In "Warrior," Nick Nolte plays a man looking for redemption. In real life, he's already found it.
The 70-year-old actor looks like a man at peace. He's invigorated by his girlfriend, Clytie Lane, their 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, and a passion for storytelling that hasn't waned over his 40-year career.
A little Hello Kitty suitcase and plush Smurf doll sit near the door of the home that anchors his sprawling Malibu compound, where he keeps a private water well and an acre-sized organic garden that sustains his family.
He happily picks a few onions and peppers for a visitor to take home — and a handful of raspberries and tomatoes that they eat together off the vine — as his golden retrievers Socrates and Ginger faithfully follow him across the gated property.
In "Warrior," in theaters Friday, Nolte plays Paddy Conlon, a recovering alcoholic seeking forgiveness from his two sons, whom he alienated with episodes of drunken violence. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play the grown-up boys. They have grudges against their dad and each other, and each is training for the world's biggest mixed martial arts competition, where they become unlikely contestants for the title.
Nolte's character, who speaks volumes with his crinkled eyes, is the heart of the film.
"He's the heart and the problem!" laughs the actor, who sits on a sofa beside one of the living room's three fireplaces, occasionally puffing on a smokeless electronic cigarette. The room doubles as a drum-circle site. Half a dozen conga drums sit in the center, beside a grand piano, a stack of colorful pillows, a barrel of wooden rain sticks and a crow in a cage.
"Warrior" director Gavin O'Connor wrote the part with Nolte in mind. The two worked together for months on O'Connor's 2008 film "Pride and Glory," until Nolte pulled out three weeks before shooting began. He needed a knee replacement and couldn't continue.
"You would think a director then wouldn't want to have anything to do with you because you've walked (out) on his film, caused him a lot of agony," Nolte says. But they kept in touch — they're also neighbors in Malibu — and one day O'Connor called: "He said we're working on another piece and I'm writing you in it," Nolte says.
The writer-director called Nolte "a national treasure."
"I wanted to use him how he's best and hoped the role would remind everyone what he's capable of," O'Connor said.
And it's true — some audiences may need reminding; in recent years, Nolte has done only smaller parts and some voice work (including Bernie the gorilla in "Zookeeper").
Then there was his 2002 arrest on Pacific Coast Highway for driving under the influence of drugs. The booking photo from that arrest, showing an especially disheveled-looking Nolte, continues to circulate in cyberspace, but the actor himself has clearly moved on.
Now, he's generating early Oscar buzz as a central character in "Warrior" and has some solid projects in the pipeline, including Robert Redford's "The Company You Keep" and the Los Angeles crime story "The Gangster Squad." Plus he says he typically does one European film a year.
"For a while I was really hot with the French," he says.
After four decades on screen, half of it in independent films, Nolte says he hardly recognizes Hollywood today.
"There are so many outlets with television and cable, and in one sense that's very good, but in the other it's taken a lot away from movie houses, and they can only really afford the big films so they make the big cartoon film, which aren't unfun to make," he says, referencing some of the bigger-budget films he has coming up.
The independent film is endangered, he says. He anticipates that there will be fewer movie theaters in the future, and the only films shown will be mega-budget blockbusters — all in 3-D.
"I said to (Dreamworks Animation boss) Jeffrey (Katzenberg), 'Do you have (3-D) without glasses?'" Nolte says. "And he said no. I said, 'Well, I don't think it will work.' And he said, 'Well, you haven't been in the game in years. It doesn't matter what you think."
But Nolte still has so much more to say, and the acting is getting easier.
"What happens is you get into this rarified area of 70 years old, your work kind of comes to you in a very unconscious way," he says. "You don't have to struggle at it as much as you did before. You don't have to really fight for it much. Your emotions are pretty prevalent to you."
Even though his calendar is full, he would love to tell Hindu stories and try to make the many Hindu characters personally familiar to him "into some form for the American public."
"It would be really fascinating," he says.
He's also mentoring future filmmakers through his production company, Kingsgate. Nolte has taught his protégés to prepare for their film careers by studying the great writers.
"A good education, you need that in this business," Nolte says. "You need literature. You need a literary background."
You also need love. Nolte's given the subject a lot of thought, and lately he's had a lot of love in his life.
He loves his work, he loves his life, and he deeply loves his family. Any free time he has he spends with his young daughter.
His eyes get all crinkly as he says, "I don't think I'd be around much longer if it wasn't (for her)."