‘Warrior’ Director Gavin O’Connor: ‘The Secret Agenda I Kept From Lionsgate’

The writer-director and actor Nick Nolte open up on the film at TheWrap’s Awards Season Screening Series

Gavin O’Connor had a secret agenda for “Warrior.”

The writer-director knew that Lionsgate liked the film. "They said they wanted to make the movie at my first sit-down,” O’Connor said at a Q&A following a presentation of the film at TheWrap’s Awards Season Screening Series Wednesday night at the Landmark Theater.

But here’s what the studio didn’t know: “I didn’t want to use movie stars for the two roles.” Instead, he had his eye on a couple of little-known actors from overseas.

Lionsgate knowing that would have raised a problem, O’Connor said.

The studio's “whole business model does not apply to this movie because you can’t sell it overseas” without stars, he told the capacity crowd.

But there's a bit of irony to the ending of O'Connor's tale.

As it turned out, the little-known actors he snuck under the fence were Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton — now among the most in-demand stars in Hollywood. And O’Connor had a big name in his pocket — his neighbor Nick Nolte was his choice for a supporting role.

Nolte also joined the post-screening discussion, hosted by TheWrap’s Brent Lang.

"Warrior" is about two estranged brothers, Tommy and Brendan Conlon, who end up reuniting while pummeling each other in a mixed martial arts competition. Nolte plays their father, a recovering alcoholic and former boxer.

Despite the violent content, it’s a tender movie that started with O’Connor’s idea about two brothers on a collision course.

Story continues after video interview with Nolte and O'Connor.

 

“I wanted one brother to die — to die at the hands of his brother — so he can be reborn,” O’Connor said. “It’s biblical, and it’s Greek.”

O’Connor provided a glance into the making of the movie — and into casting Hardy. He said that he knew he wanted Hardy for the part, but that Hardy told him he’s not good at auditioning.

The director told Hardy, “there’s no way I can get you in this movie without auditioning.”

So he suggested the actor come to his house, where they could rehearse the audition and make sure it worked out.

“He showed up on a Sunday night,” O’Connor said. “At midnight, there was a knock at my door … and he lived with me for five days. He did! He never left. And it was actually great because I got to know him.”

Nolte chortled. “Tom Hardy can audition,” he said. “Believe me, he can audition.”

Nolte said he played a similar trick on Paul Mazursky, his director in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Mazursky visited the actor at his home, where Nolte insisted that the two read the script. Out loud. 

“I wasn’t going to let him leave without saying, ‘You got the role,’” Nolte said.

“What are you saying?” O’Connor asked. “That I got conned by Tom Hardy?”

A couple of times, Nolte ribbed the director.

At one point, for instance, O’Connor said that Edgerton wasn’t all that interested in the role of Brendan Conlon, a high-school physics teacher.

O’Connor turned to Nolte. “Don’t shake your head.”

The two friends went from kibitzing to depth.

Nolte said he knew nothing about mixed martial arts before he read the script, and that the notion left him a little put-off.

“I’m sick of fighting and brutality,” he said. “I’m old. … I’m on the side of peace now.”
So he said to O’Connor, “Do we really have to do MMA fighting?”

Yes, O’Connor said.

The director did more than that. He introduced Nolte to the athletes and to the sport.
“I like to watch it now,” Nolte said. “I look at it through different eyes.”

In the course of 30 minutes, Nolte talked about auditioning for “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” about regret, about his father’s return from World War II and about Katherine Hepburn.

“Hepburn once said to me that actors shouldn’t be allowed to get married — it’s just not fair,” he said. “You love acting and that’s not fair to the other partner.”

He said he sort of agreed.