A distinguished career
Esteemed Tulsa native Tim Blake Nelson returns home this month to accept the 2012 Tulsa Awards for Theater Excellence Distinguished Artist Award. Here, he talks with TulsaPeople about his journey to Hollywood and his diverse body of work.
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Tim Blake Nelson, lauded actor/screenwriter/director and Tulsa native, returns home June 24 for the fourth annual Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence at the Lorton Performance Center on the University of Tulsa campus. He will receive the 2012 Distinguished Artist Award.
If you don’t know his name right off the bat (and you should), you’ll likely know his face. This sought-after, hard-working character actor has appeared onscreen in more than 40 movies and TV shows to date, including a memorable performance as Delmar O’Donnell, one of the three lead characters in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 masterpiece, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
But he does more than act. A 1982 Holland Hall graduate who was born and raised in Tulsa, Nelson received his classics degree from Brown University before attending Juilliard. He is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter whose directorial career got off to a fine start when his first film, “Eye of God,” (which he also wrote) became a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner.
Since then, Nelson has directed five more critically lauded films, including “The Grey Zone,” which deals with the Holocaust, and “Leaves of Grass,” starring Edward Norton in a dual role as two brothers — one a professor, the other a small-time Oklahoma pot grower.
Nelson, who now resides in New York City with his wife and three sons, spoke with TulsaPeople on the phone from Los Angeles (during a shooting break for a new film) about his career so far, his abiding love for Okie accents and his outlook on the film industry.
So…when did you first catch the acting bug?
It was second or third grade. I went in and out of wanting to act and perform for some years after that. I thought maybe I would be a writer or a professor or a teacher.
Then, in ninth grade, they were casting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at school. I auditioned and had a great time, and I thought, “Well, maybe this is something I would want to do.” Then, finally, when I was in college and trying to figure out what to do for the summer, my mother made the unlikely suggestion that I go work at a summer theater. I did … and it was really the final seduction. (laughs)
Ultimately, I have my mother (Ruth Nelson) to thank. She’s one of those few parents who actually encouraged their child to go into the arts.
You attended Brown University, studying classics, after graduating from Holland Hall. At what point did you decide to pursue acting full time?
During college, I acted pretty extensively even though I was pursuing a classics degree. And I also did stand-up comedy. I decided one summer to go out to Los Angeles and see how I liked doing stand-up in the clubs. I did open-mic nights at the Comedy Store and got paid to perform at other second-tier venues.
After a while, I realized I would be OK as a stand-up comic, but I really wasn’t going to be a real innovator in that field. But I thought I could do stuff as a character actor, perhaps, that others hadn’t done or couldn’t do. To achieve that, I really needed serious actor training, though. And since I wasn’t gonna win any beauty contests, I figured most of my work would come for me later as I got older and grew into my face. My first choice was Juilliard — a four-year training program — and I got in.
How did you get started writing plays?
I wrote a lot of poetry in high school and went to the Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain. That, along with some really good English teachers — in particular Karen Clark at Holland Hall — taught me a lot about writing. I continued to study writing at Brown. And then, when I got to Juilliard, I just kind of missed schoolwork. … I missed the academic rigors that my undergraduate years had afforded me. So I started writing plays for my classmates and me.
When you were writing your first plays — “Cyrus,” “Eye of God,” “The Grey Zone” — some of which went on to be adapted into screenplays and made into films by you, did you initially imagine them as stage productions or cinema pieces?
Originally I was writing them as stage plays. I didn’t think I’d ever have much success as a film actor. I imagined I would be a New York stage actor and that I would write for the theater. I guess I just read the cards wrong. I started to get film work … and some television. But it was the film industry that really took an interest in me. I think it’s just because movies need faces that have texture and, um — I don’t know — slight deformities.
Oh, come now. You’re just trying to say they want character.
Yeah. They’re trying to reflect the essence of real life in a very stylized and enormous way. That screen is very big. I had always labored under the assumption that you had to be pretty or super handsome to be in movies; that’s actually not really the case. They’re much more interested in odd-looking characters than pretty faces for most of the good roles. I never wanted to play leads anyway. Character parts are always more interesting.
What was it like the first time you saw your face 30 feet tall on a movie screen?
I generally just thought I had a lot to learn … and I continue to think that. Whenever I watch myself in films, I’m generally thinking about how I could have done it better.
Does your work as a sought-after character actor help fund your career as a writer/director of indie projects?
That has been the case in the past … but I’m not sure that’s necessarily true anymore. The way the economics of the film industry are working right now, I think maybe the next project I do as a writer/director will help fund my acting. It oscillates back and forth. The movie industry right now is actually trying to figure out how to sustain itself. That’s impacted what actors are paid in a very dramatic way.
Is that scary for you or are you interested in the challenge of it all?
I don’t get scared much anymore because I’ve diversified my career to the extent where I always know I’m gonna have remunerative work. If I’m not working as an actor, I’m writing. And even when I’m working as an actor, I’m writing. No matter what happens to the film industry, as long as movies are being made, they need scripts and directors. This is all to say one thing: Learning how to write has made a huge difference for me. It’s allowed me to be very patient with the acting work.
You’ve got a wife and kids and a busy career as an actor, and yet you seem quite prolific with your writing and independent film projects. Describe your creative process — do you literally make time to write every day?
Oh, without question. Not so much on the weekends because the kids are home, but I write every weekday. I get the kids off to school and then I’m at the computer.