By Anna Merlan
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In person, Nick Nolte is a very tall, surprisingly fragile creature, a world away from the rock-solid characters he's been playing ever since fortune shined and he made the move from hunky lifeguard type to real actor in the ferocious 1978 film Who'll Stop the Rain. His thin, haunted face, which has a strangely embryonic quality, is topped by an unruly spray of dirty blond hair (which he grew long for his role in a recently wrapped film version of Sam Shepard's Simpatico) that looks like it has only recently calmed down after an electrostatic charge.
At the age of 58, Nolte is among the very best actors we have. Even when he appears in something as flawed as Q & A or as terminally pretentious as U-Turn, he leaves a lasting impression, working his way deep under the skin of the film and often operating at a higher level of acuity than anyone else around him. He has gone a long way toward defining the squashed, defeated side of all-American manhoodin many ways, his performances in the two films he was recently in town to plug, Paul Schrader's Affliction and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, represent his most powerful realizations yet of that "theme," as he himself would later put it.
And it is clear that this theme is an autobiographical one. "I've always felt uncomfortable in life. It was always a little too scary for me. And I always felt it was an aggressive world. I remember looking up at the older men when I was a kid and seeing this aggression underneath it all. So I always had an unsettling kind of anxiety about life, and that's why I have a tendency as a person to engage and disengage." As he spoke in a higher, slightly less stable version of that sandpapery Midwestern screen voice, Nolte's hands and head never stopped swiveling from side to side for emphasis as his shoulders hunched up near his earsdistinctively late-'60s California body language, with occasional touches of therapeutic terminology to match. "I've gotten better at life as time has gone on. Part of it is the ability to exist in the moment, which is no more than a form of meditation. But it's hard to be present all the time. I'm inspired by great writing and things that help me go beyond that... disease I have."
Nolte would only discuss his own life in terms of this quest for self-actualization, which bleeds into his choice of roles. And his legendary bouts of preparation throughout his prolific career also bleed into one another. His research into the Holocaust for Mother Night as well as his close study of Jefferson for Jefferson in Paris were major factors in his long preparation for Affliction's Wade Whitehouse. "I had big problems with Afflictionat first. It took Paul Schrader a year to raise the money, and when he came to me and said, 'Okay, we're ready,' I knew that I wasn't mature enough yet to do that role. I knew I was missing something. I knew I had rage and I knew I had violence. But I didn't understand the archetype of it. And it was a theme I'd been working on for a long time. Reading Jeffrey Dahmer's father's story really helped me. I started to kind of realize that everything that exists, is what we are. And Jefferson helped me a lot with the idea that the government is nothing but what we are inside. It's really not a fragmented world like it's portrayed to be. In the end, I had five years to prepare. Which is just about the right time. If you want the film to go past family dysfunctionality and get to a real catharsis, then it takes a bit of time to live with it and discover it." Living with a role for five years is clearly a sign of fervor, and as you watch Afflictionyou can feel Nolte's passion for the story.
"I said to [Afflictionauthor] Russell Banks, 'I'm going to come up to your place and spend the day.' He always wanted me to. He really wanted me to go deer hunting, which I did not want to do. I didn't need to kill a deer. So I said, 'Well, let's just get in the car and ride around, drink some beer, go to these places.' So we drove around and we'd get out from time to time; he'd point things out to me. By the end of the day, we were in a bar, and it started to become the book. You know, people see I'm Nick Nolte, they ask what we're doing there, we say we're making Affliction, tell them what it's about. I start to explain about the dad hitting his son, and these guys go, 'Oh yeah, I know about that. The old son of a bitch used to pop me all the time. Good for me, though. Taught me something. If it wasn't for the old man, I wouldn't be able to face up.' So I really saw the whole syndrome, especially when they get locked up in winter. It's tough."