Chuck Zlotnick
December 19, 2011 at 02:00 PM EST

In Warrior, Nick Nolte plays a recovering alcoholic whose destructive addiction cost him his family, including his two sons, played by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. In his raging days, Paddy Conlon pushed his boys to be champions — one more than the other, perhaps — and when they enter the world of Mixed Martial Arts fighting, Nolte’s guilt-ridden pop seizes the opportunity to right past wrongs and salvage some sense of family. Characterized by a solemn bearing that masks a volcanic temper, Paddy fits Nolte almost too close for comfort, and it might be the best performance of his career. Last week, the SAG recognized him with a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Warrior, which arrives on video tomorrow, is the beginning of a career renaissance for the 70-year-old Nolte, who previously earned Academy Awards nominations for The Prince of Tides (1991) and Affliction (1997). He’ll pop up in next year’s star-studded L.A. noir, Gangster Squad, opposite Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, and Josh Brolin. And he plays the mysterious old horse trainer in HBO’s Luck, David Milch’s new drama about life at the racetrack.

Famously garrulous and philosophical, Nolte talked to EW about his latest good fortune and reflected on a career that has had more than its share of ups and downs. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Warrior is one those perfect movies that immediately resonates in part because it conjures up a cinematic history of an actor for the audience. Your performance made me think of the characters you played in movies like North Dallas Forty and Affliction and so many roles in between. In some ways, it’s all led you here, to Paddy Conlon. Did that register with you when you saw the script, or is that just a luxury of an obsessive viewer?

NICK NOLTE: No, there is kind of an accumulation in Paddy Conlon that resonates… because I’ve been around so long. That’s partly on purpose. [Director] Gavin O’Connor and I have a lot in common and he was writing with me in mind.

That’s got to be flattering.

It is flattering. We have a very close relationship. In some ways that’s really great. In some ways, that’s really terrifying. He knows me well enough that when I looked at the role, I was like, “Oh my God, what do I have to go through now.”

I read you weren’t exactly a fan of MMA fighting, though.

You know, violence isn’t really my thing. I did a few action pictures, but not much, and I didn’t know much about MMA. So I called Gavin and said, “Gee, this is a great script, but do we have to do the MMA thing?” “Yes, we do,” he says. “Once you get to know the guys and their parents and see where they come from, you’re going to see it’s not all violence.”

Your character takes an emotional beating in this film, and Paddy spends a lot of time apologizing. Does that take its toll on an actor?

In a way, yeah. It’s an embarrassing thing. It’s humiliating, you know? I know it a bit from my own situation when I went in to AA, where you have to make those apologies that are necessary. It’s not a comfortable thing to do. You know you’re playing a role, but you’re still feeling it. You can walk away from it after “Cut,” but if you’re playing a sad or mixed-up person, it’s hard to stay in that place for these longish period of times. You kind of have to check out.

The casino scene, in particular, is heartbreaking. Tell me about that and tell me about the scene that immediately follows it.

They were shot very close together. We shot the one where Tom [Hardy] throws the coins at me in the casino first. I can tell you how the crew reacted: They got very nervous about it. I could feel them around me not wanting to watch that scene. We only needed a few takes because Tommy just really went at it. And it made people uncomfortable. It’s hard to watch that scene. I couldn’t watch it, you know. And then, you kind of revisit all those emotions when you see the film again, and it brought tears. And then the drunk scene upstairs, we didn’t say specifically what Tommy was going to do. He was just going to find me ranting and raving over Moby Dick. So we ad-libbed a lot of it. It was written, but we took off. It was Tommy’s decision to pull me up on top of the bed and hold me like that.

Was one of those scenes more difficult for you?

I think the casino scene was harder. When you’re active, and you’ve got your beat of what you’re playing, you kind of know where you’re going or where you’ve got to get to. When it’s left in the other actor’s hands, you’re reacting. You’ve just got to get wide open and stay there. And that’s always hard for actors to do.

Some folks will see this performance and, rightly or wrongly, be tempted to draw parallels to your own life experiences. Was this a cathartic role for you in some way or was it a dance with the devil?

It’s not any role I’ve done before. And it’s not like that mug shot. That was an entirely different substance and an entirely different situation. But people might say, “Oh, that’s easy for him to do.” [Laughs]. None of it is easy. Actors are really working with bodies, with their minds, and with their emotions. Feelings, basically. That’s what movies are about, going from feeling to another. The greatest movie would be the movie that gave the audience a cathartic feeling of transcendence.

NEXT PAGE: Nolte on his advice for Edgerton and Hardy, his role in HBO’s Luck, and how the show’s creator David Milch won him $2,000

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