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Photo by Rick Wenner, courtesy of Dale Dickey.

Dale Dickey Talks Learning to Love Typecasting, Acting in New York vs. Los Angeles

Most actors would have an issue if you said they were typecast. Not Dale Dickey. The character actress is known for taking on edgy roles, many of them southern, and in the process has carved out a remarkable career for herself.

The work she does is uniquely hers, with parts that seem like they were written just for her, which is not something you can say about most actors. Not even most of the biggest stars.

When Dickey shows up on screen, in dozens of movies and TV shows, you know you’re getting something interesting and eminently watchable. Her latest is in Kevin Costner’s epic two-part western, Horizon, the first chapter of which opened in theaters June 28. She spoke to us from her home in Los Angeles, right before she hopped a flight to Germany for the Munich Film Festival, which is showing her next movie, the revenge flick The G, in which she plays the title role.

How did you get started as an actor?

I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the university there had a great theater program. There was a director from Hollywood in the 30s, Clarence Brown, who was an alum. He left a ton of money to build a proper theater and start a professional company there.

As a kid, they had an outdoor amphitheater. I started doing plays at the university as a child when I was nine. I did two or three a year, and I just never turned back. I never wanted to do anything else.

It’s interesting to me how many actors discovered it when they were young.

I was from a divorced household, and that was the best thing for me. I was in a safe environment, being creative and getting a lot of attention, which was important at that time. I just loved it. I kind of wanted to be a veterinarian also, but didn’t want to do the chemistry. (Laughs)

I just stuck with this, went to school and lived in New York for 12 years trying to do theater. Couldn’t get an agent. Still got work. It’s been a long road, but I slowly built a career and I’ve been out here now for almost 30 years, which seems insane.

What was different about Los Angeles from New York?

I refused to come out here unless I could get an agent. In New York, I was one of those actresses that fell between the cracks. I wasn’t pretty enough this way, and I wasn’t odd enough that way.

Tyne Daly, who I worked with years ago, was like, “Embrace your face, you’re only going to work more as you get older.” And she was right. I started working a lot more in my 40s. But in New York, nobody wanted me. I started working for casting directors and being a reader and researching regional stuff and did lots of off-off-Broadway.

I started getting work on my own just by meeting casting directors and showing up to open calls. In New York, I did something called freelance, where two or three people would work with you, and [you went with] whoever called first in the morning for the audition, but they wouldn’t sign you.

I was wanting to make the switch to LA. I’d done a little bit of film and TV out of New York, and I came out for six weeks. I had just worked with a theater director twice who had grown up in LA and was a child actor, and he hooked me up with a boutique agency that loves theater actors. So during my six weeks, they said they’d take me and I moved out here that summer.

You said something interesting about working in your 40s. That’s one of the things I find so fascinating about your career. There aren’t a lot of actresses like you who found their success after most others are being put out to pasture.

It is a conundrum, isn’t it? I think about the early days, and I was getting good feedback from people in New York, people asking me, “Well, why don’t you have an agent? You’re really good.” It just made me want to work harder, and then more.

I just couldn’t stop. It’s the only thing I know how to do. For my first 15 years out here, I had so many different odd jobs, working at night whenever I could so that I could have my days for auditions. The day I was able to not have those jobs anymore was an amazingly wonderful day.

And now it’s like you never stop working.

I gotta knock on wood because I’ve just been incredibly blessed. You know, this face represents a certain type of people. I learned years ago to accept that type. If I’m gonna get typecast as white trash or hardcore drug addicts or prostitutes, hey, that’s where the gritty roles are, and I love doing them.

Being typecast is not a negative. I learned [this] years ago when I was in New York, I wasn’t auditioning well at open calls. I took the casting director workshop and the guy was like, “Dale, don’t show me your Shakespeare. Nobody wants to see that. Just do a Southern monologue.” And I’m like, “I can’t find anything modern and comedic that works for me.” He said, “Beth Henley!” I said, “I don’t want to get typecast as a Southerner.” And he goes, “Why? You read Southern. You may not have a thick accent, but Southern sensibilities abound.”

I started using a monologue from a very obscure Beth Henley play and damned if I didn’t start getting callbacks for theater stuff. What he also taught me was that casting directors want to see what you do better than anyone else, what’s in your heart and your bones and your soul, which is Southern. I embraced it early on. Maybe one day I’ll show my Shakespeare, but I’m getting a little old now. (Laughs)

I’m a big fan of your first leading role, A Love Song, with Wes Studi. It must’ve been enormously gratifying to spend an entire 80 minutes on screen instead of just popping in for a few minutes here and there.

Max Walker-Silverman, the director, had told Wes and me that he chose both of us purposefully because he’d always liked our work and wanted us to show a softer side. We’re older, and he wrote two leads for older people. That was a really special project, and I was terrified. I didn’t know if I could carry a film, and it’s such a quiet film.

The film I just did, or did two years ago in Canada, The G, it’s the complete opposite. It’s sort of a compilation of all the badass characters I’ve played in bits and pieces. It is wonderful to spend that time building a character that is not just coming in and out. It’s a big responsibility, but I learn so much every time. I’m still down for the lead. Maybe I’ll get another one someday. (Laughs)

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