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Tim Blake Nelson on playing ‘Old Henry’: ‘The distance between that character and me is quite long’

Tim Blake Nelson had a humorous response when he received an email one night while cooking dinner asking him if he wanted to play the title character in the atmospheric western, “Old Henry.” “So I said to my wife, ‘Well, it happened,” recalled Nelson during a recent Film Independent Zoom conversation. “’Now I’m playing old people!”’ But once he read director Potsy Ponciroli’s lean script, the actor was in.

He admired the tautness of “the storytelling and most of all how it explored what parenting is because I think that’s really at the heart of the story, the relationship between the father and the son. So much of what Henry does is motivated by his love for his kid. As the father of three boys, that’s something that spoke to me. I thought Potsy had really centered a great Western with a wonderfully intimate and in certain ways, tender story.”

“Old Henry,” which was well-received at the Venice Film Festival, is set on a barren, hardscrabble Oklahoma farm circa 1906 where the taciturn, sleepy-eyed Henry lives with his rebellious teenage son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) who is tired of staying at home doing chores and wishes to leave the farm to hunt and travel. The only person the widower and his son see is his Uncle Al (Trace Adkins) who stops by occasionally to visit. The duo’s quiet life is interrupted when Henry brings home Curry (Scott Haze), a man he finds bloodied on his land and next to him is a satchel of money. Hot in pursuit of Curry are three men lead by the ruthless Ketchum (Stephen Dorff), who wears a sheriff’s badge. When they show up at Henry’s homestead, the trio as well as Wyatt discover that the farmer is an expert gunslinger. In fact, he’s the infamous Billy the Kid, who had supposedly been murdered at the age 21 in 1881.

Ponciroli didn’t write “Old Henry” with Nelson in mind because he didn’t think he was a “reasonable get,” but he thought the actor “just kind of embodied the whole thing to me. And if you look at a picture of Billy the Kid and Tim side by side, they were actually pretty similar as far as stature and size.” Nelson noted that Henry/Billy would win a shootout with Buster Scruggs, the glitzy singing, gunslinging cowboy:“Buster Scruggs would be too busy showing off!”

Though he knew his way around a pistol because of the prep he did for Buster, Nelson had to basically start from scratch to play Henry. “The Buster Scruggs character was not what Potsy wrote. It’s almost the converse of him. Whereas Buster Scruggs sees the pistol as a device for show and histrionics, Old Henry sees it as a lethal tool which he no longer wants any involvement. And so, he approaches it with a measure of regret and then recedes as he re-familiarizes himself with it. And then something else is reawakened.”

Nelson and the filmmaker worked for months together getting ready to film “Old Henry.” So much so, “I think we probably had as much fun if not more fun during the prep and the research and the decision-making process between writer, director and actor that hopefully go along with the director, of course, always having the last say,” said Nelson.

And even though he almost immediately said “yes” to the role, Nelson had doubts that he could play the part. “When I was reading the script and learned as the audience does, that this guy was actually Billy the Kid, that brought up a lot of questions for me about my own suitability for the role. I’m not a violent person and I’m generally a forgiving person. I don’t own any guns.’’ Nelson may have grown up in Oklahoma but “the distance between that character and me is quite long. I didn’t want to show up on Potsy’s set and disappoint him. I can play a strict father, but when it comes to violence, both spiritually and physically, it’s not just one gun, it’s many guns. Doing it in a minimalist and unyielding way, rather than a showy way or histrionic way, felt like space I never occupied.”

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