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Nick Nolte on His Regrets, Avatar, and More

The documentary Nick Nolte: No Exit, which premiered on the Sundance channel’s on-demand service on December 30, is a short, bizarre movie. While the expected talking-head testimonials (from Ben Stiller, Rosanna Arquette, and Jacqueline Bisset, among others) are present, the majority of the film features Nolte interviewing himself. Nolte the interviewer wears a suit and a hat; Nolte the interviewee, a sort of nightshirt. Both versions of the actor are rambling and antagonistic as they discuss his professional career and various flubs. Blessedly, the Nolte that we spoke to last week was just as talkative.

How did the movie come about?
[Director] Tom Thurman came to me because I knew Hunter Thompson. I knew Hunter in a way that Hunter would call late at night after he had called many, many other people. And then you would have to integrate into the conversation as if you knew what he was talking about, and you had no idea, so it was best you just made up something. At first, you’re just dumbfounded because you’re trying to figure out what he’s talking about, so you just start in with something and he would integrate it. We got along very well on the phone. And so I was on a list to talk about Hunter [for Thurman’s Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film] and he came out to film that. Tom and I developed a pretty close relationship. So we were talking, and he said, “One day, I would like to do a documentary on you.”

Whose idea was it to have you interview yourself?
We had a San Francisco interviewer that knew my theater work, knew my film work, and was a pretty tough guy, and we thought, “That’d be good.” And then about two days before [production], Tom had this brilliant idea. He said, “You know, Nick, what if you interviewed yourself?” And I said, “Well, that’s a great idea. That’s very interesting. But, you know, I can shape it so that it’d be easy for me.” And he said, “No, no, no. If you started to do that, I would cut.” So I said, “Yeah, I think that would be really interesting. Figure out how we should do it.” So we just generally laid it out, and he brought a crew out, and we just went at the questions one day and then the next day we took answers. Anyway, I caught pneumonia [after the shoot]. Maybe it was a little bit too much for me.

Was there any subject matter that Tom had to prod you on?
I had to get objective with a lot of things I’d said to the press over the years. I’ve lied from the very beginning, and I’ve made a big point of that. I was trying to find out all that and expose it. The interviewing process around celebrityhood, especially since we’re getting into the Academies, becomes really rather absurd in the importance. I mean, there are some people that think it’s really up there with the Nobel Prize. It hasn’t got anything to do with that! When they asked me to be a presenter [for the Oscars], I asked them for one-half percent of the profits. They said, “Oh no, but this is for free.” It’s a very kind of naïve thing that the actors get involved in with wanting that award. They’ll go along with just about anything. Poor Bernadette Peters, who is a wondrous musical-comedy singer, they had her do a medley of songs and she only got maybe a day’s rehearsal. To pull off some of that stuff without a rehearsal … people will do things that are absolutely terrifying.

So you have no interest in winning an Oscar?
No, you really don’t want them. You don’t want to make awards the reason you’re doing things. You’re gonna lose anyway, and it’s much more about losing than winning. And success is not a thing that you grow by. It’s failure, really, that you grow by, although nobody likes to experience it. If you really are successful you become tremendously bloated and out of perspective. You’ll see that with Mel [Gibson] and his behavior with billions of dollars. I like Mel a lot, and I’m sure it was extremely difficult to handle that, to the point that he couldn’t. It took his own actions to straighten himself out, but it’s a horrifying way to have to go about it.

Going back to the movie — both versions of you are smoking throughout. Was that your regular behavior, or was that more for effect?
Sure, sure, it was for effect. [Note: The rest of the answer never comes back to address the question. If you’re uninterested in Nolte’s view on the problems of post–World War II America, feel free to move on to the next question.] One of the things is in my place, unlike Tom Brokaw, I do not believe that the World War II generation was the generation of the millennium. I believe any generation would’ve gone to World War II. What happened was that these men participated in one of the most horrific actions that we can participate in, and that’s legalized killing of other people. It’s a horrible, horrible thing to experience.

Because they won, they couldn’t talk about it. And they just could not speak about it, and it caused a tremendous amount of secrecy and misbehavior in an ultraconservative way. Nobody wanted anything to change. I can remember my father and Jack McGuire, the head swimming coach at Ohio State. Jack McGuire was 6’4” and a redheaded Irishman, and my dad was 6’6”. They had all the parties in the house, and they would get terrifically drunk. Just wham, hammered. But that’s the only way they had to deal with that. And we would go down to Putch’s farm, and he and Putch would walk off in the woods and talk for hours. ‘Course my sister and I hated it, because Putch didn’t have any horses to ride or mules to mess with or bulls to kind of … you throw a rock at a bull and then run across the pasture and not get nailed. That’s what farm kids do …

I think the crux of the problem with the World War II generation was they just got shut down from life, and nothing, nothing was done through the fifties. In fact, paranoia was the predominant way of running the country. You could not wear anything out of the ordinary. You all had to dress alike. I got away with wearing one red sock and one blue sock. I told them I had only two pairs of socks and I lost one, so they let me get away with that. But that was it. Other than that, I was being kicked off the football team or voted off this or voted off that, and a lot of that was because the coach was screwing one of the player’s moms. I didn’t figure this out till later, why I got voted off the team my senior year. It just really blew me away. But that was what went on with that generation. There wasn’t a question of morals, there wasn’t a questioning of anything. Those men were damaged terrifically. And then we eventually build up to Vietnam, and it wasn’t anything like World War II, it was enough to turn the public off on war. But you know, we’re back at it again.

Just switching gears back to your career: You mentioned in the movie that Affliction might be your favorite role. But is there one that you regret doing?
Sure, there’s some. I regretted doing … what was the name of it? See how much I regretted doing it? It was supposed to be a situational comedy. With Julia Roberts. I Love Trouble. I regretted doing that, not because of Julia or anything, but because it was just flat-out a money situation. We’re going to make money by entertaining, and that’s it. When you’re on a film like that, then everybody is just putting their time in and no more. It’s not like Tropic Thunder, where you’ve got Ben, and Downey, and Jack Black working ‘round the clock to conceive comedy to see how far they can go in satirizing Vietnam.

What do you make of the industry nowadays?
Hollywood’s idea of a film, an A-list film, is basically a $100 million [return]. Whereas probably all films eventually make money, in the long term, once you exhaust all the outlets and DVD and cable and satellite. It’s not like the music industry where people are able to share files and exploit it. They say that’s gonna happen. I don’t know when that technology will be available, but if it does, then the film industry’s gonna be in the same situation as the music industry is in. I think the porn industry is in that kind of condition. People are shooting their own porn and doing it for free! Homemade stuff. I haven’t watched it personally. I’m a little too old for it.

How do you feel about a big-budget movie like Avatar being a huge success?
Well, it depends. That’s James Cameron, right? His faux pas was saying, “I am king!” [Laughs] That has kept him from the screen for a long, long time.

Oh, yeah? You think some of his time off was actually …
I don’t think he personally realized that he let his ego just slip way out there. To make that kind of statement, when you can be king today and fool tomorrow … He stepped in that position, just, boom, boom. And I think that’s why there’s been such a long, long time to come up with the next film. And of course, he is in that position where he has to top himself. And if he’s going to feel the integrity of playing in the game, you know. And I don’t know if Avatar does it or not, I don’t know the film. I hear from some people that it’s amazingly truthful and honest on some deep, deep, deep levels. But I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Have you seen it?

Yeah. I personally didn’t love it.
There’s your answer right there. I think it’s gonna be highly personal on how you like it. Somebody was trying to tell me that it spiritually hit every note, all those things that came in the sixties.You know there was none of that, and then all of sudden, these Indians showed up from India. I remember seeing Prabhupada for the first time in ’63 down in Lower New York, in the Village, in a little park chanting Hare Krishna. Most were on LSD, didn’t know what the hell he was chanting. When he came over, he got to get on the plane and one of the Indian customs people said, “What do you have to take to the West?” And he realized that he didn’t have anything materialistic to bring to the West, so he sat there at the airport and he wrote the Krishna Hindu book that they use. It was just a fascinating time. I mean, you had Krishnamurti who rejected the Hindu god. You know, they go around and they select this child supposedly that expresses these rebirth guru ambiances. He was one of those people and so at 21 he’s hanging out with John Steinbeck and people up in Monterey. And he turned down being the Hindu reincarnation of, you know, the Buddha. So his whole point was, you can’t accept those kind of silly-ass titles. I don’t know why I’m saying that.

Nick Nolte on His Regrets, Avatar, and More