He might have turned his back on Hollywood but as Eric Bana’s dad in Hulk, Nick Nolte may well give one of his best performances. Outspoken, funny, and most assuredly unique, when one talks to Nolte, is never conventional, as Paul Fischer discovered.
Question: What was the key attraction for this movie?
Answer: Ang Lee. He came out to the house and he said, “I don’t know how to make a comic book,” he said, “I don’t how to make a Greek tragedy,” and then he, I preceded to take him up stairs to my lab and took a dot of his blood and put it under a microscope, slithered it under my dark field microscope, projected it onto high depth television and we were watching, it’s in black and white, and we were watching Ang’s cells about this large floating through the screen and a white cell comes in and it’s all like diamonds and changing shape and the blood is vibrant and shimmering and then some silence and he said, “Can you do this in colour?” So I knew right then that he’d gone way past the cell in the origins of The Hulk
Question: Do you see this as being essentially a father/son story?
Answer: Yes, it’s essentially a great tragic father/son story steeped in the Greek tragedy in the sense that the hero, the son, had something done to him that he had no conditions to stop and then he has to live up to a responsibility. But he goes a little farther. It’s mythic in the proportions of, if you remember over two hundred and fifty years ago we had monarchies and monarchies needed one son to the crown, another son to back that up and third was very dangerous and fourths so they were usually killed. And there are many cases of sons killing the father, but it’s an old ancient theme and Ang, this films was rot through with symbolism and I think Ang is a very smart man. He knew he needed a real solid base underneath this character, the cartoon on the top. Hulk is much different than most comic book hero’s.
Question: Did you read comic books when you were young?
Answer: Yeah I did, but I was way too old for this one.
Question: What was your favourite comic?
Answer: Well we had four. We had Archie, we had Superman, we had Batman and of course, the Wonder Woman who you could see through the plain. Kind of titillating. It gave you the idea that maybe you could see through something, you know.
Question: Generally in the movie do you prefer the roles of the winners or the losers?
Answer: Either way. That’s part of pool of life, of human life. We fail and we succeed sometimes. Actually failures is more interesting to me than success, because out of the attempt to do something and you fail at it you learn. I learned a lot from Jefferson in Paris. I don’t consider it a total failure it’s just that that story was structured around a relationship with a slave girl, which we were roundly criticized for doing from the beginning and of course, five years later, they did DNA tests and they’ve found out that in fact it was true, that this Wilkinson family who are black are related to Jefferson.
Question: In order to heighten the comic book feel of the movie against the back drop of the tragedy you talk about, did Ang come up with a specific type of acting to play it that way?
Answer: Yeah, well, you know Ang came from theatre himself, so the last scene is a stage play. The stage is set, the spotlights are on it, it’s a four page scene. Who does a four page scene before the final big effect of the movie? But Ang, he came to me that day and he said, “I’m going to start with your close up”. Well, that’s an entire reversal of the process, but I knew exactly what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to set the tone of this drama, this stage play and I decided to go beyond anything I do. So after 3 hours, all the producers had left because I hadn’t strung two sentences together, because I would actually faint and get dizzy. I wouldn’t fall down but I would get so dizzy that I would start to faint, hyperventilating, fainting and Ang came over to me and all the producers were gone and I was on my haunches rocking back and forth and Ang said, “Do you think it’s time to string two sentences together?” And I thought about it and I said, “Not quite, not quite,” and he walked away and I had a momentary moment of doubt, you know, because there were many ways to approach that last scene and I said, “Ang, you know there are many ways to approach this, are we going in the right direction? Is this the right approach?” And he said Oh, yes, I succor for big.” He used it. Sometimes Ang would use a broken English and start speaking in his native tongue when the producers were around, and it was very clever because they couldn’t speak Chinese, or whatever he speaks and he got do anything he wanted.
Question: Can you relate to this character on a personal level, do you think?
Answer: Oh yeah, yeah. You do. You find something in yourself that relates to the character. Curiosity certainly. As you all well know I’ve been running around with research scientists and scientists for the last ten years. I know research scientists. I know Kenny Bloom who found the first alcohol alley and I know how much the other scientists came down upon him to disprove that and I know Kenny Bloom. He’s an isolated, very strange fellow with emotional sensibilities that can fly off at a moment, because you’re really out there as a pure research scientist and the background to this fellow is that, he got to work with some of the original pioneers, Pfifer maybe at Princeton where he can make Amino Acids and the early genetics as Associate and all of a sudden this, his mentor mad king, which is actually a name my grandfather was a professor. He finds his position with a full lab and underwriting the cost and military wants me to increase immune system here and there against certain pathogens. Well that’s impossible to do. He soon realizes he has to increase the entire immune system and what he ends up doing is he wants to, he increases it by ten thousand-fold. It could be done. It would mean immediate capillary cells swelling, immediately release of T killer cells, white cells, get to the wound immediately where already maybe a billion bacteria reside, eat them up and continue to eat the bacteria as fast as they come and the wound would close. And that would take ten thousand times to create a second of healing. You would probably explode you know, with so many free radicals in that kind of a metabolic process. The free radicals would be, you would just be riddled with electrons, extra electrons, so but I make genetic alterations on myself because I must know how it would work in a human and its not enough to cause me any harm but it alters some genes.
Question: So what about the obsessive nature of this character? Can you, do you
Answer: Well that’s a research scientist, they’re totally obsessed.
Question: That’s not part of you? You don’t
Answer: Oh yeah, I’m obsessive. I’m obsessive and compulsive.
Question: Does Ang Lee remind you of any other director that you’ve worked with and what is his greatest asset?
Answer: Well, Ang Lee is like the great directors, the ones that I have worked with. Scorseses, Terry Mallick. They all have a similar quality. Its in different shape and different form. Ang’s is, his concentration is so fierce, so solid that you can’t help but be infected by it and these kinds of directors you just, they don’t have to say anything and you know you’re going to give him the absolute best that can. That you’ll go to any limits to satisfy the story and the role and Ang has that quality. You know, when he said he didn’t know how to make a comic book or a Greek tragedy, I turned around and I said, “Was ‘eat, man, drink, woman partially based on Lear?” And he said, “Oh yes” you know. So there isn’t a scene or a image in the film that doesn’t relate to something. It is all interconnected. Like for instance the oldest living organism on earth that has never died. Jelly fish are a Greek name, a root of medusa. You know, it’s Abraham, I’m going to have to kill my son, you know? And maybe it’s Gods voice or the wife’s steps in”..
Question: You’ve never hidden your contempt for big Hollywood. Has this experience change your perception at all?
Answer: No, no. I do think that main-stream film making is, studio, have gone for younger and younger and younger target audience. It’s not a contempt for it it’s just that I used to work Repertory theatre and on Sunday we did children’s shows and I wasn’t very good. I always played the Prince and I couldn’t dance and I had a tendency to kick the baby carriage of Rumplestiltskin and get a big lecture from the director and, you know, in the finale of the. I don’t mind but, you know, if you’re older you want to tell stories about the pool of human life and living and to communicate, not only to your age group but to do an age group that can begin to understand, that has enough experience of life far beyond the taste of life. You know there’s a saying “Kill that, before it has a taste of life.” It’s a mercy thing, I think, it’s an Asian Samurai.
Question: What’s your opinion about the experiments of the science today, because it is very important in Hulk?
Answer: Well, yes it is, very important. Hawkins, in his latest book, Universe in a Nutshell, talks exactly of this. You know we know all the parts that we’re made up of. We don’t know how they function together yet but we will. Now, there is always a tremendous fear of science and progressing forward into areas of the unknown and it is a valid fear. Some of the genetic alterations of food are a little edgy. for instance, the corn that is B something 5 corn that’s been genetically altered in the United States, it can’t reproduce but it has huge kernels, it’s very sweet and it’s wonderful but the winds have blown this across into Mexico. And so the Mexican corn is being infected with the inability to reproduce, and so I’m collecting all of the maizes in Mexico that I can possibly get my hands on. It’s mainly in the North and that would be you know a catastrophe for Mexico and for in the Mountains that have only an acre of land. Some of the genetics are all right. Some are not so good. The ones that America produces for America are not so good. For instance, the tomato’s been genetically altered to have the colour red when it is immature, so here you have an immature fruit, ripeness is the rotting aspect. The more close to rotting the more taste, but if you have a fruit that’s red when it’s in the early stages of it’s life, it’s not going to taste like anything. But that’s longer shelf life and that kind of thing. But there is some good things. Certainly the grains that can live areas that have droughts and things like that, can help with the worlds starvation, there is no question about it. I don’t think it’s particularly right. I understand why they English don’t accept it and the French and you know, but in the areas that they’re having great trouble this could really help remove
Question: What are the reasons you do movies and not go further into science or research?
Answer: Well it stems way, way, way back from the first time I stepped on stage. I never felt comfortable in real life very well. It’s always been an awkward kind of thing for me and so when I hit the stage I just sensed freedom. I sensed here’s a place that I can have all the experiences of life and not feel uncomfortable about it. You know, in this process of the science, what I did is wire this immune system development to the lymphatic system of the brain, or the old ancient reptilian brain. It only has two responses -fight or flight. We still have that today. It’s capable of handling maybe fifty recognizable faces after that it just starts firing off. It freaks out danger, danger, danger. And by the time, if you go down this great highway here in LA, the most travelled road in the world, you’ll see a 100,000 faces and by the time get to the office you’re just an angry and all this kind of stuff, but today we give a tranquilizer and we call it anxiety. It’s not true, we truly have an ancient part of the brain that was about survival when we were prey but we seem to have gone past prey. We eat everything and nothing eats us.
Question: Do you have a fear of getting older?
Answer: No, no, no. I like getting older. I like every stage of life. I’m in my sixties and it’s an entirely different view than when you’re in your forties
Question: In what way?
Answer: Well, you’re in the last quarter and when your last parent dies there is no more buffer. You know you’re next, so, you know my mother died what three years ago and she did it the way she wanted to die and she told us even, you know I remember, even as a kid, I am going to die in my own home and that’s it and I will stockpile my pills that I need to get help with that.
Well, she did die in her own home I had damaged my leg really bad and I got to her four days before she died and I saw her holding onto her collar bones like this and her foot had turned gangrene and all she had was extra strength Tylenol. Well, I had some very powerful painkillers from my vacation and at first I was very leery of giving it to her because I didn’t want to kill her you know that would be horrible. So I gave her a minimum dose and then I took a walk with my English friend and I said, “I didn’t do that right in there”, so I went back and I ground up that and I ground up that and mixed all that and put a little vodka in it and I said, “Now Mum, we’re going to sip this for about 15-20 minutes and all your pain should be gone by then,” and sure enough, because she was holding onto her collar bones, she was terribly skinny and all of a sudden I hear this ffoooom relaxed, and then I called the hospice right away, because I didn’t want to be responsible for that and I made an agreement with hospice that the doctor would not look at her. Not look at any of her body parts, but just come in “Hello Helen, how are you,” walk out and prescribe the medication so that she could proceed with death. Pain sometimes causes the process to be very difficult. Almost every, even the Buddhists use pain medication in death, you know, to make the journey. You don’t want to know them senseless but if you have gangrene, you want to keep the gangrene from affecting the process of letting it all go. I mean all the systems were shutting down.
Question: How old was she?
Answer: She was eighty-six
Question: And what was she suffering from?
Answer: Old age. She probably died of pneumonia, because after the fourth day I sat with her, many times I would think she was dead. She would stop breathing for twenty minutes and all of a sudden she would go ahhhhhh, take a breathe
Question: She knew you were there though?
Answer: Oh yes. Because you see what the dying need, I realize now, is you need a witness You need a witness. You don’t need a son. You don’t need a daughter and you don’t need somebody who’s going to tell you “You’re going to live. You’re going to make it through.” You just need a witness that will sit there like, you need a witness for when you’re born. And we all cheer don’t we? “Yeahhhh, the baby, the baby.” And when you go out you need a witness too and you don’t need a lot of grieving at that time or rehashing of life. I found all the issues with my mother were settled in that four days.
Question: Did you settle everything?
Answer: Yeah, yeah. Because she would look up at me and she would say things like “It’s been a good run, hasn’t it?”
Question: Was there much to settle?
Answer: No, not really. There were bits and parts you know, that I had been uncomfortable with growing up, but I see a lot of that as my own basic nature now. I was extremely shy and I’m dyslexic rewired all sorts of goofy things and that contributed to, this feels right to me. I will always go that direction for right and always go that direction for left and when I read my eyes go back up. So I’ve had to force reading, retraining the eyes with a bar that forces my eyes down and if I don’t continue that, the eyes will fold back up. That’s just a natural
Question: Can I take your mothers name
Answer: Helen King Nolte
Question: Have you seen the finished film and if so what do you think of your performance opposite the ILM effects?
Answer: Yeah. Well we worked very hard with ILM. Ang didn’t want these transformations to grow out of nothing. He wanted them, so he made an agreement with ILM and they, I don’t think they do this often, they would come with their cameras down to us when we were shooting the scene and shoot the scene with their digital stuff that they needed to put onto the computer and they had scanned both Eric’s and my body, you know so they had full scans of it, but like, for instance the hand. I would do for the regular camera then we would put blue dots all over it and then we would do it with blue dots you know and go through the same actions and then I would , they wanted to get a close-up in the middle of this animation otherwise they would have it digitally make a face, you couldn’t stick film into the middle of the animation, so they shot with the animation camera a close up of my face, but that meant that I had to fall in and without my hand being there watch it, because that was the part. So now, my hand was maybe this far away. Now that’s a point in space, I’ll look at your eyes, now look at the spot in between us in the middle. It’s impossible, right? So what I had to do is learn the set of the muscles of the eyes of where they are or near and then hold it muscularly there and I found the more I looked like this, the more closer I was to the right focus or near and they said that, they said, “You’re going to feel cross eyed but you will not look cross eyed.”