Nolte by Nature

A Gifted and Afflicted Actor Propels Two of the Year's Best Films

On the subject of his other new, higher profile film, The Thin Red Line, Nolte started to gush about its legendary director. "I had been preparing for A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, so I'd been deeply into James Jones. I wish it had worked out—to play a character in a James Jones novel and then to play James Jones—what a great opportunity! So Malick called and I went over to meet him. He wanted to know how Hollywood had changed in the last 17 years. I told him it was the same but a little more paranoid. Mickey Rourke happened to be in the restaurant, and he said, 'Oh, I really want Mickey Rourke to be in this film, but he's the only actor Mike Medavoy doesn't want.' So I went over and got him. Terry said, 'Now Mickey, I really want you to be in The Thin Red Line, so when we're in Guadalcanal, I'll just send you a ticket and you come on down.' And he was in the film." And since Nolte hadn't seen the film yet, there's no way he could have known that Rourke's sniper is long gone.

Nolte was at his most animated when discussing Malick's unique working methods. "One thing he did was to shoot a scene up through its spine and then stop. He'd say, 'Why don't we finish up next week?' And a lot of the actors would say, 'Gee, how do I get back to that same emotion?' At around five or six o'clock, the sun would turn orange, and Terry would say, 'Why don't we pick up that scene from last week? Nothing will match but this is wonderful light.' And I realized, he's finishing all those scenes in this golden light. If he'd told the studio he was going to shoot only between four and eight, he wouldn't have been able to do the film. But also, by leaving the scene open, no matter how frustrating for the actors, they would invariably come up with a different way of playing that scene. So now you've got something surprising. It also allowed for Terry to mature a week on the scene. He shot other things along the way, and he used these unfinished scenes as a treadmill underneath the film, a process that allowed him to wait for a muse or truth to come. Usually filmmaking is closed off, and I thought this was quite clever. Because everybody took on the protocol. They didn't know how these scenes would end. They got angry and upset, but then they would calm down and accept it, the thing would churn in them, they'd be frightened of that moment. Then when the day came, they would realize they'd been thinking about it for a week and bam bam bam, out would come this stuff.

"He did bring the film in on time though. Which is amazing, because here's a guy who makes a movie once every 17 years. Obviously staying on budget is not going to be the first thing on his mind. This may be his last film." (Or it may not. Malick has a finished script called The English-Speaker, set in Vienna in the 1880s, which would be performed in German.)

Sylvia Plachy

As the interview drew to a close, Nolte discussed the overall importance of acting in his life. "It's not an exaggeration to say that acting has been my redemption, any more than it is to say that James Ellroy's writing saved him. You know, up to the age of 30 he's there in Hancock Park shooting Benzedrine, fantasizing over his mom's murder and their relationship. And then, all these books just start coming out, boom boom boom boom, one after another. And he gets sober. Right then and there. That's his redemption." Asked if he could envision his life without acting, he paused. "I don't know. You know, I'm terribly angry, you know, terribly frightened. You know, I would, ah... I really don't want to kill anybody. I think if you can get through your generation without killing somebody you're partially successful as a human being."

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