The first three weeks of October 2002 was a tense time for anyone living around the Nation’s Capital. Living in Maryland I vividly recall the amount of fear the Beltway Snipers created, leading to special precautions at schools and people avoiding crowded areas. The movie that tells the story of those two snipers, Blue Caprice, captures that uneasiness with slow-building, methodical filmmaking. There’s a few familiar faces in Alexander Moors‘ film, including Tim Blake Nelson, playing Ray, an “unwitting accomplice” to one of the snipers.
While he’s most famous for playing one of the many lovable morons in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Nelson has been working successfully as a writer, director, and, for the past year and a half, a member of James Franco‘s camp. Nelson has now acted in two of Franco’s films, As I Lay Dying and Child of God, making for a collaboration that has put a pep in Mr. Nelson’s step.
We discussed that artistic partnership with Nelson, as well as Blue Caprice, humanizing transformations, and why an actor always needs to have their antennae out:
Congratulations on the film.
Thanks. It’s really good, isn’t it?
It is. It really captures what those three weeks were like.
Yeah, I wouldn’t know about that, but I know the movie certainly achieves a level of sustained tension that’s really hard to maintain. There was a spareness to the material on the page that I think [director] Alex [Moors] translated gorgeously onto the screen. What you get is a really taught, unadorned, unsentimental film.
Did you need a lot of discussions with Moor over who Ray is?
Well, my character’s based on a real guy, but Alex and I decided to not recreate him, but do my own version. Ray is actually a couple of guys, but mainly one fellow. We decided finding the essence of one character was more important than verisimilitude, which is always the decision you have to make when you’re playing a character based on somebody in real life. I think my character represents the unwitting accomplice in us all.
How did that idea come about?
That was my own thinking. I mentioned it to Alex and he agreed, but it was never spoken of on the set. What was interesting about that nuance, particularly when you experience it in real life, is that you only realize what it is you’ve furnished after the fact and it’s always too late.
Are you one who enjoys a lot of discussions over character on set?
It really depends on the movie. As an actor, I’d say, for the most part, I try to fit into the atmosphere the director is trying to create on set. Certainly, like anyone, I make sure to get what I need, so I can do my job and help the director tell his story. Inside of that, I think the best way you can serve a film, as an actor, is to walk onto a set with your antenna out and really get a sense of what sort of atmosphere the director is after. A good director is going to employ that in his story.
Have you always had your antenna out as an actor or has that developed over the years?
I’ve learned it over the years. Early on many actors — and myself included — tend to think we have our way of working and need to impose that on someone else’s process. Pretty quickly you learn film is such a collaborative art that that doesn’t work. Often you close yourself off to everything you can learn from others. As I get older and do this more and more, I’m a lot more interested in the way others approach their work, as opposed to how I’ve approached mine in the past. I’m desperate to stay vital.
How else do you stay vital?
Most recently I’ve done all these movies with James Franco in the last year, and that’s been fantastic, being around a guy who’s so creatively restless. He literally can’t settle for one project at a time. He’s voraciously creative, which has been a real potent force in my life the past year and a half. I’ve gained tremendously from being around him. Right before that I worked Daniel Day-Lewis who has the opposite approach; he’s so single-minded with what’s at hand, to the exclusion of all else. He’ll suffer no distraction, so he’s the opposite to James, in many respects. And yet, I think both are tremendous creative forces. To work with them on sets back-to-back changed me fundamentally.
I was just speaking with Joseph Gordon-Levitt the other day about that. He said Daniel Day-Lewis wants to know nothing about the camera, while Bruce Willis knows everything about it. Speaking for yourself, do you think it’s helpful to know the technical side?
An actor has to learn what he needs to do his job in the best way possible. We’re all different and acculturated in different ways. We’re certainly all acculturated in film acting in different ways. There’s simply no way Daniel and Bruce would have the same approach to acting. They’re such different guys. Their creative missions are different.
Knowing the technical side, it has helped me. I have a lot of bad habits I’m still trying to rid myself of [Laughs]. The more I understand the medium, the more clever I get in ridding myself of these habits. Editing other performances, as an example, helps me understand my own shortcomings and strengths.
May I ask, what are some of those bad habits?
Well, the obvious one is I used to be a lot more histrionic as a performer and a lot more theatrical. I’m trying to be less so, but there’s dissonance at work, in terms of the roles I’m now being offered: they seem to be getting more and more outlandish. Those roles are demanding more theatricality. I’ve got to try and work against appearing too theatrical on film.
Do you think the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a reason why you get offered those more theatrical roles?
That’s a part of it, but also, as I’ve done more and more films, I get more and more trusted to take on transformations. My particular interest is taking extreme characters and humanizing them, making them three-dimensional. That’s been my mission over the last decade or so [Laughs]. Sometimes I’ve been successful, sometimes less so.
What’s a more difficult form of acting, transforming yourself or acting as an average joe in a suit?
Oh, the transformations are more [challenging]. I love doing the transformational roles. With that said, when I get to play a role very close to myself, it’s an enormous relief.
Do you have a recent example of that?
I just did a movie called Kill The Messenger. I decided with the director, Michael Cuesta, I wasn’t going to do very overt characterization. I wanted to keep it very close to myself, even though there was room for a little bit of hamming it up. I’m glad we decided not to do that. I found working with Jeremy Renner wasn’t going to allow for that. This is an example of you going onto a set, figuring out where you can fit in, and how you can best approach the work, in terms of what others are doing.
The inherent understanding on a movie set is that we’re all there for the same purpose, so there needs to be a level of cohesion. I just found you can’t ham it up around Jeremy. That’s just not when you do it. He’s the lead and also a really generous performer. He’s a wonderful person that radiates decency. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to him…
I haven’t, but I’ve been told this before.
Yeah. It was just immediately clear to me an intimacy could be achieved between us that could really benefit the film, and the conduit for that was going to be a character really close to me. That’s the way we end up taking it.
How about working with a less than generous performer or director? Can a little tension, whether from a director or actor, benefit a film?
I’ve certainly never gotten into yelling at people on sets. There have been relationships I’ve had with actors that have been contentious. One particular actor said to me, “Look, I’m not here to get along. To me, the tension that can happen between a director and an actor or even between two actors can be the tension that polishes the stone, and that’s what I’m after.” I thought, “Okay. Fair enough.”
If he’s interested in working in those terms I’m going to oblige. I won’t shy from conflict, as long as we agree it’s about making the end result better. I would work with that actor again in a second.
Ultimately, did it end up working in the film’s favor?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Once you’re done working with James Franco, do you feel the need to get back behind the camera yourself?
I do! Except I’m balancing stuff that James, at least right now, isn’t balancing. I’ve got these other four projects called my marriage and my three sons. They’re constantly in my life. I want to spend time with them. So, yes, I do my best, but I’m being a husband and a dad, too.
How is acquiring finance for you?
I get my movies made. I’ve been very blessed in that regard. I’m in preproduction on a movie right now I’m making this fall, so we’re just putting together that little New York movie. I was able to get that set up pretty quickly. These days you gotta write to get your movies made, if that makes sense. Luckily I’ve been able to do that and stay true to the kinds of movies I want to make. There hasn’t been a movie I’ve written yet that I haven’t really wanted to make.
The last time we spoke you were working on an original fantasy film, The Gyre. Is that still in the works?
I was suppose to be doing a teaser for that this fall. [Producer] Avi Lerner is making it and we’re going to be shooting in Bulgaria. I’ve pushed the teaser on that until next spring, when I’m in post for the movie I’m going to shoot this fall. I’m guessing we’ll shoot that in 2015. I have a very good relationship with Avi and know how his system works in Bulgaria, so I wrote it in my mind working with Avi.
Before I let you go, I want to touch on two films of yours.
The first one being Minority Report. What was the experience of working on those great dialog-driven scenes in a big film with Spielberg and Cruise?
Oh, it was an enormous amount of fun. I have to completely credit Steven with that character. I wrapped a movie called The Good Girl literally the night before I was to be on Steven’s set. Right before The Good Girl I did this movie called Cherish, so all of them were right in a row. Literally days separating the first two and 12 hours separating The Good Girl and Minority Report. While working on those two movies I spent time figuring out who that character was and memorized…that character talked a lot.
I showed up on set and was summoned to Tom’s bus, which was, like, the size of a shopping mall. I passed the Athlete’s Foot and the food court and found Tom and Steven [Laughs]. We started to go over the scene and Steven did just not…he said, “I didn’t hire you to be subtle. I want you, Peter Stormare, Jason Antoon, and Daniel London to be like 1930s character roles. I want big, strong choices.” He had seen me in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and just offered the role to me, so he didn’t know what I was going to do with it.
We fooled around with it a bit and he said, “You know what? Can you do a New England accent?” I thought, “This is Steven Spielberg and he’s just throwing that out? This is crazy.” I said yes, because I had gone to school in Providence. I just started doing it and it was perfect for the role. It pulled me out of this preconceived notion — and this takes us back to the beginning of our conversation — of what I was going to bring. I adapted to what the maestro wanted. He was so right. It was a choice I never would’ve come up with. Then, I was in! [Laughs] It was all easy after that.
Was it a similar process on Lincoln?
No, Lincoln was very different. He said, “You’re known now for being able to do all these dialects and transform physically, but I want you to keep it close to yourself. I don’t want you to do a dialect.” The character is from upstate New York, so I certainly could’ve brought something regional to it. He said, “No. Let’s go in a different direction.” He said the same thing to John Hawkes.
Now, for the second film, I want to delve into a cult classic, Heavyweights.
[Laughs] That’s Steven Brill and Judd Aaptow. It’s funny, the legacy of that movie.
It’s a great movie.
Yeah, it’s a really good one. I think that was my second or third movie.
It’s a small scene, but was it exciting?
Oh God yeah! I got to audition for that part. I thought, “Why me? This could be anybody. Why in the world would I get this part?” I was out of drama school, so you’re desperate to be in any film. My biggest heartbreak during those years was when I was not cast as Clark The Ferengi in Deep Space 9.
Really, I was depressed for weeks. I’m not joking. You know, I was so grateful to get that part. Really, really grateful. Ben [Stiller] is hilarious. That’s the precursor to his role in Dodgeball.
You can see certain ties there. By the way, I did not mean to laugh at your pain over Deep Space 9, so my apologies.
No, I think it’s funny, too. You would see me smiling [if you were here]. Yeah, it was depressing, but I’m laughing about it now.
Blue Caprice opens in limited release September 13th.