Blaze Foley is the kind of artist – beloved by musicians but not well-known to the general public—who is often discovered after a fall down the rabbit hole. Maybe you’ve heard Merle Haggard’s take on Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly” or John Prine’s version of “Clay Pigeons.” Or perhaps you remember Lucinda Williams explaining that her song “Drunken Angel,” from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, is about the Texas-bred singer-songwriter and decided to investigate the man she sings about as “a derelict in your duct-tape shoes.”
Charlie Sexton, on the other hand, actually knew Foley, which gave him special insight into playing the musician’s friend and fellow revered songwriter Townes Van Zandt in Ethan Hawke’s superb new film Blaze, which opens Sept. 7 in New York and Sept. 14 in Los Angeles.
When Hawke asked Sexton to play Van Zandt—a man he also knew—he says his first response was “Well, that’s a pretty terrifying idea.” Sexton has done some acting but he has made his living as a musician over the last 30 years. Working as a solo artist, in various bands, he was also a session player and producer (for Lucinda Williams and Edie Brickell among others) and as Bob Dylan’s guitar ace. (Rock fans of a certain age may remember Sexton’s 1985 debut Pictures for Pleasure which spawned the hit “Beat’s So Lonely” when he was still a teenager.) Hawke agreed that it would be a daunting task to play Van Zandt, so Sexton replied “Well, I guess that means we’re supposed to do it.”
The film stars Sexton and Philadelphia-by-way-of-Arkansas musician Ben Dickey in the title role in his first—but likely not his last—acting gig, inhabiting Foley in several stages of his life and illustrating his mercurial ways, from romantic, poetic wordsmith to self-destructive alcoholic. (Foley was ultimately shot and killed in 1989.) Alia Shawkat, worlds away from Arrested Development in a deftly nuanced performance, plays Sybil Rosen, whose book about her relationship with Foley served as the backbone of the film.
EW is premiering an exclusive clip of Sexton as Van Zandt who (alongside Hawke’s old Alive co-star Josh Hamilton) is seen wryly offering a little insight into Foley to a deejay during an interview. The film also features Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and Kris Kristofferson in small roles. Hawke calls Sexton’s performance “magnificent’ and explains that the film might not have happened without him. “Charlie and I met [working] on Boyhood, and this movie grew out our friendship.”
We chatted with Sexton, 50, recently about his fears about taking the role and how Foley’s relative lack of fame actually works for Blaze.
Entertainment Weekly: As a Texas musician, you were presumably familiar with Blaze and Townes prior to doing the film.
Sexton: Completely, yeah, actually Townes and Blaze were family friends. They were both very close to my mother. Blaze, I hardly knew just for numerous reasons, but I met him a few times and was well aware of him. I have such a strong image of him looking at me with this strange, half-grin, not sure if he really liked me or not. [Laughs]. Blaze was at odds with a lot of things, the world, politics, himself. Townes I knew quite a lot more.
Did that make playing Townes and trying to get it right even scarier?
Sexton: Yeah, that was part of the process of diving in to Townes, so to speak, was that I was kind of close enough but not that close.
Did you seek feedback from his family at all? Have they seen it?
Sexton: Interestingly enough, the first person I called was JT, Townes’ son. He was at the screening in Austin at South by Southwest. We’re actually pretty close. I called him and said, “Hey good news, bad news.” He goes, “What’s that?” I said, “Well the good news is that my friend Ethan is going to make this movie about Blaze.” He goes, “Oh, that’s cool man! What’s the bad news?” I said, “I’m gonna play your daddy.” [Laughs]
I bet he didn’t think it was bad news.
Sexton: No, he was sweet about it: “Well, there’s no one else I’d rather do it than you.”
Blaze and Townes were very complicated men and, in terms of mainstream recognition, not widely known, Blaze even less than Townes. Do you think that actually works in favor of the film?
Sexton: I think it does in a lot of ways. There are people who are unaware of Townes and Townes was Blaze’s most famous friend, so he’s sort of the cult below the cult, or the legend below the legend. But I think that it was helpful because the way the story was structured in the film, based on Sybil Rosen’s beautiful book, it exposes a side that even a lot of people that were familiar with Blaze locally in Austin didn’t really know about. People get to discover him without too much hearsay this way or that way.
You’ve done some acting and had worked with Ethan previously, but here you are playing a meaty role of a person you knew. What did Ethan do to help you get the performance that you wanted?
Sexton: It’s really just funny because I’ve sort of attempted to be at this for a long time. I’ve always gotten what I called the “Elvis scripts.” But this time I got the Townes script, which had a little more depth to it. Many of the clichés were just non-existent. Ethan was great, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better opportunity than this. This was really the one I’ve been waiting for for a long, long time. It was such an amazing collaborative effort, an ensemble kind of piece. I think it’s fair to say we all felt like we were in the right place and we were doing it for the right reasons.
It would be great to see a follow-up film about Townes, whose life was equally complex. Would you be up for a sequel?
Sexton: Well, I think I’d have to refer to a psychologist before I jump into that one. It took a while to get out of his skin, you know? [Laughs] But in all honesty, a lot of respect and care went into this.
Are you working on any new music?
Sexton: I’ve been on and off working with Dylan since ’99. So he keeps me quite occupied. I’m writing a bit, trying to collect some things. Between the Dylan schedule and the records I’m producing, that should keep me pretty full up.