When it comes to actors with a knack for creating long lasting quirky characters nobody does it better than Tim Blake Nelson. A classically trained thespian (and also accomplished director), Nelson has an ability to take decent side characters and make them shine bright. Whether it’s as part of the singing chain gang in the Coen Brothers flick "O Brother, Where Art Though?" or the timid object of Robin Tunney’s affection in the hidden gem "Cherish," Nelson is by far one of the finest character actors working today. (Just ask Spielberg via "Lincoln!") His latest project titled "Adventures in the Sin Bin" (opening Oct. 18 from Phase 4 Films) is no different, with Nelson playing an unconventional police officer who becomes a surrogate father to his late partner’s two equally interesting boys. The film, which also features comedian Jeff Garlin and scene stealing work by Bo Burnham, is another fine example of Nelson supporting well-written indie fare. We got a chance to chat one-on-one with Nelson all about the film, his many memorable characters, plus what it’s like working with greats like Terence Malik and the Coen Brothers. Stellar work deserves to have the stage – here’s...
Your character in "Adventures in the Sin Bin" is a bit of a paternal figure with an attitude – how would you describe Officer Totsch and his relationship to brothers Brian and Benny?
Tim Blake Nelson: I think that he very much is a paternal figure. He was best friends with their father on the police force and when their father passes he becomes a surrogate father to them. Plus he has the added advantage in that capacity of living next door, which is I think quite sweet. I guess in my own way since I’ve directed some indie films myself and I’ve certainly been in many of them it set in nicely to the task of coming onto a film by first time filmmakers with a lot of young actors. I was filling in as the elder statesman as it will, which is unfamiliar territory for me.
What was it about the script that spoke to you and made you want to come on board?
TBN: I felt the movie had a unique perspective, be it a comic one, on teenage life and the filmmakers wanted to make it unlike any other teen oriented movie. That’s the kind of film which I gravitate no matter what the intended audience – a film that’s unlike any other. I probably do say no more then I say yes to movies at this point, but I had a good feeling about this one. I also had never played a character like this, a Chicago cop. It had originally been offered to Dennis Farina – that’s how out of my comfort zone this was.
The film has a very "Rushmore"-esk type vibe but with Michael Seater’s Brian the straight man to everyone else’s oddball – what was the tone of the film on-set?
TBN: I think the movie does owe a great deal to Wes Anderson, certainly in the primary color schemes as well as the wardrobe. There is a kind of private school intellectualism to it for which it never apologizes and I think speaks to Anderson’s ethos. But above all when we were shooting it was just a great deal of fun. These are what you want out of filmmakers these days when everything is cynically about opening weekend grosses and how to wow an audience with the latest technologies. You want filmmakers who hope to tell a story simply and with a brash attitude – and that’s what these guys did.
You’ve played a ton of quirky and memorable off beat characters, but which is closest to the real Tim Blake Nelson?
TBN: (Laughs) Oh, gosh. You know, I’m about to make a movie here in New York that I’m directing and that I wrote and I think that role I’m about to play is probably the closest to me I’ve ever played. In terms of the ones that I have played, maybe David Cohen in "American Violet?" Or "Hulk" - weirdly "Hulk."
You worked with both Terence Malik on "The Thin Red Line" and the Coen Brothers on "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" directors that are mysterious in terms of their directorial process – care to shed some light?
TBN: It’s a great question because I pretty much worked with them back to back. I did "The Thin Red Line and then I did this little one day role for Michael Almereyda his "Hamlet" and then I directed "O" and while I was editing it I did Joel’s movie. So really inside of about six months I did Terry’s movie and Joel’s movie. Terry is improvisational to the extent to where the script itself is almost something he writes just so he can get a crew and go somewhere and shoot whatever comes to mind that day. Whereas Joel and Ethan plan everything and the words from the script never change. Every shot is storyboarded almost like a cartoon and they never deviate from that. Coming out of that I really learned that there is no single way to approach filmmaking. Perhaps to my advantage, perhaps to my disadvantage, I still really don’t know how I approach it and I’m about to direct my fifth movie.
I love the unusual and complex chemistry between you and Robin Tunney in the highly underrated "Cherish" – was it instant or did you two have to work on it?
TBN: No, it was an instant chemistry. At that time she was married to a director and I’m married to an actor and so I think we really got one another in a really deep way. Just to assure you it was an entirely platonic relationship, but I think we really understood where one another were coming from. And it’s very much her movie – which is great. I’m not somebody who wants it to be my movie when I step onto a set. I’d rather play an interesting supporting role than a perhaps less interesting lead role that nevertheless carries the movie. So I love that character and getting to play it opposite her and getting to step in and out of her life. Robin is just a really lovely individual and she has that ineffable quality that so many of our best actresses have, which is to be able to live unpredictably when the camera is aimed at her. Of course it doesn’t hurt that she is exquisitely beautiful.
Being part of the memorable trio of James Spader and John Hawkes via Spielberg’s "Lincoln" I have to ask what was that gang like to work with?
TBN: John and I were already friends and we just became even closer working on that movie together. He’s an absolute angel and we are friends for life – he really is one of my closest actor pals. As far as James goes we spent a lot of time – John and I – seeding the screen to that wonderful character he created. And so while the three of us were a trio, it sort of ended up that John and I were a duo in support of Spader’s outlandish Bilbo character - and that was fine with us.
"ADVENTURES IN THE SIN BIN" HITS SELECT THEATRES OCT. 18 FROM PHASE 4 FILMS.