MoviesOnline sat down with Garrett Hedlund to talk about his new film, Country Strong. Garrett, who grew up on a farm near a small Minnesota town that only had one radio station that played country music, has an innate sensitivity that comes through in his acting. It made him perfect for the role of Beau Hutton, a struggling, charismatic singer-songwriter who is the heart of the film.
Garrett told us how much he enjoyed his character and looked forward to performing the songs. He also described how he prepared for the role with the help of Tim McGraw and the Warren Brothers, what it was like playing opposite his country music hero again, and how he was handling the pressure of having an incredible run of success that included this film, Tron: Legacy, and On the Road.
Q: How was the Tron: Legacy after party last night?
GARRETT: Literally I stayed about 20 minutes at the after party and then went straight home. I was so spent. It’s because I had finished filming On the Road with Walter Salles and I was driving across the bay bridge yesterday morning in the Hudson and then finally around 11 in the morning I wrapped. Then it was the goodbyes to this six-month On The Road family and they were like “You have to go to the airport!” and I was like “Just give me a fucking minute!” because it was such a long journey. And then, I jumped straight to the airport. But then, the driver brought me to the wrong airport and then I got on a different plane and tried to make it in, in time for the premiere, and so I was just beat.
Q: Can you talk about the different relationships that your character has with Kelly (Canter), James (Canter) and Chiles (Stanton)?
GARRETT: There’s a progression to the relationships. At the beginning, Beau works at this rehab facility where Kelly is being treated at and he’s introduced to her. They get along and she feels very strongly about his abilities as a musician, and also in a loving and tenderly way, she’s attracted to him. So you have that. And I think as a young singer/songwriter, when one of the biggest country singers in the world tells you you’re good at something, you kind of believe it and it makes you feel fulfilled so you want to be around that a little more. But also, there’s a loving protection that he’s got with her which is why he does go on the tour with her. It’s to oversee but also to be there and express his talents that she feels so strongly about. With James, he’s the husband and tour manager but also somebody that Beau feels is sort of a sellout or has his eyes on a different prize rather than what’s best for Kelly. It’s what’s best for him and his career and her career and the money and revamping her image to the public which had been slightly demolished a little bit after the Dallas performance. With Chiles, it’s this young gal that he feels is in it for the wrong reasons, is in it for the celebrity side, is more bubble gummy pop. But then, I think her cuteness and her – not naivete — but maybe the person she really can be attracts him and then he ends up falling in love.
Q: We see you playing a Merle Haggard song at the start of the film and at one point you’re singing along with Roger Miller. Were you a country music guy before shooting and did you become one if you weren’t and what kind of things do you listen to when you listen to it?
GARRETT: I grew up in a very small Minnesota town where we only had one radio station and it was all country music so that’s why it was first so surreal on Friday Night Lights to be working with Tim McGraw because he’s – you know – “Don’t Take the Girl” is my favorite song and [I’d be] driving in the tractor and singing it, and then next, Tim’s playing my father in the film so it was very surreal. I got up on stage and I sang “I Like It, I Love It” with him in Austin in 2004. But I wasn’t a country singer by any means. I was really familiar with all the great old men. I mean, my grandpa used to play Johnny Cash to our turkeys (laughs) and they’d start bopping their head to the music as we were getting everything ready in the morning.
Q: Turkeys are smarter than we thing, right?
GARRETT: (laughs) Yeah, they’re very smart.
Q: They have good musical taste. This may be a digression.
GARRETT: Me and Shana (Feste) had sat down ever since August. That’s when I’d started the guitar training with this guy Neal Casal who’s a wonderful singer/songwriter and extremely talented and was very patient with me. Me and Shana would meet up every Tuesday and Thursday and sit and watch old documentaries – either The Highwaymen or things on (Kris) Kristofferson and Roger Miller and just all these great performers and Waylon (Jennings) and Merle (Haggard) and (Jack) Dunham and just what they were about and the soul to them and trying to bring that soul to this. But it’s also funny because the music today in country music had changed so much from what it was when I was on the farm because once you move to a city you kind of get away from it and go alternative. When we’d get closer to Canada, we’d get the Winnipeg stations, so rock ‘n roll, so now you’re starting to go “Yeah, I want a little more of this rock ‘n roll!” But when I came out here, country was home and I flew back to it and really it made me feel much better. I was relaxed a lot more in the chaotic city of Los Angeles with country music. But today’s music, I hadn’t known almost a single song when we were starting this back in August and then by the time March rolled around and we’d finished, there wasn’t a song I didn’t know every inflection to.
Q: Did Tim McGraw give you much advice along the way? Was it a little nerve-wracking him being there while you’re trying to pick this stuff up?
GARRETT: The one nerve-wracking moment with Tim was I’d flown out there in October to get a gist of Nashville because I’d never been and to just get a feel for the city and see what I was about to embark on, going down to Lower Broad and seeing the incredibly talented musicians there that set a very high scale. I’d sat with Tim in the studio and I’d just brought my travel guitar, you know, it’s just a little Martin-like and first thing he says is “We gotta get you a better guitar.” So, he basically said, “Alright, well play.” And so I sit on this little stool. It was him and the Warren Brothers were sitting to the side, and putting the cape on, I start playing this little song that I had been writing. Basically, we all worked on forming a song around this. He’d say “Another line, another line.” (snaps fingers) and the Warren Brothers would be like “’I’m on this lonely road tonight,’ sing that.” And then I’d sing “On this lonely road tonight” and then it’d be like “C’mon guys, another line.” Then the Warren Brothers would throw out another line and say, “Alright, sing that with it.” Basically it was just saying to sing country music all day, every day, and live and breathe country. It’s not about the acting but about the aspirations of becoming the next great singer/songwriter/country musician. There’s a thousand people in Nashville. There are thousands of people that are geniusly talented that don’t come across success. You’ve got to live and breathe it and really be true to it to understand and express it confidently. And so, he was great and he let me stay out at his cabin in Franklin. And out the bathroom window, Hank William Sr.’s plantation home was right there so every morning it’s like “Good morning, Hank.” And all day long you’re sitting by the fire playing the guitar and trying to go over and smooth out transitions.
Q: What about when it came to actually performing? That was a pretty big crowd in a few of those scenes and also at the end. What was that like?
GARRETT: The lucky thing about performing for these audiences was I really truly loved the songs that I was singing – like the songs that Hayes Carll had given me. I mean, this was what I wanted and we had got it. If you were singing a silly song, you would have felt silly and everybody would have felt silly for you, but these ones – just the message in all these songs was something that I felt really strongly about. But the first performance we’d had, I was kind of worried about this. I knew the scenes were beautiful and I’d put a lot of work into the preparation of the scenes and the soul and finding the internal rhythm of that, but the first concert we had to do was at the stage, at the beginning, the smaller one and the rowdier people. But when the crowd actually likes the songs that you’re singing, they just feel like they’re at another concert. So they’re just having fun and there’s the excitement of a movie being filmed in Nashville and they’re there and the song’s good and you’re having fun with it. So they’re having fun. I didn’t want to do anymore scenes, I just wanted to keep performing.
Q: So you forget yourself in the moment?
GARRETT: Yeah. I was really looking forward to every performance part, even when it got to be the big auditoriums. You walk out and you’re like, “Well alright. Here we go. Another day. Look at all of you.”
Q: Yeah, but they’re paid to cheer so you knew you were going to be fine.
GARRETT: I think they were volunteers.
Q: Nashville and Hollywood aren’t that dissimilar in the way that a songwriter or singer is in Nashville is how actors are here in L.A. You’ve had an incredible run of success that happened very quickly and it’s similar to how it is for your character in the movie that’s plucked out of obscurity and suddenly he’s on this huge stage. This is such a big year for you. What sort of pressure do you feel or do you just put it out of your mind?
GARRETT: Last night was the most similar to that, I think. You know, walking down onto Hollywood Blvd. and the barricades being off and everybody roaring was very similar to the experience that Beau had coming out of that concert and he’s caught by surprise by people with his picture and wanting his autograph. That was the most similar feeling that I’ve had so I’m glad I got to act it before I experienced it.
Q: Did that experience make you want to run to California and play in a little honky tonk just like get away and do theater?
GARRETT: No, it makes me want to run to Nashville and find a little honky tonk. I swear it does.
Q: You’ve got two such different projects out right now. Can you talk about the contrast of those two roles – from the super high tech CGI of Tron to this stripped down guy just in front of a mic?
GARRETT: It’s been weird and a line of transitions because for two years I was prepping for On the Road, so by the time I did Tron I’d had to start a massive amount of training for cap wear and parcour and physical training and motorcycle and all the wire rigs and things like that. So the physicality came into play, the physical transition came in, and then having wrapped that and then starting straight into the guitar and just sitting back and feeling the soul of all these tunes and moving out to Nashville and the pulled pork and the lovely Lower Broad venues that we frequented. And, as soon as I’d finished that, I ended up going up to 200 pounds for Country Strong. After I finished, I said alright now you have 5 weeks before Tron reshoots. Then I got with a trainer and I had to lose 30 pounds to get back into the suit because the suit was what it was when I was in it for the first time.
Q: How did you manage to drop 30 pounds in 5 weeks?
GARRETT: This trainer, Gunnar Peterson, he trained me for Troy and this is maybe the second or third time I’ve trained with him and he’s just so good at what he does so it makes it easy. And you’re laughing the whole time. You’re not crying. Then, we had to get ready to do On the Road but I had to keep the facial hair to go to Nashville to do additional scenes for Country Strong. So while I’m at the boot camp for On the Road, I got the beard going.
Q: There was a boot camp for On the Road?
GARRETT: Yeah. We did a beat boot camp with biographers and family members.
Q: What do you do there – drink coffee and smoke and snap your fingers?
GARRETT: And then once I’m finished with that, then I can shave the facial hair off and then go about that and then I have to go back and do it and it was so chaotic. It’s been such a multiple personality sort of disorderly year. How can I make that make sense – multiple personality disorder.
Q: What about working with Gwyneth and Leighton (Meester)? What was that like?
GARRETT: It was wonderful. I mean, we were so blessed to have these two. They’ve got such incredible voices. That’s one thing. But also, they’re so good. Gwyneth was so wonderful in this. From our very first scene, it was tender moments. We really had to jump straight into it. But also, she’s such a beautiful person and wonderful actress and to sit there and be able to work with her and listen and respond accordingly and just to have the moments we got to have was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was just surreal. I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time. Also, with Leighton, from the moment I read with her I was very excited to have her bring this in because I thought she brought such a genuine believability to this character and an undeniable cuteness.
Q: What about Tim as an actor and as a country star who doesn’t sing in this?
GARRETT: I think Tim is incredible. I can’t wait for the next movie.
Q: Is he going to kick your ass again?
GARRETT: I hope so.
“Country Strong” opens wide in theaters on January 7th.