Friday, December 11, 2020
By Dave Walker, communication specialist

Lance E. Nichols, a veteran local actor and acting teacher, made his breakthrough film role in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the December 11, 2020, selection for THNOC’s #NolaMovieNight participatory re-watch of a title from the New Orleans filmography. The film was one of the first productions to come to New Orleans when the city was still reeling from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina’s failed levees. It also brought Hollywood star power (actors Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, director David Fincher) to town, which provided several major local landmarks for cinematic locations. The following is an edited email Q&A with Nichols, whose character, Preacher, is introduced at about the 24-minute mark of the film.

Q: What was your Katrina experience?  

A: My family and I evacuated the Sunday before Katrina hit. There were 12 of us, including my 85-year-old mother and my 86-year-old mother-in-law. We caravanned in three vehicles. It took us seven hours to drive from New Orleans to Lafayette, Louisiana (135 miles), where we took shelter in a megachurch's multiplex facility for three days. On day four, we continued on to Houston and checked into a motel. Over the next three days we put our parents, sister-in-law, and niece on a plane and flew them to Los Angeles to stay with relatives.

Our daughter, her husband, their toddler son, and a husband's friend (who was coincidentally visiting from Los Angeles) drove to Los Angeles. That left me and my wife Zardis in Houston. After six days in Houston, she and I continued our drive to Los Angeles, stopping once in Fort Collins, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona, to stay overnight. We stayed in Los Angeles for 14 months before moving back to New Orleans.

How were you cast in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?  

I came back to New Orleans in August 2006 to shoot a commercial for the Road Home Program. While I was here my agent arranged for me to audition for the film. Laray Mayfield, the Los Angeles casting director for the film, conducted the auditions. I read for her. A few days later I flew back to Los Angeles. 

About a week later, my agent called me and said I had a callback in New Orleans for the role of Preacher. I told her I was still in Los Angeles and asked if David Fincher could see me there instead of New Orleans. She said she would check and see if that was possible. Two days later, she called and said I was invited to a table read at ABC Prospect Studios in Los Angeles. The table read was on a Saturday. Present were Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Mahershala Ali, David Fincher, and producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. After the table read we were treated to a nice lunch at the commissary. A week passed and I got the call that I had been cast.

What was the set like?  

Amazing. A huge tent was pitched in City Park for the faith-healing revival. I remember it being quite cold the three nights we shot, as it was November 2006. They pumped warm air into the tents through large hollow tubes to keep everyone warm when the cameras weren't rolling.  

A revival tent, like the one pictured in the film, is seen here near Bayou St. John, in 1950. (The Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at THNOC, 1979.325.2521)

How was working with David Fincher?  

Incredible. The man is a master at what he does. His attention to detail is impeccable. He pretty much gave me free rein to create my character and made just a few tweaks and adjustments here and there. He trusts his actors.

Tell us more about your show-stopping performance as Preacher. How did you approach that character? Were there real-life role models you drew upon? 

I used as my muse Robert Duvall's preacher in The Apostle, and combined that with several Black pastors I've seen over the years.

How did the role change your career?  

That role took me from being "What has he done?" to “Oh, THAT guy!" It opened up doors for me not only for future film work but also supporting television roles–Treme, House of Cards, Into the Badlands, and Queen of the South.

How important was it that the production came to New Orleans so soon after Katrina? 

It was crucial. It was the second major film to be shot in New Orleans post-Katrina. The film went on to be nominated for 13 Academy Awards and should have won Best Picture and David Fincher should have won Best Director, in my opinion. It was one of the biggest snubs by the Academy.

How has 2020 been for you?  

Extremely busy. Once the pandemic hit in March, I took all of my acting coaching online. It exploded like you wouldn't believe. I now have clients nationwide and one even in Mexico City. On the acting front, I flew to Portland, Oregon, in late July for three days to shoot a music video, shot the first of my three episodes of Queen of the South in March, shot a commercial here in New Orleans in early September, a film in mid-September, and recently completed two more episodes of Queen of the South during the past two weeks.

See Nichols during our #NolaMovieNight group re-watch of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at 7 p.m. on Friday, December 11.