When Ethan Hawke asked musician Charlie Sexton to play Townes Van Zandt in his film Blaze, about the life and death of cult singer/songwriter Blaze Foley, Sexton was ready. He'd already put in time on film sets, appearing in a musical capacity in Thelma & Louise and Boyhood, and had studied the Meisner technique over a few years of acting classes. He also had firsthand experience with both Foley and Van Zandt from his early days of gigging around his native Austin, and knew about both men's realities as well as their ever-expanding legends.
Blaze was a massive critical success upon its release in August, and Sexton's incarnation of Van Zandt wound up being the film's framing device, with Van Zandt telling Foley's story as part of a radio interview. In a nod to the dichotomy of Van Zandt's real persona, he also gets to shine in several of the film's funniest but also most intensely emotional scenes, telling a winning joke one moment and then drunkenly struggling to perform his most iconic song the next. Sexton and Hawke decided they weren't done yet, and recently launched SexHawkeBlack Records, immediately signing Ben Dickey, the musician and first-time actor who played Foley in the film.
When he's not conjuring late musicians in acclaimed films, Sexton has enjoyed a successful solo career and several tenures in Bob Dylan's touring band, a gig he still holds. Sexton called AllMusic on a day off from Dylan's Never Ending Tour to talk about being an unreliable narrator, knowingly altering the historical record for dramatic purposes, and the darkness he struggled to shake after wrapping the film.
AllMusic: Ethan said the two of you sat down and put your heads together to figure out a version of Townes for the movie. Did you go through a few iterations before the one you landed on?
Charlie Sexton: Initially it was all based on the historical aspect of that allegiance between Townes and Blaze, and they obviously were running buddies, not that we can say they sat down and wrote heaps of songs that everyone knows together, but they definitely spent a lot of time together. Basically, we knew that Townes was Blaze’s most famous unfamous friend. There’s so many people who don’t have a clue about Townes, anyway. So the character was going to do what he was going to do, and there’s the narration aspect in the film, telling his story post-death.
As far as how big a part that character would play in the film, I didn’t know exactly what it was. Ethan sent me a 20-page rough-out of the script, and I went back on the road and did my own research over the months, which was just looking at everything I could look at and talking to key people who were close to him: family members, Steve Earle, and so on. It’s a complicated character to play, because Townes was complicated, and the evolution of the collaborative effort of how he’d be played, that came to the eleventh hour when I arrived in Louisiana and I got the actual script.
The first thing that was a big warning was the first scene Townes is in, he’s cussing in the car, and that’s one of the things Townes wouldn’t do. Every now and then he cussed, but he made a point not to, and that’s a really interesting thing about his character as a real person, was he got in plenty of shenanigans and was far from a choirboy, but he always wanted to carry himself as a Texas gentleman and not disappoint his mother. I stayed up every night before every shoot and went through every line and made little tweaks, partly based on the research I was able to get done and inside info I could get that potentially Ethan couldn’t.
AllMusic: Townes serves as the movie's framing device, and is definitely an unreliable narrator.
Sexton: It was an easy thing to arrive at, spinning the yarns and telling the stories, because there’s so many versions of every story of those guys, something like driving their pickup truck backwards to a gig. It’s all legend, which suits it, because most of the great songwriters make up all kinds of stuff, whether it’s a story they’re relaying or a song they’re writing. There were people I spoke to quickly who had some situations with Townes that were like situations that me and my brother had with Blaze, that weren’t necessarily funny or pleasant or even anything like a good experience.
Ultimately, the one thing I got from talking to key people about Townes was that he was funny and had brilliant comedic timing. He was just funny, and that’s enforced by these weird recordings I found, where he could barely even sing or play, he’s coughing and he’s obviously not in good shape, and he’ll finish a horrible version of a song, which is still gut-wrenching and heartfelt, and he’ll go out of that and tell this long-winded joke that’s hilarious.
AllMusic: I caught that you put a bit of his twang in your voice, and you had his scar.
Sexton: We weren’t doing impressions of anyone, particularly with Ben. But I sat there and figured out these little verbalizations that he’d do, little twangs, little ways he’d say certain things, that certainly went into it. I was never going to be him all the way, but there were inflections and ways to his speak and mannerisms that were just part of the gig. It wasn’t Daniel Day-Lewis by any means.
Given the time of it, I wanted to have the scar. But we also cheated the timeline on a couple of things in regards to Townes. The tune “Marie,” that happens in the film too early, he didn’t write that until later. There were a lot of songs on the table for that scene, and there are many songs that are staggeringly heavy and amazing, but I said, “Let’s cheat this one up, I think this is the one he needs to sing,” so we used our movie magic to move that one up. I also pulled up the gold tooth, because I always loved him with the gold tooth.
AllMusic: The "Marie" scene plays as intense on screen, but I was wondering if that was relatively easy for you, since it boiled down to singing and playing.
Sexton: Yes and no. I was literally on the road with Dylan two weeks before I started, and I couldn’t really go all the way in while on the road. So I had to chip away at it in the wee hours when everyone would be asleep, I’d go back to the bus and make notes and watch things and doing all of the work that you have to do to do something like this, under the cover of darkness. I had to start getting him in me, even things that you weren’t necessarily going to see on the surface, they had to be there underneath.
One of the biggest gifts Ethan gave me on this was just putting me in that dark room with Townes to prepare for it, so I spent more time with that stuff than I ever had. I don’t deal with music that way, I just listen to records and absorb a lot from it, I don’t know the trivia of it, I’m not an academic in that way, I draw the things I draw from it and move on. I had to really sit down and get deeper into it than I’d ever been, which was a gift, but also pretty scary. When you take Townes’ songs into a dark room by yourself and really listen to them, and you just live with it, you start hearing things you’ve never heard before.
AllMusic: The flip-side of that scene is when he's struggling to play "Pancho and Lefty," a song you could probably play in your sleep. Playing poorly on purpose sounds like its own challenge.
Sexton: The “Pancho and Lefty” thing, that happened over and over again in reality, him not being able to pull off a performance. On the day of that shot, we were talking about it and I said, “You know what’s going to have the most heat is if he can’t remember his most famous song, that’s going to really resonate.”
AllMusic: After spending all that time with his music, did you uncover any deep cuts that could use fresh attention?
Sexton: It’s matters of the heart and soul, is really what came out of it all. It ended up being a pretty sad experience, because there’s emotional things that were like, “Oh, I kind of get this maybe a little too much,” what was behind the words or coming through the cracks in the voice. I’ll never really be the same again after spending that time, and it all makes sense, because that’s where it all began for him. He grew up from means, he had a good family, and he went in that weird little closet and started writing songs and came out with “Waiting Around to Die,” which had nothing to do with his life, really. All those things about him were self-imposed things that he put himself through for what he wanted to accomplish and what he wanted to try to understand.
Townes’ thing was what happens when they take away your life and you have to start over? That’s an interesting question, what happens to a person when they erase your memories and you have to create new ones? That’s what he did with his songs. Those songs, whether it’s “Waiting Around to Die” or “Marie,” some of that he’d experienced a version of it, and having grown up in Austin, I knew Blaze a little bit, his running buddies, who was hanging around with him, and it was pretty low-down.
AllMusic: You've been around a number of musicians who didn't get their proper due until much later, like Townes, Blaze, and Alejandro Escovedo. Is your reaction something along the lines of, "Yeah, why didn't any of you notice before?"
Sexton: Yeah, and it’s funny how that happens, it happens with the greatest of the small. The first real experience I had with that was with Stevie Vaughan. I grew up as a little kid playing with Stevie, and there would be four people at the gig, forever. There would be nobody there. Then he got some notoriety and did some business and got out there, and suddenly I wake up one day and they say, “Stevie died.” The next thing I know, for the next five years, the only thing I can hear on the radio in Austin is Stevie Ray Vaughan, and it just pissed me off. It still pisses me off.
AllMusic: Are you eager to take on another role like this?
Sexton: I’m able to talk about it now and not go back into character, which was becoming an issue. I think one of the reasons why it was received the way it was from people in the know about the characters involved is the balance of having half the story at least be framed around Sybil’s book. My brother goes, “Man, Ben was great, I really enjoyed not thinking Blaze was an asshole.” Because neither of us had that experience, we didn’t know Sybil [Rosen, Foley's partner and co-writer of the screenplay], we didn’t know that side of him.
Some girl came up the other day and said, “I knew Blaze, I had just come to Austin and was writing some songs and doing gigs,” and Blaze came to some gig of hers and she was doing covers and he goes, “Play one of your tunes!” and she said, “I’m not ready.” So she played some other songs and she said Blaze walked up onstage and slapped her in the face. That was the way he dealt with it. It was harsh and left a mark. I’m ready for something else; I’ve finally been able to put this away. So I love Ethan and was thankful that someone gave me a real role to do, which had less to do with music and more with the rest of it.