Tim McGraw stars in a movie about a country superstar. He does not play the country superstar. He doesn’t even sing in the movie. Country Strong is about the fall and rise of Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow). McGraw plays her manager and husband James, who pushes her on a comeback tour before she even finishes rehab.
James may represent the dark side of the business, certainly when it comes to neglecting his wife’s health. In real life, McGraw is happy and friendly. He’s married to Faith Hill and starred in last year’s blockbuster film The Blind Side. McGraw shared his side of the country music business and his secrets to love and happiness in an interview for Country Strong.
Q: They couldn’t get you to sing in the movie?
Tim McGraw: Well, look. There’s no way that James Canter would’ve had anything to do with singing. He never sang, never played an instrument, never would, never had. In fact I think my character sort of had a, not animosity, but I think he thought of singers as sort of childish in a lot of ways. That’s sort of the way I approached this role is I thought that James was really the only adult in the film. Certainly he thought that.
Q: Have you known managers and people who try to be the fixer and control everything?
TM: Oh yeah. There’s a few like that but I know artists who need that too. There’s quite a few artists I know who have to have somebody that makes all the decisions but nobody I can name specifically. I don't think I modeled it after anybody. The only thing I did do is sort of the original how I pictured James looking was Norville Blackstock, who’s Reba McEntire’s manager and husband also. That was the original look. From the beginning, the formation of the look on, it really had nothing to do with Norville.
Q: Maybe trying to control alcoholism is out James’ power.
TM: Look, alcoholism, drug addiction, all those things which are in this movie, they’re so prevalent in our society, I think you could go to any small town in America and any family you ask, they’ve been touched by it in some way or another. I think what makes it sort of white hot I guess is when you put a spotlight on it, put fame on it. That’s what makes it vibrate I guess. Trust me, in anybody’s family, that’s a problem that’s white hot.
Q: Considering your wealth of experience, how much consulting did you do on the set?
TM: I wouldn’t say I did a lot. There were things that I might have pointed out or made suggestions. I didn’t give any advice. I might have made some suggestions or something. I think my character had sort of a heavy load. James had to develop a different relationship with everybody on screen. He wasn’t the same guy with everybody. I think there was an overall James but there was a James that dealt with Beau (Garrett Hedlund). There was a James that dealt with Kelly the artist. There was a James that dealt with Kelly the wife. There was a James that dealt with Chiles (Leighton Meester). I was more worried about keeping that canoe in the river than I was worried about [the music]. Plus, I wouldn’t have signed on with the film if I wasn’t comfortable with how they were going to handle all those things, so I was pretty comfortable with the direction it was going to go anyway. There were a few things where I might’ve said, “Move the amp to the left” or something like that.
Q: Were you reluctant to do a movie about country music and merge those worlds?
TM: Yeah, sure I was. I said no two times because I’m not naïve. I realize that even in any movie I do the first thought that’s going to come into a casting director or director or producer’s mind when they’re thinking of putting me in a movie, besides the fact of can I do it, secondly they don’t want me to be a distraction. Or they’re curious, am I going to be a distraction? The last thing you want is your audience to come and sit down and every time I’m on the screen they go, “Oh, that’s that country singer guy. Oh, that’s that country [guy]. There he is again.” If that starts happening and they don’t buy into my character then I’m not any good to any movie. Hopefully I’ve gotten past that a little bit but I thought initially that that was too much to ask of an audience, to put me in that world and for them to believe that I was this different character and not be caught up in it being me the whole time. So I thought it was too much to ask of them and of me. I didn’t know if I was capable of doing it.
Q: What changed your mind about Country Strong?
TM: I saw The Greatest which is the movie that Shana [Feste] wrote and directed. I saw that and just fell in love with it. I thought it was a beautiful movie and I could see her sensibilities. I thought if she brings those sensibilities and that heart to what she does, if she brought it to this script and to this movie, then together I thought that we could develop a character that would get past those boundaries or hurdles that I thought were there.
Q: Are filmmakers more willing to consider you since The Blind Side?
TM: Yeah, because it made a lot of money. I don't know if it had anything to do with me. It’s just about how much money it made. Yeah, I think I’ve gotten to the point where hopefully I’ve proved myself a little bit.
Q: Are you as confident on a film set as you are on a stage?
TM: I’m not confident in either one. I’m confident enough but I’m also nervous enough and question myself enough to keep I guess a healthy un-confidence I guess is the best way I can put it.
Q: Are you more star struck by actors or musicians?
TM: Well, Hollywood movie stars is a whole other level of fame. That’s a whole nother deal from what I do. There’s a more frenzied reaction I think to movie stars than there is to anything that I do.
Q: Is there, than musicians? Rock stars and country stars aren’t more swarmed with fame?
TM: I don't think so. I think movie stars are really probably the biggest reaction. It’s been my experience and what I’ve seen, how people react. Of course, but then there’s Bruce Springsteen so that’s a whole nother thing.
Q: As a superstar, married to a superstar, do you reflect on how you didn’t go down the dark road?
TM: No, and I don't think I ever looked at it as a study on what could happen with fame. For me it was about these relationships of these people. I think you could take these characters and these relationships and put them in any scenario and still sort of buy into what was going on in their lives. I think fame and all that stuff just sort of made it more interesting I guess in a lot of ways but there’s about love and tragedy and relationships. I think there was a true love story in this film. It turned into and it ended up you sort of wanted to see how the love story develops with Chiles and Beau but for me it was a real love story and there was a true love story there between Kelly and James. I think they were really in love with each other and really had something special. Love was sort of sacrificed along the way. I think there was a specific point in the movie, love can survive a lot of things. It has to because we put love through hell as humans, but you can throw poison on it and it’ll grow. It’ll grow around infidelity. It’ll grow around pain, adversity, loss of children, loss of respect. Love can grow around a lot of things but I think the one thing in the moment of the film where James realizes this is when someone can’t forgive themselves of something, I think that’s what ultimately kills love. I think there’s a point in the movie where James sees a glimpse of what he fell in love with and realizes that that’s all that was left was a glimpse. He realized that Kelly was never going to forgive herself. I think that’s when he realized it was over.
Q: Kelly and Beau seem to think you can’t have both love and fame. Do you disagree?
TM: Well, it depends on which one’s in charge. If fame’s in charge then you can’t have both. If love’s in charge then you can.
Q: What’s next for you acting and music-wise?
TM: Music-wise I have an album that’s been done for a while. Who knows what this label’s going to do but hopefully it’ll come out in the spring if they don’t keep stealing songs off it to put on Greatest Hits records. That album will be out sometime in the Spring. I start a film in March and then I start a tour whenever this film’s over, sometime in April or May.
Q: What’s the film?
TM: It’s called Safehouse with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. Spy thriller.
Q: Are you a spy?
TM: Yeah, I get to actually play something action packed, shoot people and all that stuff.
TM: All those things, I’m looking forward to that.
Q: Are you a bad guy or good guy?
TM: Can’t tell you. Can’t tell you that.
Q: You can’t say if you’re shooting with Denzel or at Denzel?
TM: I can’t tell you.
Q: What label are you on now?
TM: Curb but I’ve finished and turned in my last album under the contract so they’re going to drag it out as long as they can. After 20 years, it’s time for a change.
Q: How do you manage all your priorities?
TM: My wife manages everything. I just sort of go along and get pointed in a direction. We have a good management company too. We both are managed by the same company, Red Light Management. But she’s the best. She’s very organized. I’m the furthest thing from a Type A person and she’s very Type A. She handles my schedule, her schedule, each child’s schedule, each child’s school schedule, each child’s social schedule which with three daughters is a busy social schedule. So she’s the glue that holds everything together for sure.
Q: How did you decide you wanted to become and actor?
TM: Gosh, from the first hit I had, I had offers to be in things, silly things or little [cameos] but I didn’t want to take any chances because I didn’t know from year to year if that was going to be the last year I had that was successful in music. So I wanted to really establish my career. I sort of wanted to do movies. I didn’t think about it much but I thought it’d be cool to do them somewhere down the road. I never got serious about it until I read the Friday Night Lights script that somebody sent me. It sat around forever. I just wasn’t going to read it because I just didn’t think I was at that point in my career yet. Then I read that script and Charlie Billingsly just really stuck out to me and I just thought from playing a lot of sports growing up, I just thought there was a group of people, I could take four or five different people and combine them that I knew and create that guy. I just felt really driven to try to get that role.
Q: And you just went from there?
TM: I think they’d already given the role away and I had to beg Pete Berg. I just called him and bugged him. He didn’t know who I was. I don't think he had a clue or even hear my name before. I finally talked him into giving me a read.
Q: Rock musicians get a lot of heat when they try to do movies, and rap stars are a little more forgiven. What’s the attitude towards country singers?
TM: I think nobody’s paying attention. You just get to do what you want. Nobody’s paying attention.
Q: Do you really think that?
TM: No, I’m just being flippant. I think they want you to succeed in anything that you do. I think your fans want you to. Seriously, outside your fan base, I think I probably have a different fan base in a lot of respects because of some of the other songs I’ve done and some of the artists I’ve sang with so I think that there’s a fan base outside of country for me than out there. I think for the most part, country music fans want their guys to succeed so they’re behind you a little bit. Of course, there’s a lot of people out there that are ready to shoot you too if you don’t. I think any time an artist, a singer, goes and does a movie, they’re sort of taking their chances in a lot of ways.
Q: Did you like how the movie illustrated the different styles of country music?
TM: Yeah, honestly, I didn’t worry about that too much because to me, the music’s just sort of a background. It was a great thing that the music really worked and is really great music and it really is authentic in relation to each character. I think these movies, a lot of times there can be these great songs and then you try to watch the movie and the characters are not developed and the storyline’s not very good and you certainly don’t believe that these characters can support that great music. That happens a lot, or vice versa. There’s this great storyline and these great characters and you’re really enjoying this movie. Then the music starts and you think this music isn’t really good enough to support the success of these characters. I think in this film, not only does the music sort of stand on its own outside the film, but in that world that this movie created, I think that you could understand, well, that song could make her a star. Or, these songs are the reason that Kelly’s a star. Or, that song could make Beau a star. I think you can believe in that world that these songs would work for those characters which is pretty rare I think in a film that’s got music involved.