Being able to mimic regional accents well is part of a professional actor’s job, of course. So, it shouldn’t come as such a surprise, in interviewing Tim Blake Nelson — who’s opening a new film, Old Henry at the Woodstock Film Festival this week (5 p.m. on Thursday, September 30 at the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock. Nelson will also Chat with Radio Woodstock’s Greg Gattine at 2 p.m. Friday, October 1 at White Feather Farm) — that he could pass for a born-and-bred Northeasterner in casual conversation. The roles for which he’s most familiar are often backwoodsy Southern or Western sorts of characters: chain-gang escapee Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou? for example (who could forget how he pronounced sirens as sy-REENS?), or the singing-cowboy title role in another Coen Brothers production, the anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
You may be a more recent convert to Nelson’s fandom if you watched the highly praised 2019 HBO series Watchmen, in which he played the laconic Tulsa police interrogator Wade Tillman, a/k/a Looking Glass. It’s a tour de force performance, especially considering that he had to wear a full-face mask for much of the show: nuanced, understated, morally ambiguous, compelling even without visible facial expressions.
One thing the actor had going for him as Looking Glass was his native Tulsa accent — although he modified it slightly to place the character’s rural origins nearer to the Texas border. It’s an oft-told tale that Nelson, who majored in the Classics at Brown University, was the only person on set during the making of O Brother who had actually read The Odyssey, on which it was based. And during the shooting of Watchmen, he was the only principal player who actually came from the part of the country where it was set.
It seems that every conversation with someone who enjoyed Watchmen jumps quickly to the subject of the Greenwood Massacre of 1921, in which the prosperous Tulsa neighborhood then known as Black Wall Street was firebombed and as many as 300 Black residents butchered in the streets. This historical atrocity is where the series begins, and the origin story for one of its masked vigilante characters, Hooded Justice. “I never knew,” most viewers say, with chagrin. “Why didn’t we ever learn about this in school?”
It turns out that they didn’t even teach it to kids growing up in Tulsa. “It was never mentioned. One wonders if that was intentional,” says Nelson. The full socioeconomic import of the tragedy didn’t sink in until one of his mentors at Brown brought it to his attention. Now, however, much of America knows about this day of racist infamy — thanks to Watchmen. In an era when onscreen “science fiction” has come to signify mostly space operas like Star Wars or action/adventures about superpowered comic-book heroes, it’s encouraging to know that the genre of speculative fiction still occasionally remembers its mandate to speculate, to ask the what-if questions, to provoke viewers to think critically.
Nelson has had no problem in the past describing himself as a “nerd,” though “Renaissance nerd” might be nearer the mark. His love of the classics led him to write a biographical play about Socrates, staged at the Public Theater in 2019, starring Michael Stuhlbarg (The New York Times called it “a play that hums with intelligence”). Via New York Stage and Film, Nelson workshopped an early version of Socrates at Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater in 2016, and he has nothing but praise for the experience: “The development we did over ten days was essential in the play’s journey toward production. The best plays you end up seeing in New York often start out at Powerhouse — Hamilton, for example,” he says.
In addition to an education in Rhode Island, which continued at Juilliard, long stretches of stagework in New York City and the occasional sojourn in Poughkeepsie that help explain his ability to sound like a local, Nelson is hardly a newcomer to Woodstock. “I’ve been repeatedly to the Woodstock Film Festival. I really admire what Meira [Blaustein] has done — year-round, and not only for the Festival,” he says.
Those visits aren’t the only mid-Hudson roots that Nelson and his family have put down, however. “I had a house on Buck Road in Stone Ridge for about five years,” he reveals. “I really do adore the Hudson Valley. We only left because we had another kid. We had to sell our house upstate so we could buy a bigger house in Manhattan.” It was Nelson’s three sons, also “nerds,” who overcame his scholarly resistance to the graphic novel genre and first introduced him to the DC Comics series Watchmen. Since then, he has taken roles in the Marvel Comics Universe as well, in The Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four.
But if there’s a danger of Nelson being typecast, it’s probably in Westerns, and his new feature having its U.S. premiere Thursday at the Woodstock Film Festival, Old Henry, fits the bill. “The role found me,” he says. “It’s finally happened: The character I’m going to play is described as ‘old.’” To be more specific, the title character is an aging gunslinger who is trying to put his overly colorful past behind him, keep a low profile and raise his son on a remote farm. One day a man appears on his land, unconscious, with a serious gunshot wound and a satchel full of cash. Henry takes him in, and then has to deal with three riders who come in pursuit of the stranger, professing to be lawmen.
“What attracted me about the screenplay was that it was a story of a father trying to raise his son as best he can. As the father of three boys, I identified with that,” he says. “Henry is in the tradition of the flawed Western hero, which is my favorite kind of Western character…Even for people who don’t like Westerns, this is one you don’t want to miss.”
Shot largely during COVID, in the Nashville area, Old Henry was written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli (Still the King, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, Ted K, Beauty Mark). It had its world premiere earlier this month at the Venice Film Festival and opens theatrically the day after its WFF showing. Also in the cast are Scott Haze, Gavin Lewis, Trace Adkins and Stephen Dorff. “It’s one of those rare independent films in which every department, not just the acting, comes together in a great story, told by an exciting young filmmaker,” Nelson says. You can view a trailer at www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Eiuk4uBJfo.
Old Henry screens live at 5 p.m. on Thursday, September 30 at the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock. Tickets cost $20. To order, and to peruse the rest of the WFF schedule, visit https://woodstockfilmfestival.org/tickets.
Woodstock Film Festival Information
The Woodstock Film Festival runs from Wednesday, September 29 through Sunday, October 3 with more than 100 films screening, along with a full program of panels and events, at a variety of venues including the Woodstock Playhouse, Tinker Street Cinema, Bearsville Theater, Orpheum in Saugerties, Blueprint (Drive in) in Kingston, with panels at White Feather Farm and Cucina and the Maverick Awards at 9 p.m. Saturday, October 2 at UPAC in Kingston. To order tickets, or to see the full up to date schedule of Woodstock Film Festival films and events see https://woodstockfilmfestival.org. You can also find information on a full program of films streaming online. To order tickets see https://woodstockfilmfestival.org/tickets.
Ticket holders must arrive 30 minutes prior to screenings in order to provide time to check COVID vaccinations and guarantee seating.