NEWPORT, R.I. — “Once you get some time away from the habit, you can begin to see why it’s there and you can pretty much resolve it,” says Nick Nolte. “I had to shift my entire thinking about alcohol when I was 48.”
So what about the DWI at age 61, the one that earned him a place in every magazine among the world’s worst celebrity mug shots?
“Oh, that wasn’t alcohol,” the actor says. “That was a substance called GHB, which I had been taking since the early Nineties from a doctor for sleep.”
And the last time he had a drink? “A couple of days ago,” he says, without flinching.
So anyway, Nolte is sitting at a table outside the Chanler Hotel, drinking 7-Up, fidgeting with a harmonica he’s brought along and smoking Winstons, which he puts out on the lawn before depositing the butts on the table. He’s in town for the Newport Film Festival, where his new movie, “The Beautiful Country,” is being screened, and he’s discussing acting, women and the need to get intoxicated, which he thinks is universal. Even elephants get drunk, he points out.
“They’re talking now about intoxication being the fourth instinct,” Nolte says. “There seems to be a need to get out of this reality. Elephants do it. They eat fermented fruit to get drunk,” he says. “They’re one of the monogamous animals of the world. We sit somewhere on the other side about 50 percent toward polygamy, but they’re totally monogamous and if a bull elephant loses his mate he’s known to drink himself to death.”
Though it’s 80 degrees outside, Nolte is wearing black pants, a black silk shirt, a black jacket and leather clogs. He’s open, though not exactly friendly, and the general rule of the conversation is pretty much: He talks, you listen. He has a habit of weaving grand philosophical gestures into his mini speeches and his voice is gruff, boozy, sort of like Brando, of whom the actor was an acolyte. He laments the state of the Hollywood studio system, saying most of their big budget films are “basically cartoons.” And he has even harsher words for the reality television trend. “I think they appeal to the audiences, common people,” he says. “But it’s certainly not drama. I can’t condemn it if it’s what everybody’s interested in, but it’s pretty ridiculous, people willing to be embarrassed. The whole thing is such a farce. There’s nothing real about it. There had to be a camera and a crew and catering.”
He doesn’t particularly care to dwell on why he himself recently got an offer to do one of these shows, but he thinks it might have something to do with the fact that a number of his son’s former high school friends — not to mention the actress Sally Kirkland — have been living on his property in Malibu. But in any case, he said no.
Instead, he’s been starring in a small string of independent films, doing supporting roles that have garnered him praise from critics and intelligent filmgoers. The most recent of these was “Hotel Rwanda” with Don Cheadle, in which Nolte played a U.N. soldier who becomes increasingly aware that he lacks the power to do anything about the ethnic cleansing going on in Rwanda during the early Nineties.
For the most part, Nolte’s most memorable roles over the last two decades have been playing men who are broken down by a world they can’t control. After rising to fame with the 1976 miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man,” and then making the leap to movie star with the 1979 football movie “North Dallas 40,” the real-life former high school star football player from Omaha went on to box-office success in the Eighties with “48 Hours” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” before receiving Oscar nominations in the Nineties for Barbra Streisand’s “The Prince of Tides” — in which he played a man grappling with the memory of being raped as a child — and Paul Schrader’s “Affliction” — in which he played an alcoholic.
“It’s not to easy to age with dignity,” says Hans Petter Moland, who directed “The Beautiful Country,” which also stars Bai Ling and Tim Roth. “You’re bound to have some scrapes and scratches in life and to have human dignity in spite of your mishaps and your shortcomings is something I think he finds attractive as an actor.”
In the film, out July 8, Nolte plays an isolated, blind Vietnam vet whose Vietnamese son comes to America to find him 30 years after the war. Nolte doesn’t appear until the movie’s final scenes, but he spent three months researching the part and working with an instructor at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles. In one scene, he makes eggs and toast, so he took cooking classes blindfolded. He also discovered that no one actually did that “fixated stare thing” he’d been seeing actors do in movies. So he got Moland to build a contact lens that would cover his eye and make him virtually blind.
“I suppose some actors would consider it a gimmick, but to me, it was just a way to create that reality, that environment that blindness has to live in,” says Nolte. “It allowed me to feel more honest about it as an actor.”
“Honest” may not be the first word you think of when Nolte’s name comes up (he’s famous for making whole stories up when being interviewed by reporters who annoy him by asking the same questions over and over again), but on this day, he’s refreshingly candid. Asked if there’s a woman in his life, he says, “occasionally.” He then goes on to say that with three ex-wives and a grown son who lives in France, he can’t see getting married again. “I just don’t know if there’s really a necessity for it. It’s an attempt to put permanence on something that’s impermanent. It’s very difficult to run against nature. It was one thing in 1784 when the average life span of a woman was 23 years and men lived to be about 40, but that’s not the case anymore.”
Now 64, Nolte takes human growth hormone and testosterone as antiaging therapy. He shoots the HGH into his stomach and the testosterone into his buttocks. He doesn’t buy into the conventional wisdom that increasing testosterone in your 60s increases the risk of prostate cancer, as much medical research indicates.
“That’s a farce,” he says. “That’s fake. I’ve talked to Italy, I’ve talked to Sweden, I’ve talked to Germany, almost all the European countries and some Asian countries as well. Do you know there are places in the world where there is no prostate cancer? Here they just want to rip ’em out as fast as possible.
“Look,” he says, lighting up a cigarette. “I’m not talking about taking large amounts of testosterone to increase muscle mass. I’m just talking about putting yourself back into the normal range because your testosterone levels start dropping at the age of 20. This stuff with stem cells is totally outrageous. Somebody’s gotten the idea that a stem cell can be a human being. It’s just misinformation and President Bush is half-assed backward on this. He has no understanding and I can guarantee you he’ll be doing stem cells and growth hormone in the future himself.
“I’m just trying to be as healthy as I can,” he continues, stamping out the cigarette. “You know? To be 65 and move around.”