Charlie Sexton: Playing Townes Van Zandt in ‘Blaze’ was life-changing

When “Blaze,” the biopic about ill-fated Austin singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, newcomer Ben Dickey was a surprise winner of the fest’s Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting. Dickey’s performance in the title role is indeed an impressive debut, but perhaps equally important to the success of the film is Austin musician/producer Charlie Sexton’s portrayal of the legendary Townes Van Zandt.

Sexton has been in movies before. He had a small role in Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated “Boyhood,” and his film credits go all the way back to 1992, when he played a musician in a bar scene in “Thelma & Louise.” But this one’s different. Director Ethan Hawke gave Sexton a major role in “Blaze,” and when he’s on-screen, he fully owns the scenes.

RELATED: For all the right reasons, Charlie Sexton is Austin music’s MVP

While “Blaze” certainly isn’t a musical, there’s plenty of music in the film. The soundtrack that will accompany it forgoes archival Foley and Van Zandt recordings in favor of capturing Dickey and Sexton’s own performances in character. Dickey (whose upcoming album Sexton recently produced at Austin’s Arlyn Studios) sounds very much akin to Blaze, and Sexton’s renditions of Townes tunes are a revelation.

In a recent interview that was largely about his music career, we spoke a bit with Sexton about what it was like to be in a movie about characters he grew up around as a kid in 1970s-1980s Austin.

American-Statesman: Whose idea was it for you to play Townes?

Charlie Sexton: Ethan. I guess we met on “Boyhood.” … I didn’t realize, but Ethan had been sniffing around with Rick (Linklater) about me. So he called me, and he’s like, “I have an idea of something I want to do, but if I do, I want your help, and I want your opinion.” And I go, “Well. what?” And he goes, “I want to make a movie about Blaze Foley. What do you think?” And I said, “Well, A) That’s a movie, no doubt. That’s totally a movie. B) That’s trouble. Because music films are really, really, really hard.”

And he goes, “Another thing is, I wanted you to be in it.” I said, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes, “I want you to play Townes.” And I was like, “Well that’s terrifying. And that means we’re supposed to do this.” That’s how that works: In the theatrical world, if it’s scary, you’ve got to walk through the fire. It’s true. And, I can tell you this, I’ll never be the same.

How well did you know Townes?

Not as well as I wanted to. He was a family friend. I knew Townes. My mother and he were really close — with Townes, and also with Jeanene (Townes’ wife). And my mom was also really close with Blaze. But we wouldn’t cross paths much. … I knew Blaze a little bit, but he didn’t like me. I vividly remember him looking at me and he’s like, “Maybe I should like you but I don’t.” I was like exactly the enemy for Blaze — you know, I was leading my way, I had a major-label record deal, and not playing at the folk house or whatever.

Hearing you sing Townes’ songs is intriguing, because he isn’t someone you’ve really reflected in your own music and career.

You’re right, and that was one of the things I struggled with when I said yes to Ethan. I mean, I talked to Townes on the phone the last time he was alive and I was in Nashville. I called him from the sound check. He said, “Hey, man, wanna come get some spaghetti?” I go, ‘Yeah, I do, but I’m at the sound check at the gig, I can’t get over there and back.” We talked for 20 minutes about whatever, and that was the last I ever talked to him.

But yeah, I didn’t go down that (troubadour path). Basically I was seeking, I was searching, and there were certain choices I made at a young age. But my musical appreciation is quite broad. Just because I came up with blues, I was lucky enough to be playing over here with Jimmie Vaughan or Stevie Vaughan, and then I’m over here with the Big Boys playing punk.

I appreciate Townes, and I didn’t take this lightly at all. This was a big responsibility, and it’s a tricky thing to navigate. How I put it across in my head is: I was close enough, but not too close, to do that. Because you can’t go into any role and have too much of a conscience about what you’re doing. But I am not going to just blatantly soil who that guy was. Because I have too much respect for his artistry, and I love his son (JT Van Zandt); we’re really close. … So the initial thing was, I have enough attachment, but I’m not too close.

Watch: A short film about J.T. and Townes Van Zandt

It’s also just an extraordinary opportunity.

Well, Ethan gave me the role that I had never had the opportunity to get. I got close. (When I lived in Los Angeles), I went to an audition and callback, and I was reading a scene with Leo DiCaprio for a Jim Carroll film. That would’ve been a good role. Peter Coyote saw me playing San Francisco five or six years ago, and he’s like, “Dude, who are you?” I go, “Charlie.” He’s like, “No, you’re the guy in my movie.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” And he says, “I have this movie, and you’re the guy.” And then he figured out that we had Stephen Bruton in common and all these connections.

But then he finally just said, “You know what, (expletive) the movies, I just want to play my Martin.” And I go, “You know what, Peter? That’s a good idea. You should do that.”

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