Gordon Timpen/Warner Bros.
At 77, Nick Nolte (Warrior, Affliction), who was voted People magazine’s sexiest man alive at 51 — “That’s a good age to be the sexiest man,” he says — now plays the liveliest of Alzheimer’s patients in his new film Head Full of Honey, director Til Schweiger’s English-language remake of his No. 1 German box office hit. Schweiger, 54 (who played Sgt. Stiglitz in Inglourious Basterds), was inspired to make both films by his mother, stricken by Alzheimer’s at 50, and Nolte’s performance is informed by his boyhood experiences with his own grandmother’s dementia.
“She lived in a fantasy world,” says Nolte, “so I spent a lot of time with her in her imaginary world, because it would disturb my father that she would talk to [hallucinated] people in the living room, but I liked it.” She thought she was talking to the people she knew as a professor at Iowa State College, and young Nolte would join right into the loopy conversations, to bond with her and to practice his improv acting.
He applies those memories to the Head Full of Honey role of Amadeus, who moves in with his son and daughter-in-law (Matt Dillon, 54, and Emily Mortimer, 47), uptight, success-obsessed people oblivious to his condition. Amadeus’ antics are a bit like those of Nolte’s shambling character who moves into Bette Midler’s home and causes chaos in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. “In dementia, the illusionary world takes over reality,” says Nolte. “You put a pan on the stove, turn away and have a conversation with your imagination. And you don't get back to the stove and it starts a fire. But it takes the family quite a while before [Dillon’s character] will admit that his father has got a brain disease that, as a society, we don't really want to look at it carefully.”
But just as Nolte’s father couldn’t deal with Grandma’s dementia and Nolte could bond with her, Amadeus’ granddaughter Tilda (played by Nolte’s real daughter Sophie Lane Nolte, 11) understands her increasingly confused grandpa far better than her parents do. So she takes him on one last adventure to his favorite places in Europe. Their trip turns into a surprisingly upbeat buddy comedy slightly like the Nolte-Eddie Murphy hit 48 Hrs, though it darkens as Amadeus’ illness inexorably worsens.
“The comedy is an important element of it,” says Nolte. “Til and I discussed how the rhythm of the film should go and how far we should take certain Alzheimer’s moments. He kept the movie on the entertainment side — a buddy film — to keep the action going forward. Otherwise I think the disease is too bad. Dementia is too rough to give it full-blown to an audience. If you don’t have the humor in it, it’s gonna be rough.” The original’s mix of silly comedy and tears grossed $90 million — huge for a German film, and proof, along with films like What They Had, The Leisure Seeker and Viggo Mortensen’s forthcoming film Falling, inspired by his six close relatives with Alzheimer’s, that the illness is now so common that a mass audience responds to the topic.
“I forget everything," says Nolte. "But it's not good to get emotional or upset or pissed off or hurt or ashamed or whatever. You just move forward, go past it. I don't look forward anymore and I don’t look backward either. I just look at right now. I don't have a house because I just got burned out by the big [Malibu] fire. But it's all going to be all right."
Honey in the Head is about the importance of sharing the present moment with loved ones before disaster strikes. “Amadeus doesn’t admit his illness until the point that he has to write his granddaughter a letter warning that he might not remember who she is the next time,” says Nolte. “That's what it's all about: Make sure to connect now, in the moment. The disease is such that one minute later they’re in another reality."