TULSA — Tim Blake Nelson's first exposure to live theater performance came as an 8-year-old boy in his native Tulsa, when his grandmother treated him to evenings at the Tulsa Opera.
It was a wondrous thing for the young boy, Nelson remembers — a bonding experience with his grandmother and a chance to experience the grandeur of live performers on stage.
“I can't promise that I always stayed awake,” Nelson said in a telephone interview, “but it certainly left a powerful impression on me.”
Those memories seem particularly relevant this weekend as the actor, director, writer and producer returns to his hometown for the 2012 Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence, where he will receive the Distinguished Artist Award for his body of work thus far.
At the 6 p.m. Sunday gala, Nelson — known for his work in films such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and directing his own screenplays for “Eye of God” and “Leaves of Grass” — will become the fourth artist to receive the award (after playwright Joe Sears and native Tulsa actresses Mary Kay Place and Kristen Chenoweth).
The TATE awards, underwritten by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, will also present $20,000 in grants to the outstanding play productions from local theater companies.
Nelson said his first exposure to theater as a performer also came at age 8, when his mother enrolled him in child acting classes at Harwelden.
He took a backstage tour of a Theatre Tulsa production and was fascinated by the scurrying around of stage technicians.
“But it really wasn't until high school at Holland Hall that I took acting seriously at all,” he said. “I had a teacher named Karen Clark who recruited me to be in a production of ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream,' which I really enjoyed.”
Still, the acting bug didn't bite permanently until much later.
After high school, Nelson attended college at Brown University where he majored in classics and intended to pursue a career in academia. During one summer break his mother encouraged him to stay busy working in summer stage theater.
At one point in college, Nelson said, he spent a summer in Los Angeles, trying to catch on as a standup comic during open mic nights at The Improv, the Laugh Factory and other venues.
“From that I learned that stand-up comedy was not where my talents lay,” he said. “My sense of comedy was far more character-driven than conceptual.”
Back at Brown, Nelson stuck to his studies and earned his degree. But again, his mother encouraged him to try his hand at other things before he buckled down to a life in the classroom.
“She told me that while I was young I should take a chance and pursue something I really loved, and that was acting,” Nelson said.
So he enrolled at Julliard School in New York to study acting, and the rest is history. Since breaking into film acting with a small role in 1992's “This Is My Life,” Nelson has worked steadily as a character actor in films ranging from “The Thin Red Line” to “Minority Report” and from “The Incredible Hulk” to “Meet the Fockers.”
And he's directed four films, three of which he wrote — “Eye of God,” “The Grey Zone” and “Leaves of Grass.” He's currently working to set up financing for his latest screenplay, “The Gyre,” a fantasy film he hopes to also direct.
At Sunday's TATE Awards, longtime Tulsa community theater leader Julie Tattershall will receive the 2012 Mary Kay Place Legacy Award.
If you go
The Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence event is at the Roxana Rozsa and Robert Eugene Lorton Performance Center at the University of Tulsa. Doors will open at 6 p.m.; remarks and an audience Q&A with Nelson will be held at 6:30 p.m. and the ceremony begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by going to tateawards.