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Nick Stahl is "grateful" to be alive. The Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines star is opening up to The Hollywood Reporter about his severe substance abuse problem that sidelined him from Hollywood for years.
"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," he explains.
Stahl got his big break at age 11, starring in Mel Gibson's The Man Without a Face. He worked steadily after and was an "it" boy of the early aughts. Although he was never fired from a job, the actor was privately struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.
"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 [the 2001 Oscar-nominated film] In the Bedroom, through Terminator, through Carnivàle, through all of it," Stahl says. "I didn't really discriminate — I'd use anything to change the way I felt when I was sober."
Stahl had his first drink at age 13. He moved to L.A. three years later and was quickly introduced to weed. Then came pills, cocaine and methamphetamine.
"That became what I chased," he adds. While his friends were partying to have fun, Stahl says for him, it wasn't a "'I want this,' but 'I need this.'" He held it together promoting Terminator in 2003, but "things started to get awful pretty quickly" after.
"I started to miss appointments. I put on a good front. The extent of my illness stayed hidden even from me," he explains. "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."
Stahl's first rehab stint came in 2007 at age 27. A second failed rehab attempt came in 2009 and he moved to Texas. However, he felt a pull back to Hollywood. He continued to find work, but his troubles eventually spilled into the media in 2012 and 2013. He was arrested for possession of meth and lewd conduct.
"Things got really bad for me," he says. "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."
Stahl was reported missing by his former wife in 2012 and reports claimed he was homeless and living on L.A.'s Skid Row.
"That wasn't the case, thankfully," he tells THR. "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."
While Stahl says he was never homeless, he spent "time on the street voluntarily" as he didn't want to reside in a sober living house anymore. He remembers being shocked by the media frenzy over his supposed disappearance. Stahl left Hollywood again.
"I didn't have all that much money," he shares. "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."
So, Stahl started doing regular jobs, like working for a friend's moving company.
"I tried other things. I worked at a coffee shop in New York for a little bit," he recalls, admitting he was occasionally recognized.
"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."
Stahl, now 41, is four years clean. He has found again a "passion" for "film and acting." In 2021, he appeared in five episodes of AMC's Fear the Walking Dead. He recently wrapped several indie features.
"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," Stahl says. "I work much harder at it now. I just feel a renewed love for it."
Stahl's renewed love for acting is accompanied by a realization that addicts and alcoholics don't have a choice.
"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."