Nick Nolte Now

He has the look of a ravished angel and a talent that's insisted on its own way for over two decades in Hollywood. Here Nick Nolte talks about his new work in Affliction and The Thin Red Line, reminisces about the old days when Jeffrey Katzenberg served him coffee and explains why he's told blatant whoppers to unsuspecting journalists.

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Nick Nolte has been living on this quiet, two-lane road with dirt shoulders and overhanging trees for 20 years. He started with one house and then bought the one next door, and then bought a third house which used to be owned by Tommy Chong and then the Eagles. He's now got a six-acre estate complete with tennis court, guest houses, gardens and lagoons. Birds caw and butterflies are everywhere.

When I arrive at the door, I'm greeted by four yapping dogs and a secretary/assistant who tells me she'll try to find Nick. I wander around the living room which is chockablock with books. Nolte didn't read much in high school and never finished college. Now, the shelves of this autodidact brim with tomes on psychology and history: the complete works (in hardback) of Freud and Jung, Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization, Dumas Malone's six-volume biography of Jefferson, a section on the Civil War, Nietszche, Ayn Rand, Shakespeare, Sam Shepard. The secretary returns and says, "I can't seem to find him," and disappears again. I keep looking around. The paintings in the room look very similar to the ones Nolte pretended to paint in New York Stories. From somewhere I hear water gurgling. The secretary returns once more. "He's still among the missing," she says. Against one wall is a shiny, black upright piano where Nolte took lessons for five months so he could play "Claire de Lune" in his role as a renaissance bum in Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

Now 57, Nolte has been acting in feature films for almost a quarter century. Along the way, he's defied chemistry, gravity, producers, lawyers and Katharine Hepburn, and he has remained incredibly durable, seldom dropping off the Hollywood radar screen for long. He's a brand-name actor who, from the beginning, has made idiosyncratic choices and today still has no qualms about lending his alliterative name and explosive talent to low-budget, defiantly uncommercial fare more often than to the high-budget films most stars of his stature stick to.

Nolte's latest indie challenge is an austere sort of murder mystery called Affliction, which is directed by Paul Schrader (remember him? American Gigolo, Cat People). It's a powerful meditation on fathers and sons and drinking and violence, but why on earth would anyone float a film called Affliction? Was no one home in the marketing department? Not even the perpetually afflicted Woody Allen would inflict a title like that on his audience. The film's adapted from a frigid, New England-based downer of a novel by Russell Banks, who wrote The Sweet Hereafter. In it, Nolte gives a searing, anguished performance as a small-town cop bloated with booze. True to form, he gained 50 pounds for the role, and he shows us, incrementally, the source of the guilt and the rage simmering beneath the sagging flesh. Schrader says, "I stood in awe as Nolte peeled layer after layer off the character. During rehearsal, Nick directed the scenes as much as I did."

A trimmed-down Nolte can also be seen playing a colonel in The Thin Red Lin_e, a story about the bloodbath at Guadalcanal in World War II, adapted from the novel by James Jones and directed by Terrence Malick (remember him?), the 70s legend who directed _Badlands and Days of Heaven and then disappeared.

Even before I see Nolte, I hear the voice. Gravelly. Husky. Rasping. Unmistakable. These are vocal cords that have been marinated in spirits, swaddled in cigarette smoke and frayed by impassioned soliloquies and real life lovers' quarrels. If grizzlies could talk, they'd sound like this. Then Nolte rounds the corner of the fieldstone fireplace. Even though it's afternoon he looks like he just woke up. He's wearing running shoes and what seems to be some sort of pajama-like getup. The handsome face is, of course, not the chiseled masterpiece it once was, but the body is lean and the great, blond mane is thick and tousled.

Nolte makes his disheveled entrance and plops down three water bottles on the table. A typical day at home, he tells me, will include reading, writing, bike riding, weight lifting and picking tomatoes. He is not married now. He has a son, Brawley, who divides his time between Nolte and his mother, Rebecca Linger, who is Nolte's third ex-wife. "I'm an introvert," says Nolte. "I can be comfortable alone." In one of the guest houses, Nolte's nephew is writing screenplays. "I see him walking across the lawn muttering to himself," says Nolte. "It's always fun to pop in and see what his mental state is."

As far as Nolte's mental state at the moment, he's feeling great about his work on The Thin Red Line.

"Did Malick call you and ask you to do the part of the colonel?"

"He called, and we got together, but after we talked, he said he wanted to cast younger all across the board still. I met with him a few more times. I didn't bug him, but I hung in there. Then he asked me to do a role that wasn't to the book. Probably one of the offshore general. So I started to do research on what that role could be and I fed this information to him. And we started exchanging books. Four or five months later, we were having lunch, and he blurted out, 'You should play the colonel.' And I said. 'It's about time.'"

For an actor who has, for the most part, shunned action pictures, The Thin Red Line would seem to be a departure. Nolte doesn't agree. This is not his idea of an action picture. He says he realized early on in his career that he had no interest in becoming an action hero. "You don't want to get stuck in a category [like that], because it's too limiting. Not only that, I can't relate to those characters. If you ever got deeply into any of them then you'd have to speak to the nature of what it is to pull the trigger."

"Do you enjoy watching a film like Die Hard?"

"No. If I want to examine heroics, I like to do it from a real standpoint. I ask myself, 'What situation would I find myself in where I could exhibit an act of selflessness?' That's what The Thin Red Line is all about. It's about that moment, in the middle of battle, when you're standing next to your buddy, firing at the enemy, knowing you could be killed, and in that moment you give up all self-interest. Jones said that you love that guy next to you more than you've loved anything in your life. The love for a child is a close second, but it's not as selfless."

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