actor Nick Nolte has fought long and hard with his addictions to
sex, drugs and telling lies. Now, as he comes clean, he tells Ariel
Leve: 'I've talked too much about myself. I'm going to suffer'
Nick Nolte lies, forgets, gets confused
and makes mistakes. He tries and fails and then he tries again.
The actor admits to all of it, and there is a vulnerability about
him that makes this valiant. He exists in the space between having
insight into why he does what he does, and actually doing something
about it. It is a space that is heavy with consequences.It is
early afternoon and I am being escorted from sound stage 6 to
sound stage 12. The members of the press who have been junketed
in to promote Nolte's latest movie, Hulk, have been strategically
manoeuvred by an army of publicists through the desert that is
Universal Studios in Los Angeles.
We have been bused, fed, handed schedules
and instructions. And, as in most military operations, numerous
things have gone awry. The round-table interviews, which started
at 7am, have run late and now it's past lunchtime; my one-on-one
interview will be delayed. I am told that there's a chance I won't
have the full hour. Clipboards are consulted. Cars are rescheduled.
All I can think is: Nick Nolte has been up since 7am answering
The cavernous sound stage has a tiny door,
and I trail behind the publicist across the barren space to an
area that has been sectioned off with a thick black drape. Behind
it is a claustrophobic science-theme setting: primary-coloured
props from the film, including a yellow gamma sphere, orange and
blue tubes in the shape of double helixes and glass beakers on
makeshift shelves, and, in the middle of all this, a large, round
table with 12 empty chairs.
A spotlight with a red scrim heats the room.
Everything is fake - the lighting, the air, the atmosphere. I
want to open a window but there isn't one. Eventually, footsteps
approach and the drape is pulled back. Nolte appears, accompanied
by a small group. He is graceful, rumpled, holding out his hand,
apologising for the delay. His presence is gentle but wary. Seconds
later, just the two of us, seated and facing each other. A few
feet away, he exhales. In front of him, a bottle of water and
a pack of Winston cigarettes.
'You mind if I smoke?' he asks. I shake
my head. He lights up. 'I know it's insane - it's crazy. I've
tried to quit but doing press causes me stress.'He is wearing
a crumpled, lavender-coloured long-sleeved linen shirt and silky
violet pants. He's into purple now, all shades of it, because
it's soothing. His clothes seem lived in, like Nolte himself.
His hair is a muted golden colour and hangs down over his eyes,
which are blue and intense - challenging, gleaming - as he leans
his 6ft 1in frame back in the chair.
Contradictions play out everywhere. His
face: ravaged yet at the same time still taut and remarkably youthful.
His manner is affirming - head frequently bobbing up and down
with a gravel-voiced 'Yeah, yeah.' But still there is a distance.
He's here, not here. There is an intelligence in his speech because
he is thoughtful, but there is also an undercurrent of menacing
amusement. I'm never sure whether what he is saying is real. You
soon realise that with Nolte this uncertainty is the point. None
of it is real. 'We're all liars,' he says.
Some of the stories he's told the press
include how he left his dead father's artificial leg in a bar...
How he had a testicle tuck... He lived in a Mexican brothel...
He couldn't read until his mid-twenties. But fiction is a refuge,
and Nolte seizes the chance - any chance - to hide.
What Nolte doesn't hide from are his mistakes.
The characters he plays are often tormented, introspective men
and Nolte gives their rage a powerful, physical beauty and depth,
whether he's playing a Vietnam veteran in Who'll Stop the Rain,
a ruthless officer from The Thin Red Line, a racist killer in
Q&A, or a beaten-down son in Affliction. His characters tend
to be men in crisis, and his range is staggering. The challenge,
he says, is when the time comes to let the characters go.
'You have to slowly wind out of it,' he
drawls. 'When you come out of it, there's depression first. Then
sadness. You don't know what to do. Not quite sure who you are,
or where to go. I used to try and drink my way out of it. I'd
drink until the next film. That was highly destructive behaviour.
The only place I ever felt comfortable in life was on stage. When
I got on stage, I was home. I'm not comfortable out here. There's
too much coming at me. At least on stage, I can be what I am and
explore what I know. Same when I go on a film, when I walk into
a trailer. Some people hate trailers - I love 'em. Because when
I walk into that trailer, all time ceases to exist. All outside
responsibilities fall away. I have one responsibility - and that's
my commitment to the role.' He compares the feeling of everyday
life falling away to having an affair. 'Everything becomes more.
More sex, more holding, more touching - you become addicted because
it doesn't last. It can't be sustained. It releases too many chemicals
that keep this heightened state of feeling going. But you can't
stay there for ever.'
Whereas most people - especially actors
- are careful about what they say, Nolte's filter is missing.
Some of his thoughts link together, others are seemingly coming
out of nowhere, but they all, eventually, round out to make a
'I stopped drinking when I was 48, stayed
sober 10 years and then picked it up again in 1998 - only this
time,' he pauses, 'it wasn't alcohol.'
It was another substance: gamma-hydroxybutyrate
(GHB), commonly known as the 'date rape' drug. It gives a euphoric
effect while lowering the degree of consciousness. Nolte, who
got it from scientist friends, explains that it is part of the
Gaba system, the part of the brain that regulates neurotransmissions.
He tells me, very matter-of-factly, that he drank it in liquid
form, morning to night. 'It overstimulates, so you feel intoxicated
almost immediately. You have to be careful because if you take
a little too much, it will operate as an anaesthetic. Then you
go into a deep REM sleep for about four hours and a lot of people
don't think you're alive, but it contains a natural oxidiser,
so it does keep you breathing.'
He had quit all drugs, but when he was doing
some research into the genetics of addiction, he says he 'ran
into' some scientists. He discovered that GHB functions as an
absolute mood elevator - immediately. It was faster than alcohol.
'You stayed high for longer. There was no hangover, no side effect.
I was the only person who has ever been in rehab who drank this
stuff daily for four years. They didn't know what to do.'
GHB clears from the body fairly quickly,
so it's often hard to detect when patients go to emergency rooms.
At lower doses, it can relieve anxiety and promote relaxation
and euphoria; at higher doses, the sedative effects can result
in sleep, coma, unconsciousness and rambling speech. When it's
combined with alcohol, the effects can be lethal.
Being an addict, Nolte says, is a genetic
problem and he dignifies the damage by exploring it. He has had
his DNA examined, and his brain and body Pet-scanned; he has studied
the receptor sites of his brain - the suspicious sites such as
D1 and D2, the dopamine-receptor sites that the addicted brain
has a lack of. He has discovered that he has no satiation point.
This, it seems, is the thread that both holds together and regularly
unravels his life. He is a man on the verge, seeking satiation
the way others seek sleep.
Nolte believes that it is impossible for
him to experience enough of anything, because his brain is always
trying to get more dopamine and this pushes him to extremes. 'To
get more dopamine, you can run, but you'll have to run till your
legs are bloody and your knees don't work. You can have sex -
but you'll have sex far past the other person ...'
He breaks off and smiles, mischievously.
'Look, after an orgasm, you're supposed to then be satiated and
relaxed, right?' I nod. 'And one of the tests is: do you fall
asleep after orgasm, or do you get up and do things? If you get
up and do things - you got a problem.' He takes a drag on his
cigarette and exhales a long line of smoke.
'All the dopamine has been fired off - it's
depleted - but if you don't have enough receptor sites, the brain
doesn't sense satiation. It's enjoyable, it's ecstatic, it's wonderful
- and now, let's build a house.' He is smiling. There is something
distinctly non-sexual about the conversation, like an erotic chemistry
lesson. He is sharing knowledge. He looks right at me. 'The push
- the drive - of testosterone is creating more sperm than can
possibly be held. It's later that you begin to learn that a male
has to learn a lot of things about his body.
'For instance, in the east it's called milk
and water; 2% is milk, 98% is water. It's created by the prostate.
The prostate has to orgasm to create that water. If you can find
that, you can continually be in this ecstatic state. But if the
milk comes, the man turns over and disconnects. That's because
it takes tremendous body nutrients to rebuild the sperm and it
He is fiddling with the button on his cuffs.
His hands tremble slightly and I have a sudden urge to reach out
and help him, but I don't. Slowly, methodically, he rolls up his
sleeve and continues.
'I've always wondered why, one second ago,
I was totally, universally connected and now... ' He shrugs: '
What's that about? It's in the nature of the orgasm itself. But
there is a way to avoid that and still be extremely ecstatic.
You have to learn technical subtleties. You have to learn where
the prostate is and the pelvic muscles, how to breathe, chakras
and things like that - and use sexual energy to energise the whole
Portrayed as a modern-day Ponce de Le-n,
Nolte has gained notoriety for his odd experiments. It's been
reported that he has a laboratory at his home and he mixes up
hormonal potions and vitamin brews, injecting them into his body
to stave off the ageing process. This motive, though, is suspicious.
Why would someone with a propensity to escape reality seek to
'I've been accused of trying to achieve
immortality. The purists don't believe you should mess with hormones.
Eat good food. Meditate, make peace with God. Well, there's a
quality of life - a standard - that I want to maintain. And that
means doing certain things.'
He grows all his own organic fruit and vegetables
at his estate in Malibu. 'In America, nothing tastes like anything
because of all the genetic alterations. I've been collecting Mexican
maize... ' And he is off. For the next 10 minutes he talks about
corn. It is a rhapsody. He speaks with such lyricism and attention
to detail on how and why there's no decent corn in the supermarket,
I begin to wonder if I'm under a weird spell. Why am I finding
corn this compelling?
'And you have to get corn into the pot within
five minutes for the sugar to remain, otherwise it's... starch.'
He says the word with repulsion. 'Sweet corn is only sweet for
a period of five minutes.' A perfect metaphor.
The subject of corn exhausted, we return
to relationships. Nolte has been married three times. All his
relationships, he says, have been accidental. 'There's a certain
kind of attraction. I can tell immediately. The other person feels
it too. It's not something I plot. I've never dated. I wouldn't
know what to do on a date. It's chemical. It's across the room.
You feel it - and you go right to that person. But you have to
be in situations where that can happen and I have a tendency to
be very reclusive. But I've always just run into it. I don't go
looking. Your antenna is up but you're not deliberately going
to certain places because if you do, all you'll find there is
a bunch of f---mates.' Right now he is alone, and he misses being
in a relationship. 'But, you know, it's heartbreak. It's tragic
when there's someone you can be with, but you can't.' He looks
away for the first time. 'How do you remain your individual self
and be in a relationship? It's very difficult. It's kicked off
by the nature of the connection - the matching of the chemistry.
There are extremely passionate relationships but they can't be
sustained. It hurts too much. It's the impulse. I have a tendency
to go to the one that hurts the most, has the deepest pain. Because
I identify - I can feel it.'
Nolte is haunted by past relationships.
They have all been long-term, passionate and combustible. He was
sued in a bitter palimony suit by an ex-girlfriend and he has
been married three times. He was divorced from his third wife,
Rebecca Linger, in 1994, and they share custody of their son,
Brawley King Nolte, 17. He lives with his father most of the time,
but his mother lives right up the street and he has made up his
own mind about where he stays since he was 12.
Does Nolte want to get remarried? He lets
out a long, meandering sigh. 'There's so much negotiation that
has to go on. I was with a woman once who said, 'You know, you
never clean the dishes.' So I said, 'All right, I'll clean the
dishes.' So I did. And Jeez, it was fun. I really enjoyed it because
it kind of reminded me where I grew up in Iowa, on farms. And
then I notice - she never washed a single dish. And I said, 'What
the hell is this!'' Laughing, he recognises it was a test. 'But
once I felt tested... ' He looks down. And when he looks up, he
appears glum. 'I can't follow your instructions any more. Tell
me the right things. Don't tell me the wrong things.'Nolte is
a notorious fabulist. And the last lie he told? 'Oh, a lot today.
But my cop-out is, I'm being honest, I tell you that I lie. I
started that to deal with journalists. So that I could have the
freedom to say anything I wanted. I just said, 'I'm a liar.' Brando
calls it 'lying for a living'.'
But the last real lie?
His voice lowers into a deep, self-righteous
tone. 'I'm not doing any drugs,' he says, grinning.But he already
told me that.
At the beginning of the interview.
'Yes.' I stare at him. He stares back. 'Well,
I'm not doing any drugs.'
But that's a lie.
'It's not a lie. The last time I really
did lie was when I said, 'I'm not doing any drugs,' and it was
obvious. I was sleeping in inappropriate places. I would fall
asleep on the lawn with the dog. I'd fall asleep in Union Square
in San Francisco. I'd fall asleep in a bookstore.'
It is not startling that this would happen,
since he is indifferent to the public's perception of him. When
he falters, the results often end up on display. But living, as
he does, in his reclusive world, the gossip literally doesn't
get to him.
'I overheard a couple once. We were sitting
in a restaurant out in Malibu and I had on what they thought were
pyjamas and a long cashmere coat, which looked like a bathrobe
to a lot of people. So this lady at the next table says, 'Why
does he do that? It's disgusting.' And the man with her says,
'He thinks he can get away with anything.''
He did nothing. It confused him. But then
again, the press has been commenting on what he wears for a long
time. Pyjamas - outdoors! And doctors' scrubs - yet he's not a
'I went along with it for a while and said,
'Yeah, they're pyjamas.' But then there was this really snippety
journalist... ' He wrinkles his nose and twists his voice into
a pinched, nasal tone. ''Why do you wear pyjamas?' And finally
I got fed up. I said, 'Look. These pants are made by Calvin Klein.
They're called leisure wear. And this isn't a bathrobe: it's afghan
cashmere. Take a feel.''
Over Nolte's shoulder, I see the small group
loitering by the drape. A woman is hesitant, but steps forward.
She's signalling time is up. Nolte leans in. 'Go on. It's all
right. I don't think I have to be on time.' He reassures me we
aren't done. I mention I should probably ask him about the film.
He shrugs it off. 'You don't have to.'
But the film is something he's pleased with.
The director Ang Lee has created a moody, unusually poignant portrait,
and Hulk is about transformation. Nolte's character - the father
- wrestles with conscious good, unconscious darkness, right and
wrong, anger, destiny and the effects of gamma radiation. It's
no wonder he felt a connection to the material.
The small group has returned. This time
they are insistent that we stop. 'You know,' Nolte says, politely
twisting his torso around to face them, 'this is probably gonna
go on for a long time - can we afford to do that?'
He is told that there are other people waiting
but if I'm willing to hang out, we can continue afterwards. During
the break I hang out with Nolte's British friend, Matt, 33, a
musician who works with him and lives on the compound in Malibu,
a secluded six-acre estate with several houses. They met a few
years ago in London when Matt was hired to tutor Nolte's son,
Brawley. There are others who live there: Big John, a retired
teamster; Nolte's nephew, Eric, a screenwriter; Matt Polish, whose
brothers Nolte made a film with; Gerardo, who takes care of things.
The place functions as a sort of Boystown.
For instance, one of Brawley's friends was
into glass-blowing - and now there's a glass-blowing studio at
the house. Matt comments on Nolte's breadth of knowledge in philosophy,
photography and science. And something interesting nobody would
expect? He thinks for a second. 'He's a fan of Godspeed You! Black
Emperor.' That's a 10-piece Canadian collective of anarchist musicians.
When Nolte and I settle in for part two, he brings two packs of
Winston cigarettes. He lights up. 'I was discussing with my psychiatrist
about normal - how someone could change their patterns and attractions
and all of that - and he basically said, 'You can't trust your
Does he believe that?
'No, I don't think so,' he replies. 'I don't
think that you can change who you're attracted to, because that's
chemical. This is my problem - all the feelings I have. I can
feel everything - that's what I put into my work. It's problematic
for a man, you know, to over-feel.'
Perhaps the problem is not that Nolte is
over-feeling but that the majority of people are under-feeling
'It may be that, I don't know. I can't climb
inside your consciousness and you can't crawl into mine, but we
can communicate and cross feelings. I don't know what level of
sensitivity is normal - I just know that I found some work where
it's a requirement to be emotional.' He adds: 'Have you ever had
this feeling - it's a beautiful feeling, a sad, sweet loveliness,
but it's got a tone of sadness, kind of melancholy?...'
I'm not sure what he's referring to.
'Looking out at a view - it's too beautiful
for me sometimes. It's too, too... It will cause me to go into
tears. I can look out my window and the trees and the green and
the way it is - it gets too much.'
There are things he does to relax. He blows
glass. And he plays the Theremin, an instrument that can be played
without being touched. It creates a spooky sound, like from the
old Vincent Price movies; one hand controls the pitch and the
other controls the volume.
There are benefits to making mistakes, such
as regrowth. And Nolte always learns. 'I do. You always learn
from your failures. With success, all you do is get fat.'
And the biggest failure he's learnt from?
Silence. Then he says: 'Avoiding pain. Trying to cut myself off
from pain. By running from it. Using things that shut me off emotionally.
Because you can become soulless when you're not feeling your feelings.'Responding
to how he functions in that pain, he looks uncomfortable. He shifts
around. Begins to slowly, meticulously, unroll the shirtsleeves
that earlier he had rolled up. 'Uh, not well, not well. But you
can learn. And it has kind of a wonderful process - like loss.'
One of the biggest losses he has suffered
was the death of his mother three years ago. To deal with the
pain of that, he went to yet another extreme. 'I blew the heads
of my calves off and ripped the plantar fascia,' he says. 'I have
no feeling in the bottom of this foot.'
'Because my mother was dying. That's what
I did to myself. The plantar fascia, it goes across the arch.'
He leans down and elegantly sweeps his finger across the sole
of his foot. 'I ripped it.'
The plantar fascia is the strongest and
longest ligament in the foot, the one that holds all the other
tendons in place. He tells me that he was trying to push a 4,000lb
machine over with his hands, on his toes.
'Four thousand pounds. And when I had it
almost over... ' He jumps up to demonstrate, leaning forward on
one leg, his arms up in front of him, hands in the air.
'I couldn't quite get it over - I was pushing
- I almost had it tipped over and I reached up with this foot,
thinking I could hold 4,000lb with one foot and push off it -
and the heel slammed down and the plantar fascia gave way and
bullooom! Both calves blew. Muscles ripped apart.
'And you know that white light people say
that you should go after? I saw that light and it knocked me flat
out. I woke up six hours later.'
Did he think he did that intentionally?
'I know I did. I know I did. I was running from the loss.
'When my mother died, I knew it was coming.
It feels like it happened for a purpose. When I got to my mother
I had powerful pain medication for my leg that would kill her
pain. When I got to her, I called her on a Sunday and I said,
'I'll be there on Friday,' and she said, 'Oh, that long?' And
I turned to Matt and I said, 'We gotta go now.' It was an hour's
flight to Phoenix, where she lived. She always told us as kids,
'I'm going to die in my own home.' When I got to her...'
'I hate to interrupt...' There is a young,
tanned man with questions about what to do about the car. There
are others waiting; should he let it go? I say yes. The young
man goes away.
Nolte continues without hesitation. 'I walked
into the room and saw her; she was holding onto her collarbone.
Her right foot - the same foot that I injured - was black, it
was gangrene. What was keeping her alive was the pain - she couldn't
let go. So... I got out one of my pills and I was too scared to
do the right thing right away, so I cut it in half and I said,
'This will take your pain away.' I took a walk - said I didn't
do that right - and I crushed up more, put a little alcohol in
there, and I said, 'Just sip this. After about 15 to 20 minutes
your pain will go away.' Then I got the hospice in there and I
negotiated a deal. You have to negotiate these things because
when you die in the United States and you call 911, they'll take
you to the hospital even if you're 90 years old and they'll bring
you back to life.'
The publicist in charge of the car appears
and this time she is insisting, urgently: 'They've got to go.'
I tell her that's fine; I'll take a cab. Matt, who's standing
behind her offers me their car. 'Yeah,' Nolte says. 'You can have
our car after we go to the hotel.' Problem solved, we continue.
In September 2002 he was arrested for driving
under the influence on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in California.
A photo taken at the time showed him looking dazed, a one-dimensional
snapshot of distress. This was the last time he surprised himself.
The arrest was, he recalls, deliberate.
'I couldn't get out from under the substance
I was on. I wanted to - in fact, that morning, I went to an AA
meeting, and I got there early and I was sitting in the parking
lot and people began to show up. I got out of the car and I started
to walk up there and thought, 'I can't do this. I'm too fed up,'
and I got back in the car. Now, I always drive on the back roads
because I don't have to go on the main highway, which is a particularly
controlled highway - they write a lot of tickets on the PCH. But
for some reason, I went right down on the highway and I was only
three blocks from my turn-off, but I drove way past my exit. I
was in and out of consciousness. And when the lights went off,
I said, 'The jig is up.' I wasn't at all upset I got arrested.
But I was surprised that I had to go that far.
'That's a very dangerous distance to go,
because I'm in a car - and I'm falling asleep.'
GHB was found in Nolte's bloodstream and
he would later plead 'No contest' before going to rehab in Connecticut.
'I was tremendously relieved. The monkey was off my back. Remember,
it's a relatively new substance. It's in every cell of our body.
And it just so happens there are only two places in the world
that test for it: New York and Los Angeles.
'I honestly didn't think they wouldn't test
for it. They've got me in the police station and I'm feeling no
pain. I'm in a rather elated mood because I had just come from
the stage of anaesthesia. I mean, they wrote things like 'He was
drooling,' and I'm sure I was. I remember it all. There was a
guy holding a camera over the fence, shooting photographs of me
from the trailer park near the station - paparazzi.'
Most people would feel humiliated, but then
most people don't explore their dysfunction to the extent that
'I had deeper problems,' he says. Namely,
concern for his son. 'He was afraid. When it goes that far, and
I have to go away for a month, that I was in jeopardy of dying.
But I talked to him at length about it, you know. And I said,
'Brawley - I couldn't stop. It had so many health benefits.' I
know people who take it today - they're in their eighties and
they use it for pain. It's much better than any opiate.
'He's seen me in most states. Right now,
it's a sober house. At first he was afraid I'd relapse. He'd say,
'Are you still sober?' and I'd say, 'Yeah.''
It's stressful, this world. And Nolte navigates
through it the best that he can. He shoots massive amounts of
vitamin B12 once a week, but when stressed, he doubles the dose.
And is he stressed now? 'Yeah - I've had to talk to a lot of journalists.
I'm going to suffer for this. I've talked too much about myself.
You know when that happens. You feel mournful. Kind of a disgust
He stretches out. 'What time is it?' He
doesn't wear a watch; he owns one and it's sitting in a box.
We end the interview and I follow him out
of the darkened sound stage into the light. It is early evening.
He puts on his sunglasses and there is a childish sweetness about
him, a bounce in his step, like he's been let out of detention.
Matt is waiting inside the car and as Nolte climbs in he exclaims:
'Hey, look who's joining us! We have a new friend!'
On the way to the hotel, he tells me that
when he was in the hospital, he liked the bed so much, he brought
it home. 'I was lying in this bed and it was so fantastic, I just
bought it. It adjusts for burn patients, so any time you move
it automatically adjusts.'
We're almost at his hotel but I have a question
- a big one - that I'm not sure that I have the time to ask. Worn
out, he says: 'Go ahead.'
Okay: how does he handle life not being
fair? He laughs and replies: 'Moment by moment, man.'