For their latest movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers are doing things a little differently. Their first Netflix project, the directors of Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? have devised an anthology movie, made up of six stories set in the wild west. They all have one thing in common: death.
We sat down with some of the cast to talk about the enigmatic directors, cowboys and puppetry. Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) stars in the titular story as Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy whose speed with a gun is as sweet as his voice. In Meal Ticket, Harry Melling (Harry Potter) is an actor with no limbs who performs in a travelling theatre and lives at the mercy of the theatre’s owner (Liam Neeson). In The Gal Who Got Rattled, Zoe Kazan is a young woman travelling across the country in the hope of new life, who meets and falls for a cowboy (Bill Heck). Their story does not have a happy ending. None of the stories have a happy ending.
Tim Blake Nelson and Harry Melling
Tim, is it right that you were given the script for this years ago?
Tim Blake Nelson: “The script for my part was given to me in 2002. I was told that was a companion piece and that they were going to write three or four more. They did that over the years, until finally they had a critical mass.”
Why did they give it to you so long ago?
Nelson: “They just said, ‘This is for you. You’re going to play this character and we’re going to build a movie around it. This will be the first of five or six vignettes and when we get the others written we’ll make it, so eventually you’re going to be doing this with us.’ 15 years later…”
Tim, you’ve been a collaborator with the Coens for years, since O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Harry, you’re brand new to them. What was it like when you knew you’d got the part?
Harry Melling: “I’ll never forget the moment of being offered it. I grew up watching their films. Friends of mine were watching Batman and that sort of thing, while I was into quirky Coen Brothers films. Being on set with them was extraordinary. When you’re working with these gods of cinema you come along with a lot of preconceptions of what this is going to be like, and it was as good as I hoped, but I wasn’t really anticipating how relaxed and joyful it would be.”
What was your favourite Coens movie?
Melling: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I’m not just saying it because Tim was in it. I watched it relentlessly and strummed along to the guitar. That film introduced a whole new generation to folk, so it was more than a film to me.”
In very different ways, both your roles are very physical. Tim, you’re doing gun fights, singing and dancing; Harry, you’re playing a man with no limbs. What kind of prep was involved?
Melling: “It’s bizarre. Playing a guy with no arms and no legs, in terms of physicality should be quite simple. It was the opposite. I hit the gym. I was going to be in strange positions for a long time, so I thought my core had better be as good as it possibly can be!”
As someone who has all their limbs, it must be odd to act without being able to gesticulate.
Melling: “Absolutely! I remember in the audition, which was the first time I met Joel and Ethan, obviously I couldn’t use my hands because of who I was playing. There was one thing I said and my hand automatically shot out. We both laughed about it, but it was strange. You naturally gesture. Not having that allowed different forms of expression. Being still became as expressive as moving.”
Blake Nelson: “For me, it was about five or six months of preparing. I needed to learn to play the guitar, do pistol tricks, sing the songs. Dancing came later. When I do a movie now I usually arrive about two weeks early, to sort everything out in terms of the look. This time was no exception and I arrived and Joel said, “I’ve added a dance number.” It was about three hours training per day, for half a year, learning all those things and to make it seem completely easy.”
You were very good at playing a guitar while riding a horse.
Blake Nelson: “At 53 – I’m 54 now – picking up an instrument for the first time, that’s not so easy. Your brain is set in its ways, so you don’t have the physical abilities anymore, but you’re more cross about failing, which is a horrible combination. Harry is young enough that he could learn anything. In fact, I’m going to cast you as a violinist in something.”
What’s the most useful thing you’ve ever had to learn as an actor?
Blake Nelson: “Playing the guitar is pretty great.”
Melling: “I learned puppetry (for the play ‘Hand to God’), which was great but in daily life is not really very useful.”
Unless you find yourself at a children’s party when the entertainment has cancelled.
Nelson: “Is it not fun? Do you not do puppet shows in the bedroom for your girlfriend?”
Melling: “That is private. That’s not for discussion now.”
Now that you both play guitar, presumably you’ll soon start working on a folk album together.
Melling: “Absolutely. It’s got to happen.”
Blake Nelson: “We need to get going on it.”
Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck
Everyone wants to work with the Coens. What was your reaction when you got the job?
Bill Heck: “The audition was very much an ‘oh wow’ moment.”
Zoe Kazan: “There’s still a part of my brain that can’t believe it happened.”
Heck: “Oh for sure. It may have been a dream.”
Kazan: “I definitely felt the pressure when I first met them. Maybe there are people who don’t.”
Heck: “Neither of us are those people. What did you do when you got the gig?”
Kazan: “I never leave my phone at home, but I had gone to visit a friend and her new dog and left my phone to charge. We were out for three or four hours and I got back to my apartment and had about 20 missed calls. I truly thought someone had died. I was flipped out. I called back with my heart in my mouth and was told I had the job. I actually jumped up and down like Tracey Flick in Election. It was ridiculous. What about you?”
Heck: “I think I picked up when they called. I’m not a big romantic about getting work. I’m not, ‘I got the job!’ guy. I’ve always felt like maybe I’m missing something in that area. This one, I fucking screamed.”
It’s nice that you’re interviewing each other. It makes things very easy for me.
Heck: “It’s fine. You just relax.”
What was the first Coens movie you loved?
Kazan: “Raising Arizona was the first one I saw, because it’s quite kid-friendly.”
Heck: “I have never seen that one.”
Kazan: “Oh that’s exciting. What nice treats you have ahead. I was really struck by Fargo when I was in middle school. My parents are both screenwriters (Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord) and they’d show us boatloads of movies when we were kids, but they tended to be older movies. I started watching the Coens when I was in college and they have a special place in my heart as really the first filmmakers I loved that I discovered myself. They were mine and didn’t belong to my parents.”
Heck: “I think Fargo was the first I saw, but when I saw Barton Fink it just blew my mind, like, ‘Oh this is what you can do with movies? You can destroy expectation and dive into these wildly abstract places. You’re only limited by your imagination.’”
Kazan: “I think this film has the most in common with ‘Barton Fink’, tonally. They both feel kind of like a bad dream. They both have dream logic and a preoccupation with storytelling and death.”
How did you enjoy being part of the cowboy world?
Kazan: “I didn’t have to wear a corset, which I was very happy about.”
Heck: “I did. It was ok because my figure looked great.”
Your waist did look so tiny.
Heck: “Oh thank you.”
Kazan: “Everyone was talking about it.”
Bill, is there anything you did to prepare for being a cowboy?
Heck: “I’ve been preparing all my life. I was born in Phoenix and lived there until I was ten. There was a Wild West amusement park right near my house, which I would go to all the time. I was the Lone Ranger three Halloweens in a row. The whole cowboy mythology and fantasy world has been very much an interest for a long time.”
So really hardcore method acting then?
Heck: “Unwittingly. So method. Except he’s not really the quintessential cowboy. I got to subvert any stereotypical stuff that would have messed it up, because he’s such a secretly tender soul. That’s what I loved about it.”
Because they don’t do much press, the Coens have this air of mystery and of being very serious people. What are they like?
Kazan: “They are very serious people. They have to be. But they’re also the opposite.”
Heck: “They’re quietly goofy. They’re very funny guys.”
It’s an anthology film, so you’re only in one part. Which was your favourite of the others?
Kazan: “I couldn’t possibly choose a favourite. I will say that several of my friends have seen it and were completely horrified by the Meal Ticket one [in which Harry Melling plays a quadriplegic actor who is exploited by his carer for profit, until he outlives his usefulness and is disposed of). I told them, “That’s what it’s like (being an actor)!” We thought it was hilarious and completely true. Our reps watched and said, “Oh god, it’s just horrifying.” And I thought, ‘That’s what you do to me!’”
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is on Netflix from November 16