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Oscars: “Warrior” director Gavin O’Connor on Nick Nolte, awards season and his heartfelt film – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: Like the tough-as-nails siblings punching their way through their mixed martial arts finale, Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior” refuses to go down to the mat.

At the time of its September release, a few journalists who were impressed by the film’s tenacity and grit tossed around the term “Oscar.” The “Rocky” comparison might have went to their head, but it was tough to shake the film’s impact, particularly in the performances of the three male leads: Joel Edgerton as Brendan, the family man who has to get back into the ring to fight for his wife and child; Tom Hardy’s Tommy, the younger sibling with a jackhammer of a punch who’s fighting to escape a mistake he made while fighting in the Middle East; and most of all, Nick Nolte as Paddy, the father who messed these boys up years ago and now fights for the opportunity to make things right.

The reviews were solid. The film boasts an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, with several top critics going to bat. “It’s about broken families coming together. It’s about economic desperation and about America getting off the ropes and recovering its fighting spirit,” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote.

The box office was not solid. “Warrior” should have appealed to the MMA crowd. It didn’t. Positive reviews should have attracted audiences looking for the next uplifting sports drama. They didn’t.

But “Warrior” is finding life in the later rounds. Nolte is collecting a handful of acting nominations for his heartbreaking performance, most notably from the Screen Actors Guild and the Broadcast Film Critics’ Association.

“I’ve been at this for a long time, and it is always gratifying to be recognized for a performance,” Nolte said of his SAG nom. “‘Warrior’ was a little film but it has a big heart, and it was a real labor of love for Gavin O’Connor who directed the movie. More than anything I hope that this nomination creates some renewed interest in the picture.”

So do I. O’Connor spoke with me at length about “Warrior” recently. He explained the beauty of Nolte’s performance, his dedication, and his contributions to the film.

“I said to the studio over and over, ‘Warrior’ has nothing to do with guys fighting in a cage. That’s never been the intention of the title. It’s about how they live their lives outside of it and that’s what the movie’s about,” O’Connor explained.

Here are key excerpts from our lengthy conversation, in hopes that it continues to shine a light on Nolte, specifically, and on “Warrior” as a whole. Here’s Gavin O’Connor:

HollywoodNews.com: Did you ever try to get Joe Rogan for your film? I mean, your announcers were very funny, but I kept hearing Rogan’s voice while watching your fight scenes.

Gavin O’Connor: You know, I didn’t try to get Rogan because then it would feel like UFC. When you watch the fights, I got away from everything that UFC does. I don’t have an octagon. I lit it completely different. My ring-card girls are in gowns. They have beach balls. I was just trying to create a world that was very different than the UFC, so the idea of using Rogan would have punctured that idea.

But with those guys, I felt like the picture needed levity in spots. And also, they were my Greek chorus. They could inform without it ever feeling like they were pandering or spoon-feeding to people who don’t follow the sport. And those guys, they are both experts. Sam Sheridan is a Harvard grad. He wrote a great book about mixed martial arts, and he’s one of the foremost authorities of the sport. He wrote a book called “A Fighter’s Heart.”

HollywoodNews.com: I definitely want to check that out. Let’s talk about Nolte. Once you realized that you had him for the role, did you rewrite to his strengths?

Actually, it was almost the inverse of that. We wrote the movie for Nick. I wrote a film called “Pride & Glory” a few years before that Nick was supposed to be the dad in. We became very close. We spent a year together working on that character, and then he ended up having to had knee replacement surgery. So he had to leave right before I began shooting. But Nick and I remained friends. So when Anthony [Tambakis] and I wrote the script, we wrote that part for Nick.

So Nick was the first person to read the script when we finished it. I mean, I know Nick so well, and I knew that this was very sensitive subject matters, and we knew that we were walking a minefield with some things that could possibly detonate with regard to Nick’s own personal life. But that also was the dynamite that I was looking for to get a deep, visceral performance.

To be honest, the biggest problem was getting the studio to let Nick be in the movie.

HollywoodNews.com: What? You need to fight to get Nick Nolte in a movie?

Oh my God, you have no idea. It was unbelievable. And I would say to Nick, “Look, I promise you, you’re playing Paddy. Just sit tight. I have to go through the process.” They gave me cast lists with actors who were so wrong for the part. They have like these algorithms and these mathematical formulas for these actors. Some guy is worth XX amount of dollars in Uruguay, and all of a sudden, they want him in the movie. And I’d argue, “He’s so wrong for the part! It doesn’t even fit.” That’s a tertiary decision, who is right. The first thing they look at is, “What is he worth? What do they mean on a video box in Portugal?”

You would laugh if you saw some of the names that they actually, with a straight face, thought should play the dad.

HollywoodNews.com: So you didn’t want Daniel Radcliffe to play Tommy?

[Laughs] It honestly was that bad! It’s not easy. It’s really not easy. I just look at it as that you have to serve the movie. You are kneeling at the altar of this film, and any of these decisions that are wrong … you put the wrong guy in that part and you and I are not talking right now. It’s just a whole ‘nother movie. The whole movie falls apart.

HollywoodNews.com: The scene that convinced me that “Warrior” was more than a genre picture, that is was something special, was Nolte trying to see his granddaughter across the lawn. I was devastated.

Yeah. But that moment represents the overriding theme of the film, for me, which was one of forgiveness. That’s ultimately what the movie is about. What I was trying to go for there is that Brendan says, “I forgive you, but I just don’t trust you.” That’s a load of shit. If you forgive your dad, that door wouldn’t be closing on him, and he would be coming in for a cup of coffee.

I’ll tell you a great Nick story. In the fourth round of the film, when Brendan is pounding Tommy up against the cage and Tommy goes back to his corner, as Brendan’s going back to his corner, he sees the old man. There’s a moment where they see each other. It’s that moment of, “I’m sorry. I do forgive you.” It’s a loaded moment.

But that moment was never in the script. This is my point about Nolte, in that not only is he a great actor – and the man is genius – but just as a teammate, he’s amazing. We had wrapped Nick. He was done. Applause. Hugs. Cake. The whole thing. He flew back to California. We were shooting in Pittsburgh. And I’m shooting that scene, ,with Joel walking back to his corner, and I think, “Fuck, wait a minute, we totally need Nick. The moment with Brendan and his dad is now.” I grab my phone, call Nick – who had been home 5 days – and I say, “Nick, I need you to come back.” I told him it was one shot. I needed him for 15 minutes! You know what he said? “I’m there, man. Book my flight and I’m there for you.”

The man loves the craft. He believed in the cause. The guy got on a plane, flew all the way back, we set up the shot, did it, and he went back home. You just don’t get that. Some of these older guys, they just don’t do that. He didn’t get paid for the day. He just did it. Nick’s the best. And that crystallizes who Nick is as an artist. If Nick didn’t become a movie star, he’d be doing dinner theater in Long Beach right now. Because that’s who he is. He’s an actor.

Awards Alley brings you the best Oscar coverage. Click below to read our exclusive interviews with:
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– The cast of “The Artist.”
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Steve McQueen for “Shame.”
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Seth Rogen and Will Reiser for “50/50.”

For complete Oscar and Film Festival coverage, visit our Awards Alley for the latest news items, reviews and interviews all season long.

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