By Jeff Labrecque
Updated December 20, 2019 at 03:09 AM EST
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Credit: Chuck Zlotnick

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

Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, who play your sons, are at the beginning of very promising careers. You must recognize what’s coming their way, both good and bad. Cast in a fatherly role, was it tempting to offer them advice on how to maneuver in this business?

Yeah, it is tempting. And they did ask. But it was questions about practical situations: “Is my agent thought of as a big agent?” “Who really makes the films?” “Can you make your own film?” Yeah, you can. “Will they say that I can make my own film?” No, no, they’ll tell you you can’t. You’re lucky if you find a mentor. And working with older guys, like Robert Shaw and stuff, that was always very informative to me. I mean, I was a real d— on The Deep. I didn’t want to do that film. I had turned it down. I just couldn’t find anything after Rich Man, Poor Man. I tried for Apocalypse. I tried for Billy Friedkin’s Sorcerer. I tried for George Roy Hill’s Slapshot. George would’ve cast me if I could’ve skated, but you threw the hockey puck out, and the skates would go out from under me. So after a year and a half of no work, I turned around and did The Deep, which when you look back it probably was the smartest thing to do. It made me very hot.

I read where you once said, “For an actor, success is the worst thing you can ever have, because it becomes an absolute limitation and restricts his ability to search for the truth.” Still true for you?

Well, I think I’m just too old now. They’re not going to make a big run with me at the box office. I think I’ve kind of worked through that. Success is that thing that really stops you in your tracks. You really stop learning. You need to lose once in awhile. I’m surprised I’m still working. I really am. People like David Milch have come to me later in life and it’s just kind of reinvigorated the whole thing.

Yes, between this and the HBO drama, Luck, and next year’s Gangster Squad, it seems like you’re extremely busy. Is that a conscious decision on your part or is that just the way the winds blow sometimes?

It’s the way the wind blows. Warner Bros., who I never worked with in my entire life, all of a sudden on Arthur, they discovered me. They feel that have discovered me! [Laughs] I’m fine with that, and now they’ve cast me in Gangster Squad, which is kind of great.

Luck, which previewed on HBO last Sunday, looks extremely promising. The racetrack is such fertile ground for storytelling. Are you familiar with this world and what does Luck get right about it?

I’ve been around horses all my life. But David came out and pitched me this. He didn’t have to say much. He said, “You know, I’ve lost $23 million at the racetrack, so I need to write this to get some of that back.”

That’s great on so many levels.

Yeah. I mean, going to the track with him is just crazy. I gave him two bucks to make a bet for me, and at the end of the day, he hands me $2,000, and I said, “C’mon, David, don’t just give me money.” He said, “No, look, I’ll show you. Here’s what you bet here, this is your $2 bet. You won that and I put it on this. And then you won the daily-double and if you count the Pick-6…” [Laughs] He’s just out there. This first season, the first show doesn’t really say much, but it’s really going to open up. By episode 3 or 4, we really get cooking. You’re going to see every element of the track. It’s not Black Beauty. You’re going to love these deviants. It’s great. We got some really good writers.

In sports, there’s an age where the athlete peaks, and he has to learn to keep up in other ways as his physical skills diminish. Is there a parallel with acting, or can you always get better?

The thing that’s so great about age is that you’ve just been there so much. You know where to go inside yourself for a lot of material or emotions. You know where it resides. So it comes off more seamless. I’m finding it as comfortable as I’ve always found acting and just easier to do. I don’t fret as much about that first day of shooting. I don’t get as crazy as I used to get. To face that first day, I used to have to get reeeeally, you know, out there in feeling free, that kind of thing. I come from theater and opening night is such a horrifying experience, and I used to try and build defense mechanisms against it. Like, I would spit at the back of the curtain and say, “I don’t care about this fourth wall!” Try to degrade that presence out there before we even started. I had a tendency to do that to the camera when I first started, too.

For a lot of people my age, you and Eddie Murphy will forever be linked because of 48 HRS. What did you make of Eddie popping up to host the Oscars, before withdrawing?

He’d be a great host, with his kind of humor and a little bit of the deadpan he does, and the triple entendres he throws out there. I just thought it was great. I was looking forward to Ed doing it, and hoped to get a nomination because I would’ve got to see him.

You already received a SAG nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and the awards season is just beginning. Do awards stress you out at all?

They’re stressful. There’s just no question about it. And it’s a stressful time in the industry, too, because it kind of shuts down and everyone waits to see what’s going to happen. There’s a lot riding on it. It’s about a lot more than me winning. It’s about the integrity of Lionsgate to make Warrior. If there is a nomination, it justifies that. Because they can tell it’s a “good” film, but if it doesn’t get an audience, they just consider it a flop. And then it loses that “good-film” category. If it gets a nomination, though, then it will hold on to being a “good” film.

Warrior arrives on Blu-ray Combo pack (Blu-ray disc plus DVD plus digital copy), DVD, digital download and On Demand tomorrow, Dec. 20.

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