From his early days on the comedy stage to playing lovable football fanatic, Hayden Fox, on the long running television sitcom Coach and Zeek Braverman on the dramatic television series, Parenthood to countless legendary big screen roles, actor Craig T. Nelson’s career has been as versatile as it is prolific.
Movie audiences have been loving his work for decades in popular films spanning just about every genre: Poltergeist, Stir Crazy, All The Right Moves, Silkwood, The Devil’s Advocate, The Family Stone and The Proposal. It was his voice work in the 2004 mega hit animated Disney Pixar movie, The Incredibles, that introduced Nelson to a younger audience. His voice is readily recognizable as the voice of Mr. Incredible, and as he tells it, the world stops spinning for a beat whenever a starstruck child hears him speak.
Nelson currently plays Mary Steenburgen’s husband in the upcoming romantic comedy, Book Club, out May 18th. He’s also resuming his role as Mr. Incredible in Incredibles 2, the long-awaited sequel to the 2004 blockbuster animated movie, The Incredibles, out June 15th.
Our conversation runs the gamut from overcoming the perils of aging in Hollywood, mid-life adventures, the secret to his long and happy marriage to wife, Doria Cook-Nelson, and the unique challenges of playing an animated icon for Disney Pixar.
Allison Kugel: With Book Club there are so many celebrated actors in one movie. What does an ensemble piece allow you to do as an actor that carrying a film or television show on your own doesn’t allow for?
Craig T. Nelson: The opportunity to work with the different characters that are being played broadens what you can do as an actor. Oftentimes, the way people react differently to different people they meet, it’s that same dynamic and it can be something of an adventure. Although in Book Club, most of my scenes are with Mary [Steenburgen]. There are only one or two scenes where I’m with everyone, although I knew everybody. In this movie, although it’s an ensemble cast, the focus was my interaction with Mary’s character.
What was your initial impression of the Book Club script when you first read it?
Oh, I loved it! It spoke to something I was familiar with; that whole process of aging. You think you’re never going to get there, but eventually it just shows up and there it is. I thought the script was well thought out, cogent, specific, and each character was delineated. I wanted to do the movie right away, after reading the script.
This movie addresses that mid-to-later-life slump that people can slide into without even realizing it’s happening. As you said, you wake up and it’s just there. How do you think men experience this phase of life differently from the way women experience it?
I think we experience it in much the same way. Although, it depends upon societal pressures. Part of the confusion is the result of what society is demanding now, which is pretty much all youth oriented. Cosmetically and pharmaceutically you’re supposed to be able to prolong your life, or at least the appearance of it. The reality is that you do age. Yes, we are living longer, but there’s more pressure associated with it. I suppose it’s how all of that manifests in each of us, which has to do with our own peculiar personality. That’s the interesting part about it; how each one of us deals with it. Generally speaking, your libido drops, physically you’re not as active and not able to do as much. All of that is pretty much the same in people, but very few people address it psychologically. There’s a lot of pressure to be young. But there is also a lot of pressure being old, not to get any older. I think that is so screwed up.
In Book Club, your wife, played by Mary Steenburgen, is upset because she feels your marriage has fallen into a slump. Do you think marriage should be able to go through its natural ebbs and flows romantically, sexually and emotionally?
If you’re married to your best friend, as I am, and I’m married thirty-four years now, then you have to realize you’re going to have ups and downs. You’re physically going to change, emotionally you’re going to change. You have to adapt and change, and be prepared for that stuff. That’s also part of the adventure. It seems like just yesterday I was talking to older actors about aging. I was a young working actor, and they were all telling me how difficult it was for them and how they were approaching a period in their life where they felt they weren’t working as much. I think they felt neglected and not as respected. I can remember a lot of guys talking about that. When it started happening to me, it was like, “Whoa! Wait a minute here.” But at least I have the tools. I think I was prepared for it to a certain degree.
With the hit series Grace and Frankie, and with this movie, Book Club, it seems that Hollywood is now gaining a little more respect for stories about mature people.
I think this movie will help. It brings some awareness, which I think is good, but ageism has been prevalent in this business for a long time.
The Baby Boomer generation are such a huge segment of the population, they have tremendous spending power, and they want to see stories about themselves.
Right, but as you see in television, for example, you’ve got a specific demographic that’s usually being targeted. I have always argued, even back when I was doing Coach (the ABC sitcom Nelson starred in from 1989 to 1997), that it’s not necessarily accurate. I agree that a lot of buying power rests in the hands of people who are approaching retirement, and in their forties and fifties. It’s like with the glut of action movies we’re getting and have had for a while. What is that? It’s enough already. I would much rather see stories like Book Club, which I feel are specific, well written and truthful. I’m fine with animated movies about superheroes. Obviously, I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t have a problem with action films either, except that there is just so much of it, and what am I left with?
You began your career as a standup comedian, correct?
Barry Levinson and I did stand up [comedy] together for four years, and then another guy, Rudy DeLuca joined us. We wrote and performed comedy, and then we worked with Tim Conway, John Byner and Alan King. That’s how I started.
How did you segue into film and television, and how does that early standup experience help you in the roles you play now?
I was never really interested in doing standup comedy. Barry Levinson and I were in the Oxford Theatre together, which was a theatre group in LA. We got to talking and Barry said, “Why don’t we do a standup act?” I had never done that and never even thought of it, but we put an act together. We went out and auditioned and started doing clubs. It was an intro into the business, and I met so many incredible people during that time. It does give me a different perspective. Comedy helped me to enlarge and be better at what I did. Another important thing is that you just get better as you get older. You realize what you’re doing more, and you don’t make as many mistakes. I’m so much more comfortable in a scene now than I ever was, because I know how to play it. Certainly, there are challenges, but your tool bag is filled up. There are so many experiences and so many people to draw on, and it’s a wonderful place to be.
This is not your first time playing Mary Steenburgen’s husband. You also played husband and wife in the 2009 movie, The Proposal, alongside Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock. How was it playing her husband again in Book Club? This time around, was there a comfortable rapport already in place?
She’s so much fun to work with. She’s got this wonderful quirkiness to her that is so beautiful. It’s also very challenging, because you need to stay on top of your game with her, as with all the actresses in this film. I’ve worked with Diane [Keaton], I’ve worked with Jane [Fonda], I hadn’t met Candice [Bergen] until this film, so that was neat. I look forward to continuing to work with Mary. There is an understanding between me and Mary. You’re able to ask questions of each other or address problems in a scene together. There’s no wandering around, trying to get to the truth of something.
How is the book Fifty Shades of Grey a catalyst for the comedy that ensues in this movie?
Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t an important part of my story in the film. It’s part of the women’s story. I think you’re going to be surprised. The book is a catalyst in terms of Mary’s character becoming aware of how bad things have gotten [in our marriage]. That’s the only purpose the book serves. We’ve been having problems in our marriage and the book forces the issue to the surface.
Do you recall a moment in your own life when you realized you weren’t living your best life, or there were things still yet to be done?
I’ve had a number of them, and still they continue. One of the many things I felt the need to do was professional car racing, when I decided to go ahead and pursue it. Gradually I became better and better at it. It wasn’t a death wish (laughs); it was a life wish. It was doing something that is very risky and challenging, but something I’d always wanted to do and never had the opportunity before. And now I’m going, “Wow, this is something I really enjoy!” It requires an enormous amount of concentration and focus, which is another reason I really like it.
How does your real wife, Doria, feel about your race car driving?
It was something that my wife really suggested I do. She’s very strong. She’s a martial artist and she competes in Tai Chi Kwan all over the world in competitions. She said, “[Car racing] is something you should try.” And once I got into it, she encouraged me to continue doing it.
Let’s switch gears and discuss another upcoming movie you’re in, the much-anticipated Incredibles 2! Why the fourteen-year gap between the release of The Incredibles and Incredibles 2?
I don’t know for sure, but I can tell you that [Incredibles writer and director] Brad Bird was busy with other things. He wanted to do some live action projects and then he made Ratatouille right after The Incredibles. He was very busy in his career.
In the first movie, The Incredibles, your character, Mr. Incredible is struggling with living life as a civilian. He’s dying to be a superhero again and to use his powers. Holly Hunter’s character, Elastigirl, wanted a normal, low key family life. In Incredibles 2, it’s reversed. She’s out being a superhero and you’re the stay at home dad. How does that go for Mr. Incredible?
He doesn’t quite understand it and is feeling rejected, like, “Why don’t they want me out there?” He now has to take a back seat and for him that’s difficult. He makes the sacrifice for his wife. He’s got a resentment going on, but as you watch him at home you get to know these kids in a way that’s fun and interesting. And you get to see a guy have to adapt and get to know his children in a way that he hasn’t. That was neat for me to play.
When you’re voicing an animated character like Mr. Incredible, are you in the recording booth with any other cast members, or is it just you in there?
You’re not with the other cast members. You’re with Brad, who’s in every session. He’s directing what you’re responding to, and you go off that. Usually we’ll do a session every three weeks, for four hours at a time. Then they’ll put that into rough animation, so you can see what you’ve got. I’ve only done one session with another actor, and it was with Samuel L. Jackson who plays Frozone.
How do you get into character when you’re voicing Mr. Incredible?
You prepare ahead of time in the session, especially vocally because there are a lot of different ranges you have to get to. There are scenes when you’re doing a lot of yelling and shouting. And it’s a long and involved process that’s complexly different from regular acting.
I’m sure you’ve watched the first movie, The Incredibles, with your grandchildren. What do they think of you playing Mr. Incredible?
They don’t relate the two. They still don’t believe it (laughs). I have to do lines from the film, so they can hear me do the voice, and then it’s, “Oh yeah, that’s him.”
When you’re out, are you ever stopped by kids who know you’re Mr. Incredible?
The other day my older son was visiting, and somebody overheard me talking to him and they turned around and said, “My God! Are you Mr. Incredible?!” They’ll recognize the voice, it’s interesting. And then you have to convince this kid that you are! And you feel like an idiot trying to get a seven-year-old to believe you (laughs). They look at you with this wonder, yet at the same time disbelief. It gets confusing even for me.
My nine-year-old and I will be there on opening night, for sure. He’s been waiting for this sequel, no joke, for years! What will kids and families get to experience with Incredibles 2 that they didn’t with the first movie?
The special FX are extraordinary. Since 2004 when the original movie was out, they’ve developed a whole new range of different processes that have gone into this movie, including its color enrichment. For me, the exciting thing about the second movie is that the character Jack Jack, the baby, really comes alive and that’s going to be so much fun for people to see. What’s so great about this movie is that it’s a family deal. You can take your family to this movie and have a great time. And same with Book Club. It’s two movies I’m proud to let my family watch.
Book Club Photo Credits: Peter Iovino/Paramount Pictures, Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Picture
Incredibles 2 Photo Credits: Disney Pixar
Book Club is in theatres May 18th and Incredibles 2 is in theatres June 15th.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame – A Memoir of a Life Unhinged and on the Record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.