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LEIGHTON MEESTER on 'COUNTRY STRONG'

Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for RadioFree.com
December 12, 2010

In the drama Country Strong, fallen country music superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) finds herself at a crossroads when her struggle with substance abuse ruins her iconic career and shatters her personal life. While in rehab, she develops a romantic interest in amateur singer/songerwriter Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), and eventually makes him a part of a comeback tour orchestrated by her husband/manager James (Tim McGraw). The situation is further complicated with the inclusion of James' new musical protege, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a naive but talented beauty queen who idolizes Kelly and dreams of becoming a professional singer herself. As the four embark on the tour meant to revive Kelly's career and help in her personal recovery, the pressures of the road, tangled relationships, and past tragedies take their toll on the quartet, threatening to derail their chances at success and happiness.

Country Strong is written and directed by Shana Feste, following up her 2009 film debut The Greatest. The soundtrack features original songs written by some of country music's most notable composers and producers, performed by Gwyneth Paltrow, Leighton Meester, and Garrett Hedlund and representing a variety of styles within the genre.

In this interview, Gossip Girl star Leighton Meester talks about splitting her time between a film project and her hit TV series, and slipping into the skin of a sweet, wide-eyed, aspiring performer like Chiles--from checking out stages big and small to practicing her character's specific accent (which apparently still manifests itself occasionally and adorably when she talks to her dog).

MEDIA: So on a scale of "karaoke enthusiast" to "secret identity as a rock star," what was your musical performance experience going into this project?

LEIGHTON: [laughs] Well, I've performed on stage before. And I think it's terrifying. Probably agree with Chiles in that way. And I've done my share of karaoke... [laughs] I went to some honky-tonks in Nashville with Shana. And you know, Chiles goes through a transformation with her performance, so she starts off not so confident, she gets up there and totally chokes. And these people performing in Nashville are pretty incredible, but we start off and we see, like, people taking shots and getting up on the bar and not really knowing what do with their hands and stuff like that. So she's like, "Watch that. Watch that for the first performance of the stage." And then we go to the Ryman and see Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride get up there and just own it. So it's that whole spectrum of going from not confident at all to being completely...grown up, I guess. And I don't really know what's scarier: standing in front of a crowd of a few people and having them all boo you over and over and over again, or having to do it in front of a thousand people and try to be as confident as possible.

Did you get to feel like a rock star when you were performing the big onstage concert scenes?

Yeah. I mean, up in the rafters, there were some dummies. They weren't real people. It was mixed. It was pretty scary looking. [laughs] But we had a choreographer, we did a lot of rehearsals. It was a big stage. It was Tim's stage, actually. And I don't know how he does it. But I was wearing heels, I think might have been part of it--you know, you gotta run back and forth, and you really touch the crowd and connect with them. And we had run it exactly like a music video--you know, they film everything over and over until you get it right, and then from every different angle, and then we do it again. I fell to my knees a few times. It was fun. Kind of throw your hair back and forth...

What attracted you to this film, and what was your impression of Chiles?

I think overall, obviously, it's the script and the relationships between the characters, and those interactions are so human and kind of messed up. But Chiles is...I feel for her, you know? And I grew to love her more as I was doing the movie. She's kind of pathetic. [laughs] I mean, she wears her heart on her sleeve, and for that, I like her. But also, she gets walked all over. And she kind of comes back and lets people do it again, and she's like, "Are we friends?" "No, we're not." [laughs] And I think that that's actually a good thing. And in the beginning of rehearsals, Shana was like, "You're not that naive or light about things." And I was so offended! [laughs] And then I realized she's right. I should start being like that a bit more. And even to this day, I'm happier, and I think it's because of Chiles. And she's got a lot of the same issues that I think everyone has. I relate to her in a lot of ways. I think she's trying to be somebody. And she's driven and she's kind of sassy, but she also has a past, and she has to let that out. I think her love with Beau allows that. But she's scared of being insignificant, or common, or interchangeable, and she wants Beau to think she's talented, and everyone to think she's smart, and more than just pretty.



How did your Country Strong schedule co-exist with your responsibilities on Gossip Girl?

Obviously we're under contract for a certain amount of time, and I think in the fourth year, they start going, "Okay, we know the timing of things, we know how much we need you and how much we don't." So they've been very kind to let us out. I've been lucky enough to find projects that I really like to do. I mean, usually they're on hiatus. This [time they were] not. [laughs] I had to threaten everybody in my life, including my manager and my agent and everybody that I work with. I was like, "If I can't do this, if we can't work out the schedule, I am moving to Costa Rica, I'm never going to work again, I'm turning off my phone!" I was bluffing, but it works. [laughs]

This movie deals with issues of fame. Have your own experiences in the public eye been similar to what Chiles goes through?

I think more than anything, the movie asks the question "Can you have love and success?" Fame, to me, is a silliness. And I don't want that. I mean, I guess it is somehow part of my job, but I think my job is acting, and that's where I find my joy. But I don't really ever have any issues or problems with it. The best part about that aspect is that we have good fans. And then the rest of my life, I can wear sweatpants around, and then I don't have any problem whatsoever. [laughs]

Gwyneth said that Tim teased her about her southern accent...

He'll tease you about anything he can...

Did you get the same treatment?

The hardest thing about the set, honestly, was probably maintaining the accent, because everyone speaks with a Tennessee accent, and I'm supposed to be from Dallas. But we had a dialect coach. It's funny how naturally it seems to come. And now it comes in and out. Especially when I'm talking to my dog or something. I'm like, [says with a southern accent] "Get out of there!" [laughs] It's just fun. Yeah, he'll tease you for whatever he can. So I didn't take it too to heart. But after, like, the first session with a dialect coach, he was like, "I think you kind of get this. I think you kind of understand."

Was it helpful to have Tim on set, given his experience with the whole country music world?

Yeah. I think he would never want to say that. I think he was there as James, and I think is an actor, he's incredible. And he was so present every day. I mean, he's my mentor in the movie, and very much so in real life. Before the movie, we sat down and he just kind of told me everything--he told me his life, and how he got into music, and his career, and every up and down. And he's Chiles' manager, so I think he--even just as Tim--understands that. But yeah, having him around was fun. I think it was good to know that we were at least being authentic, because he had his little stamp of approval on it.

And how would you characterize Gwyneth?

I think she's very admirable in her career, her choices. And it always blows my mind when I get to meet somebody who's so talented that you love and admire who's incredibly successful, [and] they're also so kind. And she's very kind, and everyone loves working with her. She's really down-to-earth. So that inspired me because I realize it's good to be nice, you know? It really helps you out a lot.



Had you been a fan of country music prior to this role?

You know, I grew up in Florida. I was definitely aware of country music. I really grew to love it and respect it, and I have this movie to thank for that. Now it's the best thing ever.

What kind of exposure to music did you have as a kid?

Growing up, my parents were always playing like Paul Simon and Madonna and Bonnie Raitt. Not, obviously, all country music. But I always listened to music when I was growing up, and I remember it touching me from a really young age. I was in the grocery store with my dad one time, and I think Whitney Houston was playing, and I must have been like 4, and I said, "This gives my back tingles." And my dad was like, "That's what it's supposed to do." But then because of this movie...I mean, Garrett introduced me to Blaze Foley, who I listen to all the time and I love.

Would you consider yourself a fan of the mainstream/pop country that is more in the style of what Chiles does?

Yeah. I mean, I love me some Taylor Swift. I think she's awesome. And I got to work with [producer and musician] Nathan Chapman, who works with her all the time. I think that was a perfect fit for the music that Chiles does. He's like a teenage girl in a grown man's body, as he would put it.

What did you think of being on location in Nashville?

I really love it there. I must say, I had been there a couple times, and I really got to spend some time there and enjoy it. And I just fell in love with it. I mean, everybody who worked on the set, they had known each other since kindergarten. And I come from a small town but I live in a big city, and it is the perfect combination of the two. And everyone there is so talented. I mean, everyone that we were working with--all the musicians and the producers and writers and singers--they're so talented. And they've been playing guitar since they were 3 years old. It's pretty cool.

How did you immerse yourself in the local culture? What's the thing to do there?

Go see music. There's a lot of that. Go to bars, go see music. I was filming in New York at the same time, so I was going back and forth. And every time, I'd be like, "Oh God, how am I going to do this?" And then I'd get there, and of course Shana was like, "Here's a cup of coffee, let's just talk." [laughs] And so it would work out. But I really didn't do a lot of going out. I mean, we went to karaoke one night. One of my friends who happens to live there randomly took me to a drag show one day, and I invited Shana. She thought that was pretty funny. And then I was like, "Maybe we should go..." So we sang some karaoke. But that was about it.

When a group of professional singers do karaoke, does it just sound like a legit musical production?

It sounds like everyone's drunk. [laughs] No, everyone does sound good. I know Garrett was singing some Pearl Jam. He sounds pretty good.

He's a good mimic. He could probably do Eddie Vedder...

Yeah.

He seems to do impersonations. Do you think he has one of you?

Oh, God. I wouldn't want to know...I think he would just smile. Because whenever I'm around him, I'm just like... [sighs] Smiling!

What was your reaction to the completed movie?

Well, I've seen different versions of it. And I finally got to see the final when I was in Nashville. There was a premiere. And it was a lot of nervous energy. [laughs] Because, you know, we were in Nashville with all these people who were either in the movie or supported the movie, wrote music for the movie, and we just wanted to be authentic and make it right. And it was a relief that everyone was laughing at the right times. I feel like we had a good reception. But for me...You know, usually you're so scared to watch a movie that you're in, just because you know it's yourself, and you're going to sit there and pick everything apart. But I did get captivated by the story and everyone's performance, and I'm just really proud of it. I'm so glad with how it turned out.

Thanks for your time.

Thank you, guys, very much. Have fun today.


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