LOS ANGELES—Nick Nolte arrives in a room at an L.A. hotel looking exactly the way you might picture him if you remember the famed Nolte mug shot of 2002. He is wearing pyjama pants and slippers that fit well with his unmade bed of a face. Somehow he has managed to drag himself out of bed to appear in a scheduled five films in 2008, including The Spiderwick Chronicles, which opens in Vancouver on Thursday (February 14).
In the film, which is based on a series of books of the same name, he plays the human embodiment and voices the animated version of an ogre named Mulgrath. The ogre wants to rule the unseen world of faeries and goblins but needs a book called Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. That book is in the hands of Spiderwick’s twin nephews (Freddie Highmore) and their sister (Sarah Bolger), who realize that if Mulgrath gets his hands on it he could destroy both the world of faeries and their own.
Nolte says that director Mark Waters wanted him to look somewhat threatening in human form the first time he appears to the twins in their estate garden, before he went into the studio to lay down audio tracks for the giant demon into which he would eventually morph.
“Mark would say, ”˜Think of the character as a junkie in an alley that decided to walk out into Park Avenue and has been out there for four days,’ ” Nolte recalls. “So he would tell me things like that and I would say, ”˜Yeah, okay. I can do that.’ I also find the animated part quite interesting. You go into the studio the first day and you try to lay down the whole range of your voice just to get an idea. They have a picture that is the concept of what the thing should look like, but they really need the voice to see what kind of range there is for the character. It was also explained to me that ogres are very vain. That is their biggest character defect. They can get very angry and they chase you and they run by you to stop and look at themselves. I liked that part.”
In 1962, in the infancy of the war in Vietnam, Nolte was sentenced to five years’ probation for selling fake draft cards that allowed university students to drink underage. Then in 1978, he made a film about a Vietnam vet called Who’ll Stop the Rain. Later this year, he will be back in Vietnam in the film Tropic Thunder, which has Ben Stiller directing and playing an actor who is starring in a movie about the war.
Nolte plays the author of the book on which the film within a film is based, and he says that Stiller was proud of how he had re-created the war in Hawaii. Nolte says Stiller and his crew did such a good job with the battle scenes they scared off his assistant.
“We were in Hawaii and Ben called down to where I was and said, ”˜You have to come up to the set to see this.’ So I brought my assistant with me and we went to take a look. And the set seemed very real, the way it would have been in Vietnam. There were three layers of mountains and there was something like 17 cannons on the ground. Far off in the distance was a helicopter, and then there were two more coming over a rise. Then they all disappeared over the first ridge.
“Suddenly two were on top of us and they turned on their sides and were shooting into the grass at the cannons. The other one came around in front and also started shooting at the grass, because that was where the Vietcong were supposed to be. I had hired this gal who had never worked on a set because I wanted to hire local people. When all this was happening, she started to run, and Ben and I had to yell ”˜It’s fake,’ but she didn’t come back.”
Nolte is 67 now but looks older after a lifetime of drinking that started in high school, when he was expelled for being drunk at football practice, and culminated with his arrest in 2002 for driving under the influence. However, he keeps working and, in October, became a father for the second time when his long-time companion, Clytie Lane, gave birth to a daughter.
The gruff whisky voice associated with Nolte and his characters for so long gets soft and almost sentimental when he talks about the birth. “She had the baby in a seven-foot round tub,” Nolte says. “It was just me, three midwives, and the mother. It was wonderful and, most importantly, there was no pain for the mother.”