Gwyneth Paltrow’s new movie demands a lot of her. In Country Strong, she plays fading country music star Kelly Canter. Her husband and manager James (Tim McGraw) gets her out of rehab early to embark on her comeback tour. It’s more than she can handle though, so Kelly falls off the wagon.
At Kelly’s high points, Paltrow rocks the mic on stage in front of thousands. At her darkest, she cries and stumbles and vomits. Paltrow got some helpful advice from her Iron Man costar on the latter, which she detailed for the press in an interview before the holidays. Country Strong opens in limited release Dec. 22 and goes wide in January.
Q: What did you learn about the country world?
Gwyneth Paltrow: Quite a lot actually. People in country music are really nice people. They’re very warm. They’re very open and supportive of each other. They’ve got a lot of southern hospitality. It was nice. It didn’t feel as cutthroat as other lines of entertainment feel. It’s really nice people.
Q: When you’re on stage in front of thousands of people, even for a movie shoot, do you feel like a rock star?
GP: Well, not entirely but when we were shooting the end of the movie where I do this big performance, at first I was terrified and then about halfway through the day I thought, “Oh, this is actually kind of fun. I can see why people do this job.” Of course my fans were paid to be there, which is always great. It guarantees a good response.
Q: How did you like performing on the CMA Awards with Vince Gill?
GP: I loved it. It was like one of those moments. I think I’ll always just look back on that and think I can’t believe I actually did that. It was sort of a once in a lifetime thing. It was crazy. It was really exhilarating and fun and just unexpected. I never in a million years… if you had told me a year ago that I would have performed at the Country Music Awards, I would have bet against it. It was a wonderful surprise and I adore Vince Gill. He was so supportive of me. If you look at how Vince Gill was to me during that performance, that encapsulates country music. That warmth and support, he was great.
Q: Had you been a fan of country music before this role?
GP: No, I grew up in New York City where there’s no country music radio station so I just wasn’t exposed to it. Of course you hear the major things or the crossover acts of course. I loved a lot of the crossover, like Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris as Patty Griffin. I remember going to see John Prine when I was younger but I never was exposed to it a lot or heard it a lot until I took the role and then I sort of had to get serious about learning about country music. I really fell in love with it. This whole thing has been very surprising to me. To discover a whole genre of music at 37 years old and be all psyched about it and geek out on it, it’s fun. I never thought I would be a country music fan or singer or anything.
Q: Did you watch all the movies about country singers?
GP: I watched a lot of them. I watched Tender Mercies a lot and Coal Miner’s Daughter. I watched a lot of DVD performance videos to prepare and I studied all the ladies of country. It wasn’t just like I was playing someone who was trying to be a country music singer. I was playing a huge country music star which was much more daunting. Some movies are about somebody who is trying to make it or on their way to making it but she’s on the way down and had been this massive star, so I was like wait a minute, how do you play being a huge country star? I just watched everybody but you know, honestly I think the thing that made me feel like okay, I sort of feel like I get this, is I watched Beyonce a ton. I think she’s the best live performer happening right now. She has this amazing confidence and I thought to myself, if I can just get a tiny bit of that self confidence than maybe I can pull off this scene at the end. You wouldn’t necessarily think that Beyonce would be an inspiration for a country music star.
Q: What did you think of the movie when you saw it finished?
GP: I was really proud of it. I love the fact that it’s very emotional but it’s complicated. None of the characters are black or white or good or bad. I loved seeing a long term marriage breaking down and all the intricacies of that and the subtleties of the relationships. I thought for me, my favorite part of the movie is the music. I think the musical performances are just really fun and exciting to see. I love Garrett in it and everyone.
Q: When Crazy Heart came out, were you guys worried they were first?
GP: I still haven’t seen that. No, from what I hear it’s a very different film, different subject. I mean, it’s about country music but I don't know because I never saw it.
Q: How did you prepare for both aspects of the role, the music and playing an addict?
GP: Well, there was the sort of physical preparation which was lots of singing lessons and guitar lessons. Then it was really when I got there and I had this scene, it’s sort of trimmed down a lot in the movie, but the night after I’ve done some horrific thing, I’ve wrecked people’s lives and I wake up and expect to just keep on going. I didn’t understand that. I understand addiction. I used to be very addicted to cigarettes for example, so I understood the idea of I know this is bad for me and it causes cancer and my dad has throat cancer but I’m going to smoke it anyway, that disconnect or self destructiveness. I couldn’t understand it to the point of wrecking someone else’s life. So I e-mailed Robert Downey Jr. and I was like, “Just explain to me how this goes. I don’t get it. You spend a night where you lie and cheat and there’s no consequence and you barf and you can kill someone. Then you get up and have a coffee? How does that work?” He wrote me back the most amazing e-mail and he just explained the psychology of it so well. So he really helped me with that.
Q: What originally drew you to the Kelly?
GP: As I said before, the complexity of all the characters and the relationships. I liked the idea of a woman who was aging and feeling like the pressure of the younger [singer]. I liked the slight All About Eve aspect of it. I loved the idea of the challenge of the music.
Q: What was your favorite outfit out of all the fabulous costumes?
GP: Were they fabulous? I don't know. My boots were good. I’m haunted by that red dress in the final performance.
Q: That was my favorite one.
GP: It was? It looks like a curtain or something. I think it was just a fabric in real life, I don't know. I like the “Shake That Thing” dress, the little blue one where I was dancing down the [runway]. I don't know what they are, brass sort of bedazzled but not with sequins. There were some good outfits I guess.
Q: The movie explores different types of country music. Which type were you really drawn to: mainstream, singer/songwriter?
GP: I love bluegrass so I listened to a lot of bluegrass and I like a lot of the more singer/songwriter but it’s true. You have Leighton representing the pop country and Kelly’s like prime country and Garrett’s like Texas country. It’s nice to see all the different, and I like his line where he says, “Just because something’s on the radio doesn’t mean it’s good.”
Q: You’ve sung very well in other films and TV shows. Is there something technically different about country music?
GP: Well, I had never studied voice. I have a naturally perfectly nice singing voice but these songs had a lot of scope to them. I needed to really build up strength. My singing teacher in London was really like a taskmaster and was really focused in getting a much bigger voice out of me, which I was surprised to find in myself. So that was exciting and just working on all of the technical parts of the singing and also learning how to sing something over and over and over again because the way I did it before, one time I sang with Jay-Z at a concert and I woke up and couldn’t talk because I didn’t know how to do it. Now I’ve learned a more technical side of it.
Q: How did you learn the accent? People from the south hate the overdone southern accent.
GP: I didn’t want to do that so I had a really good accent coach. Then we were in Tennessee. I was always nervous to do it in front of Tim just because A, he teases me all the freakin’ time. Once I go the stamp of approval from Tim I was like okay.
Q: Is this the beginning of another work cycle? Are you going to be doing a lot more movies again?
GP: No, don’t worry. I can do kind of one thing a year. I did this at the beginning of this year, January. Then the Contagion thing was like one day in Hong Kong, four days in Chicago so I was able to squeeze that in. I really can’t do more than one thing a year. It’s just not worth it to my family.
Q: Will you be doing musical performances to promote this film?
GP: I don't know, I would like to. I got invited to sing at the Opry which would be really amazing. I’d love to work that out. I’d love to but again it’s hard with balancing everybody’s lives. I’ve been traveling an awful lot this fall because I also did Glee and I had to go to Nashville for all that stuff and I’ve been here a couple times. So I probably will need to just be home for a couple months but maybe, we’ll see. I would like to.
Q: What music do you listen to at home?
GP: I listen to everything. I probably have the most schizophrenic iPod but right now, my biggest obsession is the Nicki Minaj album. She’s a genius and I’m also obsessed with Kanye’s album. I really like Dierks Bentley has a bluegrass record that I really love. There you go, that and everything in between.
Q: When I’m working things just pile up around the house. What’s been piling up waiting for you at home?
GP: I try not to let too many things pile up although I’m a terrible script reader. I’ll have a script, I’ll see the movie coming out and I’ll be like, “I’m sure that’s on my desk and I meant to read that.” I’m just terrible.
Q: What does it take to get you to pick up a script from the pile?
GP: This one for example, my friend Jenno was the producer and she’s been a really good friend of mine for 15 years. So she just like beat the sh*t out of me until I read it, and I’m glad I did.