NEW YORK — Dale Dickey tends to get “those crusty roles,” as she heard someone once call them. A familiar, craggy face from films like “Winter’s Bone” and “Hell or High Water,” Dickey has long been a riveting supporting player in rural dramas.
But in the Sundance entry “A Love Song,” Dickey, long a standout character actor, finally takes the lead. Even for her, it felt a little strange.
“I don’t do leads in films. I do, you know, scary supporting roles that pop in and out with chainsaws and rifles and things,” Dickey says, laughing. “I’m like the recurring guest-star kinda thingy. So this was a big leap of faith. I was very nervous and insecure about my face being on screen that much.”
But Dickey’s performance in “A Love Song” — terse, tender and human to the core — is easily one of the most endearing of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is playing virtually this year due to the pandemic. Like its title, “A Love Song” is simple and direct. Dickey plays Faye, a widow who has parked her pickup and trailer at campsite number seven on a Colorado mountain lake. For dinner she has fresh-caught crawfish and a can of Busch. Every so often, she gives the dial on her radio a spin, and something good comes on. Faye, still nursing her loss, is trying to tune in again to a lost frequency.
Faye is also waiting on a childhood friend and maybe a new romance. When he turns up, her old pal is played by Wes Studi (“The Last of the Mohicans,” “Dances With Wolves”), an equally weathered and wonderful character actor. It’s hard not to feel like “A Love Song,” set with the Rockies all around, becomes a summit of two not-heralded-enough actors who seldom get to be so vulnerable, so straightforwardly themselves on screen. Together, Dickey, 60, and Studi, 74, share their first on-screen kiss.
“When Wes came aboard, I was just thrilled. How can you not be?” says Dickey. “I was a little scared. We’ve both played a lot of pretty rough people. But he’s such a kind, sweet, gentle soul. It was our first screen kiss. We both laughed a lot about that. Middle-aged screen kiss, woo-hoo!”
The film, up for sale at Sundance, marks the feature directing debut of Max Walker-Silverman, who filmed it near his home in Telluride. To appeal to Dickey, he sent her the script and a long letter about his admiration for her work. Dickey, drawn to the character and Walker-Silverman’s way, decided why not. “I’m always like: If I’m not working, I’d love to work,” she says.
Dickey grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and is regularly cast as characters who seem to live down dirt roads. Her credits — including “Breaking Bad,” “My Name Is Earl,” “True Blood,” “Justified” and “Palm Springs” — span more American terrain than most. Dickey does feel a connection to nature — she and her husband regularly camp — and to some of the areas Hollywood ventures to less frequently. But she’s also been in Los Angeles for decades, has acted on Broadway and loves to perform Shakespeare. To her, Faye is among the roles closest to herself.
“Faye is as complex as the others, just in a very quiet and still way,” Dickey said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles shortly before “A Love Song” premiered. “That to me was the challenge, just learning how to be present with the camera. There’s very little dialogue in much of it. It was very reminiscent to me of working with Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone,” “Leave No Trace”). She’s not afraid of the quiet.”
Over the years, Dickey has gotten more comfortable watching herself in a film, but it’s taken time and some advice along the way.
“Years ago, Sean Penn made me start watching dailies,” recalls Dickey, who co-starred in Penn’s 2001 drama “The Pledge.” “I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to see it!’ He said, ‘Dale, if you’re playing a character that’s recurring throughout the film, it helps me to see what I’ve already established.'”
The original title of “A Love Song” was “So This Is What the Songs Are All About.” The musical interludes — including a sweet duet between Dickey and Studi — are as central as anything spoken in the film.
“We all deal with loss and loneliness and how it can paralyze us for a long time, which I think is what happened with Faye,” says Dickey. “I was just thinking about how often I get in the car when I’m in a certain mood and I hear a song that’s like: Whoa, I needed to hear right then. Faye is starting to listen to the music again.”