There’s a pretty simple reason why “famous musician” ranks so highly amongst kids. There are few experiences more thrilling – and legal – in the world than standing on a stage, entertaining thousands, and listening to every last one of them cheer you on. But nothing in this world exists without a dark side, and that’s exactly what Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in Country Strong goes through.
Sitting in a roundtable interview, the Oscar winning actress was more than happy to talk about her role in the film, as Kelly Canter, the country music superstar trying to mount a comeback after a stint in rehab. Throughout the interview, Paltrow touched on a number of subjects, from her country music-less upbringing, the lessons she learned from Robert Downey Jr. about addiction, and details about her role in Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming thriller Contagion. Check it out below!
What did you learn about the country world?
Quite a lot, actually. People in country music are really nice people. They’re very warm and they’re very open and supportive of each other, and they’ve got a lot of southern hospitality. It was nice. It didn’t feel as cutthroat as other lines of entertainment. It’s really nice people.
When you’re standing on stage in front of thousands of people, even during a movie shoot do you feel like a rock star?
Well, not entirely, but when we were shooting the end of the movie where I do this big performance, by halfway though the day – because at first I was terrified – but then by halfway through the day I thought, “Oh, this is actually kind of fun. I can see why people do this job.” But, of course, my fans were paid to be there [laughs]. It guarantees a good response.
Have you always been a fan of country music?
No, I grew up in New York City where there’s no country music radio stations so I just wasn’t exposed to it. Of course, you hear the major things, the crossover acts, and I loved a lot of the crossover, like Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. I remember going to see John Prine when I was younger, but I was never 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. And I really fell in love with it. I mean, this whole thing is very surprising to me, but to discover a whole genre of music at 37 years old and be all psyched about it and geek out on it was fun. I never thought I would be a country music fan or singer or anything.
There’s also a really rich history of movies about country music. Did you watch any of them in preparation for the role?
I watch a lot of them. I watched Tender Mercies a lot, and Cole Miner’s Daughter. And I watched a lot of DVD performance videos to prepare and I studied all of the ladies of country. Because it wasn’t 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, because some movies are about somebody who is trying to make it or are 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?” So I just watched everybody. But, honestly, I think the thing that made me feel, “Okay, I sort of feel like I get this” is I watched Beyonce a ton – because I think she’s the best live performer happening right now – and she has this amazing confidence. And I thought to myself, “If I can just get a tiny bit of that self-confidence, then maybe I can pull off this scene at the end.” You wouldn’t necessarily think that Beyonce would be an inspiration for country music, right? [laughs]
I still haven’t seen that film!
Were you guys like, “Oh no, they’re going to get to it first!”
No. From what I hear I think it’s a very different film, a different subject. I mean, it’s about country music, but I don’t know because I never saw it.
How do prepare for the role, both the music part and playing an addict?
Well, there’s was this sort of physical preparation which was lots of singing lessons and guitar lessons. It was really when I got there and I had this scene where, it’s sort of trimmed down a lot in the movie, where the night after I’ve done some horrific thing and just kind of wake up and expect… you know, it’s like I wrecked people’s lives and I wake up and expect to keep on going. So 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 sort of disconnect or self-destruction. But I couldn’t understand it to the point of wrecking someone else’s life. So I emailed Robert Downey Jr. and I was like, “Just explain to me how this goes. What…how…I don’t get it. You spend a night where you lie and cheat and there’s no consequence and you barf and you could kill someone, and you get up and have a coffee? How does that work?” And he wrote me back the most amazing email and he just explained the psychology of it so well. So he really helped me with that.
What was it that originally drew you to the role?
As I said before, the complexity of all the characters and the relationships, and I like the idea of a woman who was aging and feeling the pressure of the younger… I like the kind of slight All About Eve aspect of it. And I loved the idea of the challenge of the music.
I love bluegrass, so I listened to a lot of bluegrass and I like a lot of more singer-songwriter. But it’s true, because you have Leighton [Meester] representing the pop country and Kelly’s like prime country and Garrett [Hedlund]’s like Texas country. I like his line where he’s like, “Just because it’s on the radio doesn’t mean it’s good.”
You talked about singing lessons in preparation for the film, but you’ve done singing before. Is there something technically different about singing country that you had to learn?
Well, I had never studied voice and I have a naturally, perfectly nice singing voice, but these songs had a lot of scope to them and I really needed to build up a strength. And my singing teacher in London was really a task master and was really focused on getting a much bigger voice out of me, which I was surprised to find in myself. So that was kind of exciting. And just working on all of the technical parts of singing and also learning how to sing something over and over and over again. Because the way I did it before was, I’d wake up… one time I sang with Jay-Z at a concert and I woke up and I couldn’t talk. I didn’t know how to do it. So now I’ve learned the more technical side of it.
How did you learn the accent?
I had a really good accent coach and we were in Tennessee. I was always nervous to do it in front of Tim, just because a) he teases me all the freaking time and b) his accent is so… but once I got the stamp of approval from Tim I was like, “Okay.”
Did you do a lot of research on the Center For Disease Control for your upcoming role in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion?
No, I didn’t. My character in that is totally unaware. I get the virus very early on and I don’t… I think Kate Winslet plays the CDC doctor. I’m just an unaware housewife.
Is that an exciting role in the movie?
The movie is a really exciting movie. We all kind of have these little parts in it and we’re all kind of important parts in the whole over thing. It’s exciting for me because I got to work with Steven Soderbergh, but I’m not playing someone from the Czech Republic who does back handsprings or something like that. It’s straightforward [laughs].
No, don’t worry [laughs]. I can do kind of one thing a year. I did this at the beginning of [last] year, in January, and then the Contagion thing was like one day in Hong Kong and like four days in Chicago, so I was able to squeeze that in. But I really can’t do more than one thing a year. It’s just not worth it to my family and everything.
Do you get to be in The Avengers?
No, I’m not in The Avengers.
So when do you have to be on call for Iron Man 3?
I don’t know. I think it comes out in 2013, so I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything about anything yet. I really don’t know.
What’s been piling up around the house while you’ve been out working?
I don’t know. I don’t like to let too many things pile up, although I’m a terrible script reader. I’ll have a script, and I’ll see the movie coming out and I’m like, “I’m sure that’s on my desk. I meant to read that” [laughs]
What does it take for you to pick up a script from the pile?
Well, this one, for example, my friend, Jenno [Topping], was the producer and she’s been a really good friend of mine for like 15 years. So she just beat the shit out of me until I read it [laughs]. But I’m glad I did!