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Nick Nolte Knows What’s Wrong With America, and It’s Not Racism

The "Graves" star reflects on selling phony draft cards and breaking bones to stay out of Vietnam in a revealing interview about personal and political regrets.

Graves Season 1 Nick Nolte

Lewis Jacobs/EPIX/Lionsgate

Nick Nolte is 75 years old.

In those seven-and-a-half decades on this planet, the actor, producer, father, former model and self-described felon has lived quite a life. Spanning the highs of three Oscar nominations to the lows of manufacturing phony draft cards, Nolte’s vast experience is in line with his age, but his perspective has shifted with time, as has his stature. Today, Nolte is an artist who’s mastered his craft. But how he views his life is another story.

Nolte’s latest role brings the personal and professional together with surprising relevance. In the new EPIX comedy “Graves,” Nolte plays the title role of Richard Graves, a retired Republican president, who suddenly starts rethinking decisions he made in office. A crisis of conscience sends the character on a journey to correct his past mistakes. “I’m not dead yet,” Graves yells as his first battle cry, before he begins speaking to the people as he would have before, had the political system and youthful ignorance not held him back.

READ MORE: ‘Graves’ Review: Nick Nolte Tries to Save the Republican Party in a Political Comedy with Presidential Potential

In person, Nolte sparks parallels between the actor and his role, and not because he’s wearing a suit and tie similar to a politician. Nor is it because our discussion took place in July, just a week after Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president. What connects Nolte to Graves is that he keeps pushing the conversation toward “regrets.”

Asked if it mattered to him whether Graves was a Republican or a Democrat, Nolte said, “No. It didn’t really matter to me, politically, where he stood. What mattered to me was that he’d been out of office for 25 years. Because if he’s 75, I know he’s fucked up enough, no matter what he does, to have regrets. Things you would like to fix, things you would like to correct, they’re buried deep in all of us.”

Nick Nolte is 75 years old. Richard Graves is 75 years old. This matters more than you’d think.

Graves Season 1 Nick Nolte Sela Ward

“The Problem With America”

The way Nolte speaks about the ex-president’s past blurs the line between the two men, one real and one fictional, but it’s what Nolte brings up next that brings them together.

Nolte: Let me ask you a question: What is the first political office you can hold?

IndieWire: Oh, I don’t know. City council?

You’re close. Board of Education. That’s why we have so many presidents of high schools that really are dicks. They’re not interested in education. They’re there to get their political credentials to get elected, then move to the next level which would be the Santa Monica board. Then it’s the state board, and you can move up from there. There’s something hypocritical about that, you know? Because as a school mate going to school, I thought it was about school.

Yeah. Well, you’d want it to be.

Yeah. You’d want it to be. But it isn’t. It’s about politics. And we do another thing funny with our education: We teach every kid the same thing. Some get C’s, some get A’s, and that’s how we draw distinctions. And then the universities complain that our students don’t have any “creative initiative.” Well, they don’t give them any chance to do anything creative.

That’s the problem with our education. What I think is the problem with America — and this is way out of line, you know — it’s not the racism. We’ve been dealing with racism for a long time now; consciously, right out in the open. That’s accepted, that’s being worked on. I don’t know why people are shooting cops, except I would run, too, if they tried to arrest me. It’d just be instinct.

But I do know this: 60 percent of the children are being raised by a single parent, and there’s something wrong with our marriage laws that when a child is born, the child has no rights. We don’t have any rights for children. We’ve tried to write them a couple of times, but we’re afraid of ‘em. So we leave it up to this arguing couple that’s going to get a divorce, and the kid is not gonna have the right to a father and a mother, a right to be loved by both parents. He’s not gonna get any of his rights, and I think in a couple of generations we’re gonna see that’s where the problem lies.

READ MORE: ‘Berlin Station’ Review: Spy Drama Needs Less Talk, More Richard Jenkins Gettin’ Busy

So yeah, go ahead get married. Have a good time. Fuck all you want, do all that stuff — but if you have a kid, then the responsibilities change. You can’t be in it willy nilly because it creates a vacancy of the idea of home if you don’t have a father or a mother. And I think that’s what’s been bugging the country.

Graves Season 1 Skylar Astin Nick Nolte

“It got down to breaking arms.”

It’s important to note that Nolte is now married with one child, but also had a son in 1986 with a woman he divorced in 1994. The issue is clearly close to his heart, and the real issues that populate his new series are not dissimilar to the ones Nolte is talking about. Graves deals with health care, veterans and immigration all within the first hour, not to mention his own family’s personal issues.

But Graves isn’t just any old president. The reason to question Nolte on the relevance of Graves being a Republican or a Democrat is because the series doesn’t shy away from party politics. This isn’t a “Veep” or “House of Cards”-esque universe where it doesn’t matter which side of the aisle the main character sits. Graves is a Republican, and, more than that, he may be a combination of a few real-life members of the GOP.

IndieWire: It seems like Richard Graves is a bit of a stand-in for Ronald Reagan in this.

Nolte: Yeah, but you can’t ask another actor to judge a president that was an actor because I’m prejudiced: He wasn’t that good of an actor! [laughs] What they thought was great speech-making was simply a guy that knew his lines — to me. So, [Graves] wasn’t Reagan to me. The most informing presidents were Johnson and Kennedy. Johnson because of the suffering that he did to make sure civil rights got through and to make sure that Vietnam started to either become a real war or deescalate. It literally stopped him from running for another term.

What about those characteristics do you see in Graves?

Well, the thing with Johnson was the familiarity, you know?

Yeah, he was a good ol’ boy from Texas.

Yeah. He was a good ol’ boy, and that always makes a character kind of warm to the public. Johnson had a mean side to him, and Kennedy was this new idea, you know?

Then the conversation shifted yet again, away from “Graves” and into Nolte’s personal life. In a way, Nolte wanted to talk about how his past informed the character, but the focus was more on the man than the character. His regrets. What’s buried deep within Nolte.

Nolte: When I was 18, 19, maybe I was even 20, but at that time I wasn’t looking at any of those guys as being really cool guys because they were talking about sending me [to Vietnam] to stop the the dominoes from falling over.

We would smoke our morning joint, you know, and we’d watch drinking our Pepsi as [U.S. army general] William Westmoreland said, “The reason we’re in southeast Asia is because of” and tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. He’d just list off the reasons. It just used to crack us up. And then we’d discuss all day about who’s getting drafted that day and what they were going to do.

READ MORE: Michelle Forbes, Thanks to Peak TV, Is No Longer a ‘Commitment-Phobe’

Early on the draft boards, the bureaucracies, were naïve. They were naïve about the idea that any American kid would not want to go to Vietnam. They just had not figured that at all. So, consequently, if you could alter your draft card by a few days and have it off in kind of an authentic way, they would think it was their fault, send you home, and then they wouldn’t get back to you for quite a while. Sometimes they did [get back to you]. Then it got down to breaking arms

Got down to what, I’m sorry?

Breaking arms. You’d break this thin bone in this. [Nolte motions to his forearm.] But that wasn’t all ideal. [It took] a lot of Davis — I think that was the painkiller at the time — and an aluminum baseball bat and just pop!

I sold draft cards. I sold counterfeit government documents, which first they charged me in the state, and I got through that. Then the feds started and they went slow — meticulous. They wanted to find out if there was a communist youth movement in America. They thought there was, but it wasn’t long before they realized I didn’t know anything. I was just selling fake IDs, and I got caught fairly quick, too, you know? I left a thousand blank draft card registrations in glassine envelopes in the back of a hearse that I’d just bought that was laying on the top of the ninth green at the country club.

Graves Season 1 Nick Nolte Sela Ward

“To say it didn’t scare the shit out of me is absolutely wrong.
I was scared to death.”

There are two scenes in the pilot of “Graves” that are notably moving. Though billed a comedy, and quite funny at times, the EPIX series features moments of raw understanding, and Nolte captures them with gripping honesty.

While questioning his past mistakes, Graves searches through critical articles attacking his past policies. It’s a scene meant to inform the audience of Graves’ political past in order to foreshadow his future actions, but it also humanizes the man without a single spoken word. Nolte’s eyes flinch with pain and fill with tears as he scrolls through headlines accusing him of destroying America.

Later, after he speaks out against party lines like never before, he goes home to his wife, Maggie (Sela Ward), who doesn’t understand his change of heart. Graves falls into her arms, begging her to understand what he’s trying to accomplish in a desperate, defeated manner only shown to one’s true love.

Nolte does not speak or act this way when he reflects on his own past, but one gets the feeling he’s given it similar thought. At this point in the conversation, “Graves” seems like an afterthought. But these scenes spring to mind when Nolte starts talking about how his decision to sell fake draft cards — how that moment — deeply affected his psyche.

IndieWire: You’re playing a president who looks back on his life and sees things differently. How do you feel about that related to your own past? Do you feel you were doing the right thing?

Nolte: They were very serious. To say it didn’t scare the shit out of me is absolutely wrong. I was scared to death. If you’re a felon, your life’s pretty well over. What was a mixture of time and fear and war and killing and all that, that went into the decision of whether I’m going to sell these draft cards or not. Or if [I would] drink a few beers and forget about it, you know? Like it wasn’t a big deal — but to them it was a big deal. They had to find out. But [later] they put me under this youth correction act which supposedly wipes it off your record and there’s no felony charge.

But as soon as [I] became an interest to the Enquirer, they found it. And then my manager called me, very freaked out: “I didn’t know you were a felon.” […] So [later], I see an invitation to go to the White House and I say, “Hey, you guys know I can’t go.” And they said, “Why?” “Well, I sold draft cards.” “Oh, that was back in the ‘60s. Forget about that!” [laughs]

That’s got to be good to hear, though.

Yeah. Yeah. It is.

Time changes things.

It does. And you see it in perspective. Time is in the perspective of when it’s played. You know, right now we’re just in this loop of elections of what’s going to happen and how one party is behaving and how another party is behaving and… It’s very strange times.

Very strange times, indeed. Nick Nolte is not playing himself in Graves, just like Graves isn’t a stand-in for any one president. But similar to how a film, TV show, or piece of music can illicit a specific, personal response from an audience, “Graves” seems to have done the same to an actor who’s lived life with vigor and purpose.

Nick Nolte is 75 years old. And he’s not done yet.

“Graves” premieres Sunday, October 16 at 10 p.m. ET on EPIX. Watch the first two episodes online at EPIX.com, or watch the first episode via YouTube below. 

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