From Joel and Ethan Coen, the Netflix original film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part Western anthology in which each chapter tells a distinct and unique story about the American frontier. In the segment that shares the movie’s title, Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) proves that he can be both the life of the party and a frightening opponent, and sometimes both at the same time.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Tim Blake Nelson talked about getting to play the title character in a Coen Brothers movie, just how long ago he was first made aware of this project, how long he prepared for the musical aspect of his performance, how challenging the gun tricks were to do, what makes working with the Coen Brothers such a memorable experience, and who Buster Scruggs is to his friends vs. his enemies. He also talked about why he ultimately wanted to sign on for the Watchmen TV series, for HBO and Damon Lindelof, how he would describe the tone of the material, and shooting in Georgia for Tulsa, Oklahoma, as well as his desire to direct more, in the not too distant future.
Collider: What’s it like to get to play the title character in a Coen Brothers movie?
TIM BLAKE NELSON: Really, I have to say that, ever even since O Brother, Where Art Thou?, my whole career has honestly been a surprise to me, so this has just been another one. I feel incredibly lucky and mostly I just don’t want to waste the blessings that I’ve been given.
When did Joel and Ethan Coen tell you about this project, and what did they tell you?
NELSON: Well, I was given the script in 2002. Joel said, “This is the first one we’ve written, but we’ve outlined another one,” which was the “Meal Ticket” story with Liam Neeson. And he said, “We’ve got to write three or four more, and when we do, we want to make an anthology movie. So, give this a read. When we get around to making this, we want you to play Buster.” I read it with increasing incredulity, and then set it aside, simply because if I were to leave it in view, I would never be able to stop thinking about it. I knew it would be awhile before they were going to actually make it, but it was 15 years before they had written the others. Then, Joel, in late 2016 said, “Well, we’re gonna be doing this now, so get ready.”
Did you ever think that it just wasn’t going to happen, or did you trust that they would eventually stick to their word?
NELSON: I can’t say that I knew it was gonna to happen. Joel and Ethan will write a script, but they won’t go and make it unless they absolutely, in a full proof way, have the resources to make it perfectly. I am very close with them and I’ve read several scripts, over the years, that they had gone to the trouble of writing, but then didn’t end up making because they didn’t feel they were going to have the resources to do it the right way. So, I certainly wasn’t entirely confident they were going to actually make it, just because I knew how expensive it was going to be, and the world is not clamoring for anthology movies.
Did you ever ask them, or did they ever talk to you about, why they named the film after this character when he’s only in one segment of it?
NELSON: I never asked them about that. Maybe it was for fear that they would change their mind. But I did hear them answer it in a Q&A, a few weeks ago, and Joel didn’t really know why they named it The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, other than the fact that it was the first story, and they always knew it was going to be the first story. It seemed like as good a title as any.
It’s a good title.
NELSON: I think so. And Buster is the name of one of Ethan’s kids, so it’s got that advantage, too.
Actors often say that doing a Western is on their list of dream projects. Was is it on yours, and could you have ever imagined that this would be the kind of Western that you would end up in?
NELSON: I’ve been in several other Westerns, but this was so exquisitely and indescribably delightful, that it goes beyond the stuff of which dreams are made. Except he doesn’t kiss the girl, for some reason.
He’s too busy killing the other people around him. I absolutely love the opening scene of this, with you riding on the horse while singing and playing the guitar. How long did you have to do that, and how long were you singing about water?
NELSON: I prepared for about six months, every day. I had to learn to play the guitar. Luckily, my son Henry is quite good at playing the guitar. He and I have a very strong relationship, so he was patient enough to teach an old codger how to play the guitar. It’s not so easy, on the other side of 50, to pick up an instrument and learn to play it. He was quite patient. At age seven, he was running his fingers all over that finger board.
Because, for the most part, actors are taught to never look directly into the camera, was there some adjustment in doing so much talking to the camera for this?
NELSON: No, not really. It was great fun. As live theater and movies have diverged, in terms of their meaning, the culture and their popularity, there’s less and less direct address to the camera, which was certainly much more of a phenomenon, particularly in comedies, when movies were more like theater. It doesn’t happen so much anymore, but I do theater, so it wasn’t that difficult for me.
How challenging were the gun tricks to do? Was it more challenging to learn to play the guitar or to learn to twirl a gun?
NELSON: They were equally challenging. My days, for the first half of 2017, were divided between two hours of practicing guitar and two hours of practicing with the pistols. Sometimes, if I was feeling really wild and dangerous, I would bring the pistols and the guitar into the room together, and the three of us would do some crazy stuff.
What’s it like to get to work and collaborate with the Coen Brothers? What makes the experience of working with them a special and memorable one?
NELSON: I suppose it’s the unlikely combination of how meticulous, careful, benignly dictatorial, and controlling they are, with the freedom they allow you, as an actor, inside of those strict parameters. You’re on a set, in which every frame is treated almost like a cartoon cell, and yet, like a cartoon character, there are really no limits to what you can do inside of that. That’s the delight of working with Joel and Ethan. And then, at the same time, there’s never any remonstration or belittling, if you try something that doesn’t end up working, or that isn’t funny. They’ll probably still laugh and ask you to do it again. That engenders a fearlessness that’s essential to this sort of work.
When it comes to Buster Scruggs, who is he to his friends, as opposed to his enemies?
NELSON: I think you would have no greater friend, and no worse enemy. He’s what they say about the Marines. Buster Scruggs never initiates any of the violence. I want that known. Every bit of violence is started by somebody else. Now, would an objective person say that Buster Scruggs overreacts? Maybe. But, Buster himself is subjective. And as the advocate for him, I think that everybody whom he kills gets their just dessert.
Because you get to do so many things in such a short amount of time, in this story, what did you most enjoy about getting to play this character?
NELSON: I’m resolutely a character actor. It’s what I always wanted to be, and it’s what I want to continue to be, mainly because I get to live this inherently regenerative life, in which every new part offers a compendium of challenges that some work-a-day job wouldn’t ask of me. Just simply the task of needing to learn these skills, like guitar, riding while playing a guitar, spinning pistols, doing a dance number on top of a bar, so much direct address to camera, and so much to say, and throwing all of that at my 53-year-old self, is the kind of life I want to lead.
You’re also working with Damon Lindelof on the Watchmen TV series. What was your experience meeting him, for the first time, like? Did he do or say anything that really sold you on him and his take on the material?
NELSON: Well, I didn’t meet him until I went down to the set.
NELSON: I talked to him on the phone, and it was an evolving process for Watchmen, which in part is what makes Damon so interesting. He, like the Coens, is very much in control, but he also improvises, to a degree, with what he has. And so, I was approached for Watchmen by his (producing) partner, Tom Spezialy. I read it and I read my character, and I found him interesting, but one doesn’t want to leap into television without knowing where a character is headed. And Damon, frankly, said, “Well, I’m not sure about this guy and whether there’s going to be enough for you, to where you would want to play this role. I’m not sure that having you in this role would be gesturally right, in terms of the casting, with what I have in mind for him. You may be, in a sense, too big of a gun to shoot a fly.” But then, he started thinking about it and he changed his take on the role. He said, “You know what, I really would like you to be a part of this. Here’s how I wanna enlarge the role. If you’ll trust me, then I’d really like you to come on board.” What he had to say was certainly enough, but more importantly, the pilot script and what it seemed like he wanted to address with the show, which is way beyond your run of the mill comic adaptation, really intrigued me.
How would you describe the tone of his take on this material?
NELSON: The tone is absolutely right. That’s the way I would describe it. I can’t really say more.
I totally understand that. As someone who’s from Tulsa, Oklahoma, what’s it like to be a part of a big genre TV series that’s set in Tulsa, even though you’re actually shooting it in Georgia?
NELSON: I’ll only say that I haven’t encountered a false note. And I’ll also say that I’ve been allowed to color my own work, in a way that’s very specific to the world that I knew, growing up. That’s been great for me. It’s been really rewarding, and I very much appreciated Damon’s openness to that.