Interview : Nick Nolte – The Good Thief

One of the most acclaimed and hardest working actor of his generation, Hollywood’s one-time golden boy recently came face to face with demons and addictions and is busy back at work. In a rare and insightful interview to promote his latest film, "The Good Thief", a candid Nolte talks drugs, acting, movies and The Hulk to PAUL FISCHER.

Nick Nolte was in good spirits when we recently met in a Beverly Hills hotel room. Looking fit and dressed in a full-length, black leather trench coat, the 62-year old veteran actor says that he didn’t have to look too deeply in order to understand Bob, the heroine-addicted gambler he plays with effortless charm in Neil Jordan’s heist thriller The Good Thief. “You had to see past the script from the sense of it just being a heist, gambling, winning picture and see what [Jordan] was doing with the characters, because he drives a lot of the film by the characters,” Nolte explains while puffing on a cigarette. “I had to really work in figuring out who he was, why he had to be in Europe why he had to go into these period heroine runs, because it was explained in the picture that when his luck runs out, then he goes to Lady Heroine or there’s no heist. That process fascinated me, because I kind of had first-hand knowledge of that,” he smilingly conceded. That first hand knowledge had something to do with a certain arrest that made headlines shortly after The Good Thief premiered last September during the Toronto Film Festival, recalling that if one had seen television not that long ago, you would have seen Nolte’s picture. “There is no hiding there” he adds, quietly but matter-of-factly. “I’ve always said that I had substance problems ever since, but it’s something you deal with and you do deal with it, take care of it, and you can keep it under control, but every once in a while, you lose control,” Nolte admits.

The actor takes another discreet puff of his cigarette recalling how he has been able to deal with those addictions. “Well first, the withdrawal period is a little tough, so you go to a hospital, one of the better ones.” In Nolte’s case, that was Silver Hill hospital “back east”, a drying-out tank in New Canaan, Connecticut in order “to get geographically away from the substance that I was using”, which in Nolte’s case was not heroine or cocaine, but the drug Gamma Hydroxy Butyrate, or GHB – a synthetic drug that, in a liquid form, acts as a depressant and anaesthetic, resulting in a feeling of ‘relaxation, tranquillity, sensuality, increased libido and a loss of inhibitions’. Nolte would remain in the hospital for 28 days, and his stay was certainly cathartic and therapeutic, he admits. “You stay there for 28 days, you have a roommate and you learn to wash your own underwear, becoming very humble, and you have six conferences a day. Then the trick is not to relapse, and that’s a matter of just daily vigilance. It’s like having a disease. If you had, for example, a cancer on your skin, and had burned it off, you’d wash it and clean it every day.”

Nolte has, he says, done just that. When asked how he’s doing, he smilingly responds: “Well, I’m sober.”

Hollywood has clearly forgiven Nolte’s past transgressions as it has those of fellow addict Robert Downey Jnr, and the proof is in the actor’s intense work schedule, from his addicted gambler and thief in The Good Thief to the unconventional Northfork which premiered at Sundance this year and through to his biggest Hollywood film in a while, The Hulk, director Ang Lee’s take on the Marvel comic. In a career spanning almost forty years, Nolte, who became a star through 1976’s TV miniseries Rich Man Poor Man, ultimately turned his back on mainstream Hollywood, finding solace in the independent world of film, “because the largest studios have such obligations of such large money invested in the films that they compromise their scripts. I’m attracted to films that deal with what my psyche is going through and I want to feel the empathy and catharsis of that and if the studios have a target audience of 14 or 12, I can’t get that. So many gunfights, no matter how well done, with all that music and quick cutting and stuff like that just jangles my nerves terribly, and I have very few left,” Nolte says smilingly. “I don’t have any problem with the studios making money. I mean that’s their business, and if the main audiences of film makers are from 14 to 21, well fine, that’s what they have to make them for, but I do think they ignore a large bulk of the audience. For a businessman, I’m quite shocked they would not cultivate all audiences and find a way to make films for older adults in a fashion and in a way that they could afford to distribute them. But, since this is America, and an instantaneous reward, I’m afraid long-term objectives aren’t on their agenda.”

Yet ironically, the actor decided to break his cardinal rule and return to mainstream Hollywood with Ang Lee’s The Hulk, one of the US summer’s most anticipated films. He says that he was drawn to the film not because of the comic but because of Lee. “I’m not a fan of cartoons. I mean I watched and read my cartoon books when I was young, but I was much older than the Hulk, and so I read Archie, Wonder Woman or Superman, but The Hulk didn’t come until later,” Nolte recalls. “I wasn’t interested in just doing a cartoon, and Ang came to the house and said, ‘Look, Nick, I don’t know how to do a cartoon, but I DO know how to make a Greek tragedy.’ So I said ‘If we go for a Greek tragedy, I’ll go for it.’ “ Nolte was then more than happy to make a big-budget studio film “because if we can present it of the magnitude of a Greek tragedy, a father/son tragedy, and if we do it right, there should be some element of compassion, maybe some pain.” Nolte anticipates that audiences will be surprised.

Nolte, who plays David Banner’s father in The Hulk has garnered some of his best notices in the independent likes of Afterglow, Affliction, The Golden Bowl, Trixie and now, The Good Thief and has given us a galaxy of often tortured, flawed, empathetic human beings. His Dr. David Banner may be added to that illustrious list, yet Nolte still believes that every actor has no choice but to play himself. “I’m talking from a deeper level than just the surface personality, because the surface personality, I hate to say it, is basically a lie,” Nolte admits. “You know, we take on the personality of what the job requires, so if it’s a cop, you kind of take on his demeanour. Now there’s nothing wrong with that at all, because if we were all wide open with our vulnerabilities, we wouldn’t get our job done, so we have to take on a professional face to a certain degree. So, what I’m talking about is a level beneath that, which is the level of instincts, the level of maybe part of the personality but it may be tapping the source that’s just pure creativity, that isn’t tied to long family experiences that form us and shape us. Then the actor gets into that state, and all of a sudden this character appears. He’ll do work to try to get in that state, but he cannot control whether he will get it or not. There’s a method to get yourself prepared for it but when it happens, it’s magical, because then you are living it.”

One has the distinct impression when talking to Nolte, that even after this many years, he still relishes that process of self-discovery as an actor. He admits that he derives even more pleasure from acting now than when he was one of Hollywood’s hot young stars, “because I’m not a fan of real life,” Nolte concedes laughingly. Perhaps after recent events, one can understand why, but it goes beyond the actor’s troubles with addiction and relates to current political events and talk of war. “Real life has got some strange kinds of rules to it that is very odd. News just aggravates me something terrible and I can’t watch this period right now, because I’m associating it to the feelings of Vietnam and I just get angry. I know war is the most immoral act that humans can commit because you just don’t kill the enemy, you kill a lot of innocent people and anyway, it just upsets me,” Nolte says with genuine passion. But the actor’s constant desire to escape reality through acting also has to do with a surprising shyness inherent within the actor, “so socialization was a difficult thing for me. I’m not comfortable with a lot of people I don’t know, so I’ll usually pick out the criminal and go talk to him”, Nolte says laughingly. “I have this uncanny ability to pick out the suffering one, because I guess that I’ll have something to talk about.” Nolte, who has been in therapy for years, says that “I came to the conclusion as recently as last week – that basically my problem is I don’t know a good person when I see them. It’s a matter of perception, to be able to see normalcy. I see the extremes which attract me but then invariably when you get involved with extremes, you’re off on a journey towards some kind of hell. All this mishmash is going to be volatile and angry and I’ve kind of given that up.”

Nick prefers to express such volatility on the big screen or on stage, where he earned raves in Sam Shepard’s new play, The Late Henry Moss, opposite Sean Penn. Asked whether he sees parallels between his career and that of the gambler he portrays in The Good Thief, Nolte takes one last drag of the cigarette he has discreetly held under the hotel room table. “I never thought of it as a gamble, because I started in theatre. It only became a gamble when I had a success, because it elevates you into another plane. Then they push and put a lot of money on the table, asking you to do the same thing again.” Nolte knows that he is never going to repeat himself, nor work on a film he doesn’t have the real passion to embark upon. “To spend three to six months of your life doing something you really don’t have the heart or love for, is horrible and I develop heart murmurs. I was doing this one film where I developed a heart murmur and I went to the doctor and I said – while I’m wearing the stethoscope – I hear it, it goes bum bump bum bump – and he’s listening he says ‘Ya, you’re right, it’s going bum bump bum bump.’ He said ‘Let me put you on the treadmill.’ He put me on the treadmill and I was in pretty good shape, it got way, way up there, and every beat was fine. So he said ‘Well, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m making a film.’ He said ‘No, no, no Nick, you’ve made a lot of films.’ He said ‘What really are you doing?’ I said ‘Well, I’m making a specific film, I do not like it.’ And he said ‘Well your heart murmur will go away when it’s over,’ and it did.”

Like his past addictions, Nick Nolte’s heart murmurs have long dissipated and have been replaced by a body of work that he says has fuelled him with renewed vitality. His performance in The Good Thief will confirm that, and that is just the beginning.

THE GOOD THIEF OPENS IN AUSTRALIA IN AUGUST