Two decades into a successful acting career, Tim Blake Nelson found himself getting complacent. "As an actor, I relied on technique to a degree that became destructively habitual, and my work just got more predictable. I leaned on the same tricks, and I found
myself on sets being lazy," says Nelson, who stars in HBO's comic book adaptation Watchmen.
How Nelson gave himself a career makeover is a story that just about anyone seeking a fresh start could learn from. In an interview with Inc., Nelson talked about the benefits of a liberal arts education; connecting with people whose work he admired, such as James Franco and Daniel Day-Lewis; and giving himself time to make the change.
Dissatisfaction with his work came to a head with his role as Sheriff Fate in Child of God in 2013, directed by Franco. Nelson says he overused one of his "tricks" in nearly every scene: smoking a cigarette while talking. "I started liking my work less when I would watch it," he says.
He chafed at the conservative acting technique he'd learned at The Julliard School, in which an actor analyzes the rhetoric in a dramatic text to make character-development decisions quickly. He set about a mid-career reinvention.
To a degree, Nelson credits his grounding in history, language, literature, and visual arts that he received studying classics in college. "If you have that well-rounded, basic education, it's going to serve you long term, in terms of responding to the culture of your present," he says.
Nelson was inspired by Franco's idealistic style of filmmaking in a series of low-budget movies which cast him in difficult roles. The films included As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Bukowski. "It just reminded me of just the quixotic youth that got me into telling stories in the first place," says Nelson. "It was just a wonderfully uncynical approach to storytelling that James was all about."
Nelson's big tipping point was seeing Day-Lewis prepare for the role of Abraham Lincoln in the 2012 biopic Lincoln, for which Day-Lewis won an Oscar for Best Actor. His "fierce" and "poetic" dedication to the role, and seeing him work up close, inspired Nelson to finally lay down the Julliard toolkit.
"I just finally said to myself, 'Enough with technique. Technique is there to help you, but there's got to be a deeper, slower way to work,' " he says.
To start his retraining, Nelson decided to take only roles where he would have at least a month to prepare. He poured himself into making deliberate, slower decisions about character development. He learned how to spin pistols for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and do a naked headstand for the 2019 The True Don Quixote. Nelson thinks it's led to better results.
"I love acting more now than I ever have because of the comprehensive work that's now going into it," he says.