Gwyneth Paltrow Reveals the Woman Behind ‘Country Strong’
Gwyneth Paltrow has jumped into the Nashville scene with both feet and entrenched herself in the country-music community, especially with her debut country single, ‘Country Strong.’ The song is the title track of her new film, which opens in theaters in Nashville and Los Angeles on December 22, and nationwide on January 7. It’s also the first release from the movie soundtrack, which arrived in stores in October.
When you think of Gwyneth Paltrow, you automatically conjure Hollywood royalty. The imagination might never fathom the down-to-earth, humble and witty natural beauty who speaks of her nervousness performing in front of a crowd and how hard it is to balance full-time motherhood with a demanding job in the public eye. Having won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1999 for her performance in ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ the mother of two has since scaled back her work to spend more time at home with her children.
Her first major leading role in five years, ‘Country Strong‘ stars Gwyneth as Kelly Canter, a fallen country superstar attempting to resurrect her career with the help of her husband-manager (Tim McGraw), an up-and-coming songwriter (Garrett Hedlund) and a beautiful ingenue on the rise (Leighton Meester). The film has spawned the newly-minted hit title track, sung by Gwyneth, who sounds very natural coming out of the speakers alongside the likes of Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley.
The Boot sat down in a Nashville studio with the actress to talk about the movie and her challenges with playing Kelly. She also shares her thoughts about Music City’s songwriting community, her new love and appreciation for country music and the artists who make it, as well as her obsession with the iconic Dolly Parton.
What made you want to take on the role of a country singer?
I was sent this script for ‘Country Strong’ when I was making ‘Iron Man 2,’ and I’m not a very good script reader. I’m not very responsive, I guess [laughs]. I’ve read so many bad scripts over the years that I stopped reading them at a certain point. But my friend Jenna was producing the movie, and she said, “You really should read this.” So, I read it, and I got completely absorbed in the world, and it was such an amazing character. I knew nothing about country music. I was born in Los Angeles, and I grew up in New York City, and I wasn’t really exposed to it. So, I was very daunted by the idea of taking it on, but I fell completely in love with the character and the world. So, I started doing research. I started with Hank [Williams] Sr. and Johnny Cash and just started educating myself. The amazing thing to me was I really fell in love with country music. I never expected that it would become a part of who I am. It was a completely unexpected side-effect of doing the movie. Now, I’ll be having a party and my friends will be like, “What are we listening to?” And I’ll say, “Miranda Lambert. Love it! It’s the best thing in the world.” I’m completely converted. The whole experience has been as surprising for me as it is for you.
What can you tell us about the dynamics between the two main women in the film — your character and Leighton Meester’s?
I play Kelly Canter, who had the success of a Faith Hill or a Shania Twain a few years ago, and she’s really taken a turn for the worse. She’s had some really unfortunate things happen. When the movie opens, she’s in rehab and her husband James, who’s played by Tim, is her manager, and it’s a very business-y relationship, and she’s sort of pining for this love lost between them. He’s planned this comeback tour for her, and he’s found this young girl, Chiles Stanton, to be her opening act. So, there’s a little ‘All About Eve’ thing happening throughout the course of the movie, which is kind of fun to watch. [laughs] Although, I’m the old lady, which is not so great. When did that happen? [laughs]
‘Country Strong’ is also the first single from the soundtrack with you on lead vocals. How did you relate to the song?
When I first heard the demo, I felt very connected to it. I’m not from the South, and I’m not from the country, but my father, who I was incredibly close to — “I’m country strong like the ground I grew up on” — that, to me, is the foundation that my father [late producer Bruce Paltrow] laid for me. He passed away, but I think of my father every day, in every decision that I make. I feel like I’m an independent, capable person because of the foundation he gave me, and of the values he imparted to me, and we had such a strong family. So I thought of my dad when I heard it. The lyrics are very empowering and especially in the context of the story of the movie.
I felt very liberated when I was singing it, because I was petrified! It was the first track that I cut, and I worked on it with my singing teacher in London for months before I flew here and was recording it with Byron Gallimore [Tim McGraw’s longtime producer]. I felt, “I don’t know if I can pull this off, this music, it’s serious. It’s great. It’s hard to sing.” But when I first started doing it, I felt very liberated by it, like, “No, I can do this. I have to find it within myself.” And that’s ‘Country Strong.’ It’s like, “You can rise above it and you can do it. It’s a challenge. It’s not your comfort zone.” I was really happy with the way it turned out. It’s been such a surprise for me; just the idea that I could hear myself on country radio, especially now that I’m such a fan of country music, and it’s come later in my life. It’s like a dream. It’s surreal.
Watch Gwyneth Sing ‘Country Strong’
How was Vince Gill chosen to sing background vocals on ‘Country Strong?’
I was in Byron Gallimore’s studio, and I had just finished singing the song, and they were doing the monitor mix. Byron just said, “You know who would be great on this is Vince. Let me call Vince.” I said, “What? What do you mean?” He was like, “I’ll just call him and see if he wants to come in. His voice would be so perfect on this chorus.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, but really?” So, he just called him and got him to come in.
There was this really nice marriage between [the movies and country music] because we came into town and said, ‘We’re looking to make a movie that’s as authentic as possible.” The whole community started writing songs for the movie, and there was amazing support for the movie, and there were beautiful songs that were written. I have a song at the end of the movie that Hillary Lindsey and a couple of other guys wrote. She’s one of my favorite songwriters, and she wrote this amazing song for the movie that would become a surprise for me and for the director. It was great how it was two worlds operating with mutual respect. I had a foot in each world.
Some actors say they put some of themselves in the character and that the character inserts themselves a bit in their real lives. How much of that happened with you and your character, Kelly Canter, who is a bit mentally unbalanced?
She rubbed off on me more than I rubbed off on her. There’s not a lot of me in her, but by the end of the movie, she was in me. It’s funny because when the movie was coming to an end, I was really sad, because there was this abandon Kelly Canter has, that I feel like I don’t have; I’m not allowed. I have to keep myself within a box, and she’s just the most free being, a total wreck, and also amazing, but there was a kind of freedom that I felt playing her that I was really, really sad to let go of and go back to my tidy corners. It was hard for me to say goodbye to her. That was very cathartic. I loved playing somebody who was kind of coming off her hinges … There was something very liberating about being somebody who was that reckless, because I’m the opposite of that.
In the movie, you have to perform in front of a huge audience. Would you ever consider doing more of that at some point?
One of the things that was hardest for me to wrap my head around was the idea of performing in front of people, because it’s not what I do. Obviously, if you’re starting out being a singer, you play little clubs, you don’t just play an arena. So, that was my main concern: how was I going to be credible as an arena superstar when I’ve never even played in a bar? Obviously, I’m an actress, but that only takes you to a certain point. So I started really watching my friends when they were performing, and I would go to a concert and try not to just be an audience member swept up in the performance, but [to see] how these people achieving what they’re achieving. I saw a couple of Beyoncé‘s concerts, and she was very inspirational to me in this part. Even though it’s obviously diametrically opposed, just her level of confidence and connection and her body. I studied her so closely to figure out how she holds people to that degree. It’s an incredible art, and I just thought if I can somehow replicate just a tenth of this, and luckily the audience was paid to be there [laughs], so a little bit of the reaction was built in, thank God! It’s pretty scary to sing in front of people.
Would you consider coming back to Nashville and recording a full album?
I really loved doing this, and I discovered a whole side that I didn’t really know that I had. There are other songs that I sing in the movie that I think are more of who I am in a way. It was an amazing process. I would never rule anything out, but my favorite part was getting to have Vince Gill sing with me. I love that sort of harmonizing. I think I’d rather sing backup with someone than put myself front and center.
You got to work with one of country music’s leading men, Tim McGraw. What did he teach you about country music?
It’s funny, because my relationship with Tim, we are so connected in the movie and we have such a complicated relationship. My relationship with him was one with a fellow actor, and I didn’t ask him to download too much, because I needed to keep him in my brain a certain way. But Faith, his wife, I really took advantage of and got all kinds of [advice]. When I was researching the role, I went back and watched all of her DVDs and videos and her performances, because we have a similar height and a similar [look], so I felt like if you sort of did a hybrid of Faith and Courtney Love, that’s kind of like who I am in this movie. I asked her a lot of questions. She was very supportive of me and really, really helpful throughout the process. She was like an encyclopedia for me.
What did Tim say about your singing?
He was very, very complimentary. It’s probably because I bribed him! No, he was really impressed. He said I had this Appalachian thing he really loved.
Who besides Faith did you connect with as you studied for your role in the film?
I watched Dolly. I got really into Dolly. I’m obsessed with Dolly Parton, and I wanted to go to Dollywood, but it was closed when I was here. I was devastated. Certain people that everyone was like, “You’re gonna be obsessed with this person,” I didn’t connect as much. I was very much into Loretta Lynn and Dolly, and a lot of newer girls, too, like Miranda, and [Hillary Scott] with Lady Antebellum, I love her voice. And Holly Williams‘ record, I love. I like that sort of older style, soulful country. When you can hear the pain in the woman’s voice, those are the women that I really connected with.
Your husband, Chris Martin [from the band Coldplay], is an accomplished musician and songwriter. Did he have any input in the music side of things for this new film, and if so, what did he think?
We kind of keep our work lives separate, but in this case I would ask him specific questions, and he was very helpful. He’s very supportive of my work, and it was great to have somebody with that experience and that talent to ask questions of. The country music world is so different from the white-bread pop world, but he’s also very influenced by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, and my father-in-law is a huge fan of those guys, so it was always playing in his house. He was helpful. I think he was happy with how it turned out.
Did you know how to play guitar before you started production on ‘Country Strong’?
I did not know how to play the guitar, and I had to learn quickly. We started the movie in January, and I started lessons in London with my guitar teacher in September, and I played every chance I got. My hands would not cooperate with my brain, and it was painful and it was difficult, but I got to a place where I was at least playing the right chords. Of course, the first day of shooting, I had to sing live and play in the movie. It was so terrifying. [laughs] But I got there in the end. I can play enough. My husband always says I’m “better than [U2‘s] Bono, not as good as the Edge” in playing guitar.
When Hollywood attempts to portray country music or its artists, the tendency is to give the characters more “twang” than necessary. How were you not tempted to go overboard?
We talked about it a lot. [The film’s writer] Shana [Feste] really wanted her to be from Tennessee and have an accent. I think she felt like a lot of younger girls today, they’re not really from the country. She really wanted it to be like this woman comes from the world of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn and sound like it … as opposed to she’s from Canada and wants to be a country singer. I said, “Well, how much do you want to go?” She said, “I don’t want to go so far that it’s distracting, but I want it to be country and I want it to be authentic.” I worked with an accent coach who was really good and gave me some things that were really specific to Tennessee. Then you’ve just got to hold your breath and do it, and hope it’s alright.
You spent a lot of time in and around Nashville making the film. What were some of the highlights from your stay here?
The first thing I really loved about the city is how supportive everybody is of each other, which is something that where I come from is not necessarily an automatic with people in the same industry. There’s a real love and respect between people in the industry here, which is palpable and sets the stage for creativity and that kind of freedom when you feel supported and respected by other musicians. It sets you up to win, and the whole town is brimming with creativity … I loved, sadly the first place I’ll mention is a bar, which is indicative of the movie [laughs], but I loved the Patterson House, that really cool, sort of speakeasy bar where all the cute bartenders are in their prohibition outfits. Imogene and Willie, one of the best stores I ever found, and H. Audrey was another store I loved and I became friends with Holly Williams, who I adore. And Prince’s fried chicken, of course, and City House, which is an amazing Italian-by-way-of-Southern restaurant here that I loved. I loved going to the Ryman and seeing the Opry there. I loved going to the Loveless Café on a Wednesday night, and I was at the Station Inn all the time to see the Time Jumpers. I really wanted to squeeze the life out of the city and see as much as possible and buy a guitar at Gruhn’s and go to Hatch [Show Print] and just do everything — and I did. It was such a really nice time.
Being a film actress and a mother to two young children, how do you find a good balance between work and home?
It’s hard. It doesn’t work. It’s the reason why I haven’t starred in a movie since I was pregnant with my daughter, because I would never see them. I would try to find amazing supporting parts where I don’t work five days a week. ‘Iron Man’ was a perfect movie for me, because I just worked here and there and had fun, but I could still do the nursery-school run a few days a week. It’s not possible to have it all. It’s just not. You have to identify what’s really important to you and focus on that and then whatever you can do without breaking the situation that’s most important to you, it’s gravy. I really love what I do, and it’s hard sometimes not to do it as much as I want to do it, but my kids are little and I want them to have a mom who’s at home. So, if I could do one movie a year and uproot everyone, as long as it’s not too big of a part, so far that seems to be OK with everybody. There are sacrifices to be made. You cannot be a woman and have kids and be a full-time mother and a movie star. It just doesn’t work. It’s like anything, you just try to do the best you can. I always prioritize my kids and my husband first and try to get in my thing on the side where I can. That’s one good thing about the music … putting the kids to bed and just being able to play guitar and sing. To me, it doesn’t matter if anyone’s listening. That’s a creative outlet and process for me, and that’s been a really nice thing for me. A really unexpected nice thing.