Over the course of four decades, Dale Dickey has appeared in more than 130 supporting roles in TV, on film, and in theaters. A Knoxville, Tennessee, native who began acting at age nine, she has worked alongside Jack Nicholson, Jeff Bridges, Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr., and Toni Collette, among others. Her characters, always in service to the story, are singular creations. Many of them embody mental toughness and expose survivorship’s brittle edges. In the opening of 2016’s Hell or High Water, Dickey’s character, Elsie, a bank clerk, reveals a surprising subtext in a string of West Texas bank robberies as a gun is held to her head. Dickey’s tight exchanges, layered physicality, and masterful facial expressions give the film a distinctive texture. In part due to her performance, it went on to gross $37,999,675 worldwide, far outpacing its $12 million budget.
In 2010’s Winter’s Bone, Dickey plays Merab, the matriarchal head of an Ozarks family. Acting alongside Jennifer Lawrence in her breakout role, Dickey delivers a riveting performance, portraying a character who confronts meth use, mental illness, violence, and impoverishment. Debra Granik, the film’s director, told IndieWire that “during the shooting of Winter’s Bone, Dickey had a revelation and explained that she didn’t perceive her character… as a stone-cold sadist, but that there was another layer to her.” This interpretation allowed Dickey to shun the pitfalls of a one-dimensional, dark character. Her instinctive acting gave the story a suspenseful complexity and won her the 2011 Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female.
Now Dickey is stepping into starring roles for the first time. In the 2022 film A Love Song, written and directed by Max Walker-Silverman, she plays Faye, a sixtyish woman traveling alone, who bides her time fishing, birding, and stargazing at a rural Colorado campground, while she waits for someone from her past. Through her performance, the film explores themes of independence, wanderlust, aging, and grief. For her portrayal, she was nominated for a Gotham Award and an Independent Spirit Award, alongside actors such as Cate Blanchett and Michelle Williams.
Dale Dickey is an inspiration, someone who has doggedly pursued a career in a difficult industry. At sixty-one, she is still accomplishing firsts, still channeling resilient characters. She has won seven prestigious film festival awards and has been nominated for many more, but the awards are not especially important to her. As long as she keeps working, she’s happy.
I. Early Days
THE BELIEVER: What has changed for you since you first started acting?
DALE DICKEY: In my early years, I was struggling. Struggling. I couldn’t get an agent. I was auditioning, waitressing, doing workshops, and constantly acting in plays—it was always this drive I had. I feel like I’ve been running my whole life too. Maybe I’ve been running from something, but really it’s been toward something. Yet it was never anything specific. I wanted to work. I thought: I can’t do anything else. This is why I’m in New York. Go do it. Do it now.
Now that I’ve been working more and more, I’ve relaxed a little bit. When I was finally able to quit my multitude of day jobs and had the beauty of making a living as an actor, it was like, Wow, whoa. The years can still be lean—up and down—though I continue to keep working. Yet there’s always that fear of: I’ll never work again. [Laughs] But as I’ve gotten older and worked with wonderful people, I have a different appreciation for acting. I still feel the love for my craft that I felt back then, when I was also feeling the panic of struggling and trying to audition to get the next job. Today it’s more about enjoying the fact that I probably will get another job, and who will I get to work with now? Since I’m older, I can sit back and watch all the wheels turn and enjoy the collaboration that is making the art.
BLVR: In 1984, what was New York like for you?
DD: I moved up there with some friends from college—two good guy friends and another good girlfriend. The four of us slept in bunk beds in a tiny apartment on Columbus Avenue and 106th Street, which was rough at that time. One day I drove into the city and I turned right on a red light… because you can do that in Tennessee. Well, you can’t do that in New York City. [Laughs]
The cop had this grin on his face. “Oh, honey,” he said, and handed me his card. “Welcome to New York. You might need some help one day. Take this with you.” He let me go with a warning. I was not naive, but in many ways I was still quite innocent. I loved my time in New York and worked in so many different restaurants and bars. My eyes were opened to the real world.
BLVR: Surviving New York is not easy.
DD: When I lived on Ninety-Ninth and Broadway, there was a homeless woman at the Ninety-Sixth Street subway stop. She was my age, with long hair like mine, but hers was white. It looked as if she had never stopped crying. Her eyes were this piercing blue, like Meg Foster’s, the actress. I was poor and had a shitty apartment, but this woman had nothing. I couldn’t get on the subway and not give her my quarter. It makes you feel grateful, no matter how down-and-out you think you are. I just thought, There but for the grace of God. It made me realize how lucky I was that I had family and friends and I probably would never have to be homeless—someone would put me up on their couch.
I loved my years in New York and learned a lot. I worked my ass off. I’ve gone back there for work, but it doesn’t fit with my love of the outdoors. Part of my time there, I felt trapped. I didn’t have the money to get out. Central Park wasn’t going to cut it for my nature fix. When I go back now, I love the energy—that energy of New York with people of all different places, colors, and walks of life intermingling. But the canyons that tall buildings create make me feel depressed. I have got to get that sunshine.
BLVR: Looking back at those early years, what advice do you have for actors who are just starting out?
DD: Perseverance. I tell young actors: One of the hardest things that I struggled with when I was younger was comparing my progress to that of friends from college. Asking: Why are they getting those auditions and I can’t get an agent? That is an ugly and dark place that eats you alive. Everybody’s journey is different, and some people are going to make it overnight. They’re going to have a leading role right off the bat, like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. She had that raw, beautiful talent, and you just knew it. She’s also such a great and grounded person. At least she was back then, and I’m sure she still is now. I knew Hollywood wasn’t going to change her.
I never thought, When am I going to do a lead role? I just wanted to keep working, and that got me recurring roles that were smaller. I was in and out of everything, but I kept getting jobs. I’d say: just keep working and don’t focus on how big the role is, but how your role fits into the story, because every role is as important as the next.
II. A Lead Role
BLVR: The media has proclaimed, thunderously, that you can carry a film. Does that confirmation change anything for you?
DD: That’s a complex question. I was very relieved that I didn’t mess up Max Walker-Silverman’s beautiful vision. I have spent so much of my time in supporting roles, in the background, that it’s almost where I’m more comfortable. There’s a huge responsibility that comes with carrying the lead, but I learned a lot and I would love the challenge again.
BLVR: What aspect of making this film [A Love Song] was the most satisfying?
DD: Filming in the outdoors. I love nature and related to Faye [her character] a lot. It was also my first job during COVID. Our eleven-member crew masked up and we all felt very safe in the outdoors.
BLVR: How did you develop Faye’s internal and external dialogue?
DD: The internal and external dialogue has a lot to do with her not breaking her routine. Max talked a lot about that being what she’s surviving on—her daily routine. Everything’s very deliberate with Faye, and very different from the way I am. As you can tell, I’m very animated. Max worked a lot with me. I think he had studied acting. He was terrific with getting me back into that space.
BLVR: I’m curious about that necklace you wore and how that spoke to your character. You also wore a wedding band and had a red string and black rubber bracelet on your left wrist. How did those things help develop Faye’s character?
DD: I am the kind of actress—maybe it’s coming from theater—where wardrobe always informs how I feel about the character. I tried on a couple of different pairs of shoes, and one felt too manly. I went with a pair that had grace and a little bit of femininity to the boot. It gave me a sturdiness that I needed.
We also had a wonderful costume designer, Stine Dahlman. She was very specific about what Faye wore. The shoes, jewelry, and clothes were precisely chosen styles and colors. My hair was as is and I wore no makeup. I just put on sunscreen, covered up some zits, and went on set. That black band was for pulling my hair back.
BLVR: Oh, that was a hair band.
DD: Yes, the black one was a hair band, because whenever you see Faye working on something, she pulls her hair up. The red band was actually a special memento that Stine’s friend had made, and she wanted to use it as a tribute to her friend who she felt was like Faye. Stine chose the necklaces as well. I had a tiny, beautiful one with three tiny birds and beads, almost a choker. Unfortunately, I lost that necklace in New Orleans on a job. It just fell off my neck and I thought, Well, shit, but you have to let that go. The other necklace I still have and I keep it in a box. It belonged to Max’s mother, Lindsey. Stine wanted just a little bit of color and something that represented the land. That necklace had this little picture of the Telluride valley that a local artist does the prints for. The jewelry was very specific and informed who Faye was—very down-to-earth.
BLVR: Faye is very self-reliant. I wonder if you could talk about self-reliance as a strength and a weakness.
DD: Good question. I think about being self-reliant a lot. I’ve been so busy the past couple of years—traveling and away for extended periods of time for various films. Steve, my husband, couldn’t go with me, because of the COVID restrictions. He was here at home, dealing with all my paperwork coming in. I’ve always been the one that did all my paperwork and accounting, but it became overwhelming. I needed his help. Yet I don’t want to rely on him and depend on him, because what if he’s not here?
When I was growing up, my mom was a Faye. There’s a lot of my mother and my sister in Faye. In her early thirties, my mom was divorced with three difficult children. She went back to work. She fixed our car. When she’d take us skiing, she knew how to put the gas in the damn carburetor and how to change a tire. She would go into the garage and fix the plumbing by wrapping it with tape, something her friends taught her. She learned how to do all those things because she had no choice. She had to do it on her own. It’s very important to be self-reliant, but it’s also dangerous to not ask for help. And that’s why I finally said to my husband, “I need some help with keeping up with my accounting. There’s too much going on.”
I love Amy Sedaris, and there’s a wonderful image from one of her shows where a guy goes, “I just wish I knew what was going on in that head of yours.” Then they show this old black-and-white image of these monkeys in a duck pond and there’s just chaos—so I said, “Steve, I have monkeys and ducks going on.” Not asking for help can put you in a dark place. There’s knowing when it’s time to ask for help, and then there’s knowing when you need to do it on your own, because, if you’re by yourself, you’ve got to learn how to do it to survive.
III. “I take the jobs”
BLVR: You’ve now worked with two great independent filmmakers: Debra Granik on Winter’s Bone, and now Max. How important is it for you to choose to work with those people, instead of taking the parts that pay the most money?
DD: That’s a great question. I was asked that recently and responded, “Well, I don’t have the luxury of turning down work.” I didn’t mean that in a snarky way. My career has been built on: you take the next job. I need my health insurance. Steadily, over the years, I’ve made a little bit more money here and there, but I’ve never been a series regular. That’s a whole different level of money. I take the jobs. Recently, I’ve turned down roles because I can be a little choosier now. My agent said, “It’s OK to say no. You don’t have to do everything. You want to do everything, but you can’t.” So I am a little choosier at this time. But I have to tell you that I feel spoiled, having worked with Max, and I want to hold on to that beautiful feeling we all had working together. I felt that way after Winter’s Bone too.
BLVR: I feel like A Love Song counters the caricature of “cowboy-ism” and Westerns. It understands that women from those parts have complex, intersecting stories. It seemed to me that Max is sort of saying, Here’s a side to the story that’s been overlooked.
DD: Yes, it’s true. Debra does the same thing—wanting to show people who have been marginalized, or who have had their distinctive stories shown only in stereotypical ways. One of my favorite characters in A Love Song is the postman. I don’t remember there being a postman in the first draft. When I read the next draft and the postman was there, I thought, Ah, perfect: a friendly, quirky courier dispatching correspondence—that’s what keeps Faye going. This coincided with the time that the orange idiot who used to be at the White House and the postmaster general Louis DeJoy tried to dismantle the post office. I was like, “You see how important mail is?” My father is ninety-five and he still uses an old typewriter. He doesn’t have a cell phone, a computer, or a TV. He tells me, “I’m sorry, honey. I know that’s what you do, but I don’t like TV and film.” However, he lives for his letters, and now all his friends are dying, and so he lives for his mail and his newspapers, and that connection is important. I know young kids think, Why don’t you just pick up your cell phone or get on the internet? But there’s a beauty in that written mail.
BLVR: What did Max and you most want to convey regarding Faye’s story arc?
DD: The fact that she is a survivor and took a leap of faith. It didn’t work out the way she had hoped, but it was what she needed to do to be able to move on with her life. By the end, there is a rebirth by climbing to the top of that mountain and seeing the stars for the first time and letting go of other things. It was also about moving on from loneliness, learning to live life alone while embracing hope and the importance of connecting with people.
Particularly because of COVID, I think people will relate to this film on many levels, especially the isolation and loneliness and wanting to connect with people. I remember feeling lucky that I had my husband during COVID, even though we wanted to kill each other sometimes. But I had so many friends that were completely by themselves, so we would do these masked-up, six-feet-apart walks together to give them some sort of connection.
BLVR: It’s interesting you mentioned COVID. In an early scene the film shows the calendar with June 2020 followed by Faye marking September 17 as the date she’ll leave the campgrounds. The year 2020 is a COVID time stamp. So the film kind of talks about COVID without talking about it. That calendar also had bush plane images for every month.
DD: The bush planes. Yes, very definitely—those related to a whole slew of other weird jobs that Faye had. She had worked as a deep-sea diver with wrecks off the coast of South America and built trucks with her dad. Those details were in tiny scenes that ended up being cut because they weren’t needed. But with the calendar scene, Max said, “Close your eyes and whatever date you hit, that’s it.” But you’re right. COVID was part of the story. Max doesn’t miss any details. Boy, is that kid smart.
IV. From the Heart
BLVR: In your own life, what books are you drawn to?
DD: I have to admit I was never a good reader, and it’s something that I am working on. I love poetry and reading short stories. I just bought Brian Cox’s biography because I love him as an actor and studied with him. He was my teacher years ago when I studied in England for the summer. I’m very curious to read it. I wish I could list a ton of intellectual books that I’ve read, but I haven’t.
BLVR: But you’re reading a lot of scripts, and when you’re breaking down the scripts, it seems like you’re doing something special.
DD: I am. I’ve done a lot of films that have been adapted from books, and I always read the book, even if it’s completely different from the way the script has come out. I love doing research on scripts and reading history books when I’m working on period pieces. I did a film in Ireland two years ago where we jumped back and forth from the 1500s to the present, and I did a tremendous amount of research on Irish history.
With this script, I felt I was trying to find what would be in between those lines, all the subtext in my own mind. Wes Studi, who plays Lito, and I made the decision not to talk too much about the characters. We wanted our interactions to be spontaneous. We both had knowledge about Faye and Lito and had talked some about what they had shared. What they have in common now was what they shared back then.
BLVR: In 2015, you gave a commencement speech at the University of Tennessee, and you said: “No matter where you end up on your quest, whether it’s a big city or a small town, your story is unique and important. Remember what has shaped you.” Can you elaborate on this?
DD: Well, I’m surprised you saw that commencement speech. I can’t watch it [tears up]. When I was asked to do that, it was a really difficult time in my life. My mother was dying of Alzheimer’s and—
BLVR: I’m sorry.
DD: No, it’s OK. It was just a lot of pressure. I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was like—I don’t know how to do this. I was listening to all these other commencement speeches, trying to make sure I said the perfect things. They told me: “Dale, just speak from your heart,” and that’s what I did.
BLVR: The speech seemed to share a synchronicity with many of the themes in A Love Song.
DD: I think maybe it’s my whole life that led me to this role. I grew up near the Great Smoky Mountains and we were lucky that my parents, despite being divorced when I was very little, both took us to the mountains. We got to go to the beach and be outdoors. In California, my husband and I do a tremendous amount of camping. It’s our saving grace of living in a tiny LA apartment. We’ve really enjoyed the beauty of the state.
I am very much like Faye in many ways—comfortable in nature. I crave it. It’s where I feel the most spiritual. It’s nice to have someone to share it with. You do need your alone time for meditation, but that’s one of the questions in the movie: What is love if you don’t have someone to share it with? We all face that.
V. “The Most Wrinkled Person in Hollywood”
BLVR: Tell me about how you got that role in The Pledge .
DD: This is what really happened. I get this audition call from Don Phillips who did all of Sean Penn’s movies. I go into Don’s office and I’m waiting to read the script. We’re just talking and he goes, “Dale, I don’t need you to read. I can look at your resume and tell you can act. I can look at you physically and tell you’re right for this role. I’ll bring you back in a few days to read for Sean personally. You want to know the reason you’re here?” And I went, “Yes, please.” [Laughs] This after he went into saying we never see new people—meaning outside their agency. He goes, “I looked at your resume and way down here at the bottom it said the University of Tennessee.” He had been on a basketball scholarship at UT in the ’60s and he wanted to meet a fellow Volunteer. He wasn’t from Tennessee, but he had gone there. That is the sole reason I ended up in that room.
BLVR: You’ve worked with so many great actors over the years. How have they shaped your career?
DD: I’ve had so many people who’ve been influential in my life, but I do have to go back to Sean Penn. That was an audition that came out of the blue. Anyway, I just lucked out, so lucked out. Being on that set in a supporting role like that was the first time I’d been on a film where I was there all the time, even though I was in the background. I watched everything and Sean kept pulling me over. “Come on, look behind the camera.” He taught me how to watch dailies. The fact that I kept getting positive feedback—and I was working—gave me the strength to continue. That film was a huge turning point for me.
I didn’t see Sean or hear from him for eighteen years, since obviously we don’t run in the same circles. Then out of the blue, my agent says, “Sean Penn wants to talk to you.” I’m like, “What?” He called me about doing this new film, Flag Day , starring his daughter, Dylan, who’s a tremendous actress. I met Dylan and Hopper—Sean’s son—when they were kids on The Pledge. They were tiny and now they’re adults. Sean said to me, “Dale, I want you to play this really small role, but it’s important.” He goes, “You’re too young to be a grandma. We’re going to have to age you up.” I said, “Sean, you haven’t seen me in eighteen years—you do know I am the most wrinkled person in Hollywood, except for Nick Nolte. You ain’t going to do any aging up.” That Sean kept me in mind after I worked with him, and Debra Granik hired me again [Leave No Trace, 2018]—I’ve been really blessed.
BLVR: Reflecting on your career, what does a snapshot in your head of the various roles you’ve done look like?
DD: There are many roles in films I did that haven’t even seen the light of day. I’ve done so many small indie and short films by young directors and writers. I told my agent, “If it’s a good script, I want to do it.” It’s surreal how time has passed so quickly and all of a sudden I’m sixty years old. Part of me feels like, What? I’ve been doing this for how long? I started doing theater when I was nine. I was supposed to be going to school but I was in play rehearsals. I was always late to class and never did my homework, but my teachers knew I was doing something creative. I was reading—reading Shakespeare. I always knew that I just had to keep acting. It was like—how do they say—God or whatever gives you a gift, and you just have to keep chiseling away and mining that gift.
BLVR: How was it dealing with the different aspects of the business—the job of working with agents and industry people?
DD: Oh, they’re often at odds with each other. I’ve never been a good businessperson. A lot of the training conservatories for actors now, and even then when I was in school taught the business end. At the University of Tennessee, they had a LORT [League of Resident Theatres] company in residence at the Clarence Brown Theatre and they brought in professional actors from New York who showed us how to do a resume and go to open calls. But the business end has always frightened me. People used to ask me back then, “Why don’t you have a manager and a publicist?” or this and that, and I’d say, “Well, I don’t because I can’t even get an agent.”
BLVR: I read that when you started out, you were without representation for twelve years.
DD: I was always on my own. When I finally did have agents during my career, they either died or retired. In 2007, during the writers’ strike, I found a beautiful home with an agency—one that I had tried for years to get into. I’m still with that agency and I adore them. They are wonderful people and good businesspeople. David Shaul advises me well without pushing me. Maybe I’d be further along in my career if I had a publicist and a manager. I don’t know. It wasn’t my path. I just wanted to work but wasn’t making the kind of money where I could pay all those other people.
I do worry that oftentimes the production and the money side of the business overtake the artistic vision. That’s why I like small indie films so much. They are focused on the story. Not that the big productions aren’t, but there’s so much more money involved. To go from a huge set into the tiny but impactful world of A Love Song—I love that. It’s the pure, simple art of telling the story.
BLVR: I went back and watched a lot of your movies. You are one of those actors that audiences gravitate to. How is it that you are a magnet for the eyes?
DD: [Laughs] That’s a beautiful thing to say. I’ve never thought of myself that way. People ask, “Well, how many takes did the scene take?” I have no idea. I don’t pay attention. For me, it’s about getting on set and doing my work. I’m paying attention to my character and to the story.
BLVR: If you had the opportunity to go back and talk to nine-year-old Diana Dale Dickey, what would you say to her?
DD: This is what you’re supposed to be doing. Just keep going. Somebody put you here for a reason. Keep doing it and love it. My work has taken me very far away from home, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I recently had that discussion with my father when I was in Tennessee. My dad’s still alive, but how much of my mother’s life did I miss? She was my sole supporter and was nothing but positive. She kept telling me, “Look, if this is what you want to do, you’re going to do it.” There was no pushing or judgment.
I was the kid who leaves home and pursues a career. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve asked myself, Shouldn’t I have just stayed home and enjoyed all the time with my family? But there are those of us who are meant to live a different life—to go out and explore the world. It’s very important to me now to cherish my time with my family and friends—and to stop and smell those roses. They’re not there forever.
BLVR: That’s true. When they announced your name at the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards, you closed your eyes tightly for several seconds. What did that moment mean to you?
DD: It was like I was out of my body. It was such a new and different experience for me. I was so nervous and I felt so honored to be there with my fellow actors and all these brilliant people around me. I was extra nervous because the award was the first one to be announced. The producers told us not to thank them and to “speak from your heart.” But I remember very little about it. I remember trying to shut my eyes and sitting there expecting someone else to walk onto the stage. It was a good feeling. Then they called my name and I had to go up there.