The perennially laid-back Jack Nicholson appears even more subdued than usual. Barely a week into the new year, he's suffering from a wicked head cold and a sore throat.
"I think I picked it up from one of my kids," he explains in his oft-imitated speaking style, after taking a sip of hot tea.
Nicholson has enough clout that he could have called in sick for this interview. But for the veteran actor, the show must go on.
And so, with his trademark sunglasses folded neatly in front of him, he dutifully sits down in a small L.A. hotel meeting room surrounded by a half dozen reporters to promote a crime thriller called The Pledge. In it, he plays a dedicated police detective named Jerry Black who takes one last case on the day he retires from the force.
Unusual Plot Drew Nicholson's Attention
The Pledge is less a story about crime than a tale about the impact a vicious homicide has upon the survivors. The title refers to a vow Black makes to the victim's distraught mother to find the killer. The retired detective becomes obsessed with his promise, even if it means potentially putting those closest to him in harm's way. The crime drama — whose cast includes Benicio Del Toro, Aaron Eckhart, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard and Harry Dean Stanton — ends in a way that's atypical of Hollywood movies.
It was the story's unconventional plot that drew Nicholson to the material in the first place. "With all the detective and police films that are out there, this one is different," Nicholson says. "Whenever anything is unique or looks like it's going to be good, it's worth doing."
The Pledge is the first film Nicholson has starred in since his 1997 Academy Award-winning turn as a neurotic romance novelist in As Good As it Gets. "I took a year or so off after that because we had worked hard on [it]," explains the actor. "I like to clean my system out. When I want to work, I find the most creative situation I can."
Creative Partnership With Director Sean Penn
What also made the project attractive to the superstar was getting a chance to work again with his close friend Sean Penn, who directed and co-produced the film. The two had previously collaborated on 1995's The Crossing Guard, along with actress Robin Wright Penn, the director's Academy Award-nominated wife, who also stars in The Pledge.
"Sean and I like working together," Nicholson explains simply. "We're old friends. He's not doing blue-screen movies. This is a character-driven movie. If you don't get the character, you don't tell the story in the movie. Creatively speaking, those are the things that attract me."
Nicholson, 63, may see a younger version of himself in Penn, 40. The two acclaimed actors have larger than life personas and, some say, equally big egos. Their personal lives and romantic conquests have provided fodder for the tabloids for years. Both have enjoyed reputations as Hollywood party animals before settling down from time to time to become family men.
(Nicholson is currently dating 30-year-old actress Lara Flynn Boyle and has two young children from a previous relationship as well as two grown children. Penn has been with his second wife, Robin Wright Penn, for more than a decade — married since 1996 — and has two daughters.)