Jack Nicholson reteams with pal Sean Penn

Nicholson reteams with pal Sean Penn


Sunday, January 21, 2001

By Rebecca Redshaw

LOS ANGELES — Sitting around a small table with a handful of journalists, Jack Nicholson acts nothing like a movie star. Dressed casually in a loden green polo shirt and nondescript sport coat, his hair is longer than the crewcut he sported in his new movie, “The Pledge,” and the thin mustache is gone. But the distinctive voice and impish smile frequently rekindle memories from any number of the 54 movies he’s made over a four-decade career.
The actor never says to call him “Jack,” but it seems the natural thing to do as he sips herbal tea and talks about his career in general and specifically about his latest movie, which is directed by Sean Penn and opened nationwide Friday.

When he approaches new work these days, Nicholson tries for an edge, some different angle. “What I’m thinking of in my work now is, ‘Is it enough to make a consciously conceived picture and do it well?’ I know it used to be.”

Reflecting on the past year’s crop of movies — many of which emphasized special effects and gimmicks — Nicholson says there’s nothing wrong with that. But “The Pledge,” he pledges, is different.

“This story is character-driven. A lot is told by inference as opposed to directly stating the obvious. It’s more the way Spencer Tracy acted.”

Nicholson’s reference to Tracy may seem surprising at first blush, but it’s a good analogy. Their respective careers are not as dissimilar as one might imagine, and it’s as easy to spot a “Nicholson picture” as a “Tracy picture.” On screen, both give the appearance of effortlessness in their work.

In “The Pledge,” Nicholson’s portrayal of newly retired homicide director Jerry Black couldn’t be more unlike his Oscar-winning role in “As Good As It Gets.” As Black, Nicholson struggles with what his purpose in life will be post-career. Conscious of the stereotypical view of policemen as being inured to violence, he takes a different, sensitive approach.

“I always include myself proportionately, and this time it’s less of a characterization and more of myself. This detective is true to who I am in the sense that he hides everything,” Nicholson says.

Why would the Oscar-winning actor want to hide anything?

“I like to promote interest,” he says, flashing the classic Nicholson grin.

The personal relationship between Penn and Nicholson contributed to the team spirit of this production. Having worked together previously on “The Crossing Guard,” Penn says it became “more and more a partnership with this movie. Jack had great editing-room ideas.”

The Nicholson name, along with Penn’s, helped draw an incredible cast of actors to sign on for brief, but integral roles. Mickey Rourke, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Harry Dean Stanton, Sam Shepard, plus comparative newcomers Benicio Del Toro and Aaron Eckhart, made going to work every day exciting for the film’s male lead.

In spite of his high regard for the abilities of co-star Robin Wright Penn, Nicholson had some reservations about the believability of his onscreen relationship with the younger woman.

“I don’t like obligatory love scenes [in the movies]. I see it and think, ‘That’s how they got this old dude to do this movie.’ But then we shot that scene, and what ended up in the film really came out of the characters.”

Wright Penn credits Nicholson with keeping their onscreen relationship real. “Jack is a professional. He’s there 100 percent on and off camera, concerned if he’s giving enough or if there’s anything he should be doing differently. He’s such a normal ‘Joe,’ a very sweet man, very sensitive.”
This seldom-seen side of the actor is what director Penn finds most intriguing. “Gentleness is my favorite part of him, plus he knows what to do with that.”

One of the more touching moments in “The Pledge” is when Nicholson’s character reads bedtime stories to Wright Penn’s young daughter.

But those gentle moments are rare in this psychological drama/thriller, and Nicholson’s character has a slippery grasp on reality, reminiscent of other roles he’s played.

Did he tap his own life experiences in this portrait of a man on the edge?

“I have a very strong grasp on myself in that sense. Have I ever thought I was going crazy over one thing or another? Have I been in anguish? Yes. But I’ve been around that all my life,” Nicholson says.

“I taught an acting class to schizophrenics, which was very interesting. More than interesting. Later, I even hired one of them for a picture.”

When asked if he paid him double, Nicholson couldn’t resist the perfectly timed response: “I’m not crazy.”

A private person — well, except for that prominent courtside seat at Lakers games — the star is less unlikely to court attention.

“I’ve never had a press agent, so I don’t have anything to do with my public image,” he says. “Frankly, anytime I’m that exposed in public, I more or less look at it as part of the job. You have to face what’s real. It’s not whether it’s horrible or wonderful.”

Clearly, Nicholson takes all the trappings that go with fame in stride.

“Back in Roman times, when I became an actor, you didn’t have ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and this tremendous need to fill up product and space and everything else nobody could have anticipated. All that goes with being an actor now.”

With three Academy Awards atop his bookcase at home and 11 nominations, Nicholson acknowledges the Oscar process is overwhelming. But he tries to maintain the original spirit of the awards, recognition by his peers.

As for the future, Nicholson would like to direct again but says he’s a bit off schedule of his master plan. He found working with Penn, another accomplished actor, an advantage.

“I think if you talk the talk, it’s gotta help a little bit,” Nicholson says. “He attracts all these wonderful people, ’cause they know he’s a great actor and he knows how to help them.”

Asked if he would consider retiring, like his character in “The Pledge,” he pauses, then says, “Not in the official sense. I might stop.”

There’s just enough hidden meaning in his answer to promote interest.