I was very much guided by the writing, and Henry absolutely wrote this as my son.

You know their faces, even if you can’t quite place their names. The character actor is the very paradigm of that old saying: The man whose face everyone knows, but whose name remains a cipher. They nibble in the corners of your screen, endowing movies with taut eccentricity. And not every character actor graduates from the sidelines. That takes something extra: The ability to hold the screen—not just embroider around its edges. They are chameleons in the truest sense of that word. And the more singular their performances, the more unforgettable they stand to become.

Tim Blake Nelson is a character actor through and through. For the last thirty-plus years, the Tulsa native, now 59, has appeared in more than eighty features, building on a career of stealing scenes with mostly peripheral roles. To devotees of the Coen brothers, he is a familiar presence: As fugitive naïf Delmar in the Dust Bowl odyssey O Brother, Where Art Thou? and as the titular singing cowboy in the masterful anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Among other opportunities to have fallen Nelson’s way are collaborations with Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), Steven Spielberg (Minority Report, Lincoln), Guillermo del Toro (Nightmare Alley, Pinocchio, Cabinet of Curiosities) and Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), as well as several directorial efforts of his own, including Eye of God, The Grey Zone, and Leaves of Grass.

This month, Nelson continues to flit between studio pictures and indie passion projects with Dune: Part Two—or, rather, almost, after his Count Fenring role was left on the cutting room floor—and Asleep In My Palm, which marks the feature directorial debut of his eldest son, Henry. In the latter, Nelson steps into a rare leading role as Tom, a world-weary father who lives off the grid in Ohio with his daughter, Beth Anne (Chloë Kerwin), in the midst of her sexual awakening. A dormant volcano of suppressed darkness, Nelson transfixes in one of the best outings of his career.

Asleep In My Palm opens in select theaters on March 1, and hits VOD on March 19.

Kee, how are you?

Everything’s good here, Tim. How are you doing?

Oh, I’m doing alright.

I watched Dune: Part Two yesterday. What happened?

God, am I allowed to say? I guess I’ll say it: I was in a scene and the scene’s no longer in the movie. I had a really cool cameo. It was a fun little part. But as it happens, movies are too long and they have to remove some stuff. I was unfortunately on the short end of that.

There were a lot of speculations since your casting announcement. Are you Count Fenring?

I don’t know what I’m allowed to say. [laughs] But yeah. I’ll just say that I was proud of what I did, and I’m sad not to be in the film. It was completely amicable. Denis [Villeneuve] is a great guy and we had a wonderful conversation. He was very gracious in the way that he let me know. We’re both eager to do something else together. I don’t want this to be misconstrued…

Of course not, and I appreciate you addressing it. Fans will want your side of the story, Tim.

Right, right.

And I gotta be honest: Asleep In My Palm is more my speedan emotionally resonant indie drama with a lot on its mind. It spoke to me. You must be so proud of Henry [Nelson].

I’m not only proud of Henry—I feel privileged to be in his debut as a writer and director because I think there’s a great deal more to come from him. A lot of it will be our collaborations. That was the plan and remains our plan because we had a great time working on this. And whether I’m involved in one of his movies or not, I think he has an extraordinary future ahead as a filmmaker.

I think so, too, and I say this sincerely. I know you’ve also been directing music videos together. When did Henry first tell you that he wanted to become a filmmaker?

When he was about 12. I’d shown him Fight Club. When I showed him Fight Club, we’d probably already watched a good fifty serious films together. Some were age appropriate and some my wife wanted to strangle me for having shown him. She was right and I was wrong. But Henry said, “I want to do this with you. I want us to do it together. I want to be a team.” And we kept watching movies together. As he got older, he kept spending more and more time with me on movie sets. We were like a duo. People would look at us, and say to him, “Are you out of your mind?” [laughs]

Why is that?

‘Cause he’d wake up at five-thirty in the morning with me and be on set at six and he would be there for twelve hours. I would hire music teachers in particular wherever I was on location to come in and give him lessons every day in the trailer. He was just always there, set after set after set. Then he started working on sets. He started writing every day. It was just clear that this was his career—that his dreams were gonna come true because he was putting the work in. That’s what he’s done and it’s what he continues to do. Asleep In My Palm reflects the results of that.

As a father, a collaborator and a mentor, you want to see commitment to know that it’s real.

Yeah. I’ve always told my kids that talent is probably number four on the list. It’s essential, but you need diligence. You need a work ethic and an indefatigable love of what it is you choose to do. You have to have all of those, but the most common thing is talent. It’s the other stuff that’s difficult. You also need the ability to fail and keep going. They’ve certainly grown up in a house with somebody who’s devoted himself to a freelance creative life. While people look at me and construe it as success, there’s also been a huge amount of failure and rejection. My kids have watched that and I’ve been very open about it because I want to be an honest person with them. I want them to know that it’s not easy. Henry has internalized all of that in a really great way.

There’s a great line in the movie where Tom says, “If I could give you anything, it would be the ability to need no thing or no one. To be unbreakable. To disappear if you have to.” Autonomy. Self-reliance, right? Since the scope of the writing is made more significant by the fact that a father-son duo made this, I can’t help but wonder about your own survival mechanisms that might extend to Henry. As a father, how do you relate to Tom: Somebody who wants to prepare his child for the real world, while also wanting to shield them from it?

I kept trying to look at it as an extreme iteration of the truths I’ve experienced as a parent. I was very much guided by the writing, and Henry absolutely wrote this as my son. He wrote it as a son to a father who’s been a very powerful force in his life. There’s a beautiful honesty to that. I think the movie is its own beautiful metaphor for our relationship and his independence as a storyteller in the way that Beth Anne begins to show her own independence through her sexual awakening.

You’ve discussed this before, but not in the context of this film specifically: You want your boys to go out into the world less fearful. You once said you’re more worried about social and cultural pressures than physical harm. That was in reference to cancel culture. I’m guessing that’s not something you had to worry about so much when you transitioned into adulthood.

Yeah. I suppose we could’ve used a little more of that in my time, and for my three sons, their generation could use a bit less of it is the way I put it. ‘Cause there was a lot of stuff that was tolerated when I was growing up that shouldn’t have been tolerated—not just from adults, but my cohorts. We were doing things and saying things that weren’t so much intentionally racist or chauvinist, but really, ultimately, we could have used a little bit more self-awareness and discipline and censorship. I don’t like that word censorship, but there was some ugliness to my high school years and some stuff in college. It could’ve been dealt with, with a little bit more self-awareness.

But the thing that’s always existed is this anxiety Henry has discussed: In his senior year of college, he felt anxious about coming into adulthood. No one wants to be the eternal child. We don’t want to be stunted in our development. We don’t want to be dependent on our parents.

Yeah. Yet, at the same time, look at us. We’re here getting to do exactly what we wanna be doing. I imagine that’s the case with you. You seem really knowledgeable about movies and you get to make your living talking about them with practitioners and writing about them. There’s something wonderfully childlike about that. I feel like this is all just an extension of my youth in so many ways. So what you wanna do is achieve what Horace, the Roman poet, called aurea mediocritas or “the golden mean.” Be an adult, be responsible, pay your bills, raise your children, maintain a marriage if that’s what you’re up to in life, and be on time to places. But also have that childhood sense of wonder. Play. Do what you wanna do with your days. Then, as they say, you’re in clover.

I’m curious about your other sons, Eli and Teddy. Are they following you into film as well?

No. Teddy is at Sarah Lawrence College right now and is proving himself quite the prose writer. I think if you were to ask him what he wants to do, he would say, “I wanna be a writer.” I love his work. It’s beautiful. He’s a wonderful writer. Eli, Henry’s youngest brother, is studying what’s called IAPA [International and Public Affairs], which used to be called International Relations at college in Providence, Rhode Island. He has no interest in going into the movies. [laughs] At least not at this stage. He is a drummer in a rock band. So, who knows?

Wow—you got film, writing, and music in all of your children.

Yeah, and they’re all musicians. Teddy is a jazz pianist. Eli plays the piano and drums. They’re all very serious about it. My wife, Lisa Benavides, said our home needs to be anchored by a piano, that all our boys need to play that piano. So music has very much been a part of their upbringing.

I know family dinners are mandatory and you’re an anchoring presence in your household. At the same time, you’re always working. If you’re not acting, you’re directing. If you’re not directing, you’re writing. You even published a novel [City of Blows] last year. Coming up, you have Captain America: Brave New World. Did you think you would reprise The Leader role sixteen years later? This is a role that was merely teased in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.

I hoped and hoped and hoped, and it came back. I’m incredibly grateful. That Zoom call from Nate Moore was one of the great days I had that year. I’m excited to bring The Leader back, and bring him back in a feature opposite Anthony Mackie. This is my second movie with Anthony. I’d done a movie with him early in his career [American Violet] right after he graduated from Julliard. Yeah, I’m incredibly excited. I think people are gonna love what Kevin [Feige], the writers, Julius Onah, the incredible makeup artist David Atherton, and the Marvel team came up with for The Leader.

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