Eight months after its high-profile premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Angels Sing — the family-friendly, holiday-themed comedy-drama based Turk Pipkin’s popular novel When Angels Sing— is set to open this weekend in limited theatrical release and video on demand (VOD) platforms.
But don’t expect Willie Nelson to buy a ticket, or click his TV remote, even though he plays a key role in the movie.
It’s not that Nelson didn’t enjoy shooting the film in and around Austin, and hanging out with co-stars and fellow musicians like Kris Kristofferson and Lyle Lovett. It’s just that, when it comes to his TV and movie acting credits, Nelson is his own toughest critic.
No kidding: When asked I asked him during an interview earlier this year to rank his many and varied accomplishments, he placed acting “probably at the bottom.” And then, just in case I didn’t catch his drift, he added: “I’m the worst actor ever.”
When pressed on the subject, Nelson backed down — just a smidge. He allowed that, in the right role under the right circumstances, he might be passable. But if you say he damned himself with faint praise, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
“Somebody asked Slim Pickens about my acting one time,” Nelson said. “And Slim said, ‘He plays Willie Nelson better than anybody.’ I have to agree with him on that one, I guess. I usually pretty much play myself, whoever I’m supposed to be. And that doesn’t require a lot of acting.”
Directed by Tim McCanlies (Secondhand Lions), Angels Sing focuses on the yuletide misadventures of Michael Walker (Harry Connick Jr.), an Austin college professor who’s hoping to find an affordable home for himself, his wife (Connie Britton of Nashville) and their young son (Chandler Canterbury) before the house they’re currently renting is sold.
Michael can’t believe his good fortune when a cheery old stranger named Nick (Nelson) offers to sell him a spacious and beautifully appointed house at a fraction of the market value. But, naturally, there’s a catch: After the purchase, Michael discovers his new home is located in a neighborhood world-famous for spectacular Christmas decorating — endless lights, live Nativity scenes, tons of fake snow, etc. — by the holiday-happy residents. (Chief among those residents: An aggressively festive fellow amusingly played by Lyle Lovett.)
All of which makes life very uncomfortable, if not downright irritating for Michael, who, due to the traumatic experience of losing a sibling at Christmas many years earlier, is never in the mood for much ho-ho-hoing during the season to be jolly.
Effortlessly dominating each scene in which he appears, Nelson generates so much easygoing good will that it’s easy to accept his ambiguous character might really be an angel, or Santa Claus, or whatever else Michael needs to jumpstart his Christmas merrymaking.
Connick, a fellow singer-turned-actor, was greatly impressed by his co-star. “People might see Willie and say, ‘Well, how hard can that be? He’s just playing himself,’’’ Connick said in Austin after the SXSW premiere. “But, actually, that’s very hard to do.
“It’s not like when he’s recording a song, when he can simply do take after take in the studio. Moviemaking is such a different process. You’re not just doing different takes of the same scene – you’re also doing different shots. And for him to find different things in his performance every time, whether it’s a master shot or a close-up or whatever – which he did – that’s very hard to do. I was pretty blown away by him.”
Director McCanlies was struck by Nelson’s exceptional flexibility and professionalism during a tight schedule of on-location shooting. “There was one time,” he recalled at the SXSW Festival, “when I re-wrote a scene, the one where Willie and Harry had a conversation in a truck, the night before we filmed it. Willie shows up on the day with a whole new set of pages, for what’s possibly the most important scene in the film. And he pulled it off, without a hitch.
“Willie is so amazing — he’s like nothing else,” McCanlies added. “He’s just got a different rhythm, a different timing — and you can’t take your eyes off him.”
For his own part, Nelson characteristically downplayed his contribution to Angels Sing, even as he heaped praise on the film itself.
“Turk Pipkin wrote the book, and he’s been a good friend for years and years,” Nelson said. “He wanted me to be in the movie – and I thought it was a great family-movie script. So I jumped at the chance to do it. And, you know, Kris [Kristofferson] also is in it,” playing Connick’s father. “And a couple more friends of mine, like Lyle Lovett. So I was happy to be part of it.”
Still, wasn’t it something of a stretch to play a character who might be — well, you know, an angel?
“Yeah,” Nelson replied with a hearty chuckle, “I knew this would be a hard one. This is where the acting really comes in.”
This article was originally posted on Cowboysindians.com.
Photography: Lionsgate/Joaquin Avellán