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Festival Diary, by Johanna Schneller
Stolen moments with a pair of good thieves

By JOHANNA SCHNELLER, The Globe and Mail
September 9, 2002

Two actors at opposite ends of their careers, starring in two TIFF movies about heists that go awry. Nick Nolte, 61, plays Bob, a crooked junkie gambler, in The Good Thief. Sam Rockwell, 33, plays Pero, a petty thief who boxes, in Welcome to Collinwood. I met them both on Saturday.

"Just to let you know, he's doing it on the bed," Nolte's publicist whispered as she opened his hotel-room door. "You've got 15 minutes." Oh, behave -- the bed was made and Nolte was clothed, in chinos, a crinkled linen shirt and incongruously woolly striped socks. "Have a pillow, darlin'," he offered. I love men who call me darlin'.

Nolte appeared more peaked than he had on Friday, when I spied him striding around Yorkville with a walking stick, wearing a black suit and fancy eyeglasses, looking like some Edwardian count who was going elegantly broke. By Saturday, the hollows under his cheekbones were more shadowed. But he had a great lion-in-winter thing going with his shaggy hair, and his voice, always growly, now featured an added crackle, like a well-worn vinyl LP.

The Good Thief is only peripherally about a heist of priceless art from a Monte Carlo casino. Written and directed by veteran Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa, Interview with a Vampire), it's mainly about a community of thieves with wildly different accents -- Algerian, Middle Eastern, French, American -- trying to connect.

It's also about a man near the end of his life making a last grab at redemption.

In one of Thief's more poignant moments, a mug shot of Nolte today is held against one of him 40 years ago. "As Katherine Hepburn once told me, 'Aging is boring,' " he says, shrugging. "I like to push my skin this way, see how far it goes. But if you get thin enough, you get very vascular, which looks great, kind of ancient Greek. The option is god-awful plastic surgery. Have you ever seen one of those operations? Yaaaah. And painful! People I've talked to say they have nightmares about being guillotined, that kind of archetypal screaming. They say women can tolerate the pain better. Ahh, this whole sex-object thing has been created by magazines -- men would want to have sex anyway."

Obviously, 15 minutes is not enough with Nolte; one needs about 15 days, the way he meanders around within his mind. In seconds, he mentions a rich but cheap coal magnate he knew in West Virginia; a friend who had a baby in a Tibetan monastery; pain management for his recently deceased mother -- "I blew my leg out [tore ligaments in one knee] because I didn't want to face her death" -- and the scientist Francis Crick, who discovered DNA.

"Crick's first question was, 'What's the basic nature of man?' " Nolte says. "The answer was DNA. Then he asked, 'What's the basic nature of consciousness?' I don't think people will like that answer, which is that it may be nothing more than free-floating neural sparks."

Free-floating indeed.

Sam Rockwell, on the other hand, is in the full oof of youth. He bombed into the room, half-smoked cigarette behind one ear, blond-tipped hair partly squashed, partly standing on end. Like a jailbird with a foolproof scheme, Rockwell is poised to break out. He was the villain in Charlie's Angels, the doomed extra in Galaxy Quest, and the smart-ass who tried in vain to beat Gene Hackman in David Mamet's Heist, whose one-last-score theme echoes Collinwood's.

In the latter film, though, Rockwell triumphs: He gets the girl, wins over the gang, and steals the show from an ensemble cast that includes William H. Macy and Michael Jeter. And in his next movie -- the highly anticipated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the story of gonzo Gong Show host Chuck Barris -- he plays the lead. Many actors, including Johnny Depp and Mike Meyers, wanted the role.

"It's different being No. 1 on the call sheet [the star] than being part of a group," Rockwell said. "It'll kick your ass if you're not ready for it."

Rockwell is ready; he has been building up a stable of smart-asses, in movies and on stage, for years. His conversation is peppered with erudite references: to the Meisner acting technique, to Harold Pinter plays, to Molière. He compares Collinwood to commedia dell'arte.

"Even playing the lightest role, for your body it's an opera," he said. "For Galaxy Quest, I had to go to some dark places. Whereas the audience only sees funny. I hate the way some people fake-cry for a comedy, but really cry for a drama. I wanted to really cry in this [Collinwood]."

Rockwell's career is in that enviable place where stardom, even signing autographs, is still fun. "Playing the lead stressed me out, but it also infused me with confidence," he said. "I'm in this strange time: I get free Prada suits, yet I live in this really small apartment."

Walking home, away from the Four Seasons Hotel and Prada suits, I thought: It doesn't matter that Rockwell and Nolte are in different stages of life -- what matters is, they are equally enamoured of it.

"L.A. is a fun town if you've got money in your pocket," Rockwell said.

"Losing the sense of beauty is like dying," Nolte said. Which is really the same sentiment, if you think about it.

"We now know the brain isn't one shape, it's constantly moving," Nolte continued. "Every bit of input changes it; it's never the same." He doesn't need that cane any more, by the way. It's just for show. "I switch it from side to side as I walk," he says. Grinning like a cheetah.


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