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Holiday Sneaks

Riffs on life, in the key of Jack

The star of 'About Schmidt' expounds on the twists and turns of growing older. And, oh, the director has a thing or two to say too.

November 03, 2002|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

Jack Nicholson inhales a steady stream of cigarettes as if fumigating his brain, and runs his hands through what remains of his hair, giving the longish salt-and-pepper locks a vaguely "Shining" air. Dressed in khakis and a blue sweatshirt, the 65-year-old star is settled into a velvety leopard-skin-print chair (Jack's apparent equivalent of the Barcalounger) in his longtime lair high atop Mulholland Drive. He's been in this unpretentious womb-like ranch house for 30 years, and Picassos and Bacons compete for attention with jumbles of pictures of his kids and friends.

Across from him is Alexander Payne, the Omaha native who so memorably co-wrote and directed the satires "Citizen Ruth," "Election" and the upcoming film "About Schmidt," in which Nicholson plays the title character. At 41, Payne resembles a schoolboy in gray pants, a navy pullover and a pristine white shirt.

This interview is supposed to be a two-hander, but Nicholson has the gravitational pull of Jupiter, and Payne, who describes himself as "laconic," sits back and lets his star indulge his merry instinct to entertain. Nicholson approaches conversation like a gourmand -- each juicy tidbit, anecdote and Jack-ism presented as a delicious idiosyncratic morsel, in what turns out to be a banquet touching on everything from Winston Churchill to his all-time favorite bad movies -- one of which, "Serpent of the Nile" (1953)he incongruously leaps up to act out.

His patter, delivered in his idiosyncratic inflections of irony and delight, brings back all the messy inquisitiveness of the '70s.

The effect of the 90-minute discussion is not unlike the film they're here to talk about, in which a gray-faced, tubby Nicholson dominates the screen in what seems destined to be another Oscar-nominated performance. Yet his paunchy pyrotechnics wouldn't be possible without the dryly witty, self-effacing world so tightly constructed by Payne. Nicholson might be the match, but he's been ignited in pure oxygen.

The film is a satire about a 67-year-old former insurance actuary who discovers that his life has no meaning. The newly retired and widowed Schmidt tools aimlessly around the cows and the Dairy Queens of the Midwest in a super-sized Winnebago. He visits childhood haunts and local sites of dubious interest, and ultimately ends up at the wedding of his churlish daughter, who's marrying a pea-brain waterbed salesman he disdains. His only hope for intimacy lies in the long, heartfelt letters he writes to Ngudu, an illiterate African orphan whom he's "adopted" for $22 a month through a TV charity.

The movie is ostensibly based on the novel by Louis Begley, though it derives most of its thrust from an original script co-written by Payne (and Jim Taylor) about a decade ago, as he was emerging from UCLA film school. "This was supposed to be my first feature," says Payne. "Somehow a guy retiring in a crisis, kind of like Benjamin Braddock in 'The Graduate,' but different and in Omaha."

It's a comedy about obliviousness. "If I wanted to key in what this piece is about," says Nicholson, laughing, "a guy goes to his best friend having discovered that his friend had an affair with his wife some long while ago, and at first his best friend doesn't remember. That's key to know."

You announced at the Cannes Film Festival that this was your least vain performance.

Nicholson: I didn't hide any of the real things about me. After all, I'm actually this age. The comb-over was my original piece of inspiration.

Do you usually hide things about how you look?

Nicholson: Yes, of course you do. It's not necessarily hiding. It's more shaping. All of these things you learn intuitively about the graphic image of the big silver. Early on, I used to say you have to understand when you smile, it's eight Buicks in a drive-in theater. All the adjectives that deal with shaping -- look sharp, thin, wise, chiseled -- I just didn't do that. It's challenging to your vanity.

What was the hardest to give up?

Nicholson: [He sinks low in his chair in a slouch that gives him the appearance of a double chin.] Not to worry when you're sitting in a chair or low angle.. I can't tell you how many offstage discussions I've watched about how do we shoot the couple flat in the bed without either propping them up or shooting up their noses.

Payne: You talked about the process you were taught. I don't know if it was Jeff Corey [Nicholson's acting teacher] who said it, "When an actor takes on a part, he or she should feel free to assume they have 85% in common with them."

Nicholson: Not "in common" -- synonymous. Man, woman or child, 85% of you is exactly like the character you're playing, and isolating the other 15% and deciding how to act it is beginning the analysis. And the 85% that is you is the main element of all acting -- which is relaxation so you're not overwhelmed by the tension and pressure of acting.

Payne: It's very liberating.

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