Nick NolteNick Nolte has memorably brought his corn-fed bad-boy charm to 70 films—from the tough cop in "48 Hours" to Barbra Streisand's tortured lover in "The Prince of Tides" to a narcissistic colonel in "The Thin Red Line." His personal life has been no less dramatic or prolific—for all the world to see. But now the 65-year-old actor channels wisdom hard-earned from struggles with addiction and three divorces into his latest turn as "Socrates," a spiritual mentor in the film rendition of Dan Millman's beloved book, "Way of the Peaceful Warrior."

Were you familiar with Dan Millman's book before you got the role?

Yes, I was. About 20 years ago, when it came out, there was an attempt to do it, and I was approached, not formally, to play the young man. But Socrates is the right role for me now. I don’t think as a young man I would have been half as good as Scotty [Scott Mechlowicz, who plays Dan] simply because my heart wasn’t in the right place at that time. I hadn’t gotten through the ‘60s.

Do you think there’s something about the atmosphere right now that makes it a particularly ripe time for this book?

Oh, absolutely. This is only theory, but it’s taken this amount of time for this kind of story, and more of these kinds of stories, to have enough impact, mean enough in our lives, for people to stop and listen. Because there’s great frustration out there--the world’s up against the wall. We’re packed with people. We’ve got instant communication, and if we can’t figure out how to get along, then there's just not going to be anymore world.

Not that Dan’s book’s about how to create peace, but it’s about self knowledge. Many spiritual leaders talk about peace being on the inside. Fulfillment is on the inside. Love is on the inside, and it’s all about feelings. Knowledge is feelings, not brain power. The brain is never going to negotiate peace. We have a real abstract idea of peace. It’s kind of like the clouds will part, and some lighting bolt will strike the land, and a voice will say, “There shall be peace.” And, peace is not the absence of war. Peace, truthfully, is how you feel inside. Are you at peace?

Where were you in your life when you first read this book?

I was here in L.A. I was around for the introduction of all this Eastern thought that came in in large ways in the ‘60s. [Society is finally getting] some actual benefit from people who have spent time looking at the world from the inside out, rather than always being directed to the outside. People say, "When you get your job, you’ll be your job. When you get your first million, then you’ll be successful." What, I’m not as successful? If I’m not a successful human being, who I am? We put a lot of pressure--lotta, lotta, lotta, lotta pressure--on ourselves by being so outer-directed.

What did you learn from inhabiting this wise person, Socrates, for a while?

Inhabiting a wise mentor
Well, you learn patience, especially in trying to pass knowledge on. You have to have extreme patience as the other person goes through every kind of ego trip and denial. We’re very reluctant to change. Even though we know that all things change, and especially our relationships are just determined to change. About the only thing that’ll stay with you that you can trust all your life is your breath. Your breath will be there at the very last, because when it stops, you will stop. You find it’s these things that are inside you. And we don’t give much stock to that. We like to think that our buildings are permanent, and then we have an earthquake and we find out, "Oh my God, they’re not."

Was there a different vibe on the "Peaceful Warrior" set because of the content? Did it inspire a shift in how the movie was made?

Yes. [Director] Victor Salva really set the tone. Scotty had his process and I had mine, which was a kind of meditation. Everybody in the key positions kind of had some meditative way, and I didn’t inquire into it, but I know Victor’s been through rough times and has had to overcome. I’ve been through rough times and have had to get through them. And to Scotty, it was all brand new stuff –like it was for me in the ‘60s.

Did playing this wise person change you at all, or did it reinforce the way you already are?

Reinforced. Instead of spreading knowledge in real life, you get to act it out into a mass audience; it’s delightful—to be part of a story that has potential to enlighten. There might be somebody who walks out of that film and goes, "Wow, wow."