A star is born: Ben Dickey portrays late Texas musician in ‘BLAZE’


Preston Barta // Features Editor

It seems as though most musicians want to be actors, and most actors want to be musicians. When you’re in the entertainment field, you likely feel the need to challenge yourself in unique ways to keep the creative juices flowing and make great art in the process.

For musician Ben Dickey, the concept or singing songs in a movie didn’t seem too much like an uphill battle. The acting part, however – portraying late Texas singer-songwriter Blaze Foley in a movie directed by Ethan Hawke – was a challenge for him.

Fortunately, all the hard work and deep emotional dives paid off, because we have one of the year’s best, most earnest performances and a film that ranks among the year’s most moving and powerful.

BLAZE tells the story of Foley through the eyes of the people who cared for him most – his muse, Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), and friends and collaborators, Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton).

Dickey spoke with us about the film’s unconventional story structure, the emotional place Foley’s story took him and how music can act as great time travelers.

Ben Dickey and Ethan Hawke attend the ‘BLAZE’ Prmeiere 2018 SXSW Conference and Festivals. Courtesy photo.

The structure of the film is fascinating. The film shows Foley on his last night before he dies and cuts back and forth between an interview with his friends and his earlier years with Rosen. Was that an intimidating task, knowing you’d be jumping around in Foley’s timeline and would have to keep an emotional consistency?

Ben Dickey: “I thought before we went into it, it was going to feel funny ping-ponging back and forth in time like that. The preparation is the biggest thing. [Foley’s] wardrobe really dictated how light or heavy I might be feeling. We top loaded most of the scenes of [Foley] playing his last show; that was the first three-and-a-half days. We did a couple shots later, but the most challenging scenes were right out of the gates. I played 13 songs fully and delivered monologues on either side of the song. So, it felt like a play in that way. [Foley] was dark and sad, but he put his heart into those songs. It was tough but rewarding.”

As a musician and a human being, did Foley personally impact you? Did his own ideologies and view of life impart any wisdom?

“[The story, the characters and the music] affected me all over the place. [Sexton] and I bonded pretty deeply becoming these people, because it was a hard and heavy thing to do: spelunk down into these dark places. It was a little harder to get out than I expected. I’m an artist. I’m a sensitive human being. [Sexton] and I saw each other last year [after filming] and I asked him how he was doing. He said he was doing all right and pretty good. I said, ‘No, dude. How are you doing, man?’ [Laughs] He sighed and said, ‘I was going to ask you the same thing. I’m trying to figure it out, man.’ I felt the same way.

Vincent D’onofrio is a friend of [Hawke’s], so I’ve gotten close to him over the years. I got to make a movie with him and [Hawke] in Santé Fe [currently titled THE KID, about outlaw Billy the Kid]. He got in my face one day while filming and told me, ‘You do not have permission to stay down in the places you go. You have to figure out a system to get out.’ So, one of the ways for me to get out of [Foley’s head] was letting go of the songs. At one point, you could have asked me to play a song, and I could of played 52 of them for you. So, it was me letting that go and getting back to writing my own songs.”

Ben Dickey as Blaze Foley, and Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zant in Ethan Hawke’s ‘BLAZE.’ Courtesy of IFC Films.

Because Foley was such a complex individual, and we see in the film how he has hurt people, has anyone (who may have known him) approached you with any sort of aggression?

“It runs the gamut, to be honest. I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, y’all have him up there being so rough, but he was such a big sweetie.’ ‘He bought my nephew a guitar and taught him how to play.’ Then I would have people say, ‘Why the hell would you make a movie about Blaze Foley? That guy punched me out for no good reason.’ ‘He spat in my girlfriend’s face.’ ‘He pissed in my drink,’ and on and on.

And then there were others who were upset we didn’t include everyone in his life. It’s a fair question, but what we’re trying to do is not put a Wikipedia page on film. Principally, we’re trying to make a piece of art and (within that piece of art) build it with the songs.

It doesn’t matter if the film has him dying on the last night he played when it was four weeks after he played that show. It doesn’t matter that the guy who ran the Outhouse [the Austin bar he plays at in the film] was gnarly, loud and rude, when the original guy was a sweetheart. It doesn’t matter that there was never a guy named Zee who ran around with them and played the harmonica.

What matters is he really was in love with a woman, and around all of that there were these songs. I think people relax when they hear that. That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to put it out in Texas. If anybody had those feelings, we could talk. We wanted to take great care with his music. We’re seeing [Foley] through the eyes of Sybil Rosen.”

One of the lines that stuck out to me is when Van Zandt says, “I respect the past, but the past has a lot of ugliness.” The whole film is about reflection. There are good moments and bad, but they all lead to something great. It’s tragic what happened to Foley, but his music continues to inspire people and this movie will open up a dialogue. Are you often surprised by how your past informs your present and things that maybe you didn’t understand at the time all of sudden makes sense and mean something?

“All the time. Friendships that I have made or lost. Lovers that I’ve had and no longer have. I’m a songwriter. I’ve been writing songs my whole life. Songs are amazing time travelers.

I fell in love at 13 with a friend of mine. We bonded deeply over ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ by the Beatles. It was our song. We broke up, and it wasn’t a nasty one, but it definitely broke my heart. I quit listening to that song for a long time, because it hurt. And then, some years later, I got over it and got the song back. And then another friend of mine and I bonded over that song coming in and out of my life. And then that friend passed away in a car accident. That song began to hurt again. Even though the song is this static thing, it changed to me. In the last few years I’ve gone back to that song and can recognize its magic again. I imagine people who have listened to [Foley’s] music has had the same kind of experience.”

BLAZE opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center in Plano and the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas. Ethan Hawke and star Ben Dickey will be doing multiple post-screening Q&As at both theaters. Check angelikafilmcenter.com and landmarktheatres.com for screening times and details.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.