With its guns and its individualism, the Western is a quintessentially American art form, actor Tim Blake Nelson explains. “And it endures, because we can keep reinventing it. Right after the Second World War, Westerns were really Manichean, in that there was good and evil juxtaposed against each other. And then, in the ’60s, you started to get really flawed characters, and they would dress in black, and there was this sort of counterculture feel to the Western hero.”
Tim’s latest project, Old Henry, out Oct. 1, is a new kind of Western altogether. Yes, it follows the traditional tropes of the genre, but it’s also something of a “micro Western.” “Westerns are meant to have scope and grandeur. We like our Westerns big and with lots of open spaces,” Tim says. “And this is a very intimate film. A lot of it takes place inside a small house. It’s a tiny little place and a tiny little story that suddenly gets very big and, in a sense, almost Shakespearean.”
You might know Tim as the titular singing cowboy in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Or Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or Dr. Pendanski in Holes. Old Henry puts him squarely at the center of a story about an Oklahoma farmer who takes in an injured stranger with a bag full of cash, and inadvertently invites violence into his home. Often cast in supporting roles, Tim isn’t accustomed to being the leading man. But it’s where a decades-long career has led him—and he’s turned the opportunity into a quiet, but profound, homage to a genre he loves.
A character actor and leading man
When Tim went off to college, it was with the goal of becoming a professor or high school teacher of Latin and Roman history. He stuck with his Classics major, but pivoted to theater acting in graduate school. “It was resolutely for theater acting,” he says. “In fact, film was not only discouraged, but prohibited while we were in acting school.”
Tim internalized the idea that he’d be pigeonholed in theater “because I thought that people in film, and particularly on television, were just a lot better-looking than I was. It was ignorant of me because I didn’t think through the concept of character actors, whereas I thought, ‘Well, if I do Shakespeare and Shaw and Chekhov, there’ll be a place for me.’”
His career pivoted when he got cast in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the film jobs outpaced the theater ones. To this day, he considers himself primarily a character actor.
Character actors often play supporting roles. According to Tim, “They’re the offbeat characters who are either wildly eccentric or resolutely like you and me in a way that isn’t idealized.” They’re roles that don’t typically carry films “because, for the most part, people don’t want to look at us or follow extreme characters that we end up portraying for an entire movie,” he adds.
That said, there are exceptions. “Our greatest actor, I think, is also a character actor, even though he normally plays leads in movies. And that’s Daniel Day-Lewis.” Tim points out Day-Lewis roles like Abraham Lincoln, Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview and My Left Foot’s Christy Brown. “Or Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man,” he adds. “The Coen brothers will often have character leads.” Whereas someone like Tom Cruise is a leading man. “You look at him and there’s idealization there,” Tim says. “As audience members, we follow him. He’s a lead.”
“A leading man is going to play Hamlet. And the character actors are going to be [Romeo and Juliet’s] Tybalt and Mercutio.” –Tim Blake Nelson
Old Henry is one of those rare projects where Tim has gotten to play both the character actor and the lead. He was first drawn to the film for the physical and emotional challenges it presented. “But then, on a deeper level, I’m a dad, and I’m raising with my wife three boys. This is a father-and-son story, and it felt close to me,” he says. “In particular, the struggle that goes on in the Henry character between: Do you protect your kids from the world, or do you expose them to the challenges of the world so that they can be more adept at confronting them as adults? That tension really interested me because I face it every day in talking to my kids.”
Going in, he felt the weight of the role and the responsibility of coming through for writer-director Potsy Ponciroli and his producers. “They were counting on me to, for lack of a better way of putting it, center the film, at least in the acting department. I didn’t want to fall short.” Physically, he dove into the part, learning to ride, shoot, butcher a hog and dig a trench. Even the way Henry wields a gun required a lot of focus and research into the character’s past life. But it was a welcome challenge for Tim. “If I’m ever repeating an approach in toto, then I’m being lazy. Each part has its own significant challenges, hopefully. I’m not interested in parts that don’t challenge me anymore.”