Nick Nolte, Acting the Wiser
The spiritual seeker on inner peace, how romance kills the ego, and the crisp kohlrabi from his ‘evolved’ organic garden.
Nick Nolte has memorably brought his corn-fed bad-boy charm to 70 films—from the tough cop in “48 Hours” to Barbra Streisand’s tortured lover in “The Prince of Tides” to a narcissistic colonel in “The Thin Red Line.” His personal life has been no less dramatic or prolific—for all the world to see. But now the 65-year-old actor channels wisdom hard-earned from struggles with addiction and three divorces into his latest turn as “Socrates,” a spiritual mentor in the film rendition of Dan Millman’s beloved book, “Way of the Peaceful Warrior.”
Were you familiar with Dan Millman’s book before you got the role?
Yes, I was. About 20 years ago, when it came out, there was an attempt to do it, and I was approached, not formally, to play the young man. But Socrates is the right role for me now. I don’t think as a young man I would have been half as good as Scotty [Scott Mechlowicz, who plays Dan] simply because my heart wasn’t in the right place at that time. I hadn’t gotten through the ’60s.
Do you think there’s something about the atmosphere right now that makes it a particularly ripe time for this book?
Oh, absolutely. This is only theory, but it’s taken this amount of time for this kind of story, and more of these kinds of stories, to have enough impact, mean enough in our lives, for people to stop and listen. Because there’s great frustration out there—the world’s up against the wall. We’re packed with people. We’ve got instant communication, and if we can’t figure out how to get along, then there’s just not going to be anymore world.
Not that Dan’s book’s about how to create peace, but it’s about self knowledge. Many spiritual leaders talk about peace being on the inside. Fulfillment is on the inside. Love is on the inside, and it’s all about feelings. Knowledge is feelings, not brain power. The brain is never going to negotiate peace. We have a real abstract idea of peace. It’s kind of like the clouds will part, and some lighting bolt will strike the land, and a voice will say, “There shall be peace.” And, peace is not the absence of war. Peace, truthfully, is how you feel inside. Are you at peace?
Where were you in your life when you first read this book?
I was here in L.A. I was around for the introduction of all this Eastern thought that came in in large ways in the ’60s. [Society is finally getting] some actual benefit from people who have spent time looking at the world from the inside out, rather than always being directed to the outside. People say, “When you get your job, you’ll be your job. When you get your first million, then you’ll be successful.” What, I’m not as successful? If I’m not a successful human being, who I am? We put a lot of pressure—lotta, lotta, lotta, lotta pressure—on ourselves by being so outer-directed.
What did you learn from inhabiting this wise person, Socrates, for a while?
Well, you learn patience, especially in trying to pass knowledge on. You have to have extreme patience as the other person goes through every kind of ego trip and denial. We’re very reluctant to change. Even though we know that all things change, and especially our relationships are just determined to change. About the only thing that’ll stay with you that you can trust all your life is your breath. Your breath will be there at the very last, because when it stops, you will stop. You find it’s these things that are inside you. And we don’t give much stock to that. We like to think that our buildings are permanent, and then we have an earthquake and we find out, “Oh my God, they’re not.”
Was there a different vibe on the “Peaceful Warrior” set because of the content? Did it inspire a shift in how the movie was made?
Yes. [Director] Victor Salva really set the tone. Scotty had his process and I had mine, which was a kind of meditation. Everybody in the key positions kind of had some meditative way, and I didn’t inquire into it, but I know Victor’s been through rough times and has had to overcome. I’ve been through rough times and have had to get through them. And to Scotty, it was all brand new stuff—like it was for me in the ’60s.
Did playing this wise person change you at all, or did it reinforce the way you already are?
Reinforced. Instead of spreading knowledge in real life, you get to act it out into a mass audience; it’s delightful—to be part of a story that has potential to enlighten. There might be somebody who walks out of that film and goes, “Wow, wow.”
How do you distance yourself from the craziness outside and the craziness in your head?
You have to learn some techniques. First of all, you’ve got to be able to observe what your mind’s doing and not get into identification with every thought. Then you begin to see how scrappy the mind is. It will just come up with one thought after another, after another, after another, after another, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever. And I don’t believe that you can kill the mind, or go into the cave and de-brain yourself. I think you have to observe yourself. You have to find a way to see inside, and then it’s a matter of meditation, and then it’s a matter of either asking the right questions, or finding the right answers. We ask questions of ourselves to which there are no answers.
“Where’s God?” You’re gonna kill yourself with that. You’ll never be able to answer that. And there’s just a multitude like that. We also set ourselves up for disappointment by futuristic faking, and we set ourselves up for disappointment by digging into the past. If you’re living in the past, you’re dead. If you’re living in the future, you don’t exist. It’s all going to come as this moment, now. The future will come as now. And I know there’s a lot of people that are like, “Now, now, now, now, now. Just let it be.” But there really aren’t any problems on that level. On that level, it’s just about the breath. It’s just about this moment. And if you can go moment by moment, then your problems really don’t become an issue until the right time. You have to practice, practice, practice, practice. Looking inside takes practice because we’re directed to look outside.
So, it’s really going against the grain to look inside, then to find the heart, then to allow yourself to feel, and then allow yourself to be vulnerable to your feelings. And then, to make judgments off of your feelings: “This really doesn’t feel comfortable for me. Even though it is the Governor’s Ball, I think I should just get the hell out of here, rather than spend a miserable night and then question my behavior for the next year.” Little things like that. [Laughter]
What kind of spiritual inspiration keeps you on track?
Well, I was always a Krishnamurti guy for years and year and years. And for chicks and fun and just spiritual fun, I’ll go down and hang out with Hare Krishnas. You remember those guys in the airport? Well, they’re really quite fun. I mean, they have a lot of ritualistic stuff, but just their dancing and their singing and that, it’s quite good. But I don’t have to become a Krishna. I supposed they would like that, but if you’re really into ritual, then go to Catholic Mass. I really think you can get this material from many, many, many sources. Because the same thing has been said by many, many, many people for thousands of years.
You’re into healthy eating—has that affected your spiritual journey?
Oh, absolutely there’s a relationship, a real symbiotic relationship with plants. I don’t think we recognize it, but we’re in a symbiotic relationship with every plant there is. I’ve always had my own garden that I eat from. It’s a much more intimate relationship to your food. And you can eat raw, or you can cook, but to go to the garden, to pick the spinach, to pick the peas… Kohlrabi has been my favorite for the last four or five years. It’s a Middle Eastern vegetable, and it grows above the ground in a ball, and it tastes a little bit like cabbage, a little bit like broccoli, but very faint traces of it, and it’s very crispy, very juicy, and you kind of want them very tender. You can cook them or put them raw into the salad. And it’s not like watercress. It’s as crunchy as that, but it has this wonderful, mild flavor that just cuts through. And then there’s Mexican squash that grows as a kind of a heart shape, and it grows off of vines.
Do your find gardening itself kind of a meditative, nourishing practice?
It definitely is. This garden is so evolved. Everything is raised high now, so you don’t ever bend over. The black raspberries [are] about to come in. There’s just row after row after row of black raspberries, and invariably I’ll find somebody laying on their back in the raspberry patch. Purple juice all around their face. I can see how you don’t want to get a bear’s berry patch, because he’ll really give you hell if you come in when they’re grazing. [Laughter] This little canyon I live in, I’m able to grow just about anything. Vidalia onion from Georgia is supposed to have tremendous heat, but I can grow that. Not as big as they do in Georgia, but it’s the same effect.
How would you compare your role in Hotel Rwanda to the role that you’re playing here?
Well, I know Oliver had the intentions of Socrates. He just was an example of the insanity the world is capable of. We’re nothing but a breath away from genocide at any point. War is still a very coveted experience. We have war schools, war departments. We don’t have a peace department. We don’t have peace schools. We don’t know what peace is. It could be defined as the absence of war, but that’s not really it because war can break out again. Peace is a highly individualized, unique feeling that each one of us truly already has. We just have to find it. I don’t know how you disengage that karmic, “You hit me, I hit you” mechanism, but somebody’s just got to say, “I’m not hitting. I’m not going to play.” If the majority of Americans truly, from their hearts, did not embrace war—not just say it, but truly did not embrace it—you just wouldn’t be able to do it.
Are you involved with any sort of peace groups or fundraising kind of things or anything like that?
It doesn’t do any good to fight war with peace without first an understanding of what peace is for yourself. It’s a possibility that war is nothing more than projections of our own internal war. So, then it’s vital you make peace with yourself. It’s vital that you find a place where you’re comfortable within your own skin and you don’t need a mate to fulfill you. I think we’ve got this love thing really whacked. Why do we assume that relationships should be forever and ever and ever and ever, when people change? It’s a guarantee that they will change, and I will change, and there’s no leeway written into the code of moral ethics to allow for change. So, people will stay in these relationships just out of the sheer religious aspect that you should be with each other until “death do us part,” and they’re dying. To be real with life, we don’t know what’s going to happen, except right now. And so, to say, “I will be with you forever and ever” isn’t real.
When you love somebody, it’s our love that’s loving them. And there’s an assumption that when they leave, we’ve lost our love, but we still have it. It’s all in the heart. So, fall in love as many times as you can because it’s a precious, precious commodity. People say, “But, I’ll get hurt.” Well, who cares, really? It’s such a brief time we’ve got here. I must say that I love the ying yang of male, female relationships very much. And I think that women have been on a tremendous ride of change, and a quite necessary change, and I highly respect them for making that. And it’s through those relationships where I really, really learn about myself, because the relationship mirror is exactly where I’m at—if I flop into jealousy and things like that, then I know I’m all screwed up.
So, do you think you’re done with wedding vows for this lifetime?
I wouldn’t ever say I’m done with anything. [Laughter] Everything is possible. I think we can learn from each other in our relationships. First of all, you combine two energies, and that’s powerful enough to overcome your own prejudices, your fears and things like that. So, you’ve got enough energy to compel you into other levels of consciousness if you’re willing to go there and accept the results regardless of expectations. You might experience ego death, but that’s probably good for you. Most of us try to avoid that like crazy.
Especially after having raised a son, do you feel that you have a commitment to doing movies that are going to raise consciousness in a generally positive way?
Those are the only ones I will do. “The Hulk” was an exception, but that was Ang Lee coming out to the house and saying, “I don’t know how to make a cartoon, but I know how to make a Greek tragedy.” He had me hooked right there.
Do you think that Hollywood will only be as spiritually bold as their box office?
That’s all they’re bold at. I’m sorry to say, but it’s just a fact of life. Somehow these men have been able to divorce themselves from what is good for the society and what makes money. When I see 70-year-old men, who aren’t far from my age, and I have known them for 40 years, sitting at “Godzilla,” trying to pretend they really dig this thing, it’s pretty sad. I think it’s rather a sloppy business because it truly ignores a vast audience that is out there that would go to the theater—but not in the first week, not in the second, maybe the third week they might go to the theater. They have obligations in the adult world, but they might enjoy going to the theater if they got something that fed back cathartically into their lives.
What movies have inspired you lately?
I’m just really awful. I don’t see movies. I make movies, so it’s like a doctor. Say you’re a knee surgeon, and you don’t come home and watch documentaries on knee surgery.