Dale Dickey isn’t just an actress. She’s a storyteller. And nowhere does that fact become more abundantly clear than on stage at the Clarence Brown Theatre, the place where she spent much of her childhood and young adult years.
It’s obvious Dickey, a UT Accomplished Alumna, feels right at home as she animatedly reminisces about her time at the university and her career in New York and Los Angeles, slipping from her own East Tennessee accent into character voices as she talks. Her laughter is infectious as she recounts skinny-dipping with pals in the fountain just outside the Clarence Brown, scaling the yet-to-be-completed Sunsphere before the World’s Fair, and being part of the last group of students to live in the “Theatre House,” now Knoxville’s Ronald McDonald House.
“Let me tell you a little backstory,” she says. She launches into the tale of how she began her career in New York in 1983 with three other UT students living in “Theatre House North”—a one-bedroom apartment in what she calls “crack central.”
UT had quite the alumni presence in New York already, with the likes of David Keith and Ronnie Venable, who had moved there a few years before. Dickey said it was nice to have that familiar support group in place when she arrived.
“I was grateful for my UT cohorts,” she says. “Those are my friends for life.”
While in New York, Dickey was cast as an understudy in the Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice with Dustin Hoffman. But the first of her big breaks came in her own backyard, in Townsend, Tennessee. Dickey heard the television show Christy was being cast, so she flew herself back home to audition.
“I knew if there’s anything I was right for, it’s an Appalachian woman from East Tennessee,” Dickey says.
She landed the supporting role of Opal McHone. Though the CBS series lasted only twenty episodes, it gave Dickey her first opportunity to work with a Los Angeles film crew. Until that time, Dickey had been unsure about a move to the West Coast, but her experience on Christy helped her decide to take the leap.
- Since moving to LA, Dickey has established herself as a character actress and landed roles like Patty the Daytime Hooker on the show My Name is Earl and, perhaps most infamously, a meth addict on the show Breaking Bad. She says she’s learned to embrace roles that others may not covet, though it isn’t always easy when the audition breakdown reads “not necessarily attractive” or “ugly.”
“It was a difficult row for me to hoe for a long time, to be comfortable with myself as a character actress and not be so insecure or self-deprecating,” she says. “My face is very strong and represents something harder. So those roles for down-trodden women is where I fit.”
Dickey’s track record for playing down-trodden women helped garner her the role of Merab—a hardscrabble Ozark woman who would do almost anything to protect the honor of her family—in the indie film Winter’s Bone.
Awards season opened a number of doors for the actress. Not only did Dickey win the award for Best Supporting Actress at the Film Independent Spirit Awards—the indie film world’s version of the Oscars—she was able to meet other writers and directors in the independent film world.
Back on the small screen, Dickey was a welcome addition to season five of HBO’s True Blood as a werewolf out to avenge her son’s murder. Dickey had auditioned for show creator Alan Ball for so many different projects in the past that she knew something had to come along that would be perfect
“They knew I could play a fierce mama wolf,” Dickey says.
Though the cast is massive, she says everyone she met was great, including her nemesis on the show: the lycanthropic Alcide, portrayed by Joe Manganiello. Dickey calls him “the gorgeous one” and tells the story of how Manganiello left a barn full of extras slack-jawed by simply removing his shirt.
Dickey does confess to being nervous about the show’s more-often-than-not sexual nature. “I don’t want to have sex on TV,” she says. But the actress is fine when it comes to the partial nudity that is often required when characters morph from human to wolf and back again. “Hey, if you want to see this at my age, go right ahead!”
One thing Dickey has learned in the years since she moved away from Knoxville is that she just can’t say no to UT. She has returned to the Clarence Brown Theatre, once to star in Steel Magnolias and again to star in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Even while in the midst of filming True Blood in April, the actress hopped a red-eye flight home to begin preparing for her turn as Mrs. Lovett in the theatre’s September production of Sweeney Todd.
Ironically, the meat pie-making matron was Dickey’s last role as an undergraduate student at UT in 1983, before she left East Tennessee.
“I wanted to play Mrs. Lovett when I’m the real age, you know, when I’m, like, just 25 or 30 years older. And now I am,” Dickey says. “It’s such a dark show, but I just feel this excitement….I’m terrified, but I’m going to work so hard.”
And working hard is what Dickey does best. This year alone, she’ll appear in about ten films, including The Guilt Trip with Barabara Streisand and Seth Rogen, in which she plays an ex-exotic dancer who now owns her own club. It’s another of those down-trodden roles that she has obviously learned to portray so well.
In true form, Dickey recalls Streisand coming up to her on set one day and asking, “So is that your own wardrobe, or did they supply you with it?”