Charlie Sexton and Richard Linklater talk about the role of a lifetime
Richard Linklater cast Charlie Sexton as my roommate in Boyhood. We were a couple of divorced dads sharing an apartment trying to put our lives back together. We fancied ourselves a modern Texan version of the Odd Couple. The good thing about that movie is it took years to make, so we kind of got to know each other. Enough anyway for me to know I loved the way Charlie thinks – the way he thinks about music and acting and the process of trying to put art into the world that won't waste your time. The second I started dreaming of a film about Blaze Foley, I knew I wanted Charlie to play Townes. And since he introduced us, it seemed appropriate to have Rick ask Charlie about how the experience went.
Richard Linklater: I usually assume that you've either worked with or are friends with every musician in the world, but I'll start with the most obvious question: How well did you know Blaze?
Charlie Sexton: Irony of many ironies is that I barely knew Blaze. We had all these mutual friends, and he was really, really close to my mother. But I don't think he really cared for me at all. ... When I ran across him, at the time I was trying to stay out of bars. I grew up in bars. My trajectory was something else. Not to diminish anyone that's spent time in that. But when we ran across each other, I was a little punk rocker.
RL: And you were this good-looking young man who had a record deal.
CS: You know my personal theory about old Blaze? I think all humans on the planet are in training, trying to get it right. And it gets a little better with our kids, hopefully, when we get lucky, and they get it right quicker. And I think it was just certain things that he just got a bad hand, and he couldn't get done what he wanted to in his lifetime. And that's honestly, Rick, why I have so much admiration for Ethan – even more so than before – because I think he got things across [about Blaze] that Blaze couldn't get across.
RL: It's such a complex portrait. What was your first thought when Ethan calls you up asking you to play Townes Van Zandt?
CS: He goes, I'm thinking about making a movie about Blaze. I said, well, Ethan, that's a movie. Period. All you gotta do is put together the script. But you know these are some of the hardest movies to make – music movies.
RL: Yeah, tough genre – biopic, music.
CS: I know. And he goes, well, that's why I want your help. And I said, okay, of course I'll help. And then he says, but there's one more thing. I ask him, what's that? "I want you to play Townes." And I was like, "Well, that – that's fucking terrifying. That means we're supposed to do this, right?"
RL: Something that scares you but that compels you is probably good artistic territory. Now, your relationship with Townes, however, is different, right?
CS: He was much more a family friend. I remember the last time I talked to him on the phone, when he was in Nashville, he was just sweet. And the weirdest thing was, I moved recently and I unpacked a box of books and I was putting them on the shelf and within it was a Townes songbook, which I didn't even remember that I had. I don't think that I had ever opened it up.
RL: He had given it to you?
CS: Well, this is what happened. The picture of him on the cover of the songbook is almost exactly the composition of a picture of this record I did with my friend Shannon [McNally], where we're each leaning out of a window of an abandoned building. So I sent her a picture of it and I was on the phone with her and I said, isn't this crazy, it's almost the same picture, and she's like, wow, that's really wild. And as I'm on the phone with her, I open the book for the first time, and there's a message to me from Townes. It was staggering. It kinda made everything okay.
CS: I had never seen it. And so it was really strange – mystical.
RL: You'd already wrapped the movie? That's a lot of years that letter sat unopened.
CS: Now what we wrote to me, I couldn't believe he actually wrote that to me. It was shocking.
RL: What did he say in the letter, if I may ask?
CS: Basically, keep at it, compadre. There ain't a lot of us left.
RL: Whoa. That's pretty beautiful.
CS: That's paraphrasing, which I don't want to do with him.
RL: I love the bookend of that – that you'd already done the movie, following your instincts, and then you get kind of anointed after the fact, many years later from him.
CS: And you know what? That is so Townes.
RL: I have to say, I visited the set and I saw Townes Van Zandt walk by and I looked up and I went, holy shit, wait, that's Charlie. I got a shiver.
CS: Well, it helps to be lanky and gaunt.
RL: So let's talk about acting. When did the bug hit you?
CS: We had this family friend that might have had one of the early live theatres in town. It was called the Gaslight Theatre. And I would see plays there, I would see magicians there. I always loved movies, and great actors.
And then I just started getting things thrown at me when I ended up stranded in L.A. for five years. But they were always the same movie. I called them the Elvis movie – it was like, okay, you're kind of like a rock & roll guy, you got a little Elvis thing going, you ride a motorcycle, you play a gig, you get in a fight, you get the girl, you get on your motorcycle, play another song, the cops chase you – you know, whatever. So I just kept saying, no, no, no, this is not acting.
RL: [Laughs] That's something else.
CS: The time that I actually bent on my refusal [on those kinds of parts] was with Ridley Scott when he did Thelma & Louise. The person at Universal who called me said, hey listen, this is what's going on, we want you to do this thing, and also Ridley Scott's doing this film. He wants songs, and he wants you to be in it. And I said, well, what's the part? And she told me and I go, I don't want to do that. She goes, come on, it's Ridley. You should do it. I'm like, no, I don't want to do it. I said, I'll take a meeting with him, but I'll tell him I don't want to do it.
I don't think you tell Ridley no, honestly. [Laughs]
You know what the funniest story about that thing was? The day we shot my scene was really the first day of filming. It was basically just me and my little band I put together for the scene. Ridley comes by the trailer to talk to me, to say hi. We talk for a minute. And then he steps away, like 50 feet away, and he looks at his producer Mimi and he's looking at me really strangely. I know what it was after the fact – it's that directorial stare. I knew he was talking about me. And finally I called him over and said, what's going on? Why are you looking at me like that? And he goes, well, now that I'm having you stand in front of me I'm realizing that I have this one part we haven't cast yet and you would be perfect for it ... but I just can't make it work in the film because it's a character down the line and we'd have to explain it that you're here playing now. And the part was the hitchhiker. The Brad Pitt part. Which was pretty funny.
RL: Oh, that part! Which ends up being one of the very memorable one-scene parts of all time.
CS: Well, there you go, that's the story of my life, Rick.
RL: It's timing. We always get that timing thing wrong. Do you have some kind of philosophy about performing? The disciplines, acting and playing music, are obviously different, but do you feel like you're using similar resources, or is it just a completely different thing for you?
CS: I think you can draw on certain things, from medium to medium. I think also what it comes down to is that, when you refer to the bug, it's when you really feel that thing that happens that you can't explain and you don't know what it is or how it happens – that's what you want. That's what makes you suffer through all of it, those moments.
RL: Do you love it enough to suffer all the things you'll have to to be able to do it?
CS: You gotta be willing to show your ass. You know? You gotta go to that place.
RL: What's an ideal Charlie Sexton role that you wouldn't roll your eyes at? Something not music-related at all?
CS: It's funny, it's basically if you took the music side out of this film and just dealt with the character, it's that. It's someone that may be doing things that you don't really appreciate or care for or maybe think they're inappropriate. There's a certain villain aspect, but for some reason you like 'em, and you've gotta like 'em at least a little bit or else you wouldn't continue to watch.
RL: Movies are very forgiving of behavior none of us would tolerate or appreciate in the real world. In Blaze, you see these guys kind of going down the drain together, but they're so good.
CS: Well, what's worse than actually going down the drain while playing that character, it's the head games that you have to play to go down the drain. The bottom line is, if Ben and I were drunk the whole time we made the movie, well, we could dry out and walk away from it. When it's not something that tangible, and it's all stuff that's created that you have to live with for however long you have to live with it – they don't really have a Betty Ford clinic for that. That's the real honest and deep aspect of what that is. To believe it yourself, and you have to, it lingers, you know? It's funny, I can't see the trailer. People started asking me about it, and it was like a sense memory, I started going back. I'll literally never be the same. It was life-changing.
RL: It feels like that for both you and Ben. These are such thorough embodiments of a character that you wonder, how did that affect their lives? How do you think Ben's gonna do? Because he doesn't have the experience that you do.
CS: Ben's and my relationship at this point is quite similar to Townes and Blaze's relationship. Just on a human level and a friend level. We talk all the time. We talked a lot after the film. Just ... where you at?
RL: There's only one other person in the known universe who really knows what you went through, and that's Ben.
CS: And Ethan.
RL: And Ethan, of course.
CS: You know what it was like? It was like I had one tour of duty, Ben had two, and Ethan had three or four. Roughly. And it took a while. It's kind of a band of brothers situation. But I expect to know Ben the rest of my life.