BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (OPINION) — The starring role for Tim Blake Nelson in the feature film “Old Henry” is a very different role for him. Generally, Nelson’s characters are full of energy, loud or just a little larger than life. His latest role is a man of few words who only becomes a person of action as a last resort.
Blake initially jokes that the real reason he wanted to star in the Western about a widowed farmer and his son living in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906 who get caught up in a battle over stolen money was because the character was “old” Henry.
“I have always wanted to play a codger,” Nelson says.
His more serious answer is that he was drawn to the iconic nature of the character. Nelson knows he has played a wide assortment of gregarious “goofballs” and he loved the challenge of playing a role where the less he said, the better.
Nelson was so determined to make Henry such a stoic figure, he went through the script from writer/director Potsie Ponciroli and cut out half of his lines of dialogue. This approach helped Nelson create the quiet determination Henry shows when a posse of men claiming to be the law come to his home.
Henry’s decision as to who to trust reveals a dark history Henry has been hiding. The secret Henry is hiding was such an important part of the character that Nelson spent months doing research. He actually had more time to prepare for this role than most as he was cast months before the shooting schedule was to start and then the shutdowns created by the pandemic gave him even more time to do research.
“Research is incredibly important to me,” Nelson says. “The more I do this, the more time I want for preparation. The larger portion of the work I do – the more I do this – comes during the prep.
“I try to get to the point where on set I am really worrying about nothing but interacting with my scene partner. That takes time. For one thing, you have to learn an entire role before you show up on set so you are never worrying about your lines or where you are in the story.”
All of the extra time allowed Nelson to have a deep understanding of the time period, to develop a full history of the character and even make critical decisions as to exactly how Henry should look.
Nelson – who says he has a naturally lazy eye – wore a prosthetic to make Henry’s right eye droop. He also added a very crooked tooth to the front of his mouth. The physical elements were the last bits Nelson needed to take on the role and made him ready to play Henry once the cameras started rolling.
Actors don’t have such freedoms when they are at the beginning of their careers. Nelson jokes that he wished he could go back to all the roles he played in the first 20 years of his career and get a do over to use all that he now knows about acting.
He certainly doesn’t have to waste any time thinking about the acting portion of the job these days. Nelson has put together a long list of TV and acting roles that include “Holes,” “Minority Report,” “Watchman,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Lincoln.”
He’s best known for playing Delmar O’Donnell” in the 2000 release “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The reason he is so well known for the role is that the film – that also stars George Clooney and John Turturro – is broadcast quite regularly on television.
As to why the film has built up such a huge following, Blake’s theory is that it is the combination of a great cast, great music and a wonderful script by Joel and Ethan Cohn inspired by Homer’s “Odyssey” that has made it so strong.
Nelson’s career has not been limited to TV and film. He sang “In the Jailhouse Now” on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack that earned the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001. Nelson provided the narration for the audiobook “At the Altar of Speed: The Fast Life and Tragic Death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.” and has appeared on stage in New York theatres.
All of his years of work helped Nelson know immediately with “Old Henry” exactly what the core element of his character would be.
“What I consider to be the intimate heart of this film to be is that it is about parenting in so many ways,” Nelson says. “I am the father of three boys so I know there is this constant tension in parenting between protecting your children from the dangers of the world out there or exposing them to it so they will be better equipped to deal with it.”
How Nelson’s work came together can be seen as “Old Henry” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray plus through digital platforms.