By Allison Kugel
From playing lovable football fanatic, Hayden Fox, on the long running television sitcom Coach; Zeek Braverman on Parenthood; and countless big screen roles, actor Craig T. Nelson’s career has been as versatile as it’s been prolific.
It was his voice work in the 2004 animated Disney Pixar movie, The Incredibles, that introduced Nelson to a younger audience. His voice is so recognizable as the voice of Mr. Incredible, that as he tells it, the world stops spinning for a beat whenever a starstruck child hears him speak.
Nelson currently played Mary Steenburgen’s husband in the romantic comedy, Book Club, now available on On Demand. He also resumed his role as Mr. Incredible in Incredibles 2, the long-awaited sequel to the 2004 blockbuster animated movie, The Incredibles, out on DVD and Blue Ray in October.
Allison Kugel: There are so many celebrated actors in your film, Book Club. What does an ensemble piece allow you to do as an actor?
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.
Allison Kugel: Book Club addresses that mid-to-later-life slump that people can slide into without even realizing it’s happening. How do you think men experience this phase of life differently from women?
Craig T. Nelson: I think we experience it in much the same way. 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. I suppose it’s how that manifests in each of us, which has to do with our own personality. 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.
Allison Kugel: 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?
Craig T. Nelson: If you’re married to your best friend, as I am, 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 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. When it started happening to me, I think I was prepared for it to a certain degree.
Allison Kugel: The Baby Boomer generation are a huge segment of our population. They have tremendous spending power, and they want to see stories that reflect their stage of life.
Craig T. Nelson: 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. It’s enough already. I would much rather see stories like Book Club, which are well written and truthful.
Allison Kugel: Many people may not know that you began your career as a standup comedian.
Craig T. Nelson: 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 in the business.
Allison Kugel: How did that experience inform how you approach a role?
Craig T. Nelson: 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 on acting. 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. I’m so much more comfortable in a scene now than I ever was. There are so many experiences and so many people to draw on. It’s a wonderful place to be.
Allison Kugel: 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?
Craig T. Nelson: 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.
Allison Kugel: 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?
Craig T. Nelson: 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.
Allison Kugel: How does your real wife, Doria, feel about your race car driving?
Craig T. Nelson: 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.
Allison Kugel: Let’s switch gears and discuss Incredibles 2! 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 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?
Craig T. Nelson: 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.
Allison Kugel: How do you get into character when you’re voicing Mr. Incredible?
Craig T. Nelson: 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.
Allison Kugel: I’m sure you’ve watched the first movie, The Incredibles, with your grandchildren. What do they think of you playing Mr. Incredible?
Craig T. Nelson: 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.”
Allison Kugel: When you’re out, are you ever stopped by kids?
Craig T. Nelson: 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.
Allison Kugel: My nine-year-old is obsessed! He loved both The Incredibles and Incredibles 2, when it hit theatres this summer.
Craig T. Nelson: 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 second movie, including its color enrichment. For me, the exciting thing about the second movie is 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 now available on On Demand. Incredibles 2 will be out on DVD and Blue Ray this October.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and www.allisonkugel.com.