Tim Blake Nelson breaks down his most iconic roles, including 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?,' 'Watchmen,' 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,' 'This is My Life,' 'Heavyweights,' 'The Thin Red Line,' 'Minority Report,' 'Holes,' 'The Incredible Hulk,' 'Lincoln,' 'Just Mercy' and 'The Report.'
Tim Blake Nelson Breaks Down His Most Iconic Characters
- I guess the first film, really,that I was in was called The Refrigerator.It was made by some friends from college.And they had me down the the East Village.I didn't even know really,what the film was about.I was in drama school at the time.But, I do know that the moviewas about a refrigerator that ate people.[upbeat rock music]This is my life.I was in Los Angelesdoing a television show.I was only two years out of drama schooland I was called over tothe Beverly Hills Hotel.And I sat with Nora andthe casting director,a woman named Mara Rosenthal,who worked at the timewith Juliette Taylorwho casts all the Woody Allen movies.I just sat and talked with Noraand she simply said, "I'mgonna put you in the movie."You're gonna play a babysitter"who's a stand-up comicand why don't we figure out"what his comedy is, and he can"kind of try it out on the girls"while he's babysitting them."And when I got back to New York,I went over to herapartment in the Apthorpand I handed her these pages.I really shouldn't have done that.I think she wanted to discussand then, she was gonna write the pages.But I didn't know anybetter and she looked at me,somewhat startled, and said, "Well,"I wasn't expecting this."And then she read them and said,"You know what, I thinkwe can work with this."And suddenly, I was on a Nora Ephron setdoing a scene with Julie Kavner.On subjects ichthyological,I don't don't mean to harp,but who is grander than the carp?- That's a good one.- It's important to rememberthat he's a bitter, failed comic.So, I didn't need to writejokes that were funny.I was writing jokes for a bad comic,which, I think is a lot easier.[upbeat drum music]Heavyweights.I met Ben through a classmateof mine at Julliard.And, I also knew the writer of that moviewho's a guy named Steve Brilland so I had these two connections to Ben.And kind of like with Nora, he basicallysaid in the room, "Well, Iwant you to play this part."And I didn't really think I wasappropriate for it, necessarily.I thought I was a little bit young.But, I jumped at the chance to do it.And then, I found myself hanging outon that movie with notonly Ben, but Judd Apatow.That was a really lucky early movieto get to do and a fun supporting,not even a supporting role, but really,a one scene, you know, a cameo.I had a scene that involved Jerry Sillerand Anne Meara, Ben's parents.Kind of involved them, I mean,I showed a video tape with them.So, effectively, I was ina scene onscreen with them.- Hi, Jerry, Roger Johnson.Islander's fan, huh?Team of the future, I say.- Yeah.- It astonishes me when I'm stoppedand people say, "Oh my God, Heavyweights."It really does astonish me becauseI'm in the movie for just a breath.The Thin Red Line.Like everyone who hasan interest in movies,I looked at Terry Malick as a real hero.To get the call that I was evengonna get to read his new scriptmade me feel like, I don't know,my time in drama school had been worth it.I went through the auditionprocess and I read on tapeand then word came backthat Terry was interested.- Find something that's his.Make an island for himself.- Being around Terry was game-changingjust in terms of what Ithought was supposed to gointo making a movie and whatI thought preparation meantand was for, what Ithought the relationshipbetween the text of a scriptand what actually got shot was.Terry was incredibly preparedand he really knew his subject matter,but what we ended up shootingbore very little relationto what the script was.And each day was largely improvised.Often, you would be told the day beforeor on the morning of a shootthat all your lines had been eliminated.And I think this is a part of his methodof literally evisceratingall the given circumstancesof his own narrative so that the narrativewould be more free-flowing and immediate.But, this was of coursehell on a lot of the actorsand particularly, those of us, who again,came in with certain assumptionsabout, well, if I have thisline, I do get to say it.If I'm supposed to be in this scene,I'm going to show upon the day and shoot itand just, none of thatended up being true.And, it humbled, I think, all of us.It taught me, most of all, that a movieis the director's movie,and we're there to serve.If you're gonna do movies,you better sign up for thatand more than sign up forit, you'd better embrace it.And, actually seek out those filmmakersthat you actually don't wanna end upin cookie-cutter moviesthat those movies end upbeing the least interesting ones.I was really blessed to learnthat early on through Terry.[intense music over crashing waves]Often what he does is he shoots all dayuntil the last hour,what's called magic hour.It's really about thirty minutes.You learn that he's been shooting all dayas a kind of rehearsal to get the scenein that forty-five minuteperiod when the light is right.Well, that's interesting.It's hard on the actorsand it's hard on the crew,but, you sure don't forget it.And you sure know you're gonna end upbeing a part of a filmthat looks like none other.O Brother, Where Art Thou?O Brother, Where Art Thou, I guess,was the movie I gotthat changed everything.I was lucky enough to understandthat as soon as I got the script.Joel sent me the script and said,"Can you read this, I need some advice."I thought, "Oh, he wants to talk"about the adaptation of the Odyssey"because I studies classics in college."And then, he offered me Delmar.I was so astounded thatI told him initially,"No, I'm not sure, let mespend a night thinking about it"because what I don't want to do"is come down onto aset with you and Ethan."Who had become friendsof mine at the time."And not come up with the goods."You've offered me this part"without even hearing me read it."Let me at least assure myself"that I have some purchase on this role."And he said, "Well, yeah, you can try"to persuade me otherwise, but we think"that you're the rightperson for the role."But, I spent the evening with itand I decided, alright,I have a way in here.I don't even know if he really believesthat there was a possibility I could havesaid no, but there really wasbecause, again, I didn't wannago and be on somebody's setand have them regrethaving offered me a part.[squeaking][screaming]- Pete, Pete![water splashing]- It was all practical.There's nothing digital there.I was really chasing a toad in the waterand the toad actually did escapeinto the water when I wassplashing around after it.That all happened.Luckily for me, I was veryanxious about that scene.Even though it's funny and it's extreme,it's also very emotional and there neededto be a truth in there for itto resonate as being funny.And also, dramatically compelling,as funny as that sounds.♪ I had a friend named Ramblin' Bob ♪♪ He used to steal Gamblin' Rob ♪♪ He thought he was thesmartest guy around ♪- The song I sing on in themovie is In the Jailhouse Now.And because the movie got aGrammy for album of the year,I actually have a Grammy.I like to think of it as probably oneof the most undeserved, or, you know,there's no reason I should have a Grammy.I got to sing Jailhouse because basically,I begged Joel to letme have a crack at it.♪ For, I'm bound to ridethat northern railroad ♪♪ Perhaps I'll die upon this train ♪[cheers]♪ Perhaps he'll die upon this train ♪- I didn't sing on Constant Sorrow,but I got to dance to it with Turturro.And I got to lip sync it with Turturroin the studio scene where we sing it.And that was just so much fun.Working with John was great.I used to dream, fantasize, as a kid,about being in a recording studiowith the headphones on.There I was, in my thirties,doing just what I had fantasized about.It just was different route.And I wasn't gonna end uphaving a career in music,it was just a little moment in timethat answered this fantasy I had.Minority Report.I just shot a film as a directorcalled the Gray Zone in Bulgaria.I got a call from my agent saying"Steven Spielberg has offered you a part"in this new film of hiscalled Minority Report."Are you in?"It's apparently a very flashy role."And I said, "May I read it?""No, he's not giving the script out."You're either in or you're out."But Tim, it's Steven Spielberg,"you're gonna say yes to this."And I said, "I'm sorry, again,"like I said to Joel, it'sincredibly flattering,"but the last thing I want to do"is show up on somebody's set"and not be able tocome up with the goods."And have a director look at me"and say why did I cast this person?"It's great that he didn't wantto audition me, I'm not sure why.Well I learned that he had seen O Brotherthat summer in BarrySonnenfeld's screening roomin the Hamptons, and so,that what interested himin me for this part.But I still didn't know what the part was.And so, I said, "Can I talk to him?"The next day, I'm in the editing roomand the assistant comes in and says,"Steven Spielberg is on the phone."And I said, "Hello, sucha honor to meet you."And he basically said, "What's the deal?"Do you wanna do this part?"Somebody said you needed to talk to me."And I said, "I just would love"to be able to read thescript if that's possible."It's not because I doubtthat it's incredible,"it's actually the converse of that."It's that I doubt thatI'm gonna be good enough"or suitable, anyway, for the role."And he said, "Of course you can read it."That's a perfectlylegitimate thing to ask."And it was basicallyjust a set of monologuesbecause the guy talks a lot.I got all the monologues down.I felt like I really had command of them.And I showed up on set and I was calledto Tom's, Tom Cruise's bus.He had this enormous bus, it was likea shopping mall, it was just huge.And so, you know, I wandered in,and we're working on the sceneand Steven just doesn't seem happy at all.And I thought to myself, "Ugh,my nightmare is coming true."I'm coming up short, I'mdisappointing a director."I should've said no."And he comes up and stands next to meand he's just thinking, he's very quiet,and he said, "Can you do a Boston accent?"And I'd gone to college in Rhode Island.That's pretty close, and so Isaid, "Yes, actually, I can."And so I did it, and he said,"Now that's more like it."And then he stared ootsing withcertain sounds I was makingand really, right there,like a fresco painter,he just started shifting,with Boston accent as a base,the way the guy spoke and literally,in that fifteen minutes, we came up withwho and what Gideon was andit just suddenly felt rightand everything he was after made sense.- Can't let you takethat out of here, chief.It's against the rules.- Anything else going on inhere that's against the rules?[clicking]- Careful, chief, you dig up the past,all you get is dirty.- What's remarkable about Stevenis that he can do thatwith everyone on set.He just knows the entireapparatus of filmmaking.That's what's so unbelievablyspecial about him.Holes.I loved being in holes and the directorof that movie, Andy Davis,who directed not onlythat movie, but The Fugitive, I mean,talk about a wide bandwidth.It was a great deal of fun and alsoworking with Jon Voightand Sigourney Weaver,what could have been better?It was a really fun part to play.I'm probably stopped on the streetabout that movie as much as any moviein which I've gotten to appear.- You might as well teachthis shovel to read.Go ahead, Zero, take it, it'sall you'll ever be good for.B-I-G, what's that spell?[metal clanking]- The kid who hit me with a shovelin Holes is this wonderful guywhom I still know a bit named Cleo Thomas.It was great gettingwhacked with the shovel.It was, you know, again, a scene I knewwas gonna be reallypleasing for the audienceand I love, as an actor, taking a dive.It's why a person wantsto be a character actor.Not being the hero, but oftenbeing the butt of jokes,being the eccentric, being the dimwit,being sinister, being naive, all of that,I mean, getting to find allthose colors role to roleis why I love acting and thekind of acting I get to do.An actor once said to me, "I don't wanna"be the guy standing next to the guy"or opposite the guy, I wanna be the guy."Well, I wanna be the guystanding next to the guyor opposite the guy because they oftenhave the best stuff to do in a movie.The Incredible Hulk.That movie came at me in a funny waybecause I was about todirect this film I'd writtencalled Leaves of Grass with Edward Nortonand he and I were producingit together as welland I got called town to,I think the Mercer Hotel,the lobby of the Mercer Hotelto meet Louie Laterrier,the director of Incredible Hulkand Gale Ann Hurd, his producer.And they said, "We want you to play"this scientist character,"and I had read the script.He was a wildly eccentric guy,mainly in the second half of the movie.And I thought, "Well, yeah, alright,"that's interesting to me, I haven't been"in one of these movies before."And then they said, "Well, you're gonna"become the villain in the next movie."So, you'll basically besigning up for three movies."And you're gonna be thischaracter called The Leader."And I thought, "Oh myGod, this is fantastic."I said, "Well, whom else have you cast?"And they said, "Well, weirdly,you're our first offer."Which was, I thought was strange,because nobody wasgonna come see the moviebecause I was playing this scientist,or even because I wasgonna be the villain.They needed a guy to play Banner.And I said, "Who's?"And they said, "Well, it's either gonna be"Mark Ruffalo or Edward Norton."And I think I even said,"But wait a minute!"Edward's supposed to do my movie"and I'm not contest for you guys,"of course he's gonna wanna play Banner."And I called Edwardand he said, basically,"Tim, get real, of courseI'm gonna play Bruce Banner."That's gonna befantastic, you're possibly"gonna be in the moviewith me, it'll be a blast."And then we'll do your movie,I'm not going anywhere."And Edward's a man of his word.And so we got to act, I got to actin a movie with Edwardright before directing him.For both of us, we did Hulkand then Leaves of Grasswas our next movie.- Now, take your hands off him.[electrical buzzing]- I learned so much aboutshooting from Louie Leterrier.As I often do, because Idirect my little movies,I hang around on sets,even when I'm not neededand just watch what the director's up tobecause all these guyswith whom I get to workknow so much more about it than I do.Lincoln.This time, when I got the call,I didn't risk offending Steven.I said yes without reading the script.It helped to know that Tony Kushnerhad written the script, but, I just said,"Fine, I'm not gonnahassle him again, I'm in."And the real fun for that moviefor me was the sad environmentbecause Daniel Day-Lewisstays in character always.But, in addition to that, he demandsthat there be no anachronisms on set.Nothing that wouldn't blend in at least,to the period, was allowed on set.That just furnished a level of de quorumand seriousness andfocus, the likes of whichI've seen on no other set.And then there was just havinga scene opposite Daniel.It felt to me, like I wasa decent enough painterin 1925 who got to gointo Picasso's studioand watch him work andjust completely transformand reorganize an entireapproach to the art form.He's working on such a level wherethe transformation of theman was just molecular.I literally couldn't find him in there.All I saw was Lincoln.- The democrats we've yet to bag, sir.The patronage job simply won't bag them.They require moreconvincing, Mr. President.- That I got to be intwo of Steven's movieshas been incredibly meaningful to mebecause he likes to change it up.He can have any pigmenthe wants for his canvas.He'll only use the ones, because he can,that are exactly right for what he wants.And, I'm lucky that my colorwas right for two of the movies.The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.Joel gave me that script afterO Brother had been released.And because I had done my own singingfor In the JailhouseNow, he and Ethan decidedthat I should play a singing cowboyand that would be really funnyand sort of contrapuntal because I'm notwhat you'd really thinkof as a cowboy type.They find that funny and so they said,"Well, let's have him dothis and do pistol tricks"and we'll write a shortand it'll be companioned"with these other shorts."So, 18 years later, they came to meand said, "Alright,we're ready to make it."They got it financed andthey took me to dinnerand said, "Alright, you're gonna need"to be able to sing four songs."We need you to play the guitar"and we need you to doall these pistol tricks."You've got six months."I had a great six monthsworking on that every day.My son taught me to play the guitarand I loved the character so much,I just wasn't gonna let him down.♪ Old Ann and I with throat burned dry ♪♪ And sows that cry for water ♪♪ Cold clear water ♪Because I'd felt that I really preparedand I was ready, we had awonderful time shooting.It's one of the best times I've ever hadon a movie, and I've had alot of fun on movie sets.But, I don't think I've had more funthan on the Buster Scruggs set.Watchmen.What I love about Watchmen isthat while it's basedon a graphic novel/comicand it has superhero elements,particularly with Dr. Manhattan,really, Watchman is about vigilantism.It's about justice,it's about human frailtycalled revenge and howthat's misinterpretedas a strength and I think what Damon,in particular, is examiningin the show, Watchmen,is what revenge can allow for.Not just in the vengeful person,but in the tit for tatin response to revengeand how revenge andvigilantism build on themselvesand then finally, what it bringsout in someone to wear a mask.- Why would they start this shit up again?[guns firing]- Maybe there was somethingthey didn't want found.- Damon and the writershave written a characterfor me who's got somevery complicated issues.And he allowed for those issuesto be explored, both when they're directlybeing explored, and they are,over the course of the season,but also, just in his behaviorwhen they aren't being exploredand you can infer a kind of fragilityand despair in the guy.And I get to be a scene partnerwith Regina King, trulyone of the classiestpeople I've met doing what I do.Jeremy Irons, Don Johnson, the legend.I'm very excited about the show.I think it's wildly inventive.I think people are gonna be surprised,moved, and very engaged.Just Mercy.Just Mercy is exactly the kind of filmin which I'd like to appear.It's made my Destin Daniel Cretton,first of all, who has proven himselfto be one of the talented andinnovative directors around.If you watch Just Mercy, just thinkabout where there could be scoreunder some of the performances,and he doesn't furnish it and he allowsthe actors, the writing,and the simplicityof the photography to tell the story.Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillan,and Michael B.
Jordan, whoalso produced the movie,plays Brian Stevenson and I gotto work with both those guys.- If you go digging in those wounds,you're gonna make a lotof people very unhappy.[intense violin music]- When people careabout a thing that much,they'll do anything to get what they want.- The character I play is also the victimof an extremely difficult lifecoming up through foster care.He was nearly burned alive andwears those scars, literally, on his face.And he was basically frightenedby the DA and the sheriff's departmentin Montero County, Alabamato put this guy on death row.And he has to come to terms with that.The Report.The Report is a moviemade by Scott Z.
Burns,who's a protege of Steven Soderbergh.I originally met Scott because he wrotethis wonderful play called The Libraryabout the Columbine shootingsthat Steven Soderbergh endedup directing at the public.Scott thought of me for the Report,gave me this wonderful role, I guess,of a character you'dcall a whistle-blower.But, you know, my presence in that movieis really is a part of a greater ensembleof some other reallywonderful New York actors,many of them stage actorsthat were put in the filmby Scott and the wonderfulcasting director, Avy Kaufman.You know, you've gotMaura Tierney and Jon Hamand Linda Powell, Annette Beningplaying Diane Finestein and soit's just scene after scene of, I think,selfless performers, if such a combinationof words is possible in thevicinity of the word truth.- Have you guys used this thing before?- No, we watched your video.- I think you know as an actorin roles like that, it's always importantto know where you fit.What's the spine whichis usually best toldin terms of theprotagonist and in the caseof The Report, it's theamazing Adam Driver.The job of the actor, I believe anyway,or, my job in those sorts of filmsis just how I help drivehis or her story forwardand to fit in in the right wayin playing the truth of the scenes.Don't do too much sothat you get in the way.It's the other person's story,it's not a movie about you.