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Nick Stahl on Addiction That Nearly Killed Him: “I Never Had a Brake Pedal”

The 'Terminator' star opens up about his substance abuse, rumors of homelessness and finally finding himself: "Not only did I learn how to live as a sober person, but I learned how to have a life outside the business."

Back in the early 2000s, Nick Stahl was Hollywood’s “It” boy. The brooding young actor with the deep-set blue eyes had achieved a career trifecta, starring in an Oscar-nominated indie hit (2001’s In the Bedroom), a cult HBO series (the supernatural Carnivàle, which ran for two seasons from 2003 to 2005) and a blockbuster franchise (2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, in which he took over as Skynet Resistance leader John Connor).

But Stahl also had a secret. One that would, in a few short years, consume him and come close to destroying everything he’d achieved. “I was pretty much hung over for every single day of work that I ever did — as a kid, in my early 20s, through all the films, through In the Bedroom, through Terminator, through Carnivàle, through all of it,” Stahl says of a crippling drug and alcohol dependency that very nearly killed him. “I didn’t really discriminate — I’d use anything to change the way I felt when I was sober.”

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Now 41 and clean for four years, Stahl has returned from a self-imposed exile to resurrect his Hollywood career. He knew it wouldn’t be easy. “I expected some resistance, I guess,” he says. “I figured I had a negative reputation. I knew that there were probably some questions.” But Stahl was pleasantly surprised at the reception to his return. “Casting directors welcomed me back. There was maybe a little bit of hesitation at first — but as soon as I got a couple jobs under my belt, I kept working.”

In 2021 alone, Stahl has appeared in a five-episode arc on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead playing a cult leader and has wrapped several indie features, including the Gothic thriller What Josiah Saw and the live-action manga adaptation Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac.

Today at The Hollywood Reporter offices, Stahl looks good — older and wearier, but also healthy and clear-eyed, his lived-in face giving a throwback vibe, maybe Clark Gable or one of John Ford’s leading men. “I would say every third script I read is a horror theme,” Stahl says of the kinds of offers coming his way. He adds that he’s soon flying to Colombia to shoot the horror film What You Wish For.

It won’t win him any Oscars, but it pays, and he’s appreciative of every opportunity. He’s happy just to be here and to be raising his 11-year-old daughter, Marlo, custody of whom he shares with his ex-wife. Stahl’s life today is virtually unrecognizable from the one he was barely living just a few years ago. Scariest of all was just how normal all of it seemed. “Things got really bad for me,” he confesses. “People you see on park benches — that doesn’t happen overnight. They go through that one day at a time, so by the time you get there, that day looks a whole lot like the day before.”

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“Not only did I learn how to live as a sober person, but I learned how to have a life outside the business.” Photographed by Ryan Pfluger

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Stahl was raised in Dallas, along with two sisters, by his mother, Donna. “I don’t know my dad,” he says. “I never met him. From what I hear, he lives in Colorado.” Mom worked as a brokerage assistant and made very little money. “It made life pretty hard at a young age,” he says. To make ends meet, she took on a second job as a seamstress at a children’s theater. Four-year-old Nick would tag along; one day, he auditioned for a play and got the part. “I really took to it,” he recalls. “I told her I wanted to be an actor when I grew up.”

For Stahl, who suffered as a child from severe social anxiety, the stage was a miraculous sanctuary. “I don’t look back on my childhood with real fond memories, but for some reason, when I did plays, that stuff shut off and I had this ability to just be very comfortable. Kind of a weird deal,” he says.

By 10, Stahl had graduated to professional theater. Spotted in a production by an agent, he was signed and began auditioning for commercials and TV movies. By 11, he was summoned to L.A. to meet with Mel Gibson, who’d seen his audition tape and wanted Stahl to star opposite him in what would also be Gibson’s directorial debut: 1993’s The Man Without a Face, a drama about a disfigured man, falsely accused of pedophilia, who befriends and tutors a troubled boy played by Stahl.

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Stahl in the Mel Gibson directed Man Without a Face (1993). Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

“We just went to lunch,” Stahl recalls of that meeting with Gibson. “It was me and my mom and him and one of the producers, and he just said, ‘Do you want to do the movie?’ ” Stahl did — and his performance turned him into a hot commodity in Hollywood. “What most struck me about Nick was his complete lack of affectation,” says Tim Blake Nelson, who cast a 17-year-old Stahl as a depressed adolescent in his 1997 film, Eye of God. “He simply could live inside a scene without seeming to perform in the least.” By then, Stahl was one of Hollywood’s most in-demand child actors, one who starred opposite Patrick Swayze in 1995’s Tall Tale, a $40 million Disney fantasy film. Like in those plays back in Dallas, whenever the camera was pointed at him, “I felt very comfortable and very confident in my abilities,” he says. “Then as soon as they cut, I wanted to run away.”

Stahl thinks the roots of his struggles lie in early childhood. “From a very young age, I was always under this blanket of fear, financial fear,” he says. “There was this idea that if we didn’t come up with enough money for that month, we would end up on the street. That colored my outlook growing up. My default mode was untrusting, with this mentality of waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

He was 13 when he tried his first sip of booze. To his enormous relief, he found it made that tense feeling disappear. “I always describe it as my first ‘spiritual experience,’ ” he says. “It just made sense to me. Suddenly, I had a freedom from thinking, from uncomfortability. I felt OK in my skin — and I hadn’t really felt that before. I thought, ‘Oh! This is how you do life!’ ” At 16, his career at full steam, Stahl moved to L.A. with his mother. That’s when the party really began: “I was going to bars. I had a very easy time getting into these places. A lot of my friends were older, and I had a great time.” Soon he was smoking weed. Then came pills and stronger street drugs — cocaine, methamphetamine.

“That became what I chased,” he says. “It’s a horribly cliche child-actor story, but I had a very unusual relationship to drugs and alcohol. I never had a brake pedal with it.” Whereas his friends were partying to have fun, for Stahl, it alleviated pent-up anxiety, like a steam valve. “Very early on,” he says, “it was not ‘I want this,’ but ‘I need this.’ “

The bad-boy lifestyle suited Stahl’s Hollywood persona: He tended to be cast in darker films, like 1998’s Disturbing Behavior. “I was always playing moodier characters,” he says, “which was how I was feeling.” At night, he was a fixture on the Sunset Strip. “They were always opening new spots in Hollywood — bars, hotels, clubs. They weren’t exactly checking my I.D., and because I had done a couple movies, it was very easy access. I made a lot of acquaintances in that scene.”

He says the party circuit got “old and boring,” but it offered the means to get high, and so he kept showing up. For a long while, he blended in with the rest of the young Hollywood social set. “It probably appeared to friends that I liked to party. I think I was able to conceal the severity of things from people pretty well,” he recalls. But he was sliding into the quicksand of addiction.

In 2001, when he was 21, the same year as the acclaimed In the Bedroom (in which he played the doomed younger boyfriend to Marisa Tomei’s single-mom character), Stahl was cast as the title menace in Bully, a true-crime drama from Kids director Larry Clark, based on a real Florida murder case. Brad Renfro, then 19, portrayed his victim. It was bleak material, and the two young actors brought their own demons to the set. At the time, playing the antagonist went against type for Stahl. (Ever since Bully, he’s been frequently cast in villain roles.) Stahl recalls the shoot as a “chaotic” experience.

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Nick Stahl with Brad Renfro in Bully (2001). Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Brad was a couple years younger than me, and he shared my affliction,” Stahl says of Renfro, who was discovered by director Joel Schumacher at 11, living in a Tennessee trailer park with his grandmother. (Renfro went on to star in 21 films, including Apt Pupil and Ghost World.) “He was more severe in his addiction than I was,” Stahl says. “He just progressed to a point where he had to have someone on set with him to keep him sober. I remember feeling my heart going out to him, just dealing with something that was bigger than him and he was just trying to function.”

Renfro fatally overdosed on heroin and morphine in 2008 at age 25. “He had a big heart,” Stahl says. “He was a good kid and very talented, and not just for film stuff or acting. He had musical talent. He was extremely bright.”

Looking into Renfro’s lost eyes on the Bully set, Stahl could see himself headed in the same direction — a runaway train he was powerless to stop. He tried. “Throughout my 20s, I experimented with different ways to regulate my drinking,” he recalls. “‘Maybe L.A. is the issue, right?’ So I’d move. ‘Maybe these certain friends I’m hanging out with, maybe that’s the issue.’ So I’d get new friends.”

Stahl’s roommate for five of those years was Jacob Tierney, a former child actor turned writer-director who in 2003 cast him as Dodge — a version of the Artful Dodger — in Twist, a dark modernization of Oliver Twist. “He was doing OK then,” recalls Tierney. “We went to the Venice Film Festival with Twist and he was great. I remember him doing the Terminator 3 press tour and he was fine. But right after all that, it got especially bad.”

“Things started to get awful pretty quickly,” Stahl recalls of the six-month period before his first rehab stint in 2007 at age 27. “I started to miss appointments. I put on a good front. The extent of my illness stayed hidden even from me. It’s common to justify, rationalize things. I looked around and said, ‘Oh, everybody’s in this scene. Everyone is drinking like this. Everyone is partying the way I am.’ In retrospect, there were far less people going as hard as I did.”

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Nick Stahl as John Connor in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

In 2009, after a second failed attempt at rehab in L.A., Stahl, then 29, moved back to Texas, settling in Austin. There he met and married Rose Murphy; they had a daughter the following year.

But Hollywood’s pull — both its work opportunities and the plentiful temptations available there — proved impossible to resist, and Stahl came back. He was arrested several times on charges including possession of meth and disorderly conduct. On May 9, 2012, his wife filed a missing persons report with the LAPD after Stahl did not return home for several days. When he finally surfaced, media reports said he had been living on Skid Row. “That wasn’t the case, thankfully,” Stahl says. “Skid Row is an open drug market. Back then, if you don’t know anybody and you’re looking for drugs, that’s where you go.”

Stahl was never homeless but spent “time on the street voluntarily,” he explains, because he had been living in a sober house and wanted to do drugs. The media circus that accompanied the missing-persons report shocked Stahl, who in addiction had lost all sense of perspective. “My wife and my family were getting bombarded with phone calls, and my friend read [the news] in a cab in London and things like that,” he recalls. Stahl and Murphy separated that year; they finalized their divorce in 2019.

Recalls Tierney of that scary period, “It was a worst-case scenario. I was waiting for a call that he’s dead. I was running out of people to find out what was going on. If I ever did contact him, it was always like, ‘Is this going to be the last time?’ ” For Stahl, it was also the first time his addiction issues were widely publicized. Until this point, he was still auditioning for parts and working with his agent and had the same business manager since he was a kid. But after “seeing the shit go down,” as he puts it, his agent and business manager dropped him as a client. The only rep who did not turn his back on Stahl was his manager, Sean Fay, who has represented him since Stahl was 15: “Sean said, ‘Get well, get healthy, and I’m here when you’re ready to come back.’ And he was. Since I started acting again a few years ago, I’ve just been with Sean.”

Amazingly, Stahl was never fired from a job. But he saw that day coming. He decided to step away from acting in 2012 after filming a two-episode guest arc on Body of Proof, an ABC procedural. “I really struggled to show up,” he recalls of the gig. “I was physically there, but I was checked out, and I certainly wasn’t feeling any real enthusiasm for acting anymore.” Failing to show up can have career-long repercussions, and, through the haze of addiction, Stahl was able to recognize that. “It’s very bad for an actor for things like insurance. So I knew that I had to step away, for self-preservation, but also for the preservation of my career, if I was going to have one again.”

For Tierney, knowing his best friend was in so much torment was a horrible and helpless feeling. “Nick is truly the loveliest guy in the world. Sweet and kind and very smart. Very funny,” Tierney says. “I think he’s probably the best actor of my generation. It just made it so brutal. This wasted gift.”

For the next five years, Stahl disappeared from view. He spent that time in Dallas, “really diving into my recovery,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be easy, but it proved to be even more difficult than I thought it would be. It hadn’t dawned on me that I could give it my whole effort — and it’s still going to take something more.” There was no magic bullet. “It’s hard to put my finger on what shifted. If I hit bumps in the road, I always got up and tried again. Luckily, I was resilient. A lot of people don’t find sobriety. It’s kind of mysterious territory. One day, it just kind of stuck.”

Sobriety did not just save Stahl’s life; it completely rebooted it. “It proved to be reconstructive for me,” he says. “That’s when I really started to piece together that I had neglected building a real life outside of the business. For many years, I had everything — but I didn’t have anything resembling a satisfying life. I didn’t have outside interests, I lost touch with friends and family. The film world made up too much of my identity.”

Despite working steadily from age 11, Stahl did not make a fortune in Hollywood. “I didn’t have all that much money,” he says. “I was never rich. I made quite a bit in my early 20s, but I bought a house. Money goes fast. By the time I actually stepped away from acting, it wasn’t like I had a bunch of money and lost it.” When he finally left Hollywood, that meant he had to earn a living like regular folks do. “So I started working for a friend’s moving company,” he says. “I tried other things. I worked at a coffee shop in New York for a little bit.” Occasionally, customers would recognize him. “That was weird at first,” he says, “but ultimately it was very beneficial for me. I mean, I did what I had to do, but it was surprisingly empowering for me and it was necessary.

“Not only did I learn how to live as a sober person, which I didn’t know how to do, but I learned how to have a life outside the business,” he continues. And with that newfound clarity, he started to remember what he liked about acting in the first place. These days, it only brings him happiness, not escape. “That passion inside me that burned for film and acting, it had dulled progressively over time. But once I was separated from Hollywood, all of that started to come back, an ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ kind of thing. Over the past few years, whether I’m working on a film or auditioning, I don’t take it for granted, ever. I work much harder at it now. I just feel a renewed love for it.”

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Tom Wilkinson, Camden Munson and Nick Stahl in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (2001). Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

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Today, staying on track for Stahl is a minute-by-minute, second-by-second struggle. “Recovery has to be the most important thing for me,” he says. “I put it first in my life. I’ve been trained to do that.”

Vincent Grashaw, the director of What Josiah Saw — a Southern Gothic getting strong reviews on the festival circuit — says Stahl arrived on set “not only prepared but bringing ideas to the table, suggestions and a point of view, never stepping on my toes. It was clear he was grateful to be working, but the guy really is a huge talent. I couldn’t be more excited for what’s in store for him.”

“Grateful” is a word Stahl tends to use as well. “I’ve had friends die,” he says. “It’s hard to identify why one person might make it and one might not. But I’m grateful for it, and it’s given me the opportunity to try to help people in the same situation I was [in]. That’s something I take very seriously now. It’s more important to me than making films. I search out people who have had similar struggles and show them how I got well. I speak from my experience and show them what worked for me.

“This notion persists that addicts and alcoholics have a choice,” he adds, “which is silly, because addiction by definition is someone doing something they can’t stop doing. It’s very hard for friends and family members to understand. Addicts are treated as if, on some level, maybe they don’t care enough. Maybe they’re morally dysfunctional or defective. And those things are absolutely not true. Alcoholics lose their relationships, their family members, their money, they end up in terrible situations. If someone could choose to change that, who wouldn’t? I did not wake up one day and say, ‘I want to stop acting and go through a divorce and lose my money and lose my reputation.’ “

It was that realization that allowed Stahl to finally love and forgive himself and, as a result, find sobriety. “That was liberating for me, to really start to recognize that this was not something that I, or anyone else who goes through this stuff, chooses,” he says. “Understanding that goes a long way toward accepting it.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.