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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
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, Gwyneth Paltrow talks about her introduction to the world of country music and the process of bringing her character of Kelly to life--from the technical aspects of singing to the psychology of addiction, which she tackled with the help of her Iron Man co-star, Robert Downey Jr.

MEDIA: Did you get to feel like a rock star when you were performing onstage as Kelly?

GWYNETH: [laughs] Well, not entirely. But when we were shooting the end of the movie where I do this big performance, at first I was terrified, and then about 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] Always great, guarantees a good response.

What did you learn about the country music world?

Quite a lot, actually. People in country music are really nice people. They're very warm, 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 other lines of entertainment...

How was your experience of performing at the 2010 CMA Awards last month with Vince Gill?

I loved it. It was, like, one of those moments--I think I'll always just look back on that and think, "I can't believe I actually did that." It was sort of a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It was crazy. It was really exhilarating and fun, and just unexpected. I never in a million years...Like if you had told me a year ago that I would have performed at the Country Music Awards, I would have bet against it. So it was a wonderful surprise. And I adore Vince Gill. And he was so supportive of me. You know, if you look at how Vince Gill was to me during that performance, it's like, that encapsulates country music--that warmth and support. He was great.

Had you been a fan of country music before this project?

No. I grew up in New York City where there's no country music radio stations, so I just wasn't exposed to it. I mean, you hear the major things or the crossover acts, of course. And I loved Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. And 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 has been 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? It's fun. I never thought I would be a country music fan or singer or anything, so...

What kind of music are you listening to these days?

I listen to everything. I probably have the most schizophrenic iPod...My biggest obsession right now is the Nicki Minaj album. She's a genius. And I'm also obsessed with Kanye's album...Dierks Bentley has a bluegrass record that I really love.

There's a rich history of films about country music singers. Did you watch many of them in your preparation for Kelly?

I watched a lot of them, yeah. I watched Tender Mercies a lot and Coal Miner's Daughter. And I watched a lot of DVD performance videos to prepare, and I studied all the ladies of country. Because it wasn't just 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 on their way to making it; but [Kelly is] on the way down and had been this massive star. And 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 like, "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 a country music star, but... [laughs]

How did you approach the addiction aspect of your role?

It's sort of trimmed down a lot in the movie, but [there's a scene where] I've wrecked people's lives and I kind of wake up and expect to just keep on going. And I sort of didn't understand that. I understand addiction. Like I used to be very addicted to cigarettes, for example. And 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"--like that sort of disconnect or self-destructiveness. But I couldn't understand it to the point of wrecking someone else's life. So I e-mailed Robert Downey Jr. and I was like, "Just explain to me how this goes. I don't get it. Like you spend a night where you lie and cheat and there's no consequence, and you just barf and you could kill someone, and then you get up and have a coffee? How does that work?" And he wrote me back the most amazing e-mail, and he just explained the psychology of it so well. So he really helped me with that.

You've obviously been comfortable performing as a singer in the past. Why did this project require a more formal period of singing lessons on your part?

Well, I had never studied voice. Like I have a naturally perfectly nice singing voice, but these songs had a lot of scope to them, and I needed to really build up strength. And my singing teacher in London was really like a taskmaster, and really was 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 without...Because the way I did it before, I just would wake up...Like one time I sang with Jay-Z at a concert, and I woke up, I couldn't talk, because I didn't know how to do it. [laughs] So now I've learned more of the technical side of it.

How did you rehearse for Kelly's 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 freakin' time, and B) His accent is [authentic]. But once I got the stamp of approval from Tim, I was okay.

What was your impression of the finished film?

I was really proud of it. I loved the fact that it's very emotional, but it's complicated--you know, none of the characters are black or white, or good or bad. And I loved seeing a long-term marriage kind of breaking down and all the intricacies of that and the subtleties in the relationships. And my favorite part of the movie is the music. I think the musical performances are just really fun and exciting to see. And I love Garrett in it. Everyone...

Aside from Country Strong, you've also been in Iron Man 2 and on Glee recently, and you're in the upcoming thriller Contagion. Is this the start of a new work cycle in which we'll be seeing more of you?

No. Don't worry. [laughs] I can do kind of one thing a year. You know, I did this the beginning of this year, in January. And then Contagion 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.

Will you be doing more musical performances in support of this film?

I don't know. I would like to. I got invited to sing at the Opry, which would be really amazing. I'd love to work that out. But again, it's hard know, balancing everybody's lives. And I've been traveling an awful lot this fall, because I did Glee, and I had to go to Nashville for all that stuff, and I've been here [in Los Angeles] a couple times. So I probably will need to just be home for a couple months. But maybe. We'll see. I would like to.

What piles up at home while you're away working?

I try not to let too many things pile up, although I'm a terrible script reader. Like I'll see the movie coming out, and I'll be like, "I'm sure that's on my desk and I meant to read that!" I'm just terrible. [laughs]

So what does it take for you to pick up one of those scripts?

Well, like 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, like, beat the sh*t out of me until I read it. And I'm glad I did! [laughs]

Thanks for your time.

All right, thanks, guys!

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