It hardly seems possible that after decades of making films, Jack Nicholson has found a role that's substantially different from his previous work. In "About Schmidt," Nicholson stars as Warren Schmidt, a mild-mannered older gentleman who is reluctantly stepping into retirement. At the same time as he's left jobless, his wife of 42 years passes away and his daughter, who lives hundreds of miles away, is planning her wedding to a waterbed salesman. With nothing else to fill up his empty days, Warren sets out on journey of self-discovery across America that culminates with a tumultous meeting with his future in-laws.
Producers Harry Gittes and Michael Besman had envisioned Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt from the beginning. "I liked it immediately for Jack," says Gittes, who had produced "Goin' South" for Nicholson. "'About Schmidt' is all about human behavior, and human behavior is what Jack Nicholson is all about."
JACK NICHOLSON ('Warren Schmidt')
Did you identify with this character?
Yes, I did. I looked at him as the man that I might have become if I wasn't lucky enough to wind up in show business. In the sense that he's sedentary, I had a mathematical background and he's an actuary. It's a slight stretch of the imagination but most people are alike in most ways so I've never had any trouble identifying with the character that I'm playing. The retirement issues, what happens when the normal activities of your job no longer drive your day, your loved ones move away from you, and your children get older. My daughter Jennifer has a clothing shop she's opening and she's in her own business now so I don't get to talk to her as much as I did a year or so ago. Those kinds of things, so there's always a lot to identify with. What I liked about the original book was that this guy has some very tough ideas of his own.
Warren believes he has had no impact on the world. How could you identify with that knowing you've had so much impact on the world?
Well, I didn't identify with that part. I think I could understand it. I've certainly had as much time as anyone has in their life feeling forted. You're not always identified the way in which you'd like to be identified so that's also partially true. I also have a lot of contact with people in my life and they want to be seen. There are whole fields of psychology based on the fact that people want to be seen in a conversation. They want, "What about me and what I think about this?" You try and tap into things that are generally felt if you're in the communications art which, I flatter myself, I guess that's our field. I never thought about it in that way anyway, but I understood that part of the character.
Are you considering retirement?
I've been asked that a lot. I'm pretty precocious as a person. I started thinking about that before "The Two Jakes" was written. I think what Alexander (Payne) and Jim (Taylor) did with the script is that they found a man who was living a kind of two-sided life. He deals with the facts and he's an actuary and, pretty much, that dominated his life. Then in the course of this movie, everything is systematically taken away from him: his daughter is going away, he feels the distance there, his job is now over, [and] he sees that he's immediately replaced by another way of doing it. As he travels so are, one by one, his illusions in life. He's talking to American Indians, he observes a fine collection, Buffalo Bill and the fine arts of carny, and you see that somehow whether he's diluted or not there is a center to the man. There is something left. I don't think the film says what will be the result of that, but the gradual taking away of the things that have supported him through his life gets him down to his basic essence and there's old N'dugu sitting there.
The film deals with family relationships. Do you see yourself ever getting married again?
I never had a policy about marriage. I got married very young in life and I always think in all relationships, I've always thought that it's counterproductive to have a theory on that. It's hard enough to get to know yourself and as most of you have probably found, once you get to know two people in tandem it's even more difficult. If it's going to be successful, it's going to have to be very specific and real and immediate so the more ideas you have about it before you start, it seems to me the less likely you are to be successful.
The movie poster isn't the most flattering photo of you. What goes through your mind when you see this unshaven gray haired guy?
It's sort of like what I go through when I look in the mirror every morning, although I do stand kind of sideways. I like that. Our production team fought very hard to get that as the one sheet. I think it speaks for the man. It's a photograph I actually staged with the still photographer. I didn't know it would end up as the one sheet but those are signboards. If it caught your attention… We're all here to get people to see this very fine movie that Alexander Payne made and that's just the juncture of it. You hope it all adds up. In reality, everything is to try and get people to see the work that you've invested in.
Can you talk about working with Meryl Streep?
I can tell you the most immediate experience I had with Meryl. She did an "Oprah" show in which she called me that "Lovable Old Wreck" because she was mad at me from something in another article where I had talked about a genetic innate sweet spot of male-female attraction and the age group and all this - and something that's always too long to fit into an article. So I had to call Meryl up on the phone and straighten that out because I care what she thinks. She's a real smart person and working with her is a dream. A lot of people admire her from the outside because she does wonderful work but when you're in there working with her, it's like dancing with a partner where you don't have to do anything with it. You just get carried along and fascinated by it. She's an extremely substantial human being. I had the pleasure of sitting next to her kids - and I even worked with one of her kids in a movie - but they were very impressive people. I sat next to them at a Neil Young concert and they're wonderful. One of the best things she said in the interview was [when] they said, "You're the gold standard and you're Meryl," and she said, "Why would you think that makes it any easier for me? Why would I let that settle on me?" I like that. Meryl's a toughie.
But the same can be said of you. You're the gold standard.
Well I don't think so. I've managed to keep out from under that particular mantle. Meryl's smart but I'm maybe a little smarter.
There's a lot of Oscar buzz over your performance in this movie. What do you think of the Oscar talk? Do you think people understand this movie?
I'm always shielded from all negative response. The thing that I've most repeated in the press section of the job is that what I like about Alex is that he sees these things. He does think it's kind of weird that somebody's proud that his daughter speaks a little German and all the things in the picture. My feeling about Alex is that there is not a mean bone in his body. He sees it, but I always hear him after he makes the observation kind of chuckling and saying, "God love him." He sees it but I don't think he's mean about it. What better balance could you have as an artist?
And the Oscar talk?
I'm pulling for (Kathy) Bates and Alex's partner Jim. There is a beautiful ensemble supporting cast and I'm trying to make sure they don't get overlooked. We're all interested in people seeing the picture and that's the deal. When you do a movie that's not pandering to what you imagine people want to see at this given moment in life, that's the real chances you take in making a movie and I think this group has stuck their neck out a little bit. From my side of the dial, you can think, "Is subtlety and humanity suddenly a bad word in the movie business?" I don't know. Nobody is blowing up or ramming their car into the super market. I'll do that movie next. Nonetheless, this one is about humanity. This is a human movie, human problems, human aspirations, human frailties. If I wasn't in it myself I would say it is quite beautiful.
Are your tears in the final shot tears of relief because he realizes he's finally made a difference or feelings of grief because he realizes how alone he is?
All good work leaves those kinds of questions. I can tell you my feelings that it's the positive side of it, but that's my editorial view. That's like arrowheads to me. In other words, somebody who thinks I've sent into the Child Reach's of the world, and I don't want to minimize their efforts, but to me it's the guy who thinks that's it. That's my idea of sardonic humor so I'm definitely playing that he really believes that here is somebody where I've connected and made an understanding and a contribution and hallelujah to him. You take it where you can get it.
The only direction that I really got in the takes we did on that scene was don't really smile too much at the end. That was consistent pretty much with the way Alexander guided us in the movie. There's no pushing in the movie. When you make 'em, you hope there's still a strong sense of sensibility that responds to command, poise, and trust in the audience. You can't say this in a boardroom in Hollywood because you'll be immediately dismissed, but now we're in Omaha and let's try and do it right. There's nobody better than Alex and his very fine producer.
When are we going to see you have an age appropriate romance on screen? You come close in this one but then he runs away.
I gotta sense your power with how honest an answer I give you. I don't remember anyone complaining about any of my male-female relationships in the movies. That's my job not to qualify the ages. People play lizards and blobs. If you can't play 45 when you're 40 or 50, then what are we really talking about? It's an interesting media question. One of the admirable things about "About Schmidt" is that all you have to do is show that picture. Here is a woman my age and for the most part, that's what people do in life. The thing to comment on there is the uniqueness of the image. I don't think it so much comments on what I've done before or what's gone on before but rather what's done here. I think it happens to be a really strong benchmark visual. It's one of those pictures that says 1,000 words. You just see it and that's the reality of life.
How would you like to be seen?
Very endearing, charming, intelligent and handsome. So forth...
Are there any misconceptions you want to clear up?
Yeah. I'm not hard to get along with.
Can you talk about filming the big 'meeting the family' scene?
That's the thing about film editing. When I work I get a lot of reactions and I think that's what film acting is. If you were just doing that scene in one, you would hope that you arrive where it's masterfully edited to. He's confronted with, "Oh my God, everybody's slurping their food [and] they're talking about some crazy business deal." He's just kind of stunned. He doesn't know. It's another thing that's taken away from him. If he ever thought this was going to be alright, then I'd call that scene "The Last Supper."
There is talk there will be a sequel to "Easy Rider." Do you have any feelings on that and do you have a favorite memory from the original?
I don't have any feelings on that because I'm dead. We had a pretty wild time on that movie. It was pretty wild.
Is it hard to keep finding challenging work?
Age is the first limitation on roles that I've ever had to encounter, and I hit that awhile ago. That's more about the writing and there are no third acts in American literature. The writing is limited in a certain way to topics, but not that limited if you want to find it. There are always cosmetic approaches. The people that make movies change that. There's a project going on right now that I turned down because I thought I had it with "Hoffa," I don't want to be wearing wigs and pulling this and that to play an age difference in the thing. If I wasn't busy I would have considered it again because with all the new techniques, you don't have to do it with makeup. In other words, you can now do it with post-production. It's a new squeeze at movies and I might have considered that project. I hate the idea of that but I might have looked into it just because it feels adventurous. Yes, there are always challenges.
Would you ever have plastic surgery?
No, I wouldn't think about it and naturally I haven't. I'm an actor who they said was wrinkled and balding and everything else when I was in my early 30's. Most of the people who wrote that who thought they were younger than me are now bald and wrinkled. I don't have any plugs or tucks but people do what they want. I look at it as mutilation.
Was this film a chance to play with your public image?
My public image isn't much about how I determine roles. I've always felt this way as a director that almost anyone can give a good or representative performance when you're unknown. It's just easier. The real pro game of acting is after you're known to "Un-Jack" the character in my case and to get the audience to re-invest in a new and specific fictional person. In that sense I do take it into account. The early middle part, directors a little bit feared "Jackisms" and they wanted to make sure I didn't do this and that. It was an unnecessary fear but I did understand it. It's part of the craft. You really have to, in order to keep growing as an actor, you have to learn the devices that keep you from just relying on what works for you. At a press conference it's alright if I get nervous and I might know where there's a laugh or an easy answer that's going to be entertaining. In the job you've got to be that person in that situation and get to the conflict.
You're working on an Adam Sandler film called "Anger Management." Was it something he wrote for you?
I don't know that they wrote it specifically for me or not, but he brought the idea to me. I knew him only very slightly. I knew his work and was interested in it and then I wrote it for me. I'm only kidding.
Was the Adam Sandler film fun?
Yeah. I did it to learn something about the kind of comedy they do. I learned a lot.
Are you still able to learn?
The minute that you're not learning I believe you're dead.