In his essay “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Leave it to two-time Oscar nominee Nick Nolte to prove him wrong.
In this fall’s critically acclaimed mixed martial arts-fighter family drama “Warrior,” Nolte got personal by playing Paddy O’Connor, a former alcoholic striving to seek forgivemness from his two ex-fighter sons (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton). Both Nolte and the film’s writer-director, Gavin O’Connor, have been very open to the media about how Paddy’s struggles were based largely on the actor’s own infamously troubled past.
The soul searching required on the part of Nolte to pull this part off has paid off. For his powerful work, Nolte’s been nominated for a slew of Supporting Awards this year, including a SAG nomination.
We caught up with Nolte by phone to discuss his tremendous performance and how the acting game has changed since he first came on the scene almost 40 years ago. (“Warrior” came out on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD on Tuesday.)
“Warrior” marks your first collaboration with your friend and neighbor Gavin O’Connor, but you two were supposed to work together before this, right?
I was supposed to be in his 2008 New York police film, “Pride and Glory.” I had worked with Gavin for almost a year on that, but when we got to New York and were about two weeks away from shooting — this is a terrible story — there were so much complications, particularly with my knee. I didn’t have any knee cartilage left, I just couldn’t walk. I called and left a message that I had to drop out. You would think he’d never hire you again. I told him I had to get a titanium knee put in, which I did do. He had the message and it was rather devastating for him, you can imagine. Two weeks before starting filming and the actor drops out.
You must have developed a pretty deep bond for him to want to write another role for you in his next film.
We were close friends. Very close. There were other complications, but I choose not to talk about that, which he understood. We were very close friends and had been working hard on “Pride and Glory” for quite some time. That just carried over. As soon as he finished, I went and saw him, and of course he said, “Thanks a lot!” But Jon Voight stepped right in and it worked well. I’m not in the habit of doing that, but it’s kind of a thing that I decided to do. I felt that things weren’t right.
Had he teased you about your role in “Warrior” or was it a surprise when he first came to you with the script?
No, he told me he was working on it. When I first got it, I expected the kind of writing that comes from Gavin and who Gavin writes with. So here was this powerful story about a family and the dysfunctionality of a family and the father living through his sons to a point of running them off. But then it was placed in the middle of the fighting. I had only watched a little bit of MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] and I just thought, “Oh my God, the violence. Do we gotta do this?” So I called him up and said, “This is a brilliant script. Just brilliant. But do we have to do MMA fighting?” He said, “Yes we have to. Look, meet the guys, you’ll meet their parents, you’ll meet their friends, you’ll see how they grew up and you’ll have a different opinion about it, because right now it’s as if you watched this violent sport and you don’t know anything about it.” And I said, “Well, that’s true.”
I got to meet the fighters, I got to meet their friends, see how they grew up, met their parents. They were just regular kids on the neighborhood block who decided to go a step further with their fighting. And they have many disciplines. It wasn’t just boxing. It was judo, some were AAU-champion wrestlers from universities. It wasn’t a bad crowd of guys at all.
What about the fighting world most surprised you?
Well, it was great fun! The disciplines, the workouts that these guys go through, different days they have to devote to different kinds of disciplines. The boxing is the hardest one for them, but there’ll be certain guys that come from a boxing background, then they can’t take the wrestling. Then you add all these chokeholds and submission holds and things, which are extensions of AAU holds.
You know, I was a wrestler. I’m from Iowa, so as a kid, I was a wrestler. I don’t know why, but I love that sport. It was exciting to meet these guys and see the sport rising and coming up. It’s on rise and still on the rise.
So much has been made in the press about the fact that the two actors who played your sons bulked up for their roles and trained extensively. Given that you had to play a coach, did you have to undergo any kind of training as well?
You know, I did a bit of working with the coaches. In the case of Tommy [the character played by Tom Hardy], I had been his father and had trained him since he was a little boy.
Wrestling, I already knew. I didn’t know the chokeholds and things like that, but I knew some of the guys had some training in that. I knew the routine pretty much of getting in shape. We used some unique things, him flipping the big truck tires and things like that. There seems to be a whole gaggle of new exercises. You see commercials for things, I don’t know if they really use them or not. I’ve talked to a few pro ballplayers, you see where they’re pulling parachutes and that. So a little bit of that. That wasn’t so much the focus for the father.
Of course, it’s the buildup to the fight. It was always, “Is Tommy going to come around to be there? Can I take what he’s going to deliver?” I figure the great crime of that father was that, when he went to a wrestling tournament, it was always, “Here comes the father and his son and the father is worse than the son. He’s on the officials, he’s on the way the match is set up. He took the glory and his sons don’t get any.” Then he started drinking and there was violence in the house and he was a missing father.
Gavin’s been very open about the fact that he based many aspects of the character on you. Did he consult you at all while he was writing it?
Not while writing, but we had talked a lot all through.
Is this common for you? For a writer to use your life as inspiration?
They all do. Walter Hill [“48 Hrs.,” “Extreme Prejudice”] would incorporate things. Sometimes I would pick it up, other times I wouldn’t.
A lot of times, the actor acts out the director. You’ll find yourself taking on that persona in a certain kind of way. When you’re working on a film, you’re so wide open to things that are coming your way. You’re looking all the time for the character in a way the situation wherever you’re at. Many times, it’s held in the space between the actor and the director. They mean more to the actor’s side. With a film, you have to take your character and into your trailer and sit there and wait and you go back out. It’s a lot of waiting. And so it’s the kind of things that happen during that day that are key. You’re always looking for the rhythm of the scene, of the drama, of where you’re at. If you’re focused on seeing how this fits into that, many times it can come from the unlikeliest of places, from a teamster or somebody saying something, from watching the news. It happens when you start to widen out your concentration. Instead of concentrating down to a fine point, when you begin to realize it, concentration is widening out to include everything that happens. So if something falls over or if somebody moves, that’s not a distraction. You incorporate that. That happens in real life all the time. You really don’t want anyone else in your sightlines who doesn’t belong there.
But once in a while, somebody will wander in and be over the shoulder of who you’re talking to and the camera’s really over here doing a two-shot or something like that. This person will stop and curiously watch you. Your focused on this person’s eyes and face, but they’re lined up perfectly with what you’re doing. You can go or you can stop. Sometimes it’s more interesting to go with it because you have to fight off this willingness to suspend your disbelief. That inner reality sets in and as an observer, it causes you to do a couple of glitches and those glitches show up on film. You have to learn to accept all that.
When did you accept that? I’m guessing you didn’t have that mindset from the outset of your acting career.
No, I didn’t. I was a theater actor.
It was during the making of “The Deep.” Karel Reisz [director of “The Deep”] pretty much taught me how to be still, how not to twitch around, not to mess around with the crew. Young actors will make a mistake because they’re more influenced by the crew than they are about making sure that the performance is right. Karel took me into the editing room and I, like most actors, did not like to loop performances. He said, “I’m going to show you something. I’m going to loop the whole film. All your scenes. Let’s see if we can improve them by off-stage lines and such.” He showed me the idea of throwing off-stage lines, looping it and getting different quality. He took me through the whole film that way. He showed me that you can improve a performance in the loop room. Actors get really upset looping themselves.
Going back to “Warrior,” it’s interesting to note that you’re the eldest actor in the film. Have you noticed a shift in the approach to acting on film over your years in the business?
Yeah. With time, it becomes easier because you know what not to do, so you don’t waste a lot of energy messing around and worrying about things. With time, you become more courageous, from the standpoint that you have a technique and that you know you’re going to survive this stage. I sometimes claim that technique is just knowing that you’ll survive opening night. It’s one of the most frightening experiences an actor can have. It’s just horrific. You say to yourself, “Why would you do this to yourself? Why would you put yourself through this utter disaster? You should get out of here! Run!” But opening night is an experience of terror and such energy and concentration and if you get the audience going with you, it’s so much fun that afterwards you can’t remember a single moment. The adrenaline is so high that you’re running beyond any kind of thinking, “I gotta remember this.” It’s only after running it for a few weeks that you begin to remember every moment on stage.
What’s the “opening night” equivalent for film?
Film is similar when you first start. All the insecurities are there. Really, it’s the good kind though. I don’t know sometimes if the first day’s work. I usually can tell in a film if I really look at it, which day was the first day’s work and what was toward the end. You can kind of read it. Some directors will take the heavy stuff towards the end and put it in the front.
How did it work for “Warrior?”
We didn’t get into the heavy stuff until about midway. Because once we got down to Atlantic City, then it was in the full fight phase. We broke away to do the scene in the hotel room, which we had talked about and talked about. And Gavin didn’t really direct it per se, he just said, “This is a general area. You’ll come in from there. Do what you want. Do what you feel.” And so that was pretty much all improvised. But we knew exactly what the parameters were.
What kind of boundaries did you set up with Tom [Hardy] for the hotel room brawl?
I put up boundaries at the beginning with Gavin. I said, “I don’t think I should associate with the actors, with the boys. I should stay away from them.” There’s a kind of familiarity that happens if you’re out drinking with the boys and that kind of thing. It makes the work a little more difficult.
Do you watch your own films?
Not really. You have to, at screenings. But I don’t like to see them until everything’s in and the sound is finished. Because if you see a rough cut, you really can’t tell. There’s so much in the layering of the film that goes in, that the music’s got to be right, because it all adds to that moment. Sometimes that’s opening night. Sometimes I never see ‘em. There might be one or two.
Much was made in the press about how at the “Warrior” premiere, you were so overtaken with emotion that you walked out. What about it affected you so deeply, especially given that you knew what was coming?
It provoked all those feelings, all the attempted loving, of being a father, my father and all of my life mixed up in this character. When you get it right, it’ll bust you down. It does. That’s when you know you got it right. You’re just moved by the thing. It’s not really you, but it is you and it’s not really the issue of what’s on screen, it’s the human condition.
Was the experience of making this film cathartic?
Oh yeah. For an actor, yes. You can’t be an actor and say, “I want to be an actor and make some money or be famous.” You can’t do that. That’s not enough to sustain you at all. It’s a tough profession, it’s full of rejection. You literally have to not be able to do anything else. That’s pretty much what actors are about. They’re capable of doing other things, but they literally don’t get any satisfaction out of it like they do when they act.
You know, to me, real life is kinda rather difficult. Not so comfortable for me. When I’m on stage, though, it’s comfortable. The first feeling I had about stage was, “I’m home. This is where I belong.” And it’s been that way ever since.