Nick Nolte: Playing ex-drunk was cathartic
LOS ANGELES—Nick Nolte is heartbreaking in Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior,” where he plays a former boxer and reformed drunk who tries to reconnect with his two sons who can’t forgive him for his transgressions.
In the film, Nick gives one of the best performances in his career. As an ex-alcoholic father, he welcomes back his youngest son (Tom Hardy) and trains him to compete in a mixed martial arts tournament—a path that puts the son on a collision course with his older brother (Joel Edgerton).
Whether pleading with Joel to see his grandkid or finally breaking down after Tom’s constant recriminations, Nick, at 70, is still on top of his game.
His portrayal joins his list of sterling performances in films that include “The Thin Red Line,” “The Prince of Tides,” “Affliction” and “Hotel Rwanda.”
The actor, who himself has a history of alcohol and drug abuse, said in our recent interview that his role in “Warrior” was cathartic. “Very much so,” admitted Nick—his hair all silver now, his face deeply lined. His trademark gruff voice sounds more gravelly, adding gravitas to his presence.
“The catharsis really comes when you see it in the whole piece,” said Nick, his voice sometimes dropping into a mumble. “I saw the film the other day. I couldn’t sit through it. I had to leave when the old man gets to the arena. I didn’t want the lights to come up and people will see the actor there with the slobbering tears running down, crying about his family. It doesn’t look cute. So I had to get out.”
He confessed that playing characters like Paddy “takes a toll” and has parallels to his own life. “Yes, I had to dredge up old demons,” said the actor, whose mug shot after being arrested for drugs in 2002 was splashed in newspapers all over the world.
Real life, real problems
“My problem was always real life,” he said. “That’s why I love acting. The minute I hit the stage, I felt at home.” After flunking out in two Arizona colleges despite his football record, Nick moved to California and saw “Death of a Salesman” at the Pasadena Playhouse. He quickly enrolled in Playhouse’s acting program.
“In real life, they’re real problems,” said Nick, whose face and voice, despite the ravages of time, brought us back to the first time we saw him, playing a 17-year-old on TV’s “Rich Man, Poor Man.” Turns out, he was 35 when he essayed that breakout role.
Asked about his own relationship with his father, Frank Nolte, who served in World War II, the Omaha, Nebraska native said: “I was born in 1941. I didn’t see my father till probably 1945. All I remember was a giant (Frank was over 6’6” tall) skeleton at the door. There was a lot of excitement. They used to take me upstairs and sit by this bed, as this skeleton breathed. He had malaria and all sort of things. He never talked about the war.
“They had won the war but couldn’t express the horror they had seen and felt. They had to be in a positive mode. So you got this reactionary thing of, ‘Let’s not have any disturbances. Let’s have all the children wear the same clothes. Let’s all behave in a similar way. Let’s not drink in public.’ But in the house, you get hammered.”
That’s why, Nick said, he understood the noncommunicative part of his film character. “With my own son (Brawley), I went the opposite way. He’s my best friend. I probably indulged it too far. They said that I was taking him down a degenerate path. I had almost every kid, whose parents weren’t around, living in the house.” Brawley, 25, who appeared in several films, is Nick’s son with ex-wife Rebecca Linger (the third of the actor’s marriages that ended in divorce).
Nick continued: “I said to Brawley, ‘Do you want an open or a closed house?’ Brawley said, ‘What’s the difference?’ I said, ‘In a closed house, we don’t have people over. In an open house, we have people over, within certain rules and regulations.’ So we had an open house. It was pretty chaotic for years.”
To this day, Nick revealed, Brawley’s friends still come and see him. “They’re all through with college. I get phone calls from them … ”
Of women, Nick said: “A relationship is about the hardest thing in the world to do. If you can succeed, congratulations. I have a brilliant, beautiful 3-year-old daughter (Sophie). I’m with an English woman (Clytie Lane) now who’s far smarter than I am.”
Growing up in the United States during the Vietnam War, Nick struggled before he became an actor. “I sold (fake) draft cards,” he said. “I wasn’t a Weatherman (a member of the
American radical left), which is the subject of a film I’m going to do with Robert Redford. That’s the warrior that I come from. I don’t have to directly, physically fight. I’m just being the kind old man. Because I’m old.” He laughed as he said, “So I do have a tendency to be kind now. You can afford being rude when you’re young.”
Tom and Joel, who also turn in memorable performances, spoke in awe about working with Nick in the film that was made almost at the same time as Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg’s “The Fighter,” which, coincidentally, is also about two siblings in the ring. “Warrior” producers decided to delay the release of their film.
Of the casting of Tom and Joel, Nick said: “Gavin kept me in the loop as he was trying to find the actors. He couldn’t find American actors for these roles. He found the Australian (Joel). Then he found an English kid (Tom). My son went to school in England. So I know a lot of kids that know Tom Hardy from England. I was well aware of him and who he was.”
He and Tom worked really well together, said Nick. “Tom is a very charismatic, unique young actor who’s going right to the top, I’m sure. He was really fascinated with Marlon Brando. He has that Brando-esque quality about him. That’s a match in Tom.”
Does he have any regrets in life? “I have many,” he quipped. “Jeez. When you’re 70, you have a lot of regrets. You also have a lot of great moments in your life. But by 70, you know yourself well enough to have regrets. The main thing is to keep up with your regrets and make sure that you have taken care of them as quickly as they happen. If I get out of line now, I know how to apologize immediately. And not let it linger. And not think that I can afford to have outrageous behavior. But I have regrets. And you can’t apologize because the person is dead. Or times have moved on so much. It’s usually because they’ve died. You just have to live with it. Because it teaches you.”
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