On Directing Actors: An Interview with Tim Blake Nelson

For nearly 20 years, Tim Blake Nelson has shoe-horned in his filmmaking alongside a robust and, as he describes it, “privileged” acting career.

It’s a career that has landed him on the sets of some of Hollywood’s most famous directors, and alongside a long list of well-known A-list performers. Since his breakout role in the Coen Brothers’O, Brother, Where Art Thou, Nelson has been a staple of both studio and independent films, appearing in projects as diverse as Syriana, The Incredible Hulk, The Thin Red Line, Scooby Doo 2, Lincoln and James Franco’s Child of God. A quick glance at his IMDb page reveals that he’s appearing in six upcoming projects, from The Fantastic Four to Bukowski. It’s an ambitious calendar, to be sure, especially when one considers that he is adding Anesthesia—which had its debut two weeks ago at the Tribeca Film Festival—to a growing list of independent films he has both scripted and directed.

Blake’s directorial debut was Eye Of God, an adaptation of his own play, which starred Hal Holbrook, Martha Plimpton, and Nick Stahl and won the Grand Jury Prize at 1997’s Sundance Film Festival. His skill behind the camera and, most particularly with actors, landed him in the director’s chair for 2001’s O, the high school-set adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The $5-million film earned nearly $20 million at the box office. From there, Nelson translated another of his plays to screen, shooting the Holocaust drama The Grey Zone in Bulgaria, also in 2001 (with a cast that included Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, and Steve Buscemi) and, 2009’s Leaves Of Grass, which saw Edward Norton playing twins caught up in a drug-dealing scheme in Nelson’s native Oklahoma.

The relationships he’s built along the way have educated and evolved his approach to directing, and also helped him to attract first-rate casts to his projects. Take his latest film, Anesthesia. A multi-threaded examination of modern New Yorkers and they way they numb themselves to their lives, the film stars Sam Waterston, Glenn Close, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Gretchen Moll and Michael Kenneth Williams. Not only did Nelson navigate his large ensemble through half a dozen intersecting plot lines, he did it in a 28-day shoot with over 40 locations around New York City and its suburbs. Logistical considerations aside, it’s a small miracle that he manages to elicit authentic, lived-in performances from every member of his cast…

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