Interview: Nick Nolte brings his past to Robert Redford’s 'The Company You Keep'
The film also features Susan Sarandon and Julie Christie as former 60s radicals
Can you believe it’s been almost 40 years since Nick Nolte burst onto the scene as Tom in the mini-series “Rich Man, Poor Man?” He’s had quite a storied career, starring in films such as “North Dallas Forty,” “The Prince of Tides,” “Affliction,” and more recently, “Warrior” and Dustin Hoffman’s short-lived HBO series, “Luck.” Nolte’s voice is a lot more gruff now, and he uses his weathered persona to great advantage in Robert Redford’s new film, “The Company You Keep,” in which Redford plays a lawyer whose past as a member of the radical Weather Underground is exposed by a young journalist (Shia LaBeouf), forcing him to go on the run. The film also features Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Brit Marling, Anna Kendrick, and Stanley Tucci. Nolte has a small but powerful role in the film as Donal, an old friend of Redford’s from their days as anti-war activists. I talked to Nick Nolte in Los Angeles.
MSN Movies: I know you’ve worked with Susan Sarandon (“Lorenzo’s Oil”) and Julie Christie (“Afterglow”) before, but have you ever worked with Robert Redford?
Nick Nolte: No, I haven’t. The closest we’ve come to that is both turning down the same part!
Do you find it different working with a director who is also an actor?
It’s interesting. I thought it might be, but the way Bob does it, when we were doing our scenes together, he deliberately stayed out of the directorial role as much as possible and it felt like we were just two actors. But he did a great job directing this film. His casting was really important. All of us that he cast are people who really went through the 60s. Of course we all had very different experiences. So the homework wasn’t that hard, especially for my character who was against the war but, when that was over, he was sort of done.
How involved were you in the anti-war movement back then?
As much as I could be. The problem I had was that I was a felon—I had gotten arrested for counterfeiting government documents and one of the conditions of my probation was that it would last for the duration of the war! I never knew if that provision was even legal—
Especially since when you were sentenced they had no idea how long the war would last!
Right! My lawyer said I could contest it and I said “Let’s don’t!” You know, things were different in 1965, it hadn’t really all come together. If I had kept that case going for a few years I might have ended up in jail!
So did they keep tabs on you all during the war?
No, not at all! They lost interest once they figured out that I was an idiot! (Laughs.) I didn’t know anything about Mao, I didn’t know the Communist Doctrine, I didn’t even know where any meetings were! I was selling fake draft cards to use as fake IDs back then but I didn’t even know who the guy I was getting them from was—I just met him on a dark street and he’d hand me these packets. I gave him $5 per packet and could sell them for at least $15. I’d take them down to the university for all the pledges. One of the problems was that all the draft cards had the same serial number! This was not a professional operation!
Is that how you got caught?
Yeah. Well, what really happened was that I had bought a Hearse at some point. It was an old one and after a while it stopped running so we just pushed it off of a cliff one day. Except underneath that cliff was the ninth green of the Omaha Country Club!
Oy, nothing like remaining inconspicuous with your Hearse that you then shove off a cliff!
Yeah! So, boom, the Hearse drops right into the middle of the country club and guess what? I had left about a thousand draft cards in the car which was registered to me! I’m telling you, I was an idiot back then!
Were you familiar with groups like the Weather Underground?
No, not at all. My interest was only to avoid violence and the war. Back then we were only concerned with how to get out of military service. By the time the anti-war movement really kicked in, I was living up in Minnesota. I was working at the Old Log Theater in Excelsior where we had started a small repertory company. Dore Schary, the writer/producer who had taken over MGM from Louis B. Bayer, had seen one of our plays there and he took our director and producer to Broadway to work on his latest play. I hitchhiked across the country to see that play and called the director who I thought was a good friend he wouldn’t even give me a ticket! So I bought one and the play was just terrible, no sign of the experimental work we’d been doing in the theater. It flopped and was gone in the week.
At that time I was a juvenile lead. I did all sorts of plays like “Two Dozen Red Roses,” and “There’s a Girl in My Soup” and “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running” and Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water,” the same kind of plays that Bob Redford wad doing at the time. When I was doing “Luck” last year, I remember this old-timer telling the cast about all these plays I had done and he’d laugh so hard!
Because it was hard to imagine the Nick Nolte of today (he imitates his own gruff baritone growl) ever doing plays like “There’s a Girl in My Soup!” They loved it!
Do you find the movie business very different today? When you started the studio system was already gone, right?
Universal still had some contract players back then but it was almost gone. I first came in to L.A. in a William Inge play “The Last Pad.” Inge had seen us doing it in Phoenix and insisted that our company do the play in Los Angeles. He swore he’d never go to New York again, he was very despondent.
He had a bad experience there?
Oh, just horrible. Look what they did to “Picnic!” They cast Ralph Meeker as Hal, who’s supposed to be a kid from Kansas and Meeker comes out on stage in motorcycle boots, a cigarette rolled up in his sleeve, and a ducktail. That kind of guy existed in Brooklyn, not Kansas!
I’m surprised he didn’t have more control over casting back then, he had a Pulitzer Prize, for God’s sake!
But he didn’t. I remember he liked the movie version of “Picnic” better, he thought it was more honest even though Bill (Holden) was a little too old for the part. But anyway, “The Last Pad” had only been done by the Actors’ Studio, and very poorly. That’s the play where he kills off all of the characters, one by one. They’re all in prison, there was the young protagonist, the homosexual, the philosopher. The play goes through all of their executions.
Wow, I’m surprised that play isn’t revived more often!
I know. Well, we blew it through the roof. We first performed it at an old abandoned Holiday Inn. The audience sat in the balcony and we played it on platforms. Then they found us this old furniture story and we were rehearsing, but two nights before the play opened, Bill killed himself!
Oh my God!
Yeah. He closed the garage door and turned on the car. So then we got hit by the press. Time Magazine came, everyone! People like Elizabeth Taylor came to see the play and wanted to come backstage to talk to me but I was so shy I didn’t let them! We ran for eight months and from that I did some television things that led to “Rich Man, Poor Man.”
My wife just loves Dorothy McGuire who played your mother in that mini-series. What was it like working with her?
Oh, she was great! But some of the older actors like Dorothy thought I was a little strange. She got a little upset with me one day because in certain scenes I’d put earplugs in because I thought that’s where Tom was at, that he wasn’t hearing anybody in his life. Dorothy thought that was crazy. “He’s doing TRICKS!” she said.
Did you have anything like that when you worked with Katharine Hepburn on “Grace Quigley?”
Oh, she was just brilliant, she was great! I remember going into her apartment in New York and she challenged me to pick a chair. So I looked around and went and sat in what looked like the most comfortable one in the room and she said, “Oh, you picked Spencer’s chair!” So I passed the test.
I remember when we were making that film some producer asked her one day, “Katharine, how are you going to play this upcoming scene?” She said (adopting Hepburn’s voice), “Well, that’s a very idiotic question! How the hell do I know how I’m going to do something before I do it? Nick, do you know how you’re going to do something before you do it?” I said, “No, Katharine, I don’t,” and she said, “Such a stupid question!” We used to have little picnics together and one day she caught me signing an autograph for someone. She said, “You don’t DO that! You have to tell those people that you’re working, you DON’T sign autographs!”
Wow, you do an excellent Hepburn impersonation! I heard some of the actors on “The Company You Keep” say that Redford likes to work with just a skeletal script?
No, it was pretty full by the time I got involved. What Bob did, though, was rely on each of us to bring our own experience to the part, which we all did. Julie, you know, is a true radical. She was with Castro, she used to dress like a man, the whole thing! She wanted to expand the story which really worried Bob!
Did you talk about your feelings about the actions of those people back then?
Yes, we discussed it a lot but it was pretty clear where my character Donal was. He had joined them for the rebellion for the Vietnam War but as soon as that was over, he was sort of out of it. Someone asked at a screening the other night why Bill Ayres, one of the real leaders of the Weather Underground, wasn’t in this film. I always thought that Bob’s character was sort of based on Bill Ayres.
“The Company You Keep” is playing in Los Angeles and New York and will be opening in other cities soon.