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How Nick Stahl Survived Skid Row and Hollywood Stardom

I’m not worried what someone might write about me or say about me, because it’s already been done,” says Nick Stahl. “There’s a freedom in that.”

You’ve surely seen Stahl’s work—as a scared-shitless private in The Thin Red Line, the troubled son of In the Bedroom, the menacing thug in Bully, the grotesque Yellow Bastard of Sin City, and the hero in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and HBO’s Carnivale. He’s been acting since the age of four, and landed his first major role at 13, when Mel Gibson personally cast him in his directorial debut, The Man Without a Face.

But in 2012, Stahl’s struggles with drugs and alcohol landed him on Skid Row, which was captured by paparazzi vultures. His then-wife reported him missing—twice. He eventually checked into rehab, stepped away from acting for a number of years, and moved back to his native Texas, where he worked in a coffee shop, delivered food, and spent some time as a roofer.

Now, the 41-year-old is “in recovery” and reviving his acting career. His latest film is Hunter Hunter, a twisty thriller that sees Stahl play an injured loner who’s taken in by a family of fur trappers, who seen realize they’ve got way more than they bargained for.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Stahl opened up about his journey back to Hollywood.

Before we get into the film, how are you weathering this crazy pandemic?

I’m in L.A.—right in the heart of the madness, man. Like everybody else, I’ve been holed up and quarantined out. I feel like there’s new guidelines every day, and there’s been another curfew, or shutdown, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. with only essential workers out during those hours. But I’m usually in by that time anyway. I haven’t really been exploring after that hour.

Let’s talk about Hunter Hunter. It’s almost like a more violent version of the Big Bad Wolf spliced with The Vanishing.

I just thought it was a really well-written script, and reminded me of an old school horror movie. I read a lot of horror scripts these days. It seems to be that half the movies getting made are horror films, and most of them are not very good. But this one I thought was special. And there were also different philosophical themes. It plays with the idea of hunter and prey, juxtaposing it with a serial killer, and is also a commentary on the industrial movement and the people who are being replaced by technology.

You’re very good at playing the sociopath, whether it be here, Bully, or Sin City. How do you channel evil so effectively?

[Laughs] I dunno, man. I started to get cast in darker roles like that, and I think once you get seen in one of those roles they start to consider you for the next one. I don’t know if it’s my favorite thing to do, to be honest with you. It’s just dark, I’m a pretty nice guy, and it’s just… a dark thing to explore that stuff. I’d rather have a nice sit-down talk over a coffee with another character, you know? It’s tough stuff to do, but you know, that’s the job. And it’s always a cool challenge. There’s always a part of me when starting to do a role like that where there’s this moment of, “Can I pull it off?” And I think part of it’s just self-preservation and maintaining sanity, but I’m not an actor who likes to carry that around with me when I leave set. When I’m going home at night, I leave. I have a pretty clear separation from my work and my life.

I’m 36, so we’re pretty close in age, and I feel like I’ve grown up with you on screen, in a sense. You were just 13 when you landed Man Without a Face, and I’m curious what it was like being in the spotlight at such a young age.

I feel fortunate that I was able to come out of it intact. It’s interesting because Devon Sawa, who’s in this movie, was a kid actor as well, and there’s a certain camaraderie that’s shared with actors who started at that age, and the unique challenges that represents. So I’ll meet someone like Devon and we’ve been through some stuff that not a lot of people can relate to. You hear the horror stories of dysfunctional adults that were child actors, and while it’s definitely a unique series of challenges and circumstances for a kid, I’m not so sure it has a lot to do with the acting and Hollywood as much as it has to do with whether the kid has a stable home life before they get into that. If you’re a kid who comes from a broken home and unstable place, I feel it can be exacerbated by the business.

There’s also been quite a lot of abuse of child actors in Hollywood.

Yeah, abuse. And your growth can be stunted sometimes emotionally. Your ego is validated for all the wrong reasons. For me, I definitely started to equate the value of myself and my self-esteem with whether I was getting this role or not. Just from a young age, I figured out that for whatever reason I had this weird skill, and ended up committing everything to it. It seemed to be the thing I was best at doing. For me, as much as I wanted certain roles to heal parts of me that were neglected as a kid—dysfunctional social life, things like that—I so badly wanted roles to make that stuff better. But it just doesn’t.

How was your social life dysfunctional? Was it difficult to maintain relationships with friends outside the industry?

Yeah. I was socially never the most comfortable kid, which made it kind of strange when it came to acting, or going on stage, or going in front of a camera, because I was really comfortable. It was weird, because socially I was very anxious and not comfortable around other people. When I did that, I don’t know if it was the freedom of escaping into another personality or hiding behind another character, but I could do that all day long. From an early age, I left school and started traveling to go and do films, so I already felt a bit like an outsider. Kids aren’t always the nicest at that age, and will look for any reason to tease you if you’re different in any way. It was an added obstacle, because I could never really feel like a part of a social group since I was always leaving. It was very important to me to have a group of friends, but they all went to school together so I didn’t feel comfortable. I was never really accepted in a social group. Then you go off with your parent to do a movie, and you’re 14 or 15, and everyone else is adults. They’re going off to a bar at night and you can’t go to that either. So you’re not a part of any group. You’re caught in between. It was very challenging.

You do have a talent for this, so it’s great to see you on screen again. There was a long period where you weren’t. And around 2010, 2011 you started to appear in a bunch of direct-to-video films—which was around the time you were battling drug addiction. Were you having money problems during that time?

Yeah. To be honest, yes, I’ve done a lot of movies for money. Other actors and people that I know are better at figuring out how to make money in different ways, but I’ve never really had that mind. I was committed fully to acting. I was really fortunate, because I’d never had another job. I was in my early 30s, and I realized that I’d never had a job to make money other than acting in my life. Again, it’s a fortunate position, but if money gets low, and I had a young daughter, and something comes along like a bad horror movie that you know is not going to be great and it’s a bad script but they offer a bunch of money, you’re forced to do it. I didn’t really have a choice. It’s a really fortunate job to have and a really overpaid job, so in no way am I complaining about that, but if you’re able to make a paycheck and do more interesting films then that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. People come up to me and talk about the good films I’ve done, and for every good one there’s probably five bad ones, in my opinion. That’s the way it goes.

I found the tabloid coverage of your addiction struggles to be pretty disgusting. Tabloid coverage around addiction is generally pretty atrocious, and can be this shaming of the person going through these problems. What was it like for you to be going through these issues and on top of that, to have paparazzi taking photos of you on Skid Row? I’m not sure who those photos benefit. It’s almost predatory.

Yeah, it is. I don’t follow that stuff. It doesn’t interest me. I know that a lot of it is driven by corporate media, and I learned to not take it personally. I also didn’t read most of it. I didn’t want to see it. When someone would say, “I saw you here,” I didn’t read that stuff. At first, I’ll be honest: I was embarrassed. And I was mad that people knew some personal business of mine, and that some of it wasn’t that accurate—that people didn’t know the story of what was going on. Alcoholism and addiction in this country is a big problem. If you look at the commodification of the treatment industry and our prison system, our dysfunctional way of viewing alcoholism and addiction is on full display.

I think people get scared of it. You see it in the way addicts in the street are treated, where a lot of times they’re viewed with disgust or disdain, and I think it speaks to how it scares people.

And the coverage of it too. I think of the way Hunter Biden was treated recently—or is still being treated. This is someone struggling with drug addiction who was being relentlessly shamed over it in the media.

I think people get scared of it. You see it in the way addicts in the street are treated, where a lot of times they’re viewed with disgust or disdain, and I think it speaks to how it scares people. They don’t want to see that side of themselves. They don’t want to see how they have some of that in them. The people who don’t realize they have some of that darkness in them? Those are the people I’m most scared of. Those are the people that really freak me out. This type of thing—money doesn’t protect you from it, fame doesn’t protect you from it. A lot of people go through this stuff though, just not on as public of a scale. You know, people have come up to me and—even though I didn’t think I really did anything—they would thank me for it and say, “I’ve been watching you since you were a kid, and my sister or my brother was going through some stuff, and when I saw you going through it, it helped me in some way. It helped me understand.”

I’m curious how bad it got, and how you pulled yourself out of the darkness?

I had always had issues with that stuff since I was a little kid. From the first time I drank, I knew I had a different reaction to it. I just knew that I didn’t react to it the way that my friends did, and things like that. It did something for me that it didn’t do for others. From the first time I can remember drinking or doing drugs, it was just different for me. So in a vague sense, I always kind of thought, “This could be a problem someday.” I don’t get into too much detail as far as events and things that happened to me because it’s not that important, but I feel very fortunate to be where I’m at, and to have the support system around me that I did. At the same time, I had developed a pretty unhealthy relationship to the film business, and that was a result of being a child actor, so it all sort of came to a head at the same time.

So I left L.A. and I started working for a friend’s roofing company in Dallas. I worked in a coffee shop. I delivered food. I did all kinds of stuff, because I had never earned a dollar outside of acting. I didn’t really know how to do simple domestic things that other adults did. At a certain point, the combination of all those things stunted my growth, and I needed to experience taking care of other areas of my life. I found that I did miss acting a lot. I missed film a lot. And when I came back to acting, I found that I had even more gratitude for it than I did before. The difference now versus five or seven years ago is I have more things going on in my life other than acting. It’s almost like being codependent in a relationship. If your whole world is that relationship, and that relationship’s threatened, you’ve got nothing left. Now, when I go up for a role that I really want and worked really hard for and I don’t get it, which happens more often than not, I don’t walk away from it feeling like I’ve failed. It’s not my whole world. It’s not my whole identity.

Did fatherhood and raising your daughter, Marlo, help you break the cycle of addiction? To have someone waiting for you on the other side who’s depending on you?

Absolutely. It’s one of the main focuses in my life, being the best dad I can be. A common misconception of addiction is this notion that people who are going through problems like that suffer from a moral failing, or moral deficiency. I viewed it as that at a certain point. And the thing is, addicts going through those struggles, they don’t care about the kids any less. They care just as deeply as anybody else, and they still go through what they go through. That’s what addiction is—it’s caring and still going through it anyway. It’s an absolute gift to be able to provide for a daughter or a son. I don’t take it for granted. It’s the central part of my life today.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Carnivale, which was an excellent show that got canceled prematurely. Did that sting a little?

I loved being a part of that show. Very quickly, everybody became like a family. I had never done a series before, and I haven’t been the lead of a show or a series regular since then. It was cool to explore so many different situations and sides to a character. I was definitely disappointed when the show got canceled, at the same time I was a lot busier then than I am now. I had a lot of film stuff going on, and it was a different time, so I’d probably miss it more now. I would jump at the opportunity to do a show like that again.

You’d mentioned there are things in your life that make you less codependent on the industry. What are those things?

I’m into writing a lot now, and a big part of my life is being a dad. I would say I’m more invested in other areas of my life—friends, family, normal everyday stuff. I have more stock in all these things than I used to. Things are going really well. I’m really grateful to be acting and doing what I love again.

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