“I’m looking for more significant stories that deal with real life”
For the past four months, actor Nick Nolte has been in Europe shooting the upcoming film Honey in the Head.
In the film, Nolte plays a widower struggling with the mental deterioration caused by Alzheimer’s disease. While living with his son and daughter-in-law in London, he decides to take his granddaughter on a road trip to Venice. It’s a complex, mentally fatiguing role, made more so by the fact that Nolte’s own daughter, 10-year-old Sophie, is playing his granddaughter in the film.
One would think that when filming in Germany wrapped recently, the 77-year-old actor would want to head straight home to L.A. But instead, he took a detour to Pittsburgh to visit with one of his closest friends, Jimmy Cvetic.
For the five people in the county who don’t know, Cvetic is a retired Allegheny County Police undercover narcotics officer. He’s also a poet, boxing coach and head of the Police Athletic League, a group that is known for collecting thousands of toys – about 17,000 last year – for underprivileged kids and children who have an incarcerated parent.
“We’ve been shooting that film over there and when we were finished, my wife and daughter decided to visit Siberia,” says Nolte, who stopped by the Current’s office on Wednesday. “I flew to New York and went to my farm for a few days and I didn’t want to go straight home, so I decided to come out and see this guy, Jimmy from Pittsburgh.”
Cvetic, who will be curating a poetry page in the Pittsburgh Current beginning Aug. 7, met Nolte in 2011. Nolte was in town filming the critically acclaimed Gavin O’Connor film Warrior co-starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as two brothers involved in Mixed Martial Arts, and Nolte as their father.
When he got to town, O’Connor told Nolte about a guy named “Jimmy from Pittsburgh,” who was helping out the production because of Cvetic’s ties to the city’s fight scene. Nolte, who has long had a reputation for partying and drinking, told O’Connor that he wouldn’t drink on the shoot. That promise didn’t last long.
“Well, the first night I’m at a function and after that we go out and party until 7 a.m. the next day,” Nolte says. “I knew I was in trouble. Gavin said, ‘Nick what are we going to do, you said you weren’t going to drink on this film.’
“I said, ‘Gavin, look, what we need is discipline. What we need is Jimmy Cvetic, Jimmy from Pittsburgh.’ I was only allowed to hang out with Jimmy from Pittsburgh. Not that there still wasn’t a lot to get into in Pittsburgh; but Jimmy knew the parties to keep me away from and he knew when it was time to get me to bed.”
Cvetic served as Nolte’s “chaperone” for the entirety of filming and the two men became fast friends, bonding over the arts. Nolte recalls asking Cvetic what he did for fun if he didn’t smoke or drink. “Jimmy shows me this giant stack of poetry. I read it and it was some of the best poetry I’d ever read,” Nolte says. Nolte was so impressed with Cvetic’s poems that he took them to poets at the nearby Los Angeles Poetry Club in Venice, Ca., and they were so impressed that they have had Cvetic out to the club for readings.
Cvetic, known as Dog from his days as a narco cop, just recently released a new book of Poetry, Dog Days; a follow up to last year’s Dog is a Love from Hell.
Nolte stopped by the Pittsburgh Current’s Beechview office on Aug. 2 with Cvetic to talk about his friendship with Jimmy from Pittsburgh, his newest film, Honey in the Head and to talk about the 49-year career that he recently chronicled in a new autobiography, Rebel.
Honey In the Head
“Now that I’m older, I’m looking for more significant stories that deal with real life and touch the heart,” Nolte says when asked if he misses the days of more action-packed films like 48 Hours or Extreme Prejudice. “I’m not looking to do action films or heroic pictures anymore; they just don’t interest me.
“I’m looking for movies like Honey in the Head. It could have easily been a disease movie, but we went beyond that. It’s a love story about family and how they deal with Alzheimer’s. It’s the granddaughter who figures out how to deal with this man and his condition.”
Nolte says working with his daughter on the film was a tremendous experience calling her “probably the real star of the film.” He says he worked with his daughter, 10-year-old Sophie, some on how to elicit a particular emotion on command, like crying. “When it came down to it, she was able to put truth in the role. Whether she cries or not, the emotion is truth. She was really fantastic.”
Sophie has always had an interest in acting and Nolte says it wasn’t weird playing her grandfather because that’s what his daughter calls him in real life.
“I drove her to school and she said, ‘you can let me out here and instead of saying goodbye daughter, say goodbye, granddaughter,’ because, you know, I’m twice as old as the other parents. I told her I wouldn’t do that because she was my daughter and I proud to be her dad. She looked at me, jumped out of the car and said, ‘Bye Grandpa!’ and slammed the door real fast,” Nolte says laughing. “And I think that dynamic helped on the film.”
The film is a remake of a director Til Schweiger’s 2014 German-Language film, Honig im Kopf (Head Full of Honey). Schweiger returns as the director here, and the film costars Matt Dillon, Emily Mortimer, Jacqueline Bisset and Eric Roberts.
Nolte says his role and character in Honey was “scary to approach,” as a 77-year-old man who could have found himself in the same situation, just as easy as anyone else. Everyone begins forgetting things as they get older, but this role made Nolte even more acutely aware of those issues. “You start to wonder if you should get checked and I monitor it. But I figure as long as I can still remember my lines for the day, I’m doing OK,” he says.
Remembering his lines for this film wasn’t as important to the character, Nolte says.
“Because this character was Alzheimered, it gave me a lot more freedom,” he says. “That sounds weird, but the process of the role was limitations because he really wasn’t present. If he heard a loud noise he wouldn’t react, or if someone called his name he wouldn’t notice because he doesn’t remember his name.
“I had to limit reaction and figure out what you would or wouldn’t respond to and how awkward that would make the situation.”
In preparation for the role, Nolte said he broke the lifespan of the disease down into three stages: “forgetfulness and repetitiveness, a more solid forgetfulness and then in the end, it was just blank.” Nolte says the absence of reaction in the film made it difficult for some of the other actors because generally, you want a costar who reacts so you can play off of them. “The cast was really great and it’s a really thought-provoking film that I’m really proud of.”
Nolte’s career both on and off screen is one comprised of a million stories. Internet searches will turn up mugshots and various photos detailing Nolte’s varying stages of sobriety as well as nicknames like “Nick the Weirdo.” For his part, Nolte owns it all as part of the freight that comes along with fame.
“When you’re famous, you don’t own your life anymore, the public does,” Nolte says. “
He talks in the book about his 2002 DUI arrest when he high on GHB, which he had become addicted to, and speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway.
“I was a mess…” he wrote. “I was feeling no pain and the police wrote things like, ‘he was drooling,’ and I’m sure I was. …Someone took that crazy booking photograph that went instantly viral worldwide – my hair wild and my expression unsettling, and the overall effect making me look like an asylum inmate out for a lark in his flower-print Hawaiian shirt.”
Nolte is starkly honest about how he approaches sobriety. He’s been in treatment a few times in his career, but today, he says handling those things comes with getting older.
“It’s a matter of maturity,” he says. “It’s doesn’t mean that you stop doing anything, necessarily, although there are certain things you realize that you have to stop doing or they’re going to kill you if you mess with them too much. I mean, that’s how I met Jimmy in the first place.
“But, I don’t think I know an actor … I mean, even Katherine Hepburn had a bottle of brandy in her trailer [the two co starred in the 1984 film Grace Quigley],” Nolte says. “There are times on the set when things get just too crazy and you need to go to your trailer and get a shot to shake things up.”
Nearly two hours into our interview, Nolte unleashes quite possibly the greatest impression ever of a long, loud fart.
Back in the 1980s, Nolte became interested in making a feature about a man named Joseph Pujol, who went by the stage name, Le Pétomane or “The Farter.” As a child, Pujol realized while swimming that he could suck water into his sphincter.
“He could suck up two liters of air anally and then he’d let it out in like a three-minute fart,” Nolte says in amazement as he beings the impression. “He’d start the show on stage with a tuxedo on with a little flap over his ass and he’s fart for a long time. He could talk and sing with his sphincter. I’m not kidding. He held the stage at the Moulin Rouge for 10 years with that talent.
“Well, I decided I wanted to make that film and I pitched it to MGM, but the only actor that wanted to do anything with it was Dustin Hoffman. I held that book a long time trying to make that thing. Imagine I’m standing there doing this impression and pitching this project to the head of the studio,” he says erupting in laughter along with Cvetic.
Watching the pair interact and tell stories makes it obvious how they’ve become friends over the years – they share a kindred, artistic spirit, sense of humor and maybe more.
“One day during the filming of Warrior, I saw Nick and Jimmy walking down the street, each with a shopping bag in each hand,” recalls Gloria Sztukowski, Cvetic’s longtime partner. “Jimmy moves with this kind of swagger and as I’m watching I realize that Nick is doing the exact same thing. Jimmy swaggers right, Nick swaggers right. I realized that Nick was mimicking Jimmy and then I noticed that’s how he moved in the movie as well. He was being Jimmy.”
Nolte says of his Academy Award nominated role: “Absolutely. A lot of that father in the movie was Jimmy. He had the gyms and the training. He taught me how to wrap hands and look like a trainer. He’s a great friend. That’s why I’m here.”
Charlie Deitch is the editor of the Pittsburgh Current. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org