The Oscar-nominated actor reflects on the grandeur of the Appalachian Trail, wrestling in Iowa as a child and an acting career spent portraying wild men
Author Giaco Furino Illustration Cun Shi
Nick Nolte has played characters on the edge of nervous breakdowns for half a century. As seen in films like 48 Hrs., The Thin Red Line, The Prince of Tides and Cape Fear, Nolte’s characters, wild-eyed and often screaming, burst onto the screen with a vibrancy that refuses to be ignored. Nolte also likes his parts, as he says, “touched with the satirical.
In the upcoming film A Walk in the Woods, he stars with Robert Redford in an adaptation of the hilarious travelogue by Bill Bryson. The film follows Bryson (Redford) as he sets off on the Appalachian Trail to get reacquainted with the natural world around him. Nolte plays his estranged friend, Stephen Katz. Out of shape, suffering from seizures and a serial troublemaker, Katz nevertheless invites himself along for the trek. The two wind up wheezing their way across the Trail, hopping off their wooded route from time to time to sleep in hotels and eat at diners. A natural outdoorsman, Nolte was well suited to the film, which involved long treks in the woods and required him to tough it out on set.
I chatted with Nolte from a similarly rustic setting, tucked in the woods, on vacation, away from the bustle of city life. Staring out at a serene lake, I listened as Nolte shared his thoughts on nature, “wrasslin’,” chaos and dark energy, and playing archetypes. Hearing that iconic, gravelly voice over the phone, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the kindness, good humor and philosophical inclination of this Hollywood legend.
Hemispheres: I’ve got to tell you, Mr. Nolte, I’m in the perfect setting to be conducting this interview. I’m relaxing in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
Nick Nolte: Well, you’re a lucky, lucky man, I’ll tell you. I’ve got a farm that’s right on the border of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and I love it there. Just love it.
Hemispheres: Do you consider yourself outdoorsy?
Nolte: Well, yeah, ’cause I grew up in small-town Iowa. And 13 minutes in any direction, I was in the country. So I spent a lot of my time in nature, until I went to LA. I suppose that LA’s in nature a little bit, but it’s a little packed, you know?
Hemispheres: It’s a little condensed.
Nolte: Yes, a lot of cement!
Hemispheres: Do you still try to get out into nature?
Nolte: Absolutely. I like to go hiking. I go out with the family, and I live pretty far out. Well, in Malibu, so it’s not really the country. But some people consider that the country in LA. I don’t know why. [Laughs] But I try to spend as much time as I can in nature, because I don’t do well in cities. It’s best I get somewhere where I can communicate with something, you know?
Hemispheres: Is it the lack of nature that you dislike about cities? Or are there too many people?
Nolte: It’s the lack of nature, and then it’s the—what I feel—artificial communication of verbal, mind-to-mind kind of ideas running the system. I have difficulty with that. But I was raised in the ’40s, and the more I look at my childhood—I was born in ’41—I can distinctly remember the fear that was pervasive throughout the United States. I distinctly remember the unsettling feelings there were at that time, from the adult world.
Hemispheres: A Walk in the Woods is so tied to its place. It wouldn’t be the movie it is without the Appalachian Trail. It’s such a part of the film’s identity.
Nolte: Yes, it is. The Appalachian Trail, to me, is like the first highway of America. It’s got this ambiance of being this fabulous way to travel those Appalachian Mountains. Although, I don’t know of anybody who’s ever walked it, you know? There have been people who have walked it, but I’ve never met anybody. And I asked everybody I bumped into on the trail. And I know there are people who have been walking it for years! It’s really a special, American way to communicate with nature. It’s a bigger, better trail. It’s a symbol of the country.
Hemispheres: It feels quintessentially American.
Nolte: Absolutely. It’s right up there. Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Appalachian Trail, you know it’s right in there. It’s a symbol of America. Nobody’s going to charge you to walk it—if you can make it.
Hemispheres: Did you and Robert Redford walk much of the trail?
Nolte: I don’t know if two 70-year-old men could walk it at all! You might make it a day or so. You know, you’ve got to camp out, everything like that. It would be rough! Bob, he might say he could walk it. At least, he gave me the impression he was going to walk it every day.
Hemispheres: In the shooting of the film, were there any problems that came up? Was it hard? Did you enjoy the physicality of it?
Nolte: Bob and I really had a ball. We would check in with each other every day, and basically our communication went something like this: I said to Bob, “You know, Bob, last night I went to bed early, I made myself a vodka. And I was sitting in the bed, and I fell asleep with the glass in my hand … and I never had a sip of it!” And Bob said, “You know, the same thing happened to me!” At the end of the day, we were beat! We were really roughed up from shooting the scenes. There was none of this movie stuff of “I’m going to my trailer”; there were no trailers. We were exposed to the elements all day. That took a while to get used to. By the end of the film, we were ready to shoo!
Hemispheres: How was the chemistry between you and Redford? Did you get along well during shooting?
Nolte: We got along real well. There was only one day where things could have gone sour, but they didn’t. We were filming the scene where we fall off a cliff, and Bob’s on my back. And for some reason—you know I’m from Iowa, and we wrassle a lot. Ever since I was a little kid, we wrassled, and with Bob being on my back, I went to do a sit-out! Well, he’s 78, and he didn’t like the idea that I was doing a sit-out from underneath him. And I knew immediately he was mad, as soon as I did it, because it was just a reaction. And I said, “Wait, wait! It’s a sit-out; it’s a wrasslin’ reaction!” And he understood, but for a second he thought maybe I was trying to hurt him. I guess if you sit on somebody from Iowa, they’re gonna take you down!
Hemispheres: That’s natural conditioning, right?
Nolte: Yeah, it’s a natural reaction. I don’t know why farmers are like that. [Laughs] I suppose in New Jersey they’d get into a ring and box him! But, all in all, we had a good time.
Hemispheres: The character of Stephen Katz is really fun. He opens the movie already coming off the rails. What draws you to these wild-eyed, wild-haired, wild-man characters?
Nolte: Well, there’s something about wildness that really appeals to me. You know this civilized world that we live in? I’m kind of enamored of the craziness that is undercoating every one of us. Not that I think that should be the predominant way of behaving, because it doesn’t work, but we are each uniquely made. I look at that a lot; that appeals to me. So it appeals to me as an actor to express that ideal, that behind each one of us is a unique, wild entity. An entity that’s part of the universe, and the many particles and wildness in how they interact—there’s obviously some kind of harmony in how they interact. Some kind of unity and conformity. But the universe gets along fine, and it’s got some really crazy characters in it, like pulsars and dark energy. You know? What the hell is dark energy?
Hemispheres: I honestly have no idea.
Nolte: Right! You can’t see it, but it’s there. So I think that’s what appeals to me, characters that are slightly touched with the satirical point. And they can laugh at our attempts to make the world rational and coherent and predictable, when it’s really highly unpredictable. We don’t even know how we’re gonna die, or when! What a presumption to say, “Hey, you get to live … but you’re gonna die.” I mean, would you take that deal? We have to make life palatable somehow, so that’s my way of making life palatable. By being that crazy guy. You know the Katzes of the world will get along just fine. They don’t seem to get hurt, when they should be the ones who get hurt. But the ones that get hurt, they’re the ones that are really tragic. As much as Bryson bitches about Katz, he really needs him as a writer, to be his metaphor.
Hemispheres: What’s your big takeaway from the film?
Nolte: This piece, it doesn’t really rely on Bob playing the actual writer or me playing the actual Katz. The writer’s really attempting to approach a much broader audience. He’s trying to say we should all take this vast walk of absurdity. It’s kind of in the same vein as the saying, “To approach the impossible, one must do something absurd.” And that’s maybe how we reach perfection, if we ever reach it.
Hemispheres: Do you feel these types of characters matter more as archetypes than as actual people?
Nolte: Absolutely. That’s what I’ve always tried to say about acting. Acting is not about myself trying to be another person. I’m trying to represent an archetype of a general feeling for all people who watch it and are trying to live through the experience. So it’s larger than me. It’s not a personal thing. It’s something I have to do to survive. I don’t know how to do anything else.
Hemispheres: Sure, and you’ve played these archetypes for more than 50 years now. How have things changed?.
Nolte: I really don’t know. I’ve just been looking at it from the particular view of having the tools to create. And for some reason, it’s always been there. The next story is there. If I ever run out of the stories that mean anything to us, then I won’t tell them. Because if they don’t mean anything, there’s no reason to do it. You do have to take these steps, these trails, these paths that you do not know. Life is full of mistakes, but that’s how we learn. Sometimes, I make too big mistakes, and I have to suffer for them a little bit, too. [Laughs] You figure it out along the way, and that’s what life is.
Freelance writer Giaco Furino, following this interview, has been spending his time contemplating dark energy.