Nicholson tones it down in 'Schmidt'

Monday, December 16, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Jack Nicholson's accustomed to playing expansive sorts, prodigious people, colossal characters.

Asylum emancipator McMurphy in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest." Gumshoe Jake Gittes in "Chinatown" and "The Two Jakes." The family man turned demented ax wielder in "The Shining." Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa in "Hoffa." Randy astronaut Garrett Breedlove in "Terms of Endearment" and "The Evening Star." "Batman" nemesis "The Joker." Satan in "The Witches of Eastwick."

For Nicholson's latest role, director Alexander Payne had an uncharacteristic request for the three-time Academy Award winner: Play it small.

In the dark comedy "About Schmidt," which opens Friday, Nicholson stars as Warren Schmidt, a drab little man whose narrow, stingy life comes undone after his retirement from decades as an insurance actuary, his wife's death, revelations of her infidelity and the impending marriage of his daughter to a man Warren thinks is trash.

"When Alexander said small, I kind of went, this will be very interesting. Because the difference between small and boring can be nonexistent. That's really the razor's edge in the kinds of choices you make," Nicholson, 65, said in an interview.

"But one of my favorite qualities in all art, music, films, is restraint. As long as it doesn't feel pinched, if you can lay back but have it also feel expansive, then it becomes a wonderful trick of communication."

"About Schmidt" is just Nicholson's second film since winning the best-actor Oscar for 1997's "As Good As It Gets." Nicholson took a few years off before returning with another acclaimed performance last year in "The Pledge," directed by Sean Penn, for whom he previously starred in "The Crossing Guard."

Nicholson could pick up his 12th Oscar nomination for "About Schmidt," which has caught him awards buzz since the movie premiered at last spring's Cannes Film Festival.

Nicholson said he loves going to the Oscars, but he tries to avoid thinking about his prospects of winning a fourth award for acting, a feat so far achieved only by Katharine Hepburn.

'Drifted into acting'

Nicholson's first Oscar nomination came for 1969's "Easy Rider," the counterculture smash that put him on Hollywood's star track after a decade of slogging through cheapie pictures and obscure B movies.

He grew up in New Jersey, came to Hollywood in the late 1950s and began taking acting classes while working in the mailroom at MGM's animation department.

"I can't imagine what I would have actually done if show business hadn't saved my life," said Nicholson, who considered careers in journalism, law, architecture and chemical engineering.

"I had the aptitudes for those, and at the time, I didn't know I was making choices," he said. "But something about each of those possibilities didn't really energize me. So I sort of drifted into acting."

After his Oscar win for "As Good As It Gets," Nicholson took his longest break from film since his career began. He has had doubts about his future, lamenting that actors his age often are relegated to roles as judges, generals, uncles or grandfathers.

Yet Nicholson continues to snare relevant roles and is quickening his pace again, playing Adam Sandler's rage counselor in the comedy "Anger Management," due out next year, following up with a romantic comedy after that.

Still, as he's aged, Nicholson has become aware how few writers focus on characters in their later years.

"At a certain point, and I think I'm on it or past it, there are a lot of things you can't do," Nicholson said. "There's endless Saul Bellow things that would be great, if you could figure out how to make screenplays out of them. One after the other, I wouldn't mind doing his entire body of work."

Likewise, age has forced Nicholson to ease his rambunctious lifestyle. A notorious ladies man, Nicholson declined to discuss his on-again, off-again relationship with Lara Flynn Boyle. But he said his sexual behavior now is "much more sensible," while he no longer goes out all night on the town after long days on the set.

"Now, when I'm working, that's all I do," Nicholson said. "When you're real young and have full energy, you don't know anything about fatigue. The 14-hour day doesn't seem that important. But once you're along a little ways, by the time you drive home, you're already going to start being sleepy. So you learn how to nap.

"All those things change not because you particularly want to change, but because you have to."

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