, the Joker comes from my childhood. That’s how I got involved with it in the first place. It’s a part I always thought I should play.
(What do you think of Jack’s controversial Joker comments? Tell us at the MTV Movies Blog!)
MTV: Will you see the new film?
Nicholson: I’m not inclined to watch it because of what I said. But if it’s a good movie, I’ll catch up with it somewhere. I don’t think they ever really captured Tim Burton’s spirit [since he stopped being involved]. They kind of drove the franchise into the ground. Tim Burton’s a genius. He had the right take on it. That’s why I did the movie. I did the movie based on a single conversation with him. We both come from the cartoon world originally. We had similar ideas. Tim said [the Joker] should have a humorous dark side to him. [Burton is] one of the great moviemakers. I think the world of him. He’s the most unassuming man. And he doesn’t feel pressure. That’s what I love about him. Once he’s in there, he’s smiling making the movie. That’s it!
MTV: Are there other characters you’ve considered revisiting in sequels over the years?
Nicholson: Yeah. Last year I thought, “There are certain unresolved characters of mine.” I’d like to do about three sequels right in a row. It was when they were talking to me about a “Last Detail” [sequel].
MTV: What were the others characters you considered revisiting?
Nicholson: Where did [Bobby Dupea] in “Five Easy Pieces” go? From my point of view, how you bracketed the time and these very American characters and what has happened with them is in a way with what has happened with America. I’m always looking for a fresh tangent to pursue. I think in theory that’s a good idea. Where did this kind of restless spirit [in "The Last Detail"] go? Did [Billy "Bad Ass" Buddusky] go to Europe? I know the story ["Last Detail" author Darryl] Ponicsan wrote, and I think he came up with a brilliant idea [in the sequel book, "Last Flag Flying"] for it. It was just that thing where people are more polemically inclined [in a book] than is most effective with a movie. “The Last Detail” is a strong anti-war statement, but the characters in it are just doing their job. And I think that’s the most effective way of approaching it.
MTV: What do you think of the spate of films this season inspired by the situation in Iraq?
Nicholson: I’m not for preaching to the choir. It’s why some older movies are embarrassing. Yes, they’re well intended, but what do they really know about anything?
MTV: Is acting as enjoyable as it always has been for you?
Nicholson: I stopped acting for a year a couple times just to make sure I knew why I was doing what I was doing. And I’m pleased to say I just like making beautiful things. You wonder about yourself sometimes. And I don’t want to self-aggrandize or blow my own horn, but that’s what I’ve found when I’m not making movies.
MTV: Clint Eastwood is talking like he won’t act again. Would you ever retire?
Nicholson: In my profession, a retirement statement is the most unnecessary statement that you could possibly make. [He laughs.] I’m very fortunate. If I get a good script tomorrow that I want to do, I’m sure I’ll be doing it. If I don’t, I won’t.
MTV: Francis Ford Coppola recently told Esquire he doubted how hungry you are for roles anymore. Did those comments upset you?
Nicholson: He called me. I’ve known Francis for a long time. I didn’t even bother making him explain it. I just told him if anybody in the world understands being burned by an interview, I do. Don’t give it a second thought. If that’s what he said, and that’s what he meant, and now he feels he said something he shouldn’t have, that’s fine by me. I’m hungry in the sense that I always was. Do I have to work? I haven’t had to for quite a long time. Am I as hungry? I don’t know that I’m as hungry, but I’m as vicious about the meal as I ever was. [He laughs.]
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