“If I got my teeth whitened, I’d probably never get another job,” Dale Dickey laughed when I met her in our shared hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2010.
That year brought the level of acclaim so richly deserved by Dale, one of America’s busiest character actresses who began acting on the stage as a child. She was a standout performer at the University of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown Theatre (named for the classic film director who was also from Knoxville), and for the last 20 or so years she has worked on the stage (“Streetcar Named Desire,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Merchant of Venice”), on television (“Breaking Bad,” “Justified,” “The X-Files,” “My Name is Earl,”; and currently on “True Blood”) and in movies (“Iron Man 3”, “Pirates of the Caribbean Tales of the Code”, and “Regression” which she is currently filming).
Dale’s breakthrough role was in the highly acclaimed independent film “Winter’s Bone” which was chosen Best Picture of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and featured a (then) little-known actress named Jennifer Lawrence. Both actresses enjoyed an avalanche of international attention for their work in the film. Dale was selected that year’s best supporting actress by the Independent Spirit Awards, and Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for an Oscar.
Dale has returned home often to star in plays at her alma mater. In November 2010 she came to town to provide narration for a Knoxville Symphony Orchestra production. That Monday before Thanksgiving 2010, Dale kindly agreed to be interviewed by me, and photographed by my husband Kurt, for a possible article in the university’s alumni magazine.
Since Kurt’s photography studio was located in the Emporium Building downtown, we agreed to meet there. Dale called to say she was running late. Fresh out of the shower–and without a speck of makeup–the unassuming actress arrived accompanied by her brother.
After we talked and got acquainted a bit, I noticed a vintage hat among Kurt’s collection of studio props and suggested Dale try it out for the photo shoot. It looked perfect on her and made me think she would be fantastic starring in a period drama set in the Depression.
My alternate dream for Dale is that she star in the next season of Showtime’s “True Detective” series as a small-town sheriff (a la FX’s stunning “Fargo” series) searching for clues to track down a murderer who is killing children. I’d love to see her play the smartest person in the room–tough as nails–but ready to do whatever it takes to bring the killer to justice.
Anyway, it was an unseasonably warm November day so we took Dale outside the building for the photography session near an old, abandoned loading dock on Jackson Avenue. The step-up onto the platform was high, but Dale said no problem and hoisted herself quickly onto the dock. We tried several backgrounds on the loading dock and were delighted to catch her, the Knoxville native that she is, with the historic–and quintessentially Knoxville–JFG Coffee Building behind her.
We didn’t want to keep her long and were about to end the shoot when Kurt snapped what is the best photo of Dale I have ever seen. She glanced to her right, a wistful look with just a ghost of a smile that seems to capture a little piece of her heart and soul. In the photo, I see at once her vulnerability, kindness, dignity, and a quality I can’t put into words that moves me each time I look at it. I think it is her–it simply is beautiful, sweet Dale.
When we returned to the Emporium Building after the photo shoot, we bumped into Dale’s fellow actor in many a childhood and college play, Tom Parkhill. As founding artistic director of the Tennessee Stage Company, Tom’s office was across from Kurt’s studio. Dale and Tom chatted for a few minutes, and Kurt snapped a few photos of the two longtime friends.
When I was e-mailing Dale to set up the interview, I told her our mutual friend Tom and I were in a play together in high school. “Tom Jones” starred my sister Lisa and my then-boy friend Steve. As so often happens with co-stars in a romantic comedy, they had a kissing scene. Not only did I have the humiliating role of playing my sister’s “maiden” aunt, but my sister reported to me that my boy friend was a terrible kisser. I doubted that very much, I much preferred to think he didn’t want to appear to be enjoying a kiss with his girl friend’s sister!
I never got to properly finish my interview with Dale since she needed to dash to another commitment that day in November 2010. But there are no regrets! When a few months later she won her Independent Spirit Award for Best Actress, we could not have been happier if we had won the award ourselves.
As Dale left Kurt’s studio, she handed me back the hat she wore in the photo shoot, but I told her to keep it because it looked so bitchin’ perfect on her. She graciously accepted it, we hugged, and she left with her brother.
A few weeks ago, my husband closed his studio downtown to dedicate himself to his alter ego, the internationally globe-trotting management consultant. And as for my favorite photo of Dale, it was chosen for exhibit in the Knoxville mayor’s office for six months, was shown in Kurt’s 2011 photography exhibit, and for two years has “lived” in his studio. Now Dale’s peerless photo, in its repurposed vintage window frame, has taken its place of honor here in our home. Dale stares stage left out the window of Kurt’s office, reminding us how she owns every scene she steals.
//Anna — 7/2/2014