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.