Nick Nolte talks TV's 'deep storytelling' and playing the President in Graves

Nick Nolte plays a former Republican President in Graves.

Nick Nolte plays a former Republican President in Graves.

Nick Nolte is sitting in a hotel suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills carrying a toothbrush, which he brought from his room absent-mindedly when publicists interrupted his toothbrushing to collect him for our interview.

His hair is ruffled and his speech is mumbled but there is no denying the charisma and gravitas that Nolte, 76, still exudes that made him the perfect choice to play a former leader of the free world in the political comedy Graves.

In the series, set 20 years after Richard Graves left office, the former President is out to right the wrongs caused by his administration. Graves also stars Sela Ward as former First Lady Margaret Graves, a woman with political ambitions of her own.

Nick Nolte as Richard Graves and Skylar Astin as Isaiah Miller in Graves.

Nick Nolte as Richard Graves and Skylar Astin as Isaiah Miller in Graves.

Did you always want to come back to television?
Nolte: Yes, I'd told my agent I'd do television if it was good and he said, 'What do you think about playing a Republican ex-President?' and I started to laugh.

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I said I'd look at it if it was written right. It took a while but when they came back with a script, I could hear my voice in it.

What is going on with Richard Graves 20 years after his presidency?
He is having a lot of regrets about his presidency, rewriting his immigration policy and regretting his stance on gay marriage. We also see Graves not just regretting things about his presidency but about his personal life and relationship with his children.

But from the start I was adamant with the writers that just following a President is going to get boring after a while so it was important to develop storylines for the whole family and especially for his wife, Sela's character, to have her own campaign for Senate being a possibility that will be explored.

We've also had some great cameos (including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, politician Barney Frank and several well-known news anchors) that helped make it real.

How different is television today from when you started out?
When I did Rich Man, Poor Man it was originally set up as three two-hour movies based on Irwin Shaw's book and that's what I signed up for. It might have been considered television but I always thought of it as three movies.

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Then a few months later, the network guy told me it was so good they cut it up into half-hour episodes and called it a mini-series. I didn't think it was a great idea but I had no power to say no – and turns out I was wrong because it became hugely popular that way and helped launch my career.

Today a lot of actors are turning to television because there are very few limitations and you can tell adult stories not based on comic books. Television is where the industry has gone for all the really deep storytelling.

Did you study former Presidents or base yours on one of them?
I did look at a lot of footage of various Presidents and realised that after Reagan, politicians finally started to learn how to talk on TV.

Before Reagan, they'd blink and look at the script and be uncomfortable, but because Ronald Reagan was a B-picture film guy he became the great communicator and learned his presidency being president of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) first.

He wasn't who I based my character on, but I had a good time watching that footage.

How does it feel starring in your own show at this point in your life?
You have to keep looking for new beginnings, otherwise you're going to die. When you stop caring at all about what is beyond you or outside you, it's very depressing and I've been there so I know.

Graves is all about new beginnings because he is a man who's taking action about all the things he regrets of his past. He's also realising his life has only just begun and his wife's ambitions could change their relationship.

Would you make a good President?
Would I personally? No (laughs). It's far too scary. But as an actor I will say I make a really good President.

Graves, TVNZ 1, starts Tuesday September 5.

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 - TV Guide


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