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How Tim Blake Nelson stepped up for the lead role in the western ‘Old Henry’

Tim Blake Nelson
“It’s certainly one of the more difficult roles I’ve ever played,” Tim Blake Nelson says of his lead role in “Old Henry,” the story of a gunslinging farmer in the Old West.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

“I knew I wasn’t destined to be much of a leading man,” owns Tim Blake Nelson. And for the first three decades of his career, the veteran character actor has done a credible job of living up to that non-destiny.

Nelson’s long, expressive face has been his chief asset and not-so-secret weapon in creating a gallery of memorable performances across nearly 100 films and television series. In fact, the further away a story gets from Hollywood — measured in miles, or years or both — the more likely you are to find Nelson carving out a corner of the screen to call his own. His role as Delmar O'Donnell in the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” remains perhaps his best known work in a career that’s made stops at such varied stations as Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and “Minority Report,” James Franco’s Faulkner adaptations “As I Lay Dying” and “The Sound and the Fury,” and HBO’s “Watchmen,” in which his haunted performance earned some of the best reviews of his career.

But this year, Nelson took his distinctive features and native Tulsa twang to just about the only place they’d never been: the spotlight. “Old Henry” writer-director Potsy Ponciroli’s “micro-western” (a term he credits Nelson with coining) premiered at the Venice film festival and promptly demonstrated that the lifetime supporting player could indeed carry a picture.

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Nelson admits that upon first reading the script that would put him at the center of its story, he felt “titillated dread … I was excited by the challenge but feared I wasn’t gonna be able to pull it off to the director’s satisfaction without a lot of time to work on the role.” Nelson’s process is no joke, informed by the rigor of not only four years at Juilliard but a bachelor’s in classics from Brown.

“Unequivocally, he is the most researched, read and informed person on the set,” reports Scott Haze, for whom “Old Henry” marks his eighth occasion working with the actor. “To sit across from Tim in a scene is to stare into the eyes of a master.”

Henry McCarty (played by Tim Blake Nelson) rides a horse in “Old Henry.”
Tim Blake Nelson in the title role in “Old Henry.”
(Shout! Studios)

In the case of “Old Henry,” time — and money — proved to be on the actor’s side. “If I’m going to be the lead in a film, it’s normally not going to be ... well-capitalized,” he says with a chuckle. “But this one was! They had the resources and were willing to spend the money and time to do this one right.”

As the first of a slate of westerns planned out of a collaboration between production companies Shout! Studios and Hideout Pictures (with Shout! also distributing), “Old Henry” had the benefit of two partners determined to make the most of their new venture’s honeymoon period. Thanks to COVID-19, the planned eight months before the start of shooting stretched into almost a year. Such unexpected delays more often cripple a production, but this one worked to the actor’s benefit.

“It’s certainly one of the more difficult roles I’ve ever played,” Nelson says, “even just in terms of the physical demands of it.” “Old Henry” has Nelson doing more than yeoman’s labor on Henry McCarty’s remote subsistence farm, unglamorously tilling the soil and butchering hogs, as well as the more time-honored western hero’s tasks of riding horses and shooting a bunch of bad guys. The resulting performance leans into merits that guild and academy voters have historically embraced — technically accomplished, physically restrained yet emotionally vulnerable, fiercely protective of family, and as the story gradually reveals, grounded within a real-life figure from the factual record.

Spoiler alert: Henry McCarty enjoys a closer connection to the history and myth of the American West than his isolated, tucked-away farm might suggest. Consequently, this season, the lifetime side player finds himself at the center of some lead actor awards buzz for the first time in his career.

Within that template, Nelson need look no further than his celebrated “Watchmen” scene partner Regina King, whose Emmy-winning work in that series cemented her own transition from supporting player to leading lady. “I believe he can do anything,” contends King. “Tim Blake Nelson is an artist in every sense of the word. He truly understands the arc of the art of a thespian. He does the research, he asks the questions and he’s generous with what he gives when he’s performing with his scene partners.”

Given a few more endorsements like that, and this actor’s actor might start feeling at home at center stage.


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