Bridesmaid becomes bride: Perennial side man Tim Blake Nelson steps up to lead in Western ‘Old Henry’

As an award nominee, Tim Blake Nelson usually hears the words “supporting” or “ensemble” associated with his achievements. The Gold Derby Awards, for instance, have nominated him three times in supporting and ensemble categories. Critics have called him the “Coen Brothers go-to hayseed.” But his only major win from an industry peer group has been an Album of the Year Grammy in 2002 for “O’ Brother Where Art Thou,” which he shared with 28 other artists.

But in “Old Henry,” out October 1, Nelson steps into a lead role. “It figures the first one would have ‘old’ in the title,” the 57-year-old New Yorker by way of Tulsa, Oklahoma, quipped about his starring role. Could he be an Independent Spirit leading actor nominee? Nelson talks about his career, COVID and the big reveal at the end of “Old Henry” he wants you to keep under your ten-gallon hat.

GD: What’s the difference for you as an actor playing a lead role?

TBN: Ideally, there should be no difference. You serve the role that the director wants you to play in the way the director wants you to do it. And you bring everything you have to the role whether you’re in one scene or every scene. At the same time, when you’re the lead and even more so, the title character, I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was more responsibility. Because it’s hard to cut around the bad performance if you’re the lead in the movie. [LAUGHS] So you have to bring more gravity to the proceedings. You don’t want to screw somebody else’s film up.

GD: You’ve directed things like “The Grey Zone.” Do you leave director Tim Blake Nelson home in bed and just show up as actor Tim Blake Nelson when someone else is behind the camera?

TBN: I let the director take the lead. In this case Potsy Ponciroli asked me to produce the movie with him. So he wanted me to collaborate with him, and yes, that’s fine, you’ll have my input as much as you want but ultimately you have the last word. I’m not interested in a movie made by committee. In this case by a writer-director, and it’s gotta be his vision. The choices are all his. As Elia Kazan said, “Listen to everyone, but then do what you want.” That’s what a director has to do.

GD:  So this film has a big reveal. How do you implore people not to give it away?

TBN: [LAUGHS] By imploring them not to give it away. Ultimately, the movie does have a twist, a really exciting reveal. But at the same time it’s a western action thriller. It’s also an intimate story about a father and son. Do you protect your children from the violence and tragedy of the outside world or do you prepare them to experience it? And that friction is what much of parenting is all about. And as a father that drew me in.

GD: This film was shot before COVID, but you worked a lot during the last 18 months. How?

TBN: I worked through the pandemic and experienced a lot of different approaches to COVID protocols. There was one movie which after a day I didn’t have to wear my mask unless I wanted to. In certain incidences, you don’t want others feeling uncomfortable. I did a role in “Nightmare Alley” for Guillermo Del Toro in Canada. Quarantined for 14 days. Alone in a house. No visitors. Groceries delivered to my door every day. No one could come inside. So I didn’t interact with anyone whatsoever for two weeks.

GD: What was your pandemic guilty pleasure?

TBN: I watched all of “Shtisel,” which was remarkable. Then I reread “Brothers Karamazov,” and I read a lot of “Kafka” aloud with one of my teenage sons. I also wrote a Dystopian play about algorithms.

GD: Another one of those? Is it a musical?

TBN: [LAUGHS] People are reading it now. That’s all I’ll say.

GD: Finally, this film opens in theaters first. Where do you fall as an actor, producer, filmmaker and then audience member on theaters versus streaming?

TBN: Well you can’t stop capitalism and I don’t want to. So the market has to lead us. And I’m all in. I don’t think we should be forced or even coerced into watching movies in a certain way. That said, I’m always going to a movie theater because I like movies made for theaters and seen in theaters. There’s no substitute to being alone in the dark with strangers watching an image that’s 14 feet high and great sound.

“Old Henry” is a Hideout Pictures production and costars Stephen Dorff, Trace Adkins and Gavin Lewis. 1 hour 39 minutes. Rated NR.

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