Award winning country singer and accomplished actor Tim McGraw plays the romantically aloof husband/manager of country music superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) who struggles to put her career back on track after it’s shaken by addiction and scandal. Tensions flare when Kelly takes a romantic shine to Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a talented young man with a guitar who suddenly finds himself thrust into Kelly’s topsy turvy world as she gears up for a return to her adoring fans. As they embark on a fateful tour, romantic entanglements, dormant demons and the demands of showbiz threaten to derail all the players in this tale of modern Nashville.
MoviesOnline sat down with Tim to talk about his new movie. He told us how he approached his complicated role, why he thinks Gwyneth Paltrow has a fantastic country voice, how he felt about reuniting onscreen with Garrett Hedlund, and what it was like to be the only lead in a movie about country music that doesn’t sing. He also described the importance of storytelling in the song writing process and updated us on what he has coming up next including a new album, an upcoming concert tour, and a movie with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.
MOVIESONLINE: Tim, how has your relationship with Garrett changed and evolved over the years?
TIM MCGRAW: I still don’t like him.
TIM MCGRAW: He’s an ass that little kid. Plus he can sing, he’s a movie star, he’s good lookin’. What is there to like about him? I mean God. No, he’s…I just always thought he was a great kid. I mean, a very honest guy, you know. He’s just a straight up honest kid, a good kid, he’s got a good heart and I really think he is going to be a huge movie star. I think he’s going to be one of our best leading men down the road.
MOVIESONLINE: Why do you always beat him up so bad then?
TIM MCGRAW: Oh because he’s like my kid brother. You know. Got to keep him in check.
MOVIESONLINE: How is it to be the only lead in a movie about country music that doesn’t sing?
TIM MCGRAW: I loved it. I loved it. You know, this character in particular, when you read the script, I thought there was no way that James Canter would sing. In the past present future, I don’t think he ever played any instrument, so I think James had sort of a, not disrespect, but I think he sort of thought that singers were childish in a lot of ways. In fact, the way I approached this role is that he was really the only adult in the film. He had to make the adult decisions. He had to put his self in…I never really thought of him as an ass at all, or a bad guy. I thought that he had to make some tough decisions that nobody else could make.
MOVIESONLINE: Is there some kind of arrested development emotionally though, in terms of maturity?
TIM MCGRAW: I don’t think in James there was. I think that he let Kelly make him feel that way in a lot of ways. I think ultimately, this was a real love story, a real love story between Kelly and James. I mean, of course you’ve got Layton and Chiles and Beau who fell in love and they ended up together and all that kind of stuff. But I think the real tragic love story was Kelly and James. I think they really were in love with each other and really, really had this genuine affinity for each other and respect. And I think the love just got ate up, through a series of things.
MOVIESONLINE: Well, we understand that things went wrong before the baby even.
TIM MCGRAW: Right.
MOVIESONLINE: Something was deteriorating.
TIM MCGRAW: Well, I think something was deteriorating yeah. But, I don’t know if you can put your finger on it, but I think the baby probably in my mind was the trigger. In my mind, I think that there is a certain point in a movie where you realize, it’s not a matter of James forgiving her. I don’t know if he could have ever gotten past that, and I think he realized that. The thing that really was the nail in the coffin, so to speak for their relationship, was the point in the movie when he realized that she wasn’t going to forgive herself. And you know, love can sort of rebound and regrow and reinvent itself around a lot of things, but when somebody can’t forgive themself for something, I think love sort of withers in that situation.
MOVIESONLINE: What’s the key for you and your family? You’re all performing and you have amazing careers. How do you keep it together when you’re in the limelight?
TIM MCGRAW: My wife’s the key for sure. She’s very organized but I think that we both come from, certainly came from very humble beginnings and small towns and good communities. So, I think that, that’s always been a part of us. I think we both sort of feel lucky to be where we’re at and I don’t think we… There’s no part of us that feels like we deserve to have this, that we’re so good, that everything’s going so good for us because we’re so talented. I don’t think we feel that way all. I think that’s a big key.
MOVIESONLINE: Nashville’s filled with husband and wife…husband manager wife on the road…Loretta Lynne and Doo. Did any of those relationships inform your character? Did you take any of that?
TIM MCGRAW: Not relationship-wise, because I sort of wrote my backstory in my mind of this character and where I thought he came from, what I thought he was. You know, I take this character and put him in a mirror and tell him to evaluate himself. And why he doesn’t think he needs to sing? What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses? All those kinds of things. What was his mother like? How did he grow up? All those kinds of things that most actors I guess do to build their character. But I found one person who was a really good friend of mine, when I was reading it I was trying to find…Okay, how do I start the ball rolling downhill with this guy? What’s he going to look like? So, I based that on Narvel Blackstock, Reba McEntire’s husband.
MOVIESONLINE: Because he’s this great sartorial guy, he’s a real Beau Brummel isn’t he?
TIM MCGRAW: Yeah, yeah and he’s very…yeah.
MOVIESONLINE: He’s always so dressed like…
TIM MCGRAW: Very dressed, very put together, very type A sort of look to him that you realize…
TIM MCGRAW: To me, I would picture James waking up and his watch is laid out in the same place every morning. Everything is put in the same…you know, very orderly. And so, Narvel always makes me think of that. But, after the initial look, and Narvel’s look is a little different, but after I got the impetus for that then Narvel quickly went away because if you know Narvel, James really is nothing like him in the long run.
MOVIESONLINE: Yes. Musically speaking, how would you rate Gwyneth’s voice?
TIM MCGRAW: Fantastic. She sucks you in and you just totally believe in her and she melts you. There’s such an honest, sort of a heartbreaking, Appalachian loneliness in her voice. I think she’s got a fantastic country voice.
MOVIESONLINE: And pretty gutsy for her to get up at the CMAs too right?
TIM MCGRAW: Shit. Are you kidding me? That still scares me. My only advice is, I told her, “Don’t look at anybody.” Because I remember the first time I sang at an awards show, I was singing away and I looked down and George Strait was right in front of me and I forgot every word.
MOVIESONLINE: Who are your country music idols?
TIM MCGRAW: Well, first on the list is Merle Haggard. I mean, that would be at the very top of the list. And then Keith Whitley would be up there. I got a lot. I could go on forever about my heros. Bruce Springsteen is a music idol. So, I got a lot.
MOVIESONLINE: Between this and The Blind Side you’re playing a lot of fathers and husbands and these kinds of roles, do you ever say to your agent, “I want to play a bad guy, I want to play a cop, I want to play a tax accountant.”? Or do you just get this never-ending series of husbands and dads?
TIM MCGRAW: No. I just look for stuff that I like, you know. But, I would love to play those things. And I think, you know, you’ve got to sort of build your rep a little bit. You know, I don’t think anybody’s out running around going, “Oh my God, we’ve got to have Tim McGraw in our movie.”
MOVIESONLINE: Well, it’s a good thing you have a fallback career.
TIM MCGRAW: Yeah, exactly. Look, I still got bills to pay. I got three daughters, that’s a lot of shoes. Trust me; movies aren’t going to pay for that, for a minute.
MOVIESONLINE: Were you sort of the de facto consultant, like the country music consultant or did they already have a ton of research done by the time you showed up on set?
TIM MCGRAW: I’ve heard that but look; I wouldn’t have signed on to it if I hadn’t thought they had their ducks in a row to start with. So, they were pretty good about having…There were moments and things that, I wouldn’t say I gave advice, but I certainly suggested a few times. But overall I had a heavy load with this character and sort of the way he related differently to each character, so I had to make sure that my canoe was being paddled.
MOVIESONLINE: Leighton (Meester) said that you taught her everything about country music.
TIM MCGRAW: Oh, she’s stretching. She’s stretching. She’s just being nice.
MOVIESONLINE: Did you two play together?
TIM MCGRAW: We talked quite a bit; we all talked quite a bit. But like I said, I don’t think I ever gave advice. I might have answered a question if they asked or some suggestion but I didn’t give any advice. I don’t even trust myself in my career much less giving somebody else advice.
MOVIESONLINE: You were touring at the same time as you were filming, weren’t you?
TIM MCGRAW: The last two or three weeks turned into about two-and-a-half weeks of 20-hour days. That was kind of tough but, it’s also the things that, when you look back at when you made the film, it made it interesting and that’s what made it kind of cool. Getting up at four in the morning, working until four, getting on a plane and going to do a show and being home at two and then get up at four and doing two weeks of that. You know, it wasn’t just me, it was like three or four people that work for me had to do it too. So, if they could do it, I could do it.
MOVIESONLINE: What happened to the quail?
TIM MCGRAW: Well, he gave it to somebody who could take [care of it]. Remember in one scene he said…
MOVIESONLINE: No. In real life, what happened to the quail?
TIM MCGRAW: I don’t know what happened to the quail. I went quail hunting two weeks ago, it might have been in that group, I don’t know.
MOVIESONLINE: How surreal is it, coming from the country music world, to be in a movie that takes place in that world and sort of playing that?
TIM MCGRAW: Well, like I said before, the toughest part was…or did I say that in here before…I might have said no to it a couple of times, because I know how…probably some of the trepidations of anybody hiring me for any movie is, they don’t want me to be a distraction. They don’t want the audience to go in and every time I’m in a scene they go, “Oh, that’s that country music singer guy.” So, if that happens, you sort of ruin the movie. So, hopefully I’ve gotten a little past that. But, I though initially it would be too much to ask the audience to put me in that world of country music and ask me to play a character and ask them to accept that I’m playing a character and not think it’s me the whole time. So, I thought it was too much to ask originally. And then I talked to Shana (Feste), and then I saw the movie The Greatest that she had written and directed. I was really moved by that movie, and so I thought if she sort of brings those sensibilities in that sort of look and that eye to this movie, then I guess maybe we can build a character that everybody will buy into and not really think it’s Tim McGraw the whole time.
MOVIESONLINE: Garrett was telling us that you invited him into the studio so you could have a jam session if you will. Can you tell us a little bit about it and also about the song writing process because country music is so much about the story telling?
TIM MCGRAW: Yes.
MOVIESONLINE: As opposed to just simple lyrics and a hook.
TIM MCGRAW: Yeah. Well, I think country music is about honesty. You know, any art has to have honesty to start with, as the core of it. I mean, they’re just going to manipulate you in one way or the other, but there has to honesty at the core of it. So, that was the main thing and when Garrettt came in, I wanted to hear him because I had never heard him…I take that back. When we were doing Friday Night Lights, he used to sing in my ear all the time and I kept telling him to shut up. Pretty bad, but he came in and we sat down and played guitars and talked a little bit and I just told him that…I mean, he’s got such a resonate, deep, cool sounding voice just in a speaking voice so I thought that he would be able to pull something off. I told him you just have to believe in what you’re singing. You have to believe yourself that you’re good. I don’t think that anybody…a great singer is not necessarily a requirement for being a successful singing artist. I think a commitment to what you’re doing is what the audience is going to respect and to affect people and communicate. And I told him he should approach it as; he’s coming to town to be a country music singer not that he’s coming to town to play one. And I think that, that was sort of maybe something that he got out of it.
MOVIESONLINE: What would he sing on the set of Friday Night Lights? Do you remember any of the songs?
TIM MCGRAW: He used to sing Don’t Take the Girl, and he used to ask me if he could get on stage and sing it with me.
MOVIESONLINE: But he said that he did. He said that you let him.
TIM MCGRAW: No I didn’t. I won’t let him. Not now anyway. Now I know he can sing. Like all the stuff before, I’m not going to let him get up there and take my gig away from me.
MOVIESONLINE: When you’re working on albums, do you and Faith (Hill) critique each other’s performances at all?
TIM MCGRAW: Yeah. I rely on her. I want her to be honest and she is honest. We have different tastes too, so that’s good that we can look at each other’s stuff. There’s been a thing about my stuff that she hasn’t liked that I’ve loved and I’ve kept and she wished I’d gotten rid of and same for her, because we have different tastes. I certainly respect her opinion above all others.
MOVIESONLINE: What did she think of Gwyneth’s performance?
TIM MCGRAW: Oh, she loved it. She loved the movie. She was nervous about seeing it, because of all of the reasons that anybody would do that was in this business, especially with her husband being in it. I would if she was playing a country…or involved in a country…I would be nervous about it. But, she really liked it.
MOVIESONLINE: There is a certain amount of honesty in the film’s approach to looking at country music as an industry; your character has to deal with the idea of his wife as a brand. Was that nice to kind of beat out some of the dirty laundry in public? To sort of get out some of the challenges you’ve had with the industry?
TIM MCGRAW: I guess. I mean, I didn’t really think about it that way. I just sort of looked at it through my character’s eyes as best I could. But look, I could beat on record labels and all that kind of stuff all day if I really wanted to, but nobody wants to hear that.
MOVIESONLINE: Were there any films that inspired you, that you watched before…Nashville, for example?
TIM MCGRAW: Yeah. I watched Nashville. I watched A Star is Born. I watched Songwriter, Honeysuckle Rose, which I think is a great film.
MOVIESONLINE: That is a great film which was changed. They changed the title to On the Road Again.
TIM MCGRAW: Did they really?
MOVIESONLINE: Yeah, they did for DVD release.
TIM MCGRAW: Oh, I didn’t know that.
MOVIESONLINE: Because they had the hook…
TIM MCGRAW: Right. Right. I watched those movies of course, and got a lot out of them. But you forget how good some of those movies are when you haven’t seen them in a while too.
MOVIESONLINE: Because Nashville painted a very bleak picture of that industry.
TIM MCGRAW: Yes.
MOVIESONLINE: Is that something that’s difficult? That people don’t want to see, they don’t want to see the downside of what is basically a…
TIM MCGRAW: Well, look, you know, it’s a tough industry. Hollywood, Nashville, any of those…that’s a tough industry. It sort of has to be because it’s sort of a natural weeding out process in a lot of ways. I mean, you’re not just going to just walk in there and succeed; it takes a lot of work. You’ve got to get through a lot of traps and it’s probably like if you wanted to break down anything that anybody does for a living, nothing’s going to be easy if you’re going to be good at it.
MOVIESONLINE: Yes. Will Nashville accept Gwyneth or did they already?
TIM MCGRAW: I don’t know, I think she got a standing ovation at The CMAs. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten a standing ovation at The CMAs.
MOVIESONLINE: When did you two first meet and build the rapport that was required for your relationship?
TIM MCGRAW: Well, we had talked about it. We had met like ten years ago at some dinner in New York, Faith, her and I. But we didn’t talk much so, I didn’t really know her. So, I didn’t know what to expect. But we met a couple of weeks before the movie started and hit it off right away. We got along instantly. She’s very open and warm and we’ve become very good friends. I think that the best thing that’s come out of this is that we gained; our families have gained a mutual friendship. We really get along good. I’d love to do another film with her; I think that we had a good chemistry.
MOVIESONLINE: When I was in Nashville, one of the things that people kept saying was that you all believe in like the rising tide raises all boats.
TIM MCGRAW: Yes.
MOVIESONLINE: Which isn’t necessarily the same sentiment that Hollywood has, which is like that’s my pie and you can’t have a piece.
TIM MCGRAW: Yes.
MOVIESONLINE: Do you agree with that?
TIM MCGRAW: Yeah, I think…Look, especially in country music, because I think country music is really one of the biggest genres of music out there and one the most successful genres, but we still get swept under the rug a lot. So, I think anytime anybody brings attention to country music it helps everybody involved.
MOVIESONLINE: Can you tell us a little bit about the Make a Wish scene?
TIM MCGRAW: Well, that to me was one of my favorites. That’s what I was talking about earlier, as sort of the pivotal moment in the movie. It’s like there’s an, “Ah ha” moment because he realizes how much he sees the Kelly he fell in love with, but then he also realizes that she’s never going to forgive herself. That’s sort of when you realize that it’s pretty much a lost cause, especially to James, when he realizes that.
MOVIESONLINE: What are you working on now?
TIM MCGRAW: I’ve got a tour coming up this summer; hopefully an album coming out in the spring, I start a movie in March in South Africa. It’s called Safe House with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. So, I get to play a shoot ‘em up.
MOVIESONLINE: Do you have to have a South African accent?
TIM MCGRAW: No, I don’t have to have a South African accent. No, it’s a CIA movie. So, I don’t have to have a South African accent, but I would love to do something with an accent. I think that would be fun.
MOVIESONLINE: Thanks Tim.
TIM MCGRAW: My pleasure.
“Country Strong” opens wide in theaters on January 7th.