Sundance: Award-Winning ‘Blaze’ Breakout Ben Dickey on Conjuring a Crooner’s Spirit

Ben Dickey has spent his life dedicated to music, so he certainly never set his sights on being an actor. That changed not long after Ethan Hawke crossed his path, when the Oscar-nominated actor married Ryan Shawhughes, childhood friend of Dickey’s “sweetheart,” as the 40-year-old Arkansan lovingly calls his girlfriend in conversation.

Hawke was keen on making a biopic about unsung country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, and he wanted his new friend to play him. It’s a masterful casting stroke, really, not least of all because Dickey is a natural in front of the camera. But for a largely unknown figure in music history, a largely unknown performer with music in his bones makes quite a lot of sense, too. “Blaze” is a soulful love letter to a man few knew ever walked the earth, and any kind of marquee name above the title was bound to be a distraction.

Now, Dickey isn’t just an actor, but an award-winning actor at that, having received a special jury prize for his work in the film at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Hours before his life-changing accolade, Dickey sat down with Variety to discuss his fears in taking on the role, the learning experience of working on the project and his hopes for the future.

Variety: Is this your first time in Park City?

Ben Dickey: It is.

How do you like it?

It’s cold!

Yes it is. Where are you from?

I’m from Arkansas but I live in Louisiana. I lived in Philadelphia for the better part of 17 years. I love big cities and the northeast, but I needed to get back to trees. I have a friend who owns a cotton farm in northwest Louisiana and we’re renting a little property on his place. We’ve been there four years. It’s really nice.

Why did you go for Philadelphia?

I was in a band when I was living in Little Rock and a buddy of mine had some friends who were four or five years older than us who started a record label and my buddy took it over. We wanted to see what we could do with it. He decided he’d go to school at Temple and we just had a day dream we would situate it up in Philadelphia.

How did you meet Ethan?

My sweetheart is Ethan’s wife’s best good friend. They grew up together since they were in first grade. We sort of hit it off because, you know, he’s from Texas, I’m from Arkansas. We sort of grew up with the same stuff, places to eat and such.

So were you aware of Blaze Foley?

I found out who Blaze was when John Prine put a record out and he covered a song of Blaze’s. I actually turned my father on to John Prime in like 2004 and it’s a guy that he should have been loving the whole time. My dad was like, “How do I not know this dude?” The record he put out after that introduction, he covered Blaze’s song and my dad was like, “This ‘Clay Pigeons’ song is outstanding.’ A couple days later he looked at the liner notes and said, “Who is Blaze Foley?” And I was like, “You know, I’ve heard his name.” I think all I had heard was that he was killed. My dad went down the rabbit hole with Blaze. He was like, “This guy is amazing!” He sent me some CDs and they happened to arrive a couple of days before I went to Canada with Ethan and we were driving across Nova Scotia. We just listened to them. That was ’05, ’06, something like that. He was one of those guys who should have made it and never made it.

There’s kind of a romance to that I guess.

Yeah. Especially when you’re somebody like Blaze, you know, who torpedoed his own fleet. [Laughs.]

Was acting something you had been interested in?

You know, not really. I love storytelling. I love tall and true storytelling. I love watching Ethan do what he does and I have a couple of other friends who are actors. I think I romanticized traveling and meeting people, but I didn’t have a part of me that was like, “Man, I’d sure like to do that.” That’s why when he asked me to do it I was like, “Are you sure?” The process of it, though, the language is so much like music, beats and rhythms and, you know, “We’re trying to find this particular mood, portray this particular thing,” and all that stuff translates to music. I don’t know if it’s applicable all around. I made a second movie so I’m working my way into it, but so far so good with that ideology. It really is like, “Alright, I’m playing this particular instrument in this particular scene and I don’t need to play too much,” or whatever it is, you know? So in that way, I like it.

Were you scared?

Hell yeah! [Laughs.] Oh my God.

How did you get through that?

I had a lot to learn. My first three days of filming — the story is told in three or four different braids, and the show at the end that Blaze plays, he’s got all these monologues. And they’re all two or three minutes long. Ethan put that stuff all at the top, so my first three days were bonkers. I had like 20 two-to-five-minute monologues in the first three days. It was such a low-budget deal I was helping them location scout and stuff, so I sort of didn’t have permission to be nervous because I was learning the songs and when it was like three weeks out I got terribly nervous. Alia Shawkat was really generous in that time because she was like, “Always be nervous. I’m f—ing nervous, too. If you’re not nervous, you’re not doing it right.” We visited about that two or three times. And Ethan obviously helped me a ton.

How long was the shoot?

It was like five-and-a-half weeks, six weeks, something like that. My sweetheart did the art direction, so I was down on where we filmed it for months, because she was down there working. I was in a kind of two-bit hotel learning Blaze songs, which couldn’t have been more perfect. That’s all I did for days and days and days.

Were you able to take some ownership over the story and the character in terms of infusing it with some of your own experience to give it extra life?

Yeah. There’s a lot of me in Blaze. Just starting with where he’s from. He’s from Arkansas, I’m from Arkansas. I’ve got family in Georgia, he lived in Georgia. I’ve got family in Texas, he lived in Texas. And I’m a musician and an artist who’s been met with wild indifference my whole life. [Laughs.] But really, a lot of it was language and rhythm of speech. But Ethan let me kind of rewrite some of the stuff. I didn’t totally turn his words on their head. He was just like, “This is the sentiment of what I want to say. Do what you want with it.” Not every time, but in that way, I was kind of making it my own. And [Foley’s widow] Sybil Rosen, who wrote the story and lived the life, she was instrumental in just giving me permission to get closer to him, because she had so much information to give me about him. And also not to, like, do an impersonation. She said, “Here are all these things,” but she kept telling me to be myself.

Ben Dickey at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival
Kristopher Tapley for Variety

It’s interesting to find out from actors who portray a real person, particularly if they were able to meet the person, if there was a quality that seemed pretty important to carry across in the performance. You couldn’t meet Blaze but does anything like that come to mind?

I think that’s the way I looked at it. I didn’t try to mock his voice, but there are little points of his expression that I put into mine. I didn’t try to mimic the way he moved, although the way he moved was very specific because he had polio [when he was young] and he had a limp. So I think I just looked at some of these things that were super dramatic about him, especially with the music part of it. Certain ways he would draw out words — he had a way of, like, “Sittin’ by the rooooaaad,” and doing these cartoony, “Aaaooooo,” and that was fun to kind of get into his every day speech, like, “I don’t knooow.”

Language is an interesting anthropological thing, looking at how and why a person talks the way they do.

Heck yeah, man. I mean I certainly have a way of speaking that’s, like, musical. It’s fascinating. In all of the south, and all over the world, there are people who tell a story, and they tell it really, really well and bring you in. But there are people whose voices and the sing-songy-ness of their voice, they could be telling you what they ordered at the restaurant and you’re like, “That’s so pretty.” I remember seeing — they were called comedians, but they were really just storytellers, in the south. And they would get up and tell stories at picnics and stuff. They would just retell a mildly entertaining story about how the pig got out at the fair or something. And it was, like, over before it started. But from top to finish you’re like, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.”

A lot of that stuff is great with the Townes Van Zandt material in the movie.

Oh yeah. So Charlie [Sexton], it’s the same thing. Charlie is doing his own thing but Townes would tell these rambling stories that often just like — “Well, I didn’t have any grocery bags, so I carried it.” What? OK. [Laughs.] But Charlie’s got a charm. A lot of the southern politicians that I grew up around are masters at it.

Was there video or anything of Blaze to observe?

Not much. And most of the time if there’s video, he’s behind a guitar. There’s a great interview from like ’83 or ’84, and it was before — you know, Blaze was an alcoholic, but in my opinion, crystal meth allowed him to be, like, a steroid alcoholic and just keep going. But there’s a video of him when he was pretty much in good shape and he’s playing a show and a woman asks him, “You’ve become friends with Townes Van Zandt. How’s that?” And Blaze literally says, “He’s like my new dad.” Just getting into how Townes was able to be as crazy and off the rails as he was, but other musicians were like, “Oh, you’re stable and have a career. Or so it seems.” In the interview, Blaze is talking pretty clear-eyed about, you know, “Sit around, smoke cigarettes, drink Coors Light, talk to Townes. He’s like a daddy to a bunch of musicians.” And you’re like, “Wow, that’s wild.”

How did Ethan help you in the direction with little nudges here and there?

Leading up to everything, he sent me stories about, you know, “When I was making ‘Dead Poets,’ so-and-so took me aside and told me this.” He would send me quotes going back to actors from the 19th Century that just had thoughts on acting, actors he admires. I’ve watched him on set before and he’s really natural and himself. When we started, Ali and I would powwow before a scene and Ethan would say, “So what are you thinking? What’s on paper, or do you have a better idea?” I didn’t expect it to be that way. I asked him if it was always like that with a director and he was like, “No, it’s not, but I’ll tell you some of the times it has been like that.” And it’ll be scenes I’m familiar with. Again, going back to music, it starts to feel like an ensemble and a collaboration. But by the very nature of him telling me over and over again, “I’m doing this because I think you can do it” — pressure, but confidence-building.

What did you think when you saw it all put together? Because this film, by it’s nature, it’s like a fever dream. It jumps around. It’s an unbridled love letter to the guy.

It read like that on script and we talked about, constantly, being aware of when we were doing the earlier stuff, like, “This scene is going to collide with this era, so think about body movements and stuff.” I can’t watch dailies, not because it makes me feel embarrassed or anything. It just throws me out of the moment. To go and look at it in a box freaks me out. So I hadn’t seen any of it. It was way better than I imagined, and the way it threaded together was beautiful. I didn’t doubt that Ethan and Steve [Cosens], the cinematographer, had a vision. It was just way more realized than I expected.

It’s a really soulful piece of work. Wherever Blaze is, I’m sure he’s touched.

Yeah, I think about that all the time. I was really surprised to get overly emotional while we were performing the songs. All I could think about was him, if someone was like, “Hey, you know what they’re doing back in this other dimension about you?” [Laughs.] “You should come check it out!” I would hope that he would be like, “I think y’all got some stuff right about the spirit of what we were doing.” It wasn’t all about him. It was about all those people and the community around him, and Sybil and love and sacrifice and all the stuff she did.

It’s also great when biopics aren’t some cradle-to-the-grave, greatest hits kind of thing.

Yeah! Exactly. Something that’s funny, as a musician and someone who is a history nerd when it comes to music, I sort of, like, by default, hate biopics about music.

Because you know what you’re going to get. There won’t be any surprises.

It’s the 20 greatest hits and you’re going to deduce them to the biggest myths. So when he said, “I want to make a Blaze Foley movie,” again, I was like, “Are you sure?” But that was before either one of us had read Sybil’s book. He was like, “I don’t know. We’ll figure this out.” But when he read the book he was like, “Oh, it’s a really, really beautiful and tragic and inspiring love story.”

So you said you did another movie?

Yeah, it’s a movie about Billy the Kid that Vincent D’Onofrio directed. Ethan plays Pat Garrett and I play his deputy, this guy named Jim East. The root of the story is really this 12-year-old boy and his sister. It’s like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn if they’re in the West and their adventure gets them right in the middle of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It’s really cool.

What’s that called?

“The Kid.” It was a wonderful experience and Vincent had razor-sharp notions about what he wanted, so it went really fast and clean. And I think everyone’s performances were sort of amped up because we were like, “Oh, we’re moving.” I liked it because “Blaze,” I had a thousand words a day to learn, and this I had, like, six a day.

So you want to do more of this. You want to keep going.

Yeah, I do.

What kind of stuff do you want to do?

Whatever I’m lucky enough to get, I imagine. I’d rather do stuff that I’m connected with, that I can bring my life experience to. I loved “The Kid,” because it was pretty small and I love Vincent and I trust his vision. I was a chef for a long time, and it sort of blew my brain up in a way. I never did have the DNA to do it. I sort of happened into it. But the thing I miss about it is the team. I love being on a team. And making a movie is a really intense version of that. Your bits have to be ready and you have to be ready to play with other people and you have to listen to Coach. I love it.

You’ll fit right in.

Yeah. I feel proud and lucky to be a part of it.

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