A version of this article about Tim Blake Nelson and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” first appeared in TheWrap’s Actors/Directors/Screenwriters Oscar magazine.
“I have certainly never put so much time into a role, if you think about the effort in terms of the resulting screen time,” said Tim Blake Nelson, who plays the title role in the new Coen brothers movie “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”
Nelson is on screen in virtually every frame of the movie’s first 20 minutes as a singing cowboy who also happens to be an ace gunslinger — and then, with the end of the first section of the deliciously dark anthology Western, he disappears, never to be seen again.
But Nelson makes those minutes count, crafting a white-suited, fast-talking, quick-drawing cowpoke for the ages.
The actor said he spent six months learning to play guitar and perform pistol tricks without breaking a sweat. “There’s an adage that an actor is responsible for the history of every action,” he said. “You need to be able to read in how adroitly a character does something what his history with that action is. And so the riding and the singing and the playing the guitar and the shooting and the pistol twirling all have to feel almost like they’re extensions of the body, almost effortlessly unselfconscious.”
He did the preparation at the same time that he was preparing for Chris Poche’s indie film “The True Don Quixote,” in which he played a modern version of the Cervantes hero. “I cleared the first half of the year and spent every day preparing for the two roles,” he said.
That he pulls it off with a twinkle in his eye is perhaps testament to the mindset of an actor who first worked with the Coens as one of the three leads in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and who routinely makes two, three, even four movies a year.
“I like that pace,” he said. “It’s not so much that I am overwhelmed and can’t give the attention to each role that the role merits, and yet it’s enough that I’m challenged to find new ways of working and new approaches. I think that in the best possible way, you want to relearn acting every time you essay a part.”
His career revelation, he said, came on a little-seen 2013 film directed by James Franco,” “Child of God.” “He had this tiny crew, and everybody was being paid the same, crew and actors,” he said. “There was a coherence and a solidarity in the filmmaking that jarred me out of my complacency.
“Even then, I was doing three or four movies a year, and I kinda figured I had it licked. And then working with James caused me to understand that I actually didn’t want to have it licked. I wanted to keep finding new ways of expression through acting.”
To read more of TheWrap’s Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue, click here.