Mr. Nichols and the Vicious Circle

Julia Roberts photographs Natalie Portman in Closer. (Photograph courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

You remember the barbs. You remember the shock,” says Mike Nichols, referring to Closer, the sexy and scabrously sinister Patrick Marber drama he’s adapting to the screen. “You tend to forget that this is a hilarious play—that there are pure laughs in here, too.”

Marber’s adultery drama—which drew raves like “beautiful and bruising” from stage critics—tracks four eminently self-satisfied lovers who collide by chance and wound each other by choice. Bound by illicit attraction, a kind of cosmopolitan sexual curiosity, and sadistic one-upmanship, the four nearly ruin each other’s lives. “What it comes down to is that line when one says, ‘What did you do with him? Describe it.’ It’s the question you don’t dare ask, that women don’t dare answer.”

Not quite punch-line stuff. But Nichols, who was a comedy legend with Elaine May long before he became a stage and film impresario, is no stranger to finding dark laughs in severe work. His first film was a little thing called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; last year, he directed a small teleplay called Angels in America.

“People say this is like Carnal Knowledge [his early film with Jack Nicholson] or Virginia Woolf,” explains Nichols. “People remember the famous excoriating parts of those, but people fell on their ass watching Carnal Knowledge. When Virginia Woolf was on the stage, we got a laugh every 20 or 30 seconds.”

The discomfiting laughs in Closer generally derive from the badinage of sexy beasts, whether it’s a stripper’s flippant seduction of an older man who writes obituaries (“Did you grow up in a graveyard?” Dan: “Yeah. Suburbia.”) or a vicious argument between lovers. In an unforgettable scene, a man seduces his rival in an online chat room while pretending to be a woman. (Dan: “Wear my wet knickers.” Larry: “Okay.”) “Like the way you look back at your life, Closer concerns itself with beautiful beginnings and horrible endings,” says Nichols. “It skips the middle. The middle is just the middle.”

For the roles of the two slightly sinister, irresistible men, Nichols tapped two fellows comfortable with quick wit and seductive snarls: Jude Law and Clive Owen (the latter had been in the play in London). But instead of casting British actresses opposite them, Nichols fetched two Americans and “changed the ending radically.” For the part of Alice, the young stripper with a heart of gold—well, glitter—Nichols picked an actress he’d found for his Shakespeare in the Park production of The Seagull: Natalie Portman. “She was 19, playing what is usually the hardest part in the theater—Nina. Startling. She really shocked the shit out of me.”

Nichols raves about her performance in a way that’s almost unhinged, admiring her “real depth,” her “high intelligence,” and, of course, her looks (the trailer advertises Portman slithering on a pole in a bright blonde wig). “She’s as beautiful as anyone who has ever been on the screen,” Nichols says flatly—though he admits that her co-star, Julia Roberts, isn’t half bad.

“Julia! The glory of Julia is that she’s made to express feelings with that face,” he nearly shouts. “To watch her in dailies is like watching CNN, with that crawl on the bottom of the screen—you can read her thoughts, like they’re passing by. Every adjective.”

Nichols promises that Roberts will go places she hasn’t been before onscreen, noting that, if anything, the script has grown more relentless than it was onstage. “She’s completely adult, with rage and despair and passion,” he explains. “Her character does some less than admirable things, and Julia just wades right in.”

For a film about a quartet of extraordinarily self-satisfied if self-destructive lovers, Nichols says that working with a larger-than-life cast played right into his hands. After all, he says, the film is about how powerful people deal with “being in the power of someone else.” On this subject, the former funnyman gets serious.

“The four of them—look, everybody wants them,” he says. “But they all go pretty far in this. Things get pretty rough. That’s what happens to beautiful people.”

Closer, Sony Pictures; December 3.

Mr. Nichols and the Vicious Circle