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Tim Blake Nelson on Working With the Coen Brothers and Being “That Guy”

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Tim Blake Nelson is extremely hip. When we sit down to discuss his latest role, in the Coen brothers’ Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we — perhaps inevitably, given that he’s playing a singing cowboy — end up chatting about what music we’ve been listening to. The artists he names range from Hank Williams (“I just don’t think there’ll be another troubadour like him, ever”) to A Tribe Called Quest to Okkervil River to A$AP Rocky. Though he credits his three sons for his awareness of the last, it’s a breadth of knowledge (and enthusiasm) that stretches to pretty much each topic we cover.

It’s also a range that’s evident in the two characters Nelson has now played for the Coens: escaped convict Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whom Nelson gently terms “not so smart,” and now Buster Scruggs. Though they initially seem to be cut from the same yokel-y cloth, it only takes a few minutes of the Coens’ latest movie (and a very bloody shoot-out) for it to become clear that they’re yin and yang — Scruggs is much more dangerous than he looks. The day after its premiere at the New York Film Festival, we spoke about the film, musicals (Western or otherwise), and getting into the Watchmen groove.

Were Westerns a genre you grew up with?
I grew up in Oklahoma, and Westerns were always on television. They were probably always on television everywhere in the country, but in particular [laughs] in Oklahoma. I constantly watched the Sergio Leone Westerns whenever they were on television.

Those are a very different kind of Western from Buster Scruggs. Was the cowboy musical also something you enjoyed?
Less so the cowboy musicals, just because, since I loved the Sergio Leone ones, I was bound not really to like the singing cowboy.

I understand that the Coens wrote this 25 years ago, and you were sent the screenplay in 2002. What was the conversation between then and now? Occasionally, Joel would mention it. He would say, “Someday, we’re gonna do that Buster Scruggs, so be ready.” It was brought up from time to time, and yet I have to say, as the industry started to change, with the rise of Netflix and Amazon and fewer screens for arty movies, I did begin to wonder how they would ever get it made, even Joel and Ethan. The change in the way films are displayed now actually ended up helping them.

Did you hear about just the Buster Scruggs part when they first talked to you about it?
Yeah, and I was told about Meal Ticket. That one had also been written. They said, “Yeah, we’ve gotta write these other ones.” I read it, and I loved it, and I thought, “My God, what a great opportunity, to get to do that, that’s fantastic” — but it was so appealing to me that I wanted to put it away, otherwise I would just keep thinking about it all the time, and asking Joel and Ethan about it and annoying them. So I just put it away. And then when they said, “Alright, we want you to do it,” all I remembered was, “Alright, you’ve got to learn these pistol tricks and you’ve got to learn to play the guitar, and there’s going to be singing.” I went to dinner with them and we just started going over what the process of learning all that would be, and I said, “But he doesn’t really talk much, does he?” And Ethan said, “‘Doesn’t really talk much?’ The guy doesn’t shut up!” [laughs] And then I realized, “Oh, there are a lot of words to learn, as well.”

Are you really playing the guitar in the film?
Yes, I learned to play the guitar specifically for this.

Have you kept playing it since then?
A little bit. I would say that I should play more, because it’s a skill I want to hold onto. We started shooting in June, and I started preparing for this role in January. Guitar lessons and the pistol stuff — that was also tough to learn. Tough, but in a good way. I worked on those skills — it’s like Napoleon Dynamite, [affects voice] “my skills” — every day for months and months, because they have to seem like it’s easy. Now, understand that I’m playing the guitar, but when you hear the recording, it’s just my voice. I’m playing the real chords and playing along with the track, but — I don’t know who ended up playing the guitar on the recording, but I’m really playing the guitar I have there.

And the horse was absolutely fine with it?
The horse was fine with it, but I’m riding a neck-reined horse. That’s one of the other reasons I needed to learn to play really well, because I’m controlling the horse with my legs. Do you ride?

Not at all.
Alright. So you can control a horse with your legs if you’re really, really good, and I’m not. I’m an okay rider, I’m not a great rider. Grainger [Hines], in the movie, he’s a great rider. But yeah, playing and singing and trying to make the horse hit a mark, I needed to be able to play really well, and not even think about it. It was just second nature. That took a lot.

Do you play any other instruments? You played the organ in Minority Report as well.
No, not really. I took piano lessons as a kid, but I wasn’t very good. I’m the parent of a real musician — Henry, my oldest boy — so I never say that I can play. He taught me to play the guitar for the film, he was my teacher.

I think, if you don’t really count O Brother, Where Art Thou?, this is the first musical that you’ve done.
Yeah. I did a musical onstage a long time ago — Mac Wellman’s Dracula. I played Jonathan Harker, and I sang in that. That was really fun. But you wouldn’t want to put me in a musical that wasn’t a rock musical or a country musical. I’m not going to be able to perform Sondheim, that would just be horrible.

Have you ever tried?
I auditioned for Assassins!

When it was at Playwrights?

Can I ask what part you were going for?
I just went in and sang a song.

Are you generally a fan of musicals, though?
I am. I love musicals, and particularly Sondheim. I love Sondheim. He’s my favorite.

Backtracking a little bit, speaking to the change in the way movies are displayed, is the shift in the filmmaking landscape something you’ve felt on a broader level?
Yeah, it’s profound. It’s changed not only what sorts of movies can now get made, but also how many people see them, the types of movies getting made, and also the aesthetic of the movies. It’s global. I think, because of streaming platforms, more movies are now getting made, so that’s good. I think, however, because of the way that the films are viewed, the cinematic language is different. There are more close-ups now, fewer wide shots, because whether they’re conscious of it or not, I think filmmakers making art films are aware that a wide shot is going to be wasted on a tiny screen. Sound is treated, now, in a different way. Editing is treated, now, in a different way. You really do hear, on sets, now, “Well, that’s going to be fine, because most people are going to watch this on a small screen.” You actually hear that. Or, “Why are you caring about that thing over there in the background? Nobody’s going to see it on their iPhone.” You hear that. And that’s just bound to change what gets attention on a movie set.

You’ve said that one of the things you like to do is to hang around on sets to watch the directors work. Was there anything in particular that stood out to you on Buster Scruggs?
I was reminded that Joel and Ethan really don’t shoot master shots. They don’t shoot complete masters. There was not one complete master on Buster Scruggs, in my section. You get pieces to establish the geography, but because they knew that’s where they were going to use that particular piece, there was never a complete master. Essentially, the editing is happening in real time, because they’re not furnishing an opportunity for a master to be dropped [in] later in the scene. It’s not there, and they’re not going to have the shots. To think of it in musical terms, everything is notated in that regard. There’s no room for improvisation later in the editing room, or there’s little room for that. I marveled at it. I think the results speak for themselves. You always feel, on a Coen brothers movie, that you’re where you need to be, as a viewer. That they do that without full masters is breathtaking. That is the work of preternatural filmmakers.

In an AV Club interview, you were talking about your role in The Incredible Hulk. They’ve brought William Hurt back for one of the more recent Marvel movies; have you gotten the call yet?
I have not. Yeah, the Leader. I would love to do it, so we’ll see. I don’t know that Mark [Ruffalo] is going to do his own standalone Hulk movie, and maybe if he does, they would bring the Leader back, I’m not sure.

Are you much of a comics person?
To a degree. You know, I’m about to go do Watchmen.

I was just about to ask about that.
I had not read Watchmen, so I read it when I was offered the show, and it took me a while to understand the vocabulary of a graphic novel. I really didn’t get it. It frustrated me. But once I found my way in and no longer needed descriptive words, but could really look at that style of artwork — because I feel like I can look at a Delacroix or a Bruegel or a Courbet, or even a Miró, an abstract, and I can find my way in. But I found it really difficult when first reading Watchmen just to find my way in. I just wasn’t inured to the way that medium tells stories. It took me a while. But then once I got in, I was really engaged. I found it very smart. I guess comics are somewhat new to me.

Was there a particular moment where it clicked for you?
I think it was around the character of Rorschach. Seeing him as this unembarrassed, almost Hobbesian cynic about the nature of man, and how we treat one another, I just suddenly realized there are clashing philosophies in this. Once I began to understand that, then the visual shorthand and the lacunae that I was expected to fill in became very exciting. You just don’t get words to understand, as an example, that Ozymandias just blew up a whole ship. You have to find it there. And the clashing philosophies of the different characters, that was my way in.

So I assume that you hadn’t really read that many comics prior to Watchmen.
I really hadn’t. I hadn’t read Hulk, either. Edward [Norton] was a big Hulk fan. But no, I wasn’t so familiar with it. My parents didn’t encourage that. We could read Doonesbury, we were allowed to read Doonesbury.

What was the demarcation?
They saw Doonesbury as a cultural phenomenon, because you had a character who was in Vietnam, and then you had that character, Mrs. Caucus, who was an early feminist, you know, a 70s feminist, so my mom said, “Yeah, well, you can read Doonesbury.” I had a really good upbringing, but it was regimented. We were assigned books, you were always expected to be reading a novel, we had to deliver talks about books at the dinner table. We also wrote five paragraphs a week on the subject of our choice, that were then graded by our parents. That was outside of school.

Any chance you’d do a romantic comedy again? I was just looking through your IMDb page and remembered you’d done Cherish near the beginning of your career.
For me to have a title role, it would have to be a Coen brothers movie. It really depends on somebody having that sensibility, to put me in a romantic lead. Finn Taylor is just that sort of director. So, sure, but I really do like playing the supporting roles. I like playing the oddballs. There was an actor who once said to me, “But don’t you want to be the guy instead of the guy standing next to the guy?” And I actually like being the guy standing next to the guy. I really do.

I mean, I think you’ve kind of turned into the guy as well. People know who you are.
That’s another great bit of advice I got from Lois Smith a long time ago. I had done a role in Central Park, a really nice role in Shakespeare in the Park, and I was a little down because it had ended. This was very early in my career, way before O, Brother. She said, “You sound down today, Tim,” and I said, “Yeah, I just thought it would be different after I did this role.” She said, “Tim, no. For a character actor, it’s not about the one role, it’s about a lifetime of accumulation of character roles. That’s what you want to think about. You want to think about your whole life doing this, not about a single moment.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Tim Blake Nelson on the Coen Brothers and Being “That Guy”