TORONTO – “Land Ho!” star Earl Lynn Nelson picks up the phone for a telephone interview and declares he’s just finished surgery — not undergoing it, but performing it.
An oculoplastic surgeon in Kentucky, he’s in the operating room three days a week and has only been in three films, including “Land Ho!”, which opens Friday in Toronto and Aug. 15 in Vancouver.
Acting is more of a fun thing he likes to do for filmmaker Martha Stephens, whose mother is his first cousin.
“I’ve known Martha since she was born and I could hold her in one of my hands,” he says in his thick southern drawl from his office in Ashland, Ky.
“She thinks I’m a good character in movies.”
Indeed, the jocular doc is a natural onscreen.
In “Land Ho!” the 72-year-old steals the show as a boisterous, bawdy southern American who goes on a soul-searching trip through Iceland with his reserved and sensitive ex-brother-in-law, played by veteran Australian actor Paul Eenhoorn.
“He’s a really big guy, in all ways,” Eenhoorn said of Nelson during an interview from his home in Seattle. “He’s a force of nature, I’ll put it that way.”
Stephens wrote and directed “Land Ho!” with Aaron Katz. Co-stars include Karrie Crouse, Elizabeth McKee and Canadian-born Alice Olivia Clarke.
It’s Stephens’ third film with Nelson after 2010’s “Passenger Pigeons” and 2012’s “Pilgrim Song.”
“Martha wanted to shoot something with Earl Lynn in the lead and they thought that I would be perfect foil for his alter ego sort of thing, and it really worked. Martha was right,” said Eenhoorn.
The filmmakers shot the opening cottage scene at Nelson’s house. The rest of the story was filmed in Iceland.
The gregarious Nelson had no trouble breaking the ice with Eenhoorn during the initial shoot.
“We stood in front of my freezer and I popped open a Mason jar and had some moonshine, and then I gave him a couple of shots of tequila,” he says.
“I really genuinely feel like Paul is a good friend of mine now.”
The story has a strong sense of realism as the filmmakers allow full conversations and scenarios to unfold between the characters in a way that makes it seem as if much of it is improvised.
Nelson’s character, Mitch, seems to mirror his own personality. And he admits the filmmakers drew on his persona and consulted him as they wrote Mitch’s lines.
“A lot of the sayings in the movie are my sayings that I’ve had since I was a teenager … like ‘Angels kissing on your tongue,'” he says.
Still, he insists Mitch isn’t entirely him.
“There was a couple of people who didn’t like me in the movie, that I was boisterous and I was loud-mouthed, I was a sexist,” he says, referring to the film’s debut at the Sundance Film Festival.
“The thing is, that was my part in the movie. It wasn’t me.”
Nelson, who does plastic and reconstructive surgery around the eyes and the eyebrows, says his patients are getting a kick out of his moonlighting gig.
“I had this one guy I operated here on here about four or five weeks ago. He came to the office — he’s the principal of a high school here — and he said, ‘The people at the school didn’t believe that a movie star operated on me.'”
But he isn’t sure how far he wants to take this acting thing.
“I love to do stuff with Martha, because Martha understands me and because I understand Martha,” says Nelson. “People ask me if I would do other movies and I say ‘Yeah, I’d do other movies, but I’m not going to fly to California to audition for a movie, I’m not going to fly to New York to audition for a movie.’ If you want to do a video or something like that, if you want me to do a movie, I don’t mind that.
“But I’m not going to fly around the world auditioning for parts, because I like my day job. I like to do surgery, it’s my passion.”