Before meeting Tim Blake Nelson at a Manhattan hotel, I quickly did the math in my head. Now, this is far from scientific, but I couldn’t think of an actor I’d seen more in movies – Nelson has been in over 50; from everything from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, to even a short run (that was going to be longer) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – yet I know the least about personally.
To be fair, from the outside looking in, this seems to be the perfect level of fame: to be consistently working, yet also being able to just live a normal life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where his big Saturday plan was to watch the Oklahoma-Texas football game. (Nelson grew up in Oklahoma and is a huge Sooners fan. The most comfortable he looked over the course of this interview was when he was talking about Oklahoma football.)
Nelson is currently starring as the title character in the Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (which just had its American premiere at New York Film Festival). That said, “title character” may be a little misleading since Buster Scruggs is only one of six completely separate short films that make up the film. There’s no sly way these stories all fit together other than they all take place in the Coen’s version of “the Old West.” The Coens tapped Nelson way back in 2002 to play Buster Scruggs, an extremely accurate gunslinger who loves singing about clean water and shooting ornery cusses before they have a chance to shoot him. Honestly, I could have watched a whole movie about Buster Scruggs.
Ahead, Nelson explains why he likes being an enigma to most of us (though he swears it’s unintentional, but he does seem to like it this way), expresses his excitement over his still unknown role (see, an enigma) in HBO’s Watchmen series, and does seem legitimately disappointed that he never got to continue his role as Dr. Samuel Sterns, who later becomes the Leader, in The Incredible Hulk.
We have a lot of time together. I’ll know everything about you before this is over.
You may not want to spend five minutes with me.
You’re an enigma to me. Do you like being an enigma?
Yeah, I suppose so. It’s not intentional.
I’ve probably seen you in more movies than any other actor that I know the least about personally.
Yeah, I’m a husband and a dad. And I live on the Upper West Side and that life is very discrete.
And you’re originally from Oklahoma. We’re from bordering states originally…
Are you Kansas?
Missouri, actually. Which I think has the record for the most states that border it.
Let me see if I can name them.
All right, so there’s Arkansas.
Okay, so Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois. Would it be Tennessee? So then Kentucky? So it will be Iowa?
There’s one more after that.
Do you watch the Tigers football?
Missouri? I do.
I’m going to be watching the Sooners and Texas at noon.
Yeah, it’s Mizzou for me Saturday then the Chiefs on Sunday.
I’m so excited.
This will be my new series, “Talk to famous actors about their feelings about Patrick Mahomes.”
Well, I am now a Cleveland fan of course.
Oh, because of Baker Mayfield?
Yeah, he’s gonna be great. And Kyler Murray might win the Heisman. You’d have two Oklahoma quarterbacks winning back to back Heismans.
So when the Coen brothers called you, did they say, “Hey, we’ve got this idea for a movie called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and we want you to play Buster Scruggs,” before the mention it’s the first of a series of six short films?
They brought me the 19-page script in 2002.
It’s been around that long?
And they said, “We’ve written this one, and then there’s one more we’re gonna write, and then probably three or four more after that. And we’re gonna do this anthology movie and we don’t know when we’re gonna be done, but this is going to be the first one and we want you to play Buster Scruggs.” And so, yeah, I’m the title character, but it’s just a segment of the movie.
It reminds me of when Joel sent me O Brother, Where Art Thou?. And he didn’t send it to me and say, “We want you to be in this.” He sent it to me saying, “I want your advice about this.” So I read it and I thought, “Well, gosh, I wonder what he wants to talk to me about? Man, I would kill to do a day on this movie. But I’m not gonna ask, because that’s just tacky.” Then he offered me the part of Delmar.
Were you the first one cast?
No, he had already cast Clooney and John. And then, funnily enough, years later, when they were doing True Grit, because it takes place in Oklahoma, I actually said, “Guys, anything in here? I’ll do anything.” And Ethan got kind of cross with me and he said, “Look, if we had something that we thought made sense for you in this movie, we’d give it to you. You have to understand that. Now, just know that, and you don’t have to ask.”
There had to be an outlaw in there somewhere you could have played?
And then I just said, “Okay.” And I felt terrible about asking. But it was because it was Oklahoma territory. So, anyway. I’m shooting Watchmen this fall in Georgia and it takes place in Tulsa.
How do you feel about that?
I haven’t seen anything that doesn’t feel like Tulsa, where we’ve shot yet. But at the same time, nothing feels specifically Tulsa either, yet. I’ve not seen anything on Watchmen in the pilot that stuck out in a bad way, nothing. I think they’re doing a great job. But there’s also no substitute for shooting in the place, the real place. And also, with Watchmen, it’s an alternate universe, so it’s okay. It’s gonna be great.
It’s not an adaptation this time, right?
It’s a continuation. Yeah, I really like my part. It’s a really interesting part. And I like Regina King a lot.
Did they have to sell you on being in this? Or were you a fan?
No, I didn’t even know it. I’d seen the Zack Snyder movie, but I hadn’t read the book. And, no, it was a discussion. I think the book is really good. But it was a discussion. I didn’t say yes immediately. I had to learn a little more. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to do it. And Damon Lindelof, he’s an extremely bright and inventive person and spending several years as a part of a universe he’s creating really appeals to me.
Is that what you look for, someone who can do that?
When I’m going to act for someone, I look for a person who has a perspective unlike anyone else’s and is going to be afforded the opportunity to realize that perspective. And if I can find that, if I can be just a color in a really interesting artist’s palette, then that’s where I want to be. And what I try to avoid is the cynical, cookie cutter type of material. I think that’s really my guiding principle.
What do you mean by cookie cutter type of material?
Just stuff that’s derivative and where an aesthetic is purloined from somebody else that doesn’t feel genuine. I like movies that come from a singular and unique point of view. And in situations where that person is going to be given the resources to realize it, because sometimes you end up in a project with a really interesting director, but they’re not being supported.
Supported by who? Their actors? Or the people in charge?
Sometimes it’s the actors. More often than not it’s just the money. They don’t have enough money to do the movie the way they wrote it. Or there are producers who maybe don’t necessarily believe in what they’re up to. And so they’re meddling unnecessarily and clouding up waters that you want to be clear. And so, when I say, the resources to realize it, it means that there’s a support staff around them and the monetary resources to make the vision happen. And Joel and Ethan will not go onto a set to make one of their movies unless they have the resources. So, one of the differences with Joel and Ethan is they’ll say no. I know for a fact, because I’ve been friends with them for so long, that they’ve had scripts, literally, in pre-production and when they determined that the resources weren’t there they just said, “We’re gonna stop.”
Movies that have still not been made?
Not been made. There’s one that they’ve not made and they spent a good part of a year writing it. And then they scouted around the world to figure out where to shoot it. And they were in pre-production and they just said, “We’re not going to have the resources to do it right.” Turturro told me on O Brother, with their movies, the result is better than the script.
And their scripts are amazing.
Was there a moment in O Brother you were doubting?
No, I never doubted anything. I just said, “This is amazing and I feel so lucky.” And he said, “Well, the best is yet to come, because with every one of their movies the movie is even better than the script.”
There was a time when I really thought that you three were actually singing “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
I sing “In the Jailhouse Now.”
Right, but I really thought that was George Clooney singing the first time I saw it.
Well, you know what’s really funny? This is off the record…
What’s his name… Rex Reed panned O Brother, just panned it, hated it. You can go read it. He hated it. And he said, “And George Clooney’s voice is honking and you can’t listen to it.” Meanwhile, a Grammy later. And it wasn’t Clooney’s voice! It was Dan Tyminski, one of the great singers in bluegrass.
Actually, you can quote that. That’s fine. I’m actually looking forward to what he writes about Buster Scruggs, because it is so not his type of film. I can tell you what he’s going to write. He’s going to love “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the one that Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck. He’ll love that, because it’s right up … yeah.
I would watch a whole movie just about Buster Scruggs. You look like you’re having the time of your life.
I was having the time of my life. The character is nothing like me.
You don’t ride a horse around and singing all the time? I really thought you did. This is shocking to me.
[Laughs] Dammit! But it has everything I’ve ever dreamed of being able to do, so it’s an interesting contradiction.
I’ve always been curious about your roe in The Incredible Hulk. Also that it was the second movie of this now machine of a franchise.
I had a great time, and I loved working with Edward Norton. I love Edward. And I directed Edward right after that in Leaves of Grass.
I always got the impression Edward and Louis Leterrier didn’t always see eye to eye.
I think you can talk to them about that. You know?
Well, I mean more if it was something that like, “Okay, I’m just going to sit here and do my business.”
Yeah, I didn’t want to get in the middle of all that, and particularly since there was nobody on that movie with whom I didn’t get along. I loved working with Edward, and Liv, and Tim, and Louie, and Gale Anne Hurd. And any interactions I had with the Marvel guys were fine. They were great.
I always love it when you show up, the movie gets to another level.
He was a really fun character.
Yeah, it looked like you were having fun with that one.
And that was great. I just went down and met them in a hotel lobby downtown and they said, “We want you to play this role.” And I was really looking forward to playing The Leader, because that is what it was setting up, and then they didn’t up making another movie with Edward, so…
Yeah, I loved him as Hulk. Ruffalo’s great, too. They’re very different.
Yeah, very different.
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