Country Strong - Tim McGraw
James Canter (Tim McGraw) © 2010 Screen Gems

Tim McGraw has dominated the music charts with 31 #1 singles. He’s won three Grammy Awards, 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, 11 Country Music Association Awards and 10 American Music Awards – and in his new movie about country music, Country Strong, he doesn’t sing one song!

In the film he portrays James Canter, husband and manager to Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has been on a downward spiral since getting drunk and falling off a stage while performing, killing their unborn child. In rehab for drug and alcohol addiction, Kelly has a romantic fling with Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a singer who is working at the rehab facility.

When James discharges her from rehab to start a three-city comeback tour, Kelly insists that Beau be added to the show as an opening act.

Why didn’t you want to sing in this?

Country Strong - Tim McGraw
James Canter (Tim McGraw) © 2010 Screen Gems

From the first read I felt there was no way that I thought that James Canter would be involved in singing, past, present or future. In fact I thought he sort of looked at singers as childish. He looked down his nose a little bit at them. So I thought it would take away a lot of gravities that he had if he sang at all, or even used to be a musician.

Were you also worried about sounding better than the actors who were singing?

The reason I said no to the film to start with two times, it wasn’t because I didn’t like the script, I loved the script, to work with Gwyneth, to be with her on screen, any actor would love to do that.

But people go in and they say, ‘Oh it’s Tim McGraw, there’s a country singer,’ every time I’m on the screen. Hopefully I’ve gotten past that, but I thought that being in a film with country music as the backdrop and me trying to play a character, it would be asking too much of the audience to try to separate the two.

The press kit said that Gwyneth watched videos of your wife, Faith Hill, doing her concerts – did you see Faith in Gwyneth’s performance at the end of the movie?

Country Strong - Garrett Hedlund and Tim McGraw
Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) and James Canter (Tim McGraw) © 2010 Screen Gems

Yeah, absolutely I did. That sort of command of the stage, which Faith is the best at, she walks out on stage, she owns the whole place instantly. So I think that Gwyneth really got a lot of that.

Did you consider your character a bad guy or a good guy?

You always hear that old adage that you don’t judge your character, but I never thought of him as a bad guy. Actually the way I approached it he was the only grown up in the movie. He was the guy that really had to make tough decisions that he knew was going to hurt or help people in the long run.

It’s almost like in life the adult has to make the decisions that are either going to leave this person behind or move this person forward. You can sit back and you can question his decision-making process, but I don’t think you can ever question that he thought he was doing the right thing. And I approach everything I did from his point-of-view; I thought I was doing the right thing.

Even taking Kelly out of rehab, if you think about it you can say, ‘Well, he took her out of rehab and put her on the road.’ But then you think about what was going on, she was having sex with this kid in rehab, was that really doing her any good, was that something that she needed to be staying involved in?

Did The Blind Side make it easier for you to get roles?

Country Strong - Tim McGraw
James (Tim McGraw) looks on with mixed emotions © 2010 Screen Gems

I think so. I think the success of it probably more than my performance. That didn’t make a difference.

You did make Sandra Bullock look pretty good.

That was a tough role for me to play because on the surface it seemed easy, but when I got into it, it was really hard because he was so even keel and she was such a character.

Then early on I realized that really Sean Tuohy was the rock in that family, he was the base that everybody tied themselves to. So I had to figure out a way to be present on screen and have that strength that he had without jumping up and down and waving and saying, ‘Hey, I’m over here.’ It was a tough order to navigate that, but I had fun doing it.

Do you feel more comfortable as a singer than as an actor?

You know what? There is something uncomfortable in both of them for me. I don’t think I’m ever completely comfortable with who I am. I think that’s good though, because it keeps me on my toes a little bit. I always think that I’m the ugly duckling walking in the room, no matter what I do in those situations. But that’s good, that keeps me striving to be better, I think. If I got comfortable I know me well enough that I’d get lazy.

In the movie it says love and fame can’t live together – looking at your life with Faith Hill, that’s living proof that it can.

I think it depends on which one has the power. I think that if fame has the power then certainly that’s the case. If love has the power, then I think anything can conquer that, anything can live in that. Nobody can serve two masters; that’s why love has to have the power.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.