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.)
Professionally, both are unafraid to take roles their agents and advisers might suggest steering clear of. And both have tackled directing, producing and writing. "Having worked with [Penn] before, I've watched how he has evolved as a director," Nicholson says. "You kind of let yourself go when you know that audience of one man, the director, has very fine taste. A lot of times, directors don't really know how to talk to actors exactly. When Sean gives a direction, it's very, very specific and precise. He's got great eyes. I don't worry about anything when I'm working with Sean. Nobody's going to rush us. Nobody's going to say you can't do that. We're going to do it as well as we can."
Proud of His Body of Work
In The Pledge, Nicholson's character tries to explain to his former boss why he is so determined to continue investigating a case the police department has deemed closed. "I made a promise," Jerry says to a police chief. "You're old enough to remember when that meant something."
To Nicholson, that bit of dialogue also has meaning in his own life. "When I give my word, I think it means something," he says.
Nicholson arrived in Hollywood from his native New Jersey in the mid-1950s. His first job was as an office boy at MGM. "I saw every great movie actor who ever lived walk through those gates," he recalls. "That's really why I was there. I was movie-struck."
His acting career got off to a less than stellar start with Roger Corman's 1958 crime thriller Cry Baby Killer, in which he played the killer. For the next decade, he appeared in mostly forgettable roles. It wasn't until he replaced Rip Torn in 1969's Easy Rider that he got his breakthrough part and the first of several Oscar nominations. He went on to appear in successful and highly acclaimed films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, Terms of Endearment and A Few Good Men, among others. In 1995, he was honored with the American Film Institute's lifetime achievement award.
Nicholson says he's proud of his body of work but doesn't like to dwell on the past. Asked to name his favorite film, he says slyly, "I don't really have a favorite, but that's primarily because I'm a little vain. I like all my movies."
As Good As It Can Get
To this day, he still loves movie-making and movie stars, but he has noticed changes in Hollywood over the past 45 years.
"Frankly, the thing I most miss is the glamour," he says, resembling on this particular day a tenured university professor in tweed jacket, green polo shirt and brown pants. "I love the glamour of Hollywood. I'm just so happy to have been here to see what that was like when (the acting community) sort of had their own world — Hollywood. They ran it however they wanted to, and they put on a good show everywhere, and it wasn't all about what it cost or this or that. It was about more graceful things."
Even deal making these days is a big turn off to him. "The negotiating period of a movie is now very uncomfortable," he says. "I've never been a top-dollar seeker as a negotiator. If I'm interested in a film, I figure all that will come out in the end. You can't make a simple deal anymore, and it takes an endless amount of time. In that sense, there's a lot of vitiated time just in the deal-making process."
Despite his grumbling, Nicholson has made some of the most lucrative deals in Hollywood. For Batman, for example, he took a percentage of the box-office proceeds rather than a fee, which garnered him an estimated $60 million on the blockbuster.
Next on his plate is a film called About Schmidt, with writer/director Alexander Payne (Election). It begins shooting this spring. But now, back to the matter at hand.
As Nicholson gets up to leave, he puts his sunglasses back on and coyly makes one final push for The Pledge.
"Be good to the picture," he says, "or you won't get any more."