“New Year’s Eve of 2015 to 2016, I can only describe it as Ethan [Hawke] became possessed,” says Benjamin Dickey on a particularly windy day of SXSW. “And he was like, ‘We’re going to make a Blaze Foley movie, and you’re going to play Blaze Foley.'”
The only catch was that Dickey, a lifelong musician, had never acted before.
“I thought he was just being friendly because I’d had some failures in the music world and I was sort of sad,” he adds of his longtime friend’s proposition, which evolved from a casual conversation between the two men about their love of obscure, “almost superfamous country folk,” during a trip to Nova Scotia. Foley was an “unsung” freewheeling Texan singer-songwriter who wrote unsung country hits “Clay Pigeons” and “If I Could Only Fly.” He was killed in Austin at the age of 39 in 1989.
In the end, Hawke’s vision of directing his friend in a biopic paid off — after the worldwide premiere of “Blaze” at Sundance in January, Dickey won the festival’s award for acting.
“What I knew I could do was learn the songs and play the songs, but I did not know I could act,” Dickey adds. “I don’t know if it’s fair if I just reapply all of the things I’ve learned about music and being a performer, but it seemed like everything fit as far as the tools I understood I had at my disposal. So rhythm of scenes and just listening to what the director wanted to do, I was like ah, OK, I can play that.”
Hawke linked him up with friend Vincent D’Onofrio, who coached Dickey on acting. “He gave me a terrifying crash course and made me be very vulnerable,” says Dickey. “He gave me five or six pieces of information which I couldn’t have navigated without: get out of your head, go from your gut, some of the techniques of learning lines — one of the things he told me early was don’t start learning your lines in a cadence or tempo, just learn them all flat, don’t put anything on them.”
His costar Alia Shawkat, who plays Foley’s sweetheart and muse Sybil Rosen in the film, also helped ground Dickey pre-shoot. “I met Alia probably five weeks before we started in New York. And we had supper and visited and talked about stuff and played some music,” says Dickey. “And then I told her how nervous I was and she was like, ‘Hey, me too.’ She’s like, ‘Use it.'”
After “Blaze” finished, D’Onofrio gave Dickey his second role, the deputy to Hawke’s Pat Garrett in Western period film “The Kid.” With the Sundance award, Dickey has started to receive offers for films outside of his friend network.
“I don’t know how to field it; I still feel really green as how to navigate it,” says Dickey, who recorded a record with “Blaze” costar and fellow musician Charlie Sexton in December and is trying to organize a tour. “I loved doing ‘Blaze’ because I love Blaze Foley and I love Ethan [Hawke], and I love Ryan, his partner [a producer for the film] — my lady was the art director on the film. It was very much a loving thing.”
Despite the nerves, Dickey, who lives in Northern Louisiana, seems to be taking it all in stride — and having a good time while he’s at it.
“All the parties — everything’s free. It’s like fresh grapefruit with tequila and lime, and I’m like yea I’ll take six of those,” he says with a deep laugh, of his SXSW experience; the film’s screening at the festival included a Blaze Foley tribute concert. “When your friends are having freshies you’re like, oh, that’s awesome. I’m going to get another one.”
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