‘Old Henry’ Star Tim Blake Nelson Opens Up About Playing the Stoic Cowboy

by Allison Hambrick
TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 07: Tim Blake Nelson attends the "Just Mercy" press conference during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 07, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Old Henry actor Tim Blake Nelson revealed that the limited dialogue in the film allowed him to find a stronger emotional connection to his character. In the film, he plays a hermetic frontiersman who only has his son for company. A chance encounter with an injured stranger prompts Henry to open up more than he is accustomed to.

“A lot of the process that [the director] and I went through, as we worked on the script, once he cast me, was to take away dialogue,” Nelson told Deadline. “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.”

Tim Nelson on His Understated Approach

Additionally, Nelson discusses how creating a less vocal portrayal heightened the emotion. According to the actor, the medium of film is uniquely able to allow for such an understated approach. Nelson explained: “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,” the actor added. 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.”

Old Henry Star Talks History as Character Actor

Moreover, Nelson said he “did more internally in this role.” The character’s development relied on “repressed emotion.” The actor enjoyed this because he prefers “interesting movies,” regardless of whether they are “smaller.” He’d rather be a supporting role than the “lead in a cookie cutter movie.”

As a result, the actor has a history of playing quirky supporting characters. His most famous role was in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Starring Nelson, George Clooney, and John Turturro, the film adapted The Odyssey to an early 20th century setting. The actor did his own singing, and many of the film’s funnier moments came from his character. He also starred in The Incredible Hulk, Lincoln, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The actor was also nominated for a Critic’s Choice Award for a television role in HBO’s Watchmen.

“I’d love to imagine a world in which a mainstream movie would dare to have me as its lead,” the actor stated. “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.”

“You are who you are, and there’s only so much you can do to change that,” Nelson added.