So you might not immediately recognize the name Tim Blake Nelson, but you know him when you see him. Besides, he's a Tulsa native, so get it together and figure out exactly who it is I'm talking about.
Perhaps best known for his turn as Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Nelson has amassed a pretty sizable body of work outside the role of the goofy hick sidekick who traveled with George Clooney and innocently informed Babyface Nelson that, "Friend, some of your foldin' money's come unstove" (easily my favorite line from one of my all-time favorite movies).
He will be in town this week to attend the Fourth Annual Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence, an event that seeks to recognize and reward Tulsa's nonprofit, non-equity theater companies. With the support of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the TATE Awards seek to recognize excellence in an already-salty theatrical community.
At this year's ceremony, Nelson will accept this year's Distinguished Actor Award, and while receiving a TATE Award of any kind is pretty heady stuff for the cast and crew members of local productions, one might wonder if a man with the Hollywood clout Nelson has earned had ever given such a thing a first thought, not to mention a second. However, Nelson was quick to praise the Tulsa theatrical community.
"I'm quite aware of Tulsa's interest in the arts and participation in promoting theater arts, even though Tulsa isn't known as a mecca for theater," he said. Having graduated from Holland Hall High School in 1982, he ain't just blowing smoke about what he knows about this artistic little berg of ours. "I've always known that there's -- whether it's the various independent theaters that have existed over the years, or whether it's what they're doing at the Circle Cinema -- there's always been an interest in Tulsa in pursuing off-beat narrative forms, not just in movies but on stage as well. And so I'm incredibly gratified to be recognized."
Offbeat. That's a word that comes up a lot with this man and his career -- or careers. He is well known throughout the industry as an actor, a writer and a director, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone that might imply he's not as good at one as at any of the others.
He directed the stunning Julia Stiles in 2001's O, an update of Othello, and most recently helmed Leaves of Grass, with Edward Norton, playing twin brothers involved in pot growing and attempted drug lord toppling. Even if you haven't seen a Nelson-directed film, the fact remains that he worked with Edward Norton, and that's pretty freaking big-time. He also wrote Leaves of Grass, as well as a little-known David Arquette film called The Grey Zone, among others.
When asked which, if any, of these careers he leans toward, or favors, or even hopes to leave behind, Nelson speaks in measured tones. In fact, he speaks so deliberately that I was struck by the complete and total absence of even one verbal pause throughout the entire interview. He never once said, "uh," or, "sort of," or "but, um," or any other verbal stalls we all employ from, uh, time to time.
But he takes a moment to outline the bullet points of his career and what he's taken away from his life experience thus far as a triple threat.
"Back in 1996, I had my first really large role in a play in New York. I played Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. I thought, 'Now everything's going to change for me,'" he said. "And the day after the play closed, not much had changed. I was still the same guy I was on the first day of rehearsal, other than the fact that I was a little bit better actor."
Upon this realization, Nelson ruminated on what this might mean, who he was as an actor, and what the future might hold for him.
"I realized that as a character actor, my life wasn't going to be about high points and favorite experiences, but more about all the work as a body of work," Nelson said.
This has led him to greet every day as a possibility. And it works for him and has for some time.
"I try to think of it as a very long and ultimately perpetually surprising journey in which every day is a kind of potential high point, until the next day," he said. And he went on to take a few potshots at himself.
"I really did have to learn that, because at that certain point in my career, my expectations were juvenile," he said. "Particularly for a guy who's short and sort of strange-looking and has some odd sensibilities."
Continuing on that set of themes, Nelson spoke of his happiness with his lot, and of the virtues of versatility.
"I have no eagerness to jettison any one of the careers I've been lucky enough to be able to pursue. I love acting, I love writing, I love writing and directing, each for different reasons, and all of them very compelling for me," he said.
And perhaps embodying that old adage about idle hands and devils' workshops, he alluded to the restlessness that comes with down time.
"Pursuing three careers has really helped keep me busy over the years. So that's a plus. And when I can combine them by writing and directing something that I might even be able to act in, it's really exciting for me. I'm going to continue doing that as long as I can. It's so exhilarating," Nelson said.
This TATE-related return to Tulsa for professional reasons won't be the first for the actor.
"I have taught at TU a few times, and I found that to be very gratifying. I was a lecturer," he said. "And I told them, 'I really don't give lectures, so I'll do it, but we'll have to figure something out.'"
Nelson is somewhat trepid about speaking extemporaneously, it would appear, although if he's eloquent in a phone interview conducted between takes on the set of Snake and Mongoose in Los Angeles, one wonders what trouble he'd have presenting a prepared lecture.
"They said, 'Just come and teach for two weeks.' So I did that, and I said, 'Just let me teach whenever and wherever,'" he said. "I ended up teaching for about eight hours a day. It was great. It was fantastic."
Odyssey of Distinction. Tim Blake Nelson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Nelson will receive the TAKE Distinguished Actor Award June 24th.
There will be a similar situation for Nelson prior to the TATE ceremony, as the evening's schedule lists "Conversation with Tim Blake Nelson" 30 minutes prior to the main shindig.
"I told them pretty much the same thing," he said. "I said, 'I can't get up and give some big speech with a driving theme that's going to inspire the multitudes. But I'm very comfortable doing a Q and A,'" he said.
As much as he'd like to have, he did not completely dodge the speech bullet, though.
"I see that I'm going to have to speak for about 10 minutes, so I'm going to have to come up with something," Nelson said. "Maybe I'll talk about the importance of the TATE awards. I do much better when I've written it out."
Maybe he's got a writing career ahead of him. Oh, wait.
The Fourth Annual Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence will be held June 24 at 7pm at TU's Lorton Performance Center. In addition to the Distinguished Artist Award Nelson will receive, the Mary Kay Place Legacy Award will also be presented to recognize an individual who has embodied theatrical excellence in the Tulsa theater world through creative contribution, vision, service and leadership in that world.
Tickets are currently on sale and available through tateawards.org, myticketoffice.com, or by phone at 918-596-7111.
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