BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—“Big Jack,” as Jack Nicholson calls his mischievous, Cheshire Cat-grinning, eyebrow-raising, L.A. Lakers-cheering public alter-ego, is sitting on the coffee table in the form of a pair of sunglasses and a pack of smokes.
Stripped of his props, regular Jack rests comfortably on a sofa in a suite at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, waxing eloquent in a soft, but hoarse voice on the craft of acting.
The Bucket List
Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow
US theatrical: 25 Dec 2007 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 8 Feb 2008 (General release)
The two Jacks rarely occupy the same space and time, although Nicholson admits that he is not above bringing Big Jack to the set when the situation calls for it, as it did in his new movie “The Bucket List.”
In the Rob Reiner-directed film, which opened Christmas Day in New York and Los Angeles and will expand to other theaters Jan. 11, Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play two complete opposites who meet in the cancer ward of a hospital, discover that they share a date with mortality and begin compiling a list of things they want to do, see and experience before they kick the bucket.
While Freeman’s character is a quiet, gentle soul, Nicholson plays an arrogant, self-centered, fast-living billionaire, and the three-time Oscar-winner knew exactly where to turn for inspiration—Big Jack.
“It’s OK to let Big Jack leak into certain performances, like “A Few Good Men,” “The Departed” or this one,” he explained. `When you’re playing someone bigger than life, a little Big Jack goes a long way.
“But the pro game is not about that. It’s about un-Jacking the part. You have to subvert Jack. Once the audience thinks they know who you are, you have to go in another direction.
“Acting is not about denying anything,” he added. “It is about including everything. You need to shape your character as much as you can. Sometimes that means you need Jack, and sometimes you need un-Jack.”
Nicholson lives this dual existence off the set as well. He says he has no problem living as Big Jack in public, but reality tends to set in once the spotlight is turned off.
“I’m not nearly as social or gadabout at 70 as I was at 60, but that’s the nature of life. But I’m still decent in a conversation or at an event, so I’m still having fun as Big Jack. The meaning of fun changes as you get older.”
What wasn’t fun was a recent health problem (an infected saliva gland) that required surgery and forced Nicholson to accept eight weeks of bed rest.
“It was by no means life-threatening, and I’m not trying to make more of it than it deserves, but I was concerned. I’m a very active person and lying in a bed for eight weeks sapped my physical energy. My legs still aren’t there. I measure my progress by how tired I am on the walk from my car to my seat at the Lakers games.”
Like any good actor, Nicholson used the experience to shape his character in “The Bucket List.”
“Jack is just like his character in the movie in that he has never really been sick in his life and has never been in a hospital before,” Reiner said. “Some of the lines in the movie were improvised by Jack because he and the character had some of the same experiences.”
Reiner, who worked previously with Nicholson on “A Few Good Men,” said the actor never lets Big Jack get in the way of the creative process.
“Look, Jack understands what people’s perceptions of him are, and he makes the most of it. But it’s not put on. He really is that guy. The secret to Jack is that he lives life on his own terms. He has managed to get through life without compromising.
“He’s comfortable as Big Jack, but he’s even more comfortable when he parks Big Jack at the door and starts to work. He is a full-on artist in every sense of the word. He approaches his work as an artist. He obsesses over the work.”
Jack Nicholson grew up John Joseph Nicholson in New Jersey, and was raised by a woman he thought was his mother. It wasn’t until he was 37 that he learned that the woman who raised him was actually his grandmother, and that woman he thought was his older sister, June, was really his birth mother. His father had abandoned the family when he was a child.
After high school, he moved to Los Angeles and landed a movie studio job as a production assistant. He enjoyed seeing the movie stars walking around the lot, and decided to give acting a try.
He appeared in 19 films, mostly “B” movies such as “The Cry Baby Killer,” “The Wild Ride” and “Hells Angels on Wheels,” before striking gold on number 20 in 1969.
That film, “Easy Rider,” not only made him a star but brought him the first of 12 Oscar nominations. He would be nominated again for “Five Easy Pieces,” and then finally win his first Academy Award for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He would win a second gold statuette for “Terms of Endearment” and a third for “As Good As It Gets.”
But even when he wasn’t winning Oscars, he was creating cinematic history in films such as “Chinatown,” “The Shining” and “Prizzi’s Honor.”
He married actress Sandra Knight, but the marriage lasted only six years. They had a child together. Nicholson had another child with actress Susan Anspach, and a third child with actress Rebecca Broussard. News of Broussard’s pregnancy broke up a 16-year relationship the actor had with Angelica Huston.
Despite the sordid details of these relationships, and rumors of a wild life high above Los Angeles in his estate, Nicholson has managed to deftly avoid the condemnation that normally attaches itself to such a lifestyle.
Nicholson theorizes that it is not luck, but caution that has led to his charmed existence.
“Everything has changed since AIDS, but the 1960s and ‘70s were a wild time,” he said, flashing just a hint of a Big Jack smile. “And I was there for every glorious moment.”
Nicholson freely admitted to experimenting with drug during those wild times, but it might come as a surprise to learn that he is not the big drinker that most people assume.
“What I always liked about grass is that its mantra is to maintain,” he said. “The point of smoking grass is to see how much you can keep it together. There is a big difference between that and what happens when you drink.
“Now, I am not a teetotaler, but I rarely drink except in social situations. The reason I don’t drink is that I find it hard to maintain once I hit that third drink. Once I’ve had that third drink, I think I’m the greatest guy alive. So I’m careful not to drink too much because I always like to be in control. I like to maintain, in life and in my work.
“I can’t tell you how many bartenders I’ve had to grab by the lapel and say: “Look, give me a very big glass with a lot of ice and a small amount of bourbon.”
“They see Big Jack and they want to give Big Jack that extra shot of bourbon. But you can’t be Big Jack all the time.”
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