The Ballad of Buster Scruggs star is back in the saddle for an acclaimed indie western.
Maybe you remember him best as Delmar O’Donnell, one of three chain-gang escapees who — along with fellow fugitives played by George Clooney and John Turturro — become Depression Era radio sensations in Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? Or perhaps the mention of his name is more likely to conjure memories of his acting — and singing — as the title character in another Coen Brothers movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
But as the awards season ramps up, with critics parceling out prestigious prizes and Oscar buzz building to deafening levels, you’ll be hearing a lot more about veteran character actor Tim Blake Nelson for his impressive portrayal of another title character in one of this year’s very best movies, Potsy Ponciroli’s Old Henry.
Nelson gives the performance of his career in Ponciroli’s slow-burning, straight-shooting western as Henry McCarty, a widowed farmer who would prefer to hide the messy details of his violent past from his young son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis). “I’ve done things I wish I could take back,” he admits, indicating his proficiency with guns and his reluctance to ever again use them. But sometimes a man just can’t run far enough away from yesterday.
One morning, a badly wounded stranger named Curry (Scott Haze) shows up on his land with a satchel stuffed with money. The bad news: Curry claims he is being pursued by bank robbers posing as lawmen. The worse news: Whether he likes it or not, Henry will have to strap on his shooting irons once more to defend himself, his son and his homestead from some very bad hombres who don’t aim to please.
Old Henry — which currently is available on streaming platforms, and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray Nov. 9 — premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival, where Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman hailed it as “a rock-solid, off-the-beaten-path western, one that’s been built as a kind of pedestal for Nelson’s performance. There are twists involving who all these violent men really are. Yet we know in our bones where the movie is going, and it’s a steady, enjoyable ride… that turns into a kind of minimalist chamber-room version of Unforgiven, with a surprisingly touching upshot.”
David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter also was impressed: “This lean and tightly controlled production from writer-director Potsy Ponciroli (best known for the Billy Ray Cyrus sitcom Still the King) plays out for much of its taut buildup and violent climax as a well-crafted exercise in old-fashioned but durable genre tropes. But it evolves into a satisfying reflection on the more complicated, somber realities behind the icons of the Wild West, separated from the embroidery of legend.”
And Tim Blake Nelson rides tall throughout it all.
“My favorite westerns — and my way into westerns, the western genre — were the Sergio Leone movies, which I watched on television in Oklahoma while growing up,” Nelson told C&I. But he didn’t reference those or any other classics while preparing to play Henry McCarty.
“I was confident that Potsy was going to take care of the genre aspects of the movie, and that the best way I could serve that was to give him a three-dimensional human being inside of this very difficult character, who turns out to have a historical basis. So I really didn’t want to get lost in the kind of iconographic portrait that might have been a distraction in this movie.
“So I really did try to make him a three-dimensional human being — and, most of all, a dad wanting to protect his son.”
Here are some more highlights from my interview with Nelson, edited for brevity and clarity. (Note: This conversation took place weeks before the tragic events in New Mexico during the filming of the indie western Rust.)
Cowboys & Indians: You don’t have many westerns on your resume — excepting The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, of course. But you certainly look at ease on your horse in Old Henry.
Tim Blake Nelson: My first big job was actually on a western. It was the Larry McMurtry Lonesome Dove prequel called Dead Man’s Walk. And I was on that for three and a half months, day in and day out, because it was an ensemble piece. So I rode a lot for that miniseries. And then I did another movie called The Last Shot that involved some horse work. And then, of course, The Homesman and Buster Scruggs. But also, I grew up in Oklahoma. So I rode horses a little bit growing up. And my wife’s family used to have horses. And so I would ride with my father-in-law up there. And then whenever I do a movie that involves horses, I get to the location about two or three weeks early and tune up every day.
C&I: Old Henry is set in Oklahoma. Was one of the things that attracted you to the project?
Tim: [Laughs] Originally, it wasn't set in Oklahoma. That was something [director Potsy Ponciroli] and I decided as we worked on the script together. And we were led there because in our research regarding certain circumstances in the movie and the background of the character I play — and I'm circumlocuting there for obvious reasons — the Oklahoma territory felt like a good place for a guy to hide out, because of its lax jurisdiction. And it also made sense geographically, given the states that surrounded it — and in particular New Mexico. So we made that decision.
And then for a while we were going to shoot in Oklahoma. But then Potsy decided he really wanted to shoot in Tennessee, because there was this location about which he’d already known before he wrote the script, that he felt would be perfect. And he was absolutely right. And so, we ended up shooting in Tennessee.
C&I: What was there about Ponciroli that made you want to take this dramatic journey with him?
Tim: I immediately intuited over Zoom a kindness in Potsy, combined with a deep understanding of what he wanted and how he was going to get it. And then, finally, a love of westerns that had a historical foundation. He really seemed to know the genre. And I felt like if he’s kind, therefore, the crew is going to be led by him in a productive way and give him what he wants and be generous. Because sometimes a director can be tyrannical and get what he wants or she wants. But if it’s an indie film, the crew is not going to be generous in response, they’re going to do the minimum. So you really need kindness in a director on an indie film.
C&I: Actors often talk about no matter how much research they’ve done, no matter how much time they’ve dealt with the script, they really didn’t get the character until they got the right article of clothing. How important was the hat for you while playing Henry?
Tim: I think Henry's hat is definitely the perfect hat for him. And the costume designer, Brianna Quick, gave me not only a wonderful chapeau, but great clothing altogether. That said, I didn’t want to just be a hat act in this movie, as they say. So I feel like, thankfully on this one, Potsy and I were so deeply into the character, and we were so deeply in sync already a month before we started shooting, that a piece of clothing was only going to fit into the plan we already had. I’d be lying if I said that suddenly I put the hat on and it clicked.
Tim: I think certainly my final scene in the movie with my son was the one that felt the most challenging to me emotionally. But luckily, I had my own son on set, working in the art department. And he was always nearby while I was playing this part. Just knowing he was on set was an enormous boon, particularly in playing that scene.
But also, physically, the gun work concerned me. I had done Buster Scruggs, so I really do know my way around the pistol at this point. But this character is very different than Buster Scruggs. He’s much more about restraint than he is about flash. Buster Scruggs is a performer and a showoff. And Henry is quite the opposite. He actually doesn’t want anyone to know how good he is with a pistol. His is a life of concealment and diversion.
And so, it was all about finding that balance, where the gun is used almost like a shiv rather than a fancy saber, which was tough. And I didn’t want the character ever to seem like Buster Scruggs. And so, I was worried about the down-to-business lethality that Henry needed to achieve toward the end of the film, and how to do that without any flash, but with simplicity — and as I said, lethality. And that’s almost more difficult than twirling a pistol.
Tim: Yeah. I have to tip my hat there to Potsy Ponciroli. Originally, that scene was supposed to take place in a river, and I was going to drown him. And instead of it being a gunfight, it was more of a combination gunfight and drowning — very physical. But they tested the water the week before we were going to shoot. And there was E. coli in it.
Tim: And so, he reconceived the denouement of the movie. He didn’t want to have a conventional gunfight. You’ve got to do something different. Otherwise, why ask people to come and watch your movie? And yet you don’t want to be so different that it doesn’t feel natural or real. It needs to be believable. And he came up with this great gunfight in a stand of trees. And we had three hours to shoot it. Potsy knew exactly what he wanted, and he had no master shot. So it was all basically wides, mediums and singles on each of us. And he was suturing it together editorially in his head, while he shot all the pieces. We never did the whole scene. It was all pieces, and it comes together beautifully. And I think you get one of the more memorable gunfights in all of westerns.
C&I: You seldom have much time for rehearsal on an indie film. How were you able to develop such believable relationships with Trace Adkins, who plays your brother-in-law, and Gavin Lewis, who plays your son?
Tim: With Trace, it was surprisingly easy. And I’ll just tell you that I wasn’t so confident in the idea conceptually of Trace playing the role, because you feel like, ah, yet again, they’re going to cast a country music star in a western so that they can get that demographic. But it took about a minute of being with Trace, even before we started playing the scene together, to understand this was a really good choice. He’s superb in the movie, and he’s a fantastic acting partner. Above all, he’s an absolute gentleman. Once I heard his voice, after growing up in Oklahoma, I felt like I’d known him all my life.
With Gavin, he's just a decent, happy-go-lucky guy, who's a consummate professional already at the age of — I don’t know, he’s 18 maybe. And we just fell into an easy kinship. Of course, he looked at me as the grizzled old veteran, and was immediately asking me lots of questions. And that fed right into our onscreen relationship, because I was playing his father. So we had a natural affinity off screen that then cohered nicely with what we were doing on screen.
C&I: I noticed you referenced your son being on the set. So I take it that, unlike Henry, you don't mind your offspring getting into your line of work.
Tim: I don't. I have a mother who was incredibly supportive of me when I decided I wanted to pursue acting. In fact, she encouraged me to do it before I realized I could pursue a career. My wife, Lisa, and I met in drama school, because she's also an actress, although now she’s a professor. We have always encouraged our boys, if they wanted to, to go into the arts. And I believe two of them will. One of them is a writer and the other one, Henry, was on the set as a musician and a composer, but also a filmmaker. And we’ll see.
Being around us — and particularly being around me — they’ve experienced the ups and downs of pursuing a life in the arts. I know I’ve had a degree of success. But I’ve also faced a lot of adversity, which anyone does. It’s inevitable. And they see what that’s all about. And they live with it day to day. And I never hide any of the setbacks or rejections from them. In fact, I talk more about those than the successes, just so that they understand that this is not an easy life.
C&I: When you’re out in the world and you’re in line at the supermarket or walking down the street or whatever, are you ever surprised when people come up to you and express admiration for something you didn’t think a lot of people saw?
Tim: The one that surprises me the most is Heavyweights. This is a movie Ben Stiller did with [director] Steve Brill, that I believe was co-written by Judd Apatow. And I had one scene in that movie at the very beginning. And it's a very funny movie. But I am stopped about that movie in airports or on the street with an alarming frequency when you consider my limited amount of screentime, and the fact that it was only the second movie I ever did. It’s a long time ago now, but it's got this weird culty existence. And I get stopped about that by people who say, “Loved you in Heavyweights. You were so great.” And I had one scene.
C&I: Hey, there are no small parts…
Tim: The best piece of direction that I got from Steve was —well, there was a profile shot, and he wanted me to keep my mouth open, because he just thought it was so funny. And so, the shot looks like that while I'm watching this TV presentation for the fat camp, which is the setting for the movie. My role was as a recruiter for a fat camp. One scene.
C&I: You have also directed a few indie movies, including one that had an unforgettable impact on me — The Grey Zone, a drama based your own play about the 1944 attempted insurrection at the Auschwitz death camp. At the risk of sounding presumptuous: I am not Jewish, but my wife had a Jewish mother. And I have never gotten over what I saw when I visited the camp in 1990. But given your family background — your maternal grandparents escaped Nazi Germany right before World War II — I can only imagine how much more The Grey Zone meant to you. Would you say that’s the most personal film you’ve ever made?
Tim: The Grey Zone probably is the most personal film I've ever made, in a strange way. Even though the last one, Anesthesia, is the closest to depicting this sort of milieu in which I live right now in New York City. But The Grey Zone felt like an ode to my mother and her parents, just because I grew up being told by her, my mother, and by her parents — particularly my grandfather on my mother’s side — that I shouldn’t be alive.
And that continues to stick with me. It just makes me feel like life is something so precious, that one doesn’t just have to live a good life, but to earn the right to live a good life through one’s conduct. And given the opportunity suddenly, because I was starting to have some success as a writer-director, to make a movie about the Holocaust that addressed something no one had ever put on screen, felt incredibly important to me. Almost like a debt to the blessing of being able to live a life at all, when my mother’s family easily could have been wiped out. My mother was a Holocaust refugee, as were her parents.
C&I: You’ve been very generous with your time, for which I am grateful. So I’ll close with what I guess is the obvious question: Given your experience as a filmmaker, do you hope to someday direct a western?
Tim: Sure. I’d love to direct a western. Although Joel and Ethan Coen have done everything they can to discourage me. They just said, “Tim, the horses are a bleeping headache. And it just never ends. The production demands are merciless.” But I feel like I can get over that. It’s funny: Joel and I were talking about Steven Spielberg, who’s a mutual friend. And Joel said, “I was never so impressed with Steven until I saw War Horse. How did he accomplish all that shit with the horse?”