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 manhood—in 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 ears—distinctively 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 Affliction at 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 Affliction you can feel Nolte’s passion for the story.
“I said to [Affliction author] 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.”
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.)
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.”