In Old Henry, Tim Blake Nelson is the titular frontiersman, living a hermetic life, with only his son for company. His most central role since the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Blake portrays a man deeply bound by repression—that is, until a chance run-in with an injured stranger forces the emergence of Henry’s true self. Old Henry is part of the increasingly popular “elevated Western” genre, but Nelson actually coined the term “micro Western” to explain the film’s subtlety and its zooming in on personality and relationship dynamics. He describes his heartfelt decision to immerse himself in writer-director Potsy Ponciroli’s vision, and in Henry himself.
DEADLINE: How did it feel to be handed the lead protagonist role in this film?
TIM BLAKE NELSON: I think who and what I am, is a self-selective phenomenon, in terms of the roles I get offered.
And usually that’s going to put me in supporting roles. Unless the filmmaker has a peculiar take on life. And what’s lucky for me is, those are the films in which I most want to appear. I’m not going to end up the lead in a cookie cutter movie. But I’d rather play the interesting supporting roles in larger movies, and be given leads in more interesting movies, even if they’re smaller. I’d love to imagine a world in which a mainstream movie would dare to have me as its lead. But I don’t think that’s realistic, and so I’ve got to count on people like Potsy, or the Coens with Buster Scruggs, to want me to headline their movies, with off-center characters.
DEADLINE: It’s interesting to see how much we self-select in every area of life, isn’t it?
NELSON: Yeah, it is, but it’s an oxymoron, because it’s a self-selection, that in a sense is beyond your control. So, I could go out and have a stylist, and comb my hair a certain way, and only take safe roles. But in the first two instances, it really wouldn’t help. You are who you are, and there’s only so much you can do to change that. I’m certainly not going to go get any surgical augmentation, and I don’t want to do roles that don’t interest me, and so I’ve got to count on people like Potsy to think I’m the right guy for their lead, and thankfully, usually in that case, it’s going to be an interesting project.
DEADLINE: So then, what specifically was of interest to you, when you first got this script?
NELSON: Mostly, it was the relationship between the father and son, because I’m raising three boys.
DEADLINE: One of boys is called Henry, too?
NELSON: Yeah. Henry worked on this movie [as an art production assistant]. I think Potsy really got two really essential aspects of parenthood: One is the desire for the healthy parent to want their offspring not to make the mistakes they did, and therefore, to be able to live a better and more healthy life; then, in the raising of kids, the tension that exists between wanting to protect them from the dangers and challenges of the world out there, and the desire to expose them to it. In one case you’re extending childhood, which is a good thing, to a degree. But in the other case, you’re teaching them how to deal with life’s challenges, and one is always struggling as a parent, with that balance, and I felt that Potsy examined that, in a sensitive, tender and knowing way. It was exciting for me, to get to rehearse that every day, playing this role.
DEADLINE: Henry is a deeply contained character, so this role is so internal. You have to trust that people can see the thoughts. And you’ve said that you and Potsy reduced the dialogue, too.
NELSON: Well, a lot of the process that Potsy and I went through, as we worked on the script, once he cast me, was to take away dialogue, because it was clear to both of us, that every time he reveals something about himself particularly with words, he’s endangering himself, because exposure of any biographical truth, even if it’s unwitting or oblique, could reveal who he really is, and therefore every word costs him something. Once we embraced that notion, we just decided this was a guy who’s going to want to say a lot less than he did in the first draft of the script. Luckily, Potsy agreed with that, because if he hadn’t, the words would’ve been left in, it’s his script, his movie.
Then, one of the things I’ve learned, as an actor in film, and also by directing movies, is that, whereas in theater, live theater, which is the medium in which I was trained, the audience sits far away, and sometimes very far away in a large venue, from the actors, movies, particularly with the closeup, are the opposite.
And so, you have this apparatus, in terms of sound and image, where the camera sees more than the human eye does, and the microphone picks up more than the human ear. It’s amplified through either speakers, or the closeup, meaning that the camera can see you think, and the camera can hear you think. And for theater actors, that takes a while to learn. And it is really true in the role of Henry, particularly once we stripped away as much dialogue as possible, it liberated me to do less. In fact, I probably did more internally in this role, than in most roles I’ve played, simply because the demands involved a lot of repressed emotion.
DEADLINE: Obviously, you’ve worked with firearms before on set, but how hard was it training for that super-fast twirling of the gun into the holster?
NELSON: I had done Buster Scruggs, and spent a good six months training with pistol tricks for that movie, and it certainly familiarized me with the gun, with the same sort of pistol, a .45 revolver from the turn of the century, that I was going to use in Old Henry. And yet, at the same time, the character’s dispositions and attitudes toward the gun were completely different, because Buster Scruggs sees the gun as an extension of performance, and Henry sees it as a laconically lethal tool. He wants to minimize its use, rather than demonstrate its use. When he shoots, he needs it to count, and he uses it with regret ultimately, in the film. When he is done, he tosses it away, which was something very deliberate that Potsy and I came up with. So, while I had a lot of training with the pistol, I also had to relearn how to use it, because the relationship was utterly different. That was great, and I luckily had a lot of time to do that.
DEADLINE: Why do you think the Western endures through so many permutations? And why are we seeing the elevated Western especially now with films like Old Henry and The Harder They Fall?
NELSON: I think our relationship to the Western is permanent. There’s never going to be a divorce. It will always be with us. I think it’s a quintessentially American genre, inside of a quintessentially American art form. The reason it’s so specific to America, is that the Western deals with American westward expansion, and that’s because we’re a young country, tied up with the gun. As opposed to in Europe, where borders were drawn, mostly with swords and the mace… Then you have the Western hero, who’s an individualist, and that again, I think is very American, because we are obsessed with individual rights here, as opposed to in Europe where it’s more of a collectivist approach.
So, you have the Western heroes, the individualists, tied up with the gun, in this art form, which is this popular art form, which was at least originally, mostly American film making. That’s the Western, which of course came out of Western serials, which were books in the 19th century. But I actually think, funnily enough, the first Western was actually British. Yeah, I think there was some sort of cowboy short, that some British filmmaker did, very early on, but I still hold by my theory. But then anyway, every generation reinvents the Western.
Out of the Second World War you had an almost Manichaean sense of good and evil, with the white hat and the black hat. Then at the end of the ’50s, and into the cultural upheaval with the counterculture movement, you started to get really flawed heroes in these revisionist Westerns. Some of them would have long hair, goatees, and would wear form-fitting black outfits and dusters, in the Sergio Leone movies—he’s an Italian filmmaker. There’s almost this, counter-cultural fashion in those movies, the way that characters dress. Why are they wearing dusters out there?
John Wayne’s character, in The Searchers, is nasty. The movie is bringing up really volatile issues that were about to bubble up in our country, around race, with the civil rights movement. The Searchers is ahead of its time in that regard, because John Wayne’s character is downright racist, and the movie isn’t taking his side in that respect. And you have an actor in John Wayne, who knows what he’s up to. Anyway, so each cultural time [period] reinvents the Western.
DEADLINE: And how do you think Old Henry is reflecting the current time?
NELSON: Old Henry I think addresses two issues of the moment. One is walling ourselves off, because that’s really what Henry is trying to do. He believes that he can keep the world off his land, as he raises his son. And it’s a deep mistrust of others. I think that not only speaks to Trump, and the walling off our Southern border, the wanting to keep others out, and keep the world away, so that we can have our own supposedly pure experience, unencumbered by the presence or judgment, or interference of others. But also, I think it also says a lot about, and this is not Potsy’s intention, but interestingly, I think it also says something about Covid, because there’s also that desire to keep others away. Ultimately, he can’t do it, he has to engage with the world, as pernicious as that is.
DEADLINE: What do you see in the near future for yourself? Is there anything coming up that you can confirm or talk about?
NELSON: There are a couple of things that are coming up that are fun and interesting. I wish I could talk about them. One project I’d really like to do is that I had a play produced at the public theater right before Covid, about the life of Socrates. I would love to make that into a film, in fact, I first wrote it as a film. I think it’s absolutely the right moment, as we become more and more ostracized from one another, ideologically, to look at what happens when a democratic society turns on one of its own and executes him for fear of ideas being challenged.
I’d love to be able to tell that story on film, because only in a movie, can you really examine the messiness, both physically and ideologically, of early democracy, right when it was first happening. And by that, I mean everything from the dirt under the fingernails of people, to the griminess of a city, that’s just undergone a war with Sparta for decades, and [is dealing with] plague, hanging on to the concept, of the citizenry making the decisions, through a respect of opposing ideas. I think by examining that in a movie, you can learn how little has changed, in terms of the challenges of vesting power in the people.
And if we understand that there has never been an ideal democracy, it can give us hope, as we continue trying to make it work. So, I’d love to make that film. It would be the anti-sandal movie. No gleaming marble, but really, a historically accurate depiction of Ancient Greece, and how one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived challenged those who’d been voted into power.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.