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.