Tim Blake Nelson Owes His Acting Career to Writing His Own Material

Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Multidisciplinary actor Tim Blake Nelson—star of the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (on Netflix and in select theaters Nov. 16) and HBO and Damon Lindelof’s highly anticipated “Watchmen”—knows the importance of creating opportunities for yourself and being patient for the long haul. “Refuse to go away,” he advises fellow actors getting their start. Speaking with Backstage Nov. 1, Nelson recalled how he prepared to play the titular Buster Scruggs and what he’s learned from writing and directing.

His role in “Buster Scruggs” gave him a new skill set.
“I certainly have never worked harder on a role than I did for this one. I had to learn to play the guitar, which I didn’t know how to do. And I had to learn how to spin pistols. I had to learn the songs. And the character also speaks a lot—it’s almost a 20-minute monologue in certain respects, so it was wonderful. That’s why we do what we do, so that these challenges can keep coming at us for [our] whole career. This was really exciting to get to do.”

READ: The Coen Brothers Swagger Into Netflix With ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’

Creating your own work puts the power back in your hands.
“I can certainly say there is no greater power [as an actor] that any of us has than being able to write—if you can write a script that will appeal to an audience, then suddenly you’re taking power away from others over your career and you’re giving it to yourself. Being able to write my own material has led to everything for me.”

When finding collaborators, it’s important to look at the big picture.
“I look for an individual voice that is going to be able to be realized. If I get a script, first I want to know: Is this original? Is it a take on life that is specific to this person and that only this person could tell? And that person could either be the writer, the director—and often it’s the same person. And then: Are they going to be able to realize it? Because sometimes you get onto a set and the idea was great and the author of it is fantastic and has the best intentions, but [they don’t] have the resources. Or sometimes you can intuit that there are other people that are going to be involved, and they’re not going to let the person really ultimately realize what they’ve been brave enough to put on paper.”

READ: The Secret to Writing + Producing Your Own Content 

Be patient!
“I got a great piece of advice from the actress Lois Smith. She said, ‘Tim, you’re not only an actor, but you’re a character actor. And for us, it’s not about the one role and it’s not about everything changing in an instant. It’s about what you accumulate over a lifetime. Let your career unfold over a lifetime and think of it in terms of that, not in terms of life-changing roles that you have to have.’ And that simply took a lot of the pressure off, and I really have now started to think, finally, long term.”

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!