From Book Reports to ‘Buster’: The Ballad of Tim Blake Nelson
Travel hither and yon and it’s probably only once in a great long while that you come across someone like Tim Blake Nelson. Frankly, he doesn’t look all that impressive. Ebbing hairline, a wide-open-plains-type forehead, blues that seem almost beady, a top right central incisor that stands disturbingly aloof of its neighbor, and an oddball horseshoe mustache. He’s lank bordering on gaunt, well abbreviated in height, and the altogether effect is of the kind of guy you see on inner-city street corners, scratching his head while waiting to be mugged.
And yet it’s just these turnip-truck-rube qualities that have allowed Nelson to be where he is today, sitting snug inside a black, chauffeur-driven sedan in Hollywood, easing along Sunset Boulevard toward yet another opportunity. The destination is Netflix’s headquarters, where he’ll plump for the new Coen brothers’ movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in which he plays the happy-faced, cowboy-song-singing, white-hatted, guitar-strumming, pistol-twirling, ornery-cuss-killing title character. Then he’s saying things like, “That one front tooth is a crown and I’ve had the opportunity now to have it fixed, but I’ve just, you know, thought, ‘Well, why? It’s fine.’” A few minutes later, as a kind of corollary, he adds, “I’ve always known I’d never adorn the covers of magazines. Or win beauty contests.”
Plum role in Buster Scruggs notwithstanding — his 18-minute segment in the first episode of the six-chapter commedia-dell’blood-and-gore anthology is by far the best of the bunch — Nelson, 54, is primarily known as a character actor. In the past 25 or so years, his long face has shown up more or less smallishly in more than 40 flicks. He started off playing characters named Young Detective, FBI Technician and Busboy, which led to a good many movies that pretty much just vanished, among them 2011’s The Big Year and 2013’s Snake & Mongoose.
But then, in addition to Buster Scruggs, there is the one other big standout — 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was also written and directed by the Coen brothers. In it, he plays addlepated escaped-convict Delmar O’Donnell and is billed third behind George Clooney and John Turturro. No matter: He stole everyone’s thunder by, among other things, making a convincing show of believing that some backwoods sirens had turned one of his chain-gang brethren into a toad. How he accomplished this feat has long been a mystery, even to Ethan Coen, who once said, “He’s a Jewish guy from Oklahoma, so go figure.” Nelson’s own explanation is a bit more evocative: His Delmar is “innocent of knowledge [and sees] the world without context.” Which makes sense. A world without context. Man into toad. Why not?
Today, still in the black sedan, still on Sunset, Nelson is wearing what he calls his “daily uniform”: a natty Paul Smith corduroy blazer, some Levi’s 511 slim-fits and a pair of Lucchese roper boots, the ones with the round toe and a walking heel, which used to be favored mainly by experimental-jet pilots (“I don’t wear anything but,” he says, intelligently). For a while, he talks about some of the challenges he faced while preparing to become Buster Scruggs, especially when it came to the pistols and guitar playing. “I worked on them both two hours a day for five-and-a-half months,” he says. “I have three boys” — Henry, 19, Teddy, 16, and Eli, 13 — “who watched me work with the pistols on a daily basis, and whenever they could get their hands on them, they molested them. But I had to learn to use ’em with my eyes closed, backwards and underwater. Buster needs to seem like he’s been using those things his entire life. Same with the guitar.”
He smacks his lips a little, a sound that evidently revolves around the satisfactions of a job well done. After that, he looks out the window at the passing scenery and reports on his findings. “To my right is an Absolute Caviar store. And now I see a hipster with a very cool satchel and in front of him a man on a bike with some sort of cape.” Pauses. “It’s some good Sunset Boulevard fare,” he goes on, a bit enraptured.
Another thing about Nelson is, he was raised differently. This was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his father was a petroleum geologist and wildcatter, his mother a well-known social activist, and he was the youngest of three boys. There were certain house rules that the kids had to follow. For one thing, they always had to be reading and delivering dinnertime reports on books, some of them (Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, Flannery O’Connor) assigned by their parents, others of their own choosing. “Entering puberty, I read books like Marathon Man and Jaws,” Nelson says, “which in addition to being chockablock with adventure, had some incredible sex scenes in them.” He chuckles warmly.
The boys also had to present their parents with five fully formed paragraphs a week on various topics, which were graded on a pass-fail basis, and if you failed, you had to continue laboring over the piece until their satisfaction. “My parents wanted their children to be able to communicate with clarity, elegance and concision,” Nelson says. “Because I was the youngest, my paragraphs were both terrible and routinely lampooned. The most notorious one was about the line ‘A man can stand up,’ from the novel Johnny Tremain. I didn’t take the line literally, but my writing was insufficiently clear to dissuade anyone from believing I hadn’t taken it literally. It took weeks of re-writes for me to finesse that ‘A man can stand up’ was metaphorical and not literal or about being able to stand [constituting] a feature of male adulthood. And now, in our family, ‘A man can stand up’ is shorthand for a kind of idiocy.”
In high school, his favorite subjects were Latin and English. He was also student council president and editor of the school newspaper. “My girlfriend,” he says, getting all kind of chesty proud about it, “was the pitcher on the softball team.” Don’t get the wrong idea, however. He definitely had his bad-idea vices, the main one being drinking — mostly beer, Cold Duck sparkling wine and Crown Royal (“really hideous stuff”), which he guzzled with such enthusiasm that he got kicked out of summer arts camp for, he says, “being conspicuously intoxicated during parents weekend.” Another time, on prom night, he wound up in the Tulsa police drunk tank for public intoxication, with his mom hauling him home at five in the morning (“The interior of the car was thick with silence. My mother was pretty fearsome.”). Henceforward, he worked at a record store and a meat-packing plant to earn money to pay his legal bills. Since then, Nelson says, he has straightened himself out, and now confines his drinking to two glasses of red wine a day, maybe downing a third when he is “feeling really wild.” He pauses. “It seems like I’ve got it all under control.”
The sedan passes a Mobile station, a Ross Dress for Less, a Starbucks, an In-N-Out Burger joint, a Chick-fil-A and shortly thereafter seizes up on the Netflix parking lot. Nelson does not get out. He decides to stick around here a while, figuring some functionary will come retrieve him when he’s needed.
After high school, he went to Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was a Classics major, and from there to Juilliard, the performing arts conservatory in New York City, where he studied acting and met his wife, Lisa Benavides-Nelson. He also wrote and directed his own movies, with a rough cut of one of them, 1998’s Eye of God, finding its way into the hands of the Coen brothers, who wrote notes for it, befriended Nelson and a bit later offered him his breakout part in O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
But back to Brown for a moment. He was named senior orator his last year there and, as such, gave a commencement address that was, he says, “about comedy at root being a juxtaposition of the incongruous. If you think in terms of Buster Scruggs, here’s this cowboy who seems so affable and then he walks into a bar and starts killing people. And it’s funny.” From his pulpit, Nelson also spoke about the in-favor vote students had recently taken theoretically requiring the school to stock cyanide on campus for self-delivery in case of nuclear war. Nelson abstained from the vote because “I didn’t agree that one should kill oneself in the face of that sort of adversity, but I couldn’t vote against it because I so appreciated the rhetorical force of the argument.”
It seems that he’s positioning his logic as yet another example of the juxtaposition of the incongruous, although not exactly a funny one, and his logic does seem a little murky. And he could, without a doubt, go on to explain more. “If it wasn’t for acting,” he says, “I would have become a teacher or a professor.” Which is what he’s become anyway. But the Netflix functionary has arrived to take him inside, and his round-toed, walking-heel ropers will soon hit the ground. Any other thoughts about, say, nuclear war and suicide by cyanide will have to wait, and it may be forever.