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Although Nick Nolte is a self-proclaimed liar, talking with him is less a matter of distinguishing fact from fiction than attempting to channel a heedless rush of conversation whose direction only occasionally coincides with the question he’s been asked. So Tom Thurman made a wise choice when selecting an interviewer for his biographical portrait, No Exit. Who better to paint Nolte into a corner than Nolte himself? Sitting at a wooden desk and sporting a white cowboy hat, Nolte the inquisitor lobs questions at Nolte Number 2, who picks up his end of the conversation via video chat. While he initially expresses irritation that the interview isn’t, as expected, “mainstream… you know, for 6-year-olds,” Nolte opens up to himself about his longstanding problems with substance abuse and the notorious wild-haired photograph taken after he was pulled over for driving under the influence of GHB. (Among other things, he points out that the photo is not, as usually reported, a mug shot, but was taken against a hospital wall by the arresting officer.)
There are still some cagey, even hostile exchanges between the two Noltes, but the tension between them is as revealing as their moments of rapport. No Exit is threaded through with more conventional talking heads, from Rosanna Arquette and Powers Boothe to Nolte’s frequent collaborator Alan Rudolph and studio executive Mike Medavoy. But it’s not surprising that none of them have the shaggy, off-kilter charisma of the man himself—both of them. Nolte recently called up The A.V. Club to talk about his friendships with Hunter S. Thompson and Marlon Brando, his trip to a documentary broadcasters’ convention, and a particularly convoluted prank involving Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and a pair of Australian police officers.
The A.V. Club: How were you approached to do No Exit, and what interested you in submitting yourself to this process?
Nick Nolte: Tom Thurman, I had known from the documentaries he had done. We were doing the Hunter Thompson documentary [Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride], and I was one of the people that he had on a list to talk to. It was primarily people who had communication with Hunter. Hunter was notorious for calling late at night. You’d get this phone call and you’d have to pick up in the middle of some oblique, long conversation he’d had with other people and try to figure out where he was at. Usually, you couldn’t. So you’d just meet up, a starting point, and he usually flew with it. So it was very abstract, very interesting conversations.
So Tom came to me just to talk about this. And he had a piece of literature that Hunter had written that he asked everybody to read, and I read it, and he liked that. And then that went from that part to “Would you narrate it?” And I said, “Yeah, sure. I’d love to be the narrator.” So then I ended up narrating. Then I said, “So what do you do next with these documentaries?” And he said, “Well, we take them to the documentary convention.” And I said, “Boy, I’d love to see that.” So we went to this cable convention of people that own cable channels. There I found out, you have four guys in Denver that own three channels, and somebody here owns two. Other people own 15—stuff like that. So it was very enlightening. And I started talking to cable owners about where they get their product, what they need, and this kind of thing. The answer was the same: “We get it from the studios,” or that kind of thing. At that time, China hadn’t come into the marketplace or anything like that. Since then, it’s a difficult situation, because China has 4,000 channels they have to fill. There’s not enough entertainment out there. I don’t know what that has to do with my last shit, but anyway.
That was my curiosity past Hunter—this whole process. Then, as Tom and I hung out together, he said, “You know, I’ve done a lot of guys, a lot of actors, and I’d like to do one with you.” He said, “I’d like to do something unconventional. Right now, they’re asking for a very clichéd type of format. You have to have so many interviews with certain people that have stature to guarantee you an audience. And they have to talk.” So it was a very dull format for him. So I said, “Let’s just roll the dice and do something off-the-wall, and do what we want to do.” So we started to conceive this idea of how he could trap the artist in a “no exit” situation, where he really had to answer the interviewer’s questions. Now, it would depend on who the interviewer was and how much he knew about me, for me to not be able to fabricate an answer. I have always been known as a liar, and declare myself as a liar. Brando declared that the whole acting industry was lying for a living, and I went with that. When Marlon said that, I said, “That’s exactly it.”
We were going to have a San Francisco interviewer interview me, who knew my work. Then, about two days before, Tom and I were talking about, “Well, it’s not really a trap. He’s not going to know.” I would tell Tom stories about how things really happened. He said, “Boy, it would be great if we could get you to say that.” And I said, “Boy, I don’t know if I can say that.” Then he came up with the idea, “Why don’t we have you interview yourself? I will just be off-camera, and if you get goofy, I will just stop the cameras and give you a lecture.” [Laughs.] And I said, “That’d be great.”
Even though it almost makes it a one-man show, it was a challenge. It was really going to be a challenge. We went through the sections of what we could cover, and Tom said, “What if I flash up behind you slides of certain people in the industry? And as you’re talking, you won’t know what slide is up there, and I’ll try to get you into an area, or something like that. That’ll be an interesting visual.” There’s always very much a difference in answers of how films are made, who’s instrumental in making them, who really put the work in, who didn’t, and who got credit. Certainly in the studio system, maybe one or two individuals that are really pushing the project, there will be nine producers, and seven of them won’t have anything to do with it. So we came up with this concept, and we hoped it would trap me into talking about the industry from a different perspective. And it might be entertaining.
AVC: Are both of the characters in No Exit “you” to a certain extent? How did you approach playing them?
NN: It’s just me interviewing me. I didn’t try to put a character on it at all. What would happen was, I’d have people come up to me and say, “Why didn’t you answer that fucking question he asked?” And I said, “You mean, me?” Because of the format, they’ve totally forgotten that it is me interviewing me. And that the answer, many times, is in the full, complete interchange between the two.
AVC: You’re asking the question in order not to answer it.
NN: Yes. In order not to answer it, or to force me into saying something I wanted to say a long time, but wasn’t allowed to or didn’t think it was politically correct to do. Take 48 Hrs. In 48 Hrs., Eddie and I are racially slurring at each other and showing our anger. The only films before 48 Hrs. [to do that], if I’m correct, were Lilies Of The Field and In The Heat Of The Night. After civil rights, there was this long period of very awkward attempts at communication between the whites and the blacks. The whites didn’t know if “brother” was the right thing to say or not. It was just really awkward. I think more than anything, that was the underneath appeal of 48 Hrs.
I tried to get Eddie to call me “banana-skin,” but he just did not understand: “Why banana-skin?” And I said, “Eddie, it’s because when in 1959 I’d go into the black section of Omaha to listen to good music, they’d say, “Hey, banana-skin, what are you doing down here?” I’d say, “I’m gonna listen to music.” He was much, much younger. He was only 18 at the time. He said, “I’ve never heard that. I don’t feel comfortable with that.” So that went by the wayside. But that’s what was behind 48 Hrs. When we went to do the sequel, I tried to think of another way of upping the stakes of racial communication and prejudices. So my idea was that Jack Cates, while Eddie was in prison, got busted off the force, politically, and he was a drunk now. And Eddie gets out of prison and he looks him up and he finds him in a fleabag place he’s rented, and he’s drunk, and dirty dishes, and all that. Now it’s Eddie’s turn to take him around and point out the guys that politically bumped him off the force, which would have been Kehoe (Brion James) and those guys that were on the police force. The breaking of the racial stereotyping would be that we would run into two Chinese twins, beautiful twins. And we would hook up with them and wouldn’t know which one slept with who, which I think would have caused a little bit of a disturbance in the audience, you know? [Laughs.] “I won’t sleep with a Chinese woman that’s been with a black man,” or something like that. That was my idea, but by that time, Eddie had moved on into his own thing. We just did it for the money.
AVC: A real interviewer probably wouldn’t ask you if you did it for the money, because it would ruin the conversation.
NN: Right. So there were liberties about taking that format. I mean, when Tom suggested it, right away, I knew that was the way to do it. I think the danger is the vanity of it, you know? Here’s an actor talking about himself, his career, and he’s the interviewer too. I don’t know what the reaction to it is. When I saw it, I thought “This is kind of curious.”
AVC: Back to Brando, have you ever seen David and Albert Maysles’ documentary Meet Marlon Brando?
NN: No, I haven’t seen that. I saw the one that was shown shortly after his death that [Mike] Medavoy had done and frankly, I wasn’t very pleased with that.
AVC: Meet Marlon Brando basically centers on him in a restaurant talking to interviewers, messing with them.
NN: I’d like to see that. He was the ultimate fucker. [Laughs.] If there was anyone who could set you up and twist you around, it was Marlon. He did it out of his own sense of humor, you know? He wasn’t mean about it, but he set you up good. [Laughs.] Sean Penn said, “Do you want to have dinner with Marlon?” This was shortly after The Thin Red Line. And I said, “Well, gee, Sean, I’d love to.” When we were on our way to the restaurant, I was with an English friend, and I was sure that Sean and Marlon were going to pull a tremendous gag, the sort of thing me and Woody Harrelson had done to Sean down in Australia. We were sworn to secrecy, but then Medavoy put it in his book, and he didn’t put in the good version.
When I got done with The Thin Red Line, Terry [Malick] had me come about halfway through the film, or a fourth of the way through the film, and all he would send me was emails. “Self-will. Run. Riot.” So it was obvious Terry was going to use me in a certain fashion to dramatically do something with the film. When I got down there, I went to dinner with Terry and his wife and Woody and his girl and Sean and his wife and quite a few of the other actors. The main thing that was going on was the gags Woody and Sean were pulling on each other. Woody threw a snake into Sean’s trailer, and then Sean countered, very creatively, by going to the local radio station and having them announce that Woody Harrelson would be in the park on Saturday signing autographed pictures for $10 a pop. Woody had to call the radio station and say, “I will be there signing autographed pictures, but they’re for free.”
So when I showed up, I had met Woody briefly before, and after the dinner, he called me about 2:00 in the morning and said, “I really need your help doing this. I need to get Sean to go to a certain place at a certain time for a meeting. And if I suggest it, or if anybody that’s been here suggests it, he’ll know it’s something I’m doing. Would you do this?” I said, “We’re not going to hurt him, are we?” And he said, “No, no, no, no, no. I just don’t know what it is yet, but I’ll inform you as the week goes along.” So I said, “Sure, sure. I’ll do it. What do you want? Saturday around 7:00?” He said, “How about Saturday around 6:30?” And I said, “All right, fine.”
So that week I talked to Sean. I said, “Hey, I need to talk to you. Do you think we could meet for a little while around 6:30 on Saturday?” And he said, “Sure, sure. That’ll be fine.” So here comes Saturday, and I really hadn’t talked to Woody much, and he hadn’t really figured it out. He said something about a bar, but he called me from the Port Douglas police station. Now Port Douglas, if you know it, is just a one-street town with restaurants and bars on both sides, and dirt roads leading out into the jungles of northern Australia. You can go into any restaurant with no shoes and no T-shirt. So it’s a rough little frontier kind of town, but it’s beautiful. He said, “Come down here to the police station. Be down here like 5:30 and I’ll lay it all out.”
I get down there about 5:30, and all it was is a regular, one-story house sitting at the end of the main street in a park. When you go up on the porch and knock on the door, they had taken it and made a long hallway down the center, offices off the side, and one of the offices was barred, so that’s where they held people. In the back, they had torn it all out, so there was a desk and a picnic table, and on over in the left-hand side was a long bench where people sat, handcuffed.
So I’m there with one policeman and one other policeman, but I don’t know he’s a policeman, because he’s in civilian clothes and he’s got tattoos everywhere. He looks like a Mad Max guy. And Woody said, “These are two policemen, and they’re willing to do this. We’re going to say that you were in a wreck in a roundy-round, and it wasn’t your fault, but since you’re out of the country, someone has to come down and vouch for you. And they’re going to do an alcohol test because it’s part of the procedure. If you call Sean, he’ll come down here. The only thing I don’t know what to do about is, do I leave the gun in?” And I said, “Woody, if you don’t leave the gun in, Sean won’t react.” So he turned to the cops and said, “The gun is in.” I still didn’t have any idea. And he said, “This guy is going to be handcuffed. He’s the guy that hit you. There’s a warrant for his arrest. Somewhere during the first part of the conversation, he’s going to want to take a pee; they’ll go down the hallway and then all hell will break loose and we’ll see what Sean does. And I won’t be in the room, of course. I’ll be outside.” Then I said, “Okay, well, we’ll see.”
So I called Sean and said, “Hey Sean, I got in an accident in a roundabout and I’m down here in the jail. Can you come and vouch for me?” He said, “I’ll be right down.” He was only five minutes away. They were all living in the compound on top of the hill. So he came and knocked, and I was at the picnic table. The cop went down the hallway and he brought him in. Now, the cops are getting nervous once they had to start to act. The whole feeling became like it was a police station. He sat Sean down and he started very fast explaining what the situation was and it’s, “No problem, you need me to vouch?” He looked away once and Sean whispered to me, “Were you drunk?” And I said, “No. I hadn’t been drinking.” And the other guy got up and they went down the hall to take a pee. It wasn’t anything that drew attention. But as we were sitting there, all of a sudden we hear this boom! Bang! Crash! Bang! And this cop with us took off and went down the hallway. And then it was even worse: bang! Crash! Boom! And Sean said, “What the fuck’s going on?” I said, “ don’t know. I don’t know.”
Then Sean got up and he started to head right toward it. And I said to myself, “If there’s a gun, it’s gotta happen now.” And just as he got to that door, sure enough, “Boom! Boom! Boom!” Three shots. He came hauling ass back into that room, went to the back door, tried to get out. It was locked. He went to the side windows. They were locked. In come the cops, and they hit the floor. I started to crack up, so I went up in the corner, hiding in the corner, and Sean was on the floor. And in comes this guy going, “I’m going to get the fuck out of here, you motherfucker! I’m gonna kill somebody! I’m gettin’ outta here! Sean, you’re gonna drive me out of here.” And Sean very gingerly got up and says, “No reason to shoot. I’m trying to go wherever you want to go. Don’t shoot anybody.” And the cop sitting on the floor said, “The keys are on the desk.” Sean got the keys, he went to the door and unlocked it and opened it, and there was Woody with his flash camera.
He shot it. Then there were two video cameras down in each of the windows. He had videos of it. Woody went, “I am king! I am king!” You just knew it was gonna start a war. I went out with the cops and we got shit-ass drunk. Those cops were so relieved that it was over. And they really didn’t think about shooting those blanks until afterward, “Maybe we shouldn’ta shot those fucking gunshots.” Then I went home, and I just hid. And I got a call from Sissy Spacek. She said, “Niiiick. Nick, we have a spoilsport. Is there anything you can do?” I said, “No, Sissy, there’s nothing I can do.” And Woody left town. But there were threats that Sean was going to say Woody carries marijuana, all sorts of vile things. It’s a great gag. I think it’s the best gag that’s ever been pulled. How Woody even approached the cops to do this, I don’t know. It was just crazy. And then of course we were sworn to secrecy. Sean said, “You know, if I had been in L.A., I would have had my gun, and somebody would have been killed.”
AVC: Back to you and Sean having dinner with Brando…
NN: So now, Sean has set up to meet Brando. And halfway there, I said, “This is a setup. This is the perfect setup. Sean is going to get back at me in a big way. Let’s not go.” It wasn’t. Brando was there. But I was much relieved. And then I became friends with Brando. It’s either Hunter or Marlon. And I miss both of them.
AVC: As you talk about in the movie, you’ve made five movies with Alan Rudolph, but he hasn’t made a film since 2002. Do you know what he’s been up to?
NN: No, but I’m going to call him. That’s on my list for this year, see what he’s up to. You know, when [Robert] Altman died, it really hurt Alan. Alan is by far one of the best directors with actors that there is. He’s just a treat to work with. His films have never made any money. He was always a failure as far as making money. [Laughs.] But without Altman orchestrating in the background, it’s been very difficult.