Jack Nicholson and I are chanting a little ditty together. “Again, again!” he insists impetuously. And so off we go: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.
It’s the sentence he made infamous in The Shining and his face is just glowing watching someone else chant his mantra. The left eyebrow shoots up, the lips curl and his wicked laugh rumbles riotously round a hotel room in London.
This has to be one of the coolest ways to spend an afternoon – rubbing shoulders (or rather knees, under a mahogany table) with Mr Hollywood. Because, let’s face it, you can’t get more movie star than Jack Nicholson, 60. He knows it. And he loves it.
His idea of heaven is a night at the Oscar’s. “I follow the doctrine ‘all awards are false’, but, after all, I’m a clown, not a mystic, and I love glamour,” he hums, leaning back in his chair to take a drag on his Camel filter. “My idea of a great evening is to be nominated for an Academy Award and know that you’re not gonna win because then you can relax and have a fabulous night.”
There are two things you should know about Jack in the flesh: he sounds just like he does in the movies (“I gave up doing accents because nobody could ever identify them”) and he looks just like he does up there on screen which is a rarity in celeb land.
“That’s because I don’t wear make-up. When I started out 40 years ago I had to fight with every single cinematographer to become the first actor not to wear make-up,” he reveals proudly.
He is so Jack Nicholson – when I ask if he’ll wake up at 5:30am to listen to Geena Davis announce the Oscar nominees, he responds with a flick of the eyebrow and a provocative twist of the lips: “I never get up at 5:30am, but I might still be awake at 5:30… and you can bet I won’t be watching television”.
A few days after our interview, Nicholson is indeed nominated for a best actor award for his inimitable performance as an obsessive, compulsive who’s outrageously rude in As Good As It Gets.
Jack rules out any similarities to his character.
“I carry my own ashtray around and keep a nice neat room, but otherwise I’m just a regular person,” he grins. “And I’m not into rudeness. I rather jump from immaculately polite to violent, actually. Rude is for amateurs, you know what I mean?”
This is yet another devilish character to add to his repertoire. “It’s the devil in me,” he mocks.
“I’m just attracted to devilish parts. People say I play cynical roles but I don’t. I play people who are damaged and defensive.”
It doesn’t bother him too much that people wrongly assume he’s as crazed as most of his characters have been. “It’s academically been my technique: I’m right here but you can’t see me. That’s what’s attractive about the job – you get to vent things in an acting situation that you might never become conversant with in real life.”
In real life, Nicholson is in fact conversant on any and every topic – Cuba, Bosnia, Lorena Bobbitt (“what is wrong with you girls?”), the plague of tabloid television, fame (“it’s just a part of life and I’m real good at sneaking around anonymously”), his success (“due to my curious personality” and his favourite subject – President Clinton. He’s been through the same media bashing about his sex life.
“Of course I support Clinton,” he laughs, referring to the Monika Lewinsky case. “I believe the laws of Solomon speak clearly: the chief is only accountable if he puts money in his pocket. Period.”
Although quoting the Bible, this is one area in which Nicholson is a little more hesitant and uncertain of his opinion.
“I don’t believe in life after death, but I don’t disbelieve in it. I’m not religious but I would have to say that I have a very normal amount of active superstition – in other words I may not believe in God but why do I sometimes think I’m talking silently to someone in the top of my head? Do you understand what I’m saying? I envy everyone who has faith. I truly do.”
So how happy is Jack Nicholson to be Jack Nicholson?
He leans forward, blue eyes mischievously dancing, and says, “In this very moment that you ask the question, I have to say that I’m one of the very few people alive who not only is happy, but I’m unafraid to say so!”
And lastly, I ask, what motivates him to keep acting when, as one of the richest men in Hollywood, he so obviously doesn’t need the money?
“Firstly, I’m a labor advocate, I believe in working. And secondly,” he declares with a wink, “I feel you’d miss me honey!”
THE MERCURY, February 24, 1998