O BROTHER, WHO ART THOU: Q&A With Actor/Writer/Director Tim Blake Nelson, Star Of The Coen Brothers’ The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs



EDITOR’S NOTE: On the occasion of the release of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, starring Tim Blake Nelson as…wait for it…Buster Scruggs, we are reprising this 2013 interview with Mr. Nelson. Enjoy.

BY JONATHAN VALANIA If you don’t know who Tim Blake Nelson is, the short answer is: the guy in O Brother Where Art Thou? who isn’t George Clooney or John Turturro. Any friend of the Coen brothers is a friend of mine, brother. Truth be told, he’s a whole lot more than that, as you’ll soon find out. I recently had cause to speak with Mr. Nelson for a Steve Earle MAGNET MAGAZINE cover story. Mr. Nelson is a big fan. He hired Mr. Earle to play mean-ass redneck drug-dealer who shoots Ed Norton in the guts with a crossbow in Leaves Of Grass, which was written, directed and co-stars Mr. Nelson. Recently, Mr. Earle asked Mr. Nelson to direct a video (SEE BELOW) for “Invisible”, the first single from Mr. Earle’s new album, The Low Highway, which he filmed on the roof of his apartment building on Upper East Side, which is where I met Mr. Nelson. There was plenty discussed that doesn’t have much to do with Mr. Earle — how me met the Coen Brothers, making O Brother, working with Clooney on Syriana, working with Spielberg on Minority Report and Lincoln, studying classics at Brown, growing up Jewish offspring of Holocaust refugees in Tulsa, and that’s just the beginning. Enjoy.

PHAWKER: So you are born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and your father is a geologist and your mother was an activist?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: Yeah and still is.

PHAWKER: Does your father teach at the university there or something like that?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: No, he was a wildcatter. Petroleum geology.

PHAWKER: Got it, finding new oil deposits to drill. Tell me a little about your mother’s activism.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: Everything from Planned Parenthood to the head of the Tulsa Housing Authority.

PHAWKER: I also read that your maternal grandparents fled the Nazis during the Holocaust.


PHAWKER: And then they came to America…

TIM BLAKE NELSON: My mother too, actually, when she was three. They got out of Germany and went to England in 1938 and then they crossed the Atlantic in ’41 and came to the U.S.

PHAWKER: How did your parents end up in Tulsa?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: That’s where my mother grew up and she grew up there because there was an organization at the turn of the century that dispersed Jews around the country who were immigrating so that they would be less vulnerable to roundups. The family that sponsored my mother and her parents in coming to America happened to be sent out to Oklahoma to be part of a Jewish community in Tulsa. That’s where they had to go because of the sponsorship. Then my mother went to Bryn Mawr college in the ’50s and met my father who was then at the Wharton School of Business, the University of Pennsylvania.

PHAWKER: I’m calling you from Philadelphia.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: Oh. My oldest brother who is five years older than I was born in Philadelphia, but then quickly they moved to Oklahoma.

PHAWKER: Just to clarify, they dispersed Jews around the country in the event of a roundup. Is this a…

TIM BLAKE NELSON: Well, yeah, this was after the pogroms  in Russia so this organization in New York City understood that a lot of Jews immigrating into the United States would probably congregate in cities and they felt if there was ever an impulse by this country to round Jews up and put them in camps or terrorize them or try to run them out of the country. It would be easy if they were all congregated in ghettos and cities like they were in Europe, or in shtetls, little villages filled with Jews. They figured if unaffiliated Jews were immigrating into the country, instead of living in New York or Philadelphia to go out into the rest of America, even if it meant going to Tulsa or Cincinnati or Cleveland, Atlanta, Indianapolis. Jewish communities everywhere would be better than just Jewish communities in select, specific places. They wanted to spread the Jews out into America so they would be less vulnerable to being rounded up or deported or terrorized.

PHAWKER: The South does not have a reputation of being very tolerant of Jews, did you encounter much anti-Semitism?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: No, I didn’t, if anything I felt exotic. I frankly encountered more anti-Semitism in the northeast than I did in Oklahoma but not much either place. Anti-Semitism is not part of my life.

PHAWKER: Glad to hear it. Then you went to Brown where they don’t let less than brilliant people in and you studied classics?


PHAWKER: Because?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: I am insatiable about education and I consider myself a lifelong student which is something I have in common with Steve [Earle]. Although my education had been more formal than his, I consider us both students for life and of life. I wanted to get the most broad foundation for a lifelong education that I could find and that was studying Latin and the classics. Meaning Roman and Greek history and philosophy and ancient civilizations.

PHAWKER: I also read in a number of places that the Coen brothers bragged that you were the only cast member of Oh Brother Where Art Thou? who had actually read The Odyssey.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: I never believed that, I think those guys — in fact we remained very close friends — often liked the sound of a remark rather than the truth of it which is why they make such great fictions.

PHAWKER: How did you meet up with the Coen brothers?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: A conspiracy of lucky forces, my wife and I had, for a few years, and continue to do so, have been volunteering at an organization in the city called The 52nd Street Project which helps disadvantaged kids in Hell’s Kitchen. Fran[ces] McDormand, Joel’s wife, is also involed with that organization, so we started to get to know them that way.  And then I also directed a movie called Eye Of God, that Joel and Ethan watched as a favor to me and they liked it and helped with the editing and we started to get to know one another. Both that and the 52nd St. project, led to me starting to see them socially, and then when he was writing O Brother and he just decided to give me one of the three leads, completely out of the blue, that’s how it happened, I didn’t even have to audition which is extraordinary because I could not have been more obscure of an actor at that time.

PHAWKER: Well, it’s a great role, it’s a great film, what is the first memory you flash on from that whole project?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: John Turturro making me laugh hysterically on a daily basis. I had a great friendship with George Clooney; both of those guys were every bit as welcoming to me as Joel and Ethan were. Quite frankly, nobody had any reason to be so unbelievably welcoming and everybody was, John Goodman as well and Holly Hunter. I guess, what I think of, when I think about that movie, I think of lifelong friendships.

PHAWKER: When you read the script, did the parallels to the Odyssey seem apparent to you?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: It was immediate, I had heard they were doing this movie and I was shooting O, at the time, directing, and Joel sent me the script without offering me the role, he said, rather cryptically, ‘I need your advice’ so I actually read it believing he wanted to talk to me about the adaptation from Homer and to learn whether I thought they had taken too many liberties, or I thought they had gotten it right, and so I was anticipating a scholarly phone call with Joel during which I would reveal to him that I was more of a Latinist than somebody who had read Greek so I was perhaps less familiar with Homer then he was probably hoping and then he suddenly said, ‘I want you to play Delmar O’Donnell,’ and I was astonished. In fact, what he said specifically was ‘You are probably going to tell me to go fuck myself but we want you to play Delmar O’Donnell’ because he knew I was going to be editing my own film that summer and in typical Coen brothers humility and he didn’t understand that any actor would drop anything including his own film just to carry water on their set, much less play a lead role. They brought my edit down to Mississippi so then I was editing my own movie and acting for them at the same time.

PHAWKER: Wow. You seem to have a knack, a natural, for playing, shall we say, south of the Mason Dixon line characters, you grew up in Tulsa obviously, but you don’t seem to have any accent, was there a conscious effort to overcome that or you never had one in the first place?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: When I left Oklahoma at 18 I probably did have one, that accompanied me all the way through Brown but when I got to Julliard its days were numbered.

PHAWKER: I didn’t even see you went to Julliard. Wow.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: Yeah so I went to Julliard for four years, from 22 to 26, from ’86 to ’90.

PHAWKER: Your credentials just get more impressive, so you are a Grammy winner for singing “In The Jailhouse Now,” I’m hearing a little Leon Redbone in that voice, tell me how you prepped for that performance, how you approached it?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: Well, I am not a natural singer, but I can sing and probably the way I sing is more imitative than from myself which is why I am never going to be an amazing recording artist. Steve is singing from his own soul, from his own being, I sing from the influence of others.  My favorite singers — the ones that influenced the way I sang “In The Jailhouse Now” — are Lefty Frizzell and Levon Helm.

PHAWKER: One last question about the Coen brothers, last time we met you told me you had seen an edit of their new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: I’ve seen the final edit, the whole movie.

PHAWKER: Anything you can tell me about that?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: It is a beautiful, delicate, work of art that will both delight and surprise Coen brother fans.

PHAWKER: It is based on [Greenwich Village folk singer] David Van Ronk’s biography so it is set in the folk boom of the early…

TIM BLAKE NELSON: Loosely on Van Ronk.

PHAWKER: …and there is a Dylanesque figure in the movie but he is not the lead?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: Correct. And it is not Dylanesque, it is unmistakably Bob Dylan.

PHAWKER: Have you heard anything about when this is, when it might be released.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: I am guessing the Fall. I just talked to Joel [Coen] this morning, I know that it is sold and I am certain that it will be released in the fall; I can’t imagine it won’t be.

PHAWKER: You were in Syriana, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon. Did that stem from you friendship with Clooney during the making of O Brother.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: We certainly saw each other during the shooting and it was great to see him but no that came about from Avy Kaufman, who was casting the movie put me with [director] Stephen Gaghan and Stephen and I talked for half an hour about politics and at the end of the conversation he said ‘I don’t know where but we are going to put you in the movie.’ A few weeks later, Avy called and said ‘Here is your role.’

PHAWKER: I was just watching Minority Report over the weekend and I had an epiphany there, too — you are the creepy warden guy!


PHAWKER: It’s is a very strange role. I haven’t actually read the Philip K. Dick book, is that character in the original story or is that a creation of the screenplay?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: It is essentially a creation of the screenplay. The specific character and what we did with it, I guess I am the one up there performing it, but it was very much Steven [Spielberg]’s idea with him cooking there and playing the organ, and even the Boston accent I do was all Steven’s idea, so that is one role where I wish I could but I can’t take credit for what I believe are the excellent choices. They were Steven’s, he just told me what to do and again with Lincoln, I just did that with him recently.

PHAWKER: I was going to ask you about that so let’s go ahead and talk about that.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: The remarkable thing about him is he does not only guide, but he chooses for you, and then of course you have tremendous latitude within that. He is every bit the visionary that the final result of the movie suggests he is.

PHAWKER: Between you and me, Lincoln should have won the Oscar for best picture. I thought Argo was a perfectly serviceable thriller and a very solid film but, you don’t have to comment on that because I know you are too gracious to toot your own horn. But I wanted to ask your thoughts about Zero Dark Thirty getting totally shut out of the Academy Awards on or off the record. My theory is that it is because of the torture thing that it got shut out what do you think about that? I thought it was an incredibly made film but I also took pause at the notion that torture made it all possible.

TIM BLAKE NELSON:  You can quote me on this on the record even though I don’t know if it is of any use in an article but I think it is ludicrous that senators become movie critics and then not only write very publicly, urging the studio to behave in a particular way but then even worse, that Hollywood demonstrates a vulnerability to that sort of hectoring.

PHAWKER: So you defend it artistically but I’m guessing morally you might have a different opinion about that.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: I have no doubt that Mark Boal and Kathryn, who I know, I have no doubt that they researched that subject matter meticulously and I don’t doubt the veracity of what is contained in the film whatsoever. People may not like it but these are not casual filmmakers. I know Kathryn — she is not a casual filmmaker. She researches stuff, and Mark Boal is a journalist, they did not make that up, and you may have issues with it being proffered and the dangers of the way people perceive torture and its advocacy or appropriateness, that is a different issue. Reportedly, we live in a country where it is okay to make a movie that you think is telling the truth, factually we live in a country where it is okay to make a movie in which you are not telling the truth, but I don’t even think that was the case here, these are serious people, you are talking about a serious journalist and filmmaker who are being attacked before the movie was released because people thought it was a pro-Obama agitprop.

PHAWKER: Do you think this theory about it being shut out because of the torture thing holds water?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: No question.

PHAWKER:  Getting back to Lincoln, you play a character named Richard Shell, was he an actual historic figure?

TIM BLAKE NELSON:  He is a historic figure, the essence of that is all true, whether or not he was specifically dispatched in exactly the way Tony [Kushner] wrote it remains a question but the essence of it is absolutely true.

PHAWKER: It must have been a hoot to work with James Spader in those scenes.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: It was great to work with James and John Hawks and I are very close friends. This is our second movie together and we have known each other for years. He and I were pretty much joined at the hip both on the set and off for two months.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: This one project I know I’m doing is this western with Tommy Lee Jones [and Meryl Streep and Hilary Swank] called The Homesman. Basically I am researching the 1850s because I am playing a freighter in the middle of the 19th century and growing a mustache and beard.

PHAWKER: What is a freighter?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: A guy who hauled goods through hostile territory.

PHAWKER: On a wagon train?


PHAWKER: Can you tell me little bit more about the film; are you playing a lead role?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: No, there are three interesting cameos and they are going to be played by John Malkovich, Meryl Streep and me. The main characters in the movie are these five roles…Tommy and Hillary Swank are taking three insane women from the prairie in Nebraska to Iowa City where they were going to put them in an asylum. I play somebody they meet along the way.

PHAWKER: What is a Homesman?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: A guy who would squat on somebody’s land and would claim squatter rights and would become such a nuisance that they would pay him money to leave.

PHAWKER: The video you shot for Steve is really beautiful, somber meditation on what is obviously a very somber subject matter — the invisibility of the homeless in the richest nation on Earth — if you could talk a little bit about how you came to direct the video.

TIM BLAKE NELSON: He called me and said Danny [Goldberg] and I want you to do this and I said ‘absolutely’ and I said yes without any conversation on budget or schedule or any particulars or hearing the song, frankly, all I needed to hear was Steve say, ‘I have a song and I want you to do a video.’

PHAWKER: And the actor who plays the homeless gentleman?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: Yeah, that is an old friend of mine, I actually met him in the 52nd St. Project, and I directed him in a play there. His name is Arthur French and you can look up his biography you will see that he was in the original movie Car Wash, I also directed him in a television pilot for NBC several years ago.  He is one of my favorite actors and the moment I heard the song and started seeing and imagining what I might do with it as a music video it was Arthur’s face I kept seeing so I called him up and he was game.