The Contenders: Nick Nolte

"Socrates, knock it off! We're not playing soccer now!"

Nick Nolte has not lost his mind. He is shooing away one of his ebullient dogs during an interview on his sunny Malibu patio. The gravel-voiced 70-year-old earned his third Oscar nomination this year, for supporting actor for his gut-wrenching turn in the mixed martial arts-themed family drama "Warrior." Fortunately, he's considerably sunnier in person than as his "Warrior" character: the remorseful, recovering-alcoholic father Paddy Conlon.

Director and co-writer Gavin O'Connor is a friend, yes?

You meet somebody and you just seem to be simpatico or you don't. With Gavin and me, it was simpatico in spades. He was an athlete, I was an athlete. He and I could make the parallel that the athlete is actually training in a form of art. There are some ballplayers, like Fred Biletnikoff, who were just true artists who thought so much about catching a ball that they went beyond rhyme or reason that physical talent was involved. That's true in acting too

There are some actors who work so hard in the back story that they become these characters. The English claim they don't do any of that. I asked James Ivory, "Did Anthony Hopkins, on that piece where he was a butler ["The Remains of the Day"], did he do any homework?" He said, "Oh, my gosh, we had to hire a butler for the hallway, a butler for the dinner serving; he would consult with every butler possible, how he should set the silverware and everything." Otherwise, Anthony would say, "No, I just say the words." [laughs heartily]

O'Connor has acknowledged he was asking a great deal of you to play this part, to deal with certain painful issues in your life. Why were you willing?

You have to do that — if you're going to stop doing the behavior that's not healthy for you — to really break the back of an obsession. I grew up in a generation when the parents drank. I didn't think anything of it until I was 48 and another actor said to me, "Are you still doing that? If you get tired of it, we have these meetings …" Finally, I had a weekend when I hit the bottom. My wife had to slide food under the door. I had a boy by then. It was flat-ass wrong. So I went to that meeting and I was scared to death. And when I walked in, there was everybody — I had wondered where they all had gone. There was everybody I knew. [laughs]

You never overcome any of these defects of character forever; they're always with you. You have to learn to live with them.

One of the film's most powerful moments is when you have to receive Tommy's (Tom Hardy) rage in the casino. It seemed to say a lot about how deeply Paddy realized what he had done to his children.

It's the whole ball of wax. Him standing there, not reacting, understanding this would be the reaction from his son, that kind of anger. He had no right to object to it; he had to accept it. That was part and parcel of his job now.

You've been nominated twice before. What grand lesson has your perspective brought you?

These experiences are horrifying. They're really outside of the actor's element. There's no training for it. You've got to find a way to get comfortable and enjoy it. And man, I didn't enjoy it at all [the first time]. And I didn't find anybody else who did, either. It was all very forced and contrived. But when Ian McKellen was up [for "Gods and Monsters"] and I was up for "Affliction," when he would win, I would walk up and hug him. I would hold on to him. My hands around his waist. Everybody was going nuts and shooting pictures; it looked like I was his gay lover. Ian was loving it. But his lover actually got mad; he was 6 foot 5.

So after [Roberto] Benigni won the Oscar, I found Ian and Ed Norton [nominated for "American History X"] at the bar. Ian said, "I don't know why you think you'd win, Nolte, you're only playing yourself!" I smiled and said, "Look who's calling the kettle black!" We both turned to Norton and said, "What did you think, bald head and tattoos were going to get you the Academy Award?" He said, "I'm just thankful to be in your company" — we were all laughing. We stayed out there for as long as Ian's lover could take it — he came out and grabbed Ian around the neck and dragged him back in. Ian was, "Ta ta!" Most fun I ever had. Yeah, you just gotta relax.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World