Country Strong - Leighton Meester
Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) © 2010 Screen Gems

Leighton Meester has taken TV by storm with her role as Blair Waldorf on CW’s popular series Gossip Girl. Her success has led to the big screen now with roles in Date Night with Steve Carell and the upcoming Oranges with Hugh Laurie.

In her new movie, Country Strong, Meester gets to sing as ambitious beauty-queen-turned-country-singer, Chiles Stanton. Mentored by James Canter (Tim McGraw), Chiles is asked to join his wife Kelly’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) comeback tour. There she meets Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a young writer/singer who has been having an affair with Kelly. As the quartet embarks on their fateful tour, romantic entanglements, and internal demons threaten to derail all of them.

Were there any young, country singers that you took moves or sounds from for this role?

Country Strong - Leighton Meester
Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) © 2010 Screen Gems

Yeah. The best part about this is Chiles’ performances change. She’s a little nervous, to say the least, in the beginning, so for rehearsals we went to bars [she laughs]. Shana [Feste, the director] just took me in and said, ‘Watch these people.’

We would go to lower Broadway in Nashville and see singers downing whiskey shots on stage, and she was like, ‘Now that’s Chiles in the beginning.’

Then we went to the Ryman [Auditorium] and saw Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood, these huge stars, very comfortable in that atmosphere. So, that was the change in performance from the beginning.

I don’t know what’s more nerve-wracking; standing in front of a small crowd and having everyone boo you, or having to stand in front of a crowd of ten thousand people with them all cheering and you have to be really confident. I don’t know which was harder.

It’s weird that Tim McGraw doesn’t sing in this, but did he give you any tips?

Country Strong - Leighton Meester
Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) © 2010 Screen Gems

Yeah. He’s supposed to be my mentor in the movie and he was, very much so, in real life too. He obviously knows what this movie is about and is incredibly talented as an actor. He knows about country music.

I just sat down with him and he basically told me everything; his whole life story and it’s pretty interesting, the ups and down of his career and his life; how he got into music and just advice. He’s a great guy, but it’s funny that he didn’t sing.

You have a couple of scenes with Gwyneth. Did you two get a chance to talk and bond before, during or after?

I think, because of her role, I wasn’t sure exactly what the interaction would be. Obviously, our dynamic in this movie is two women in this industry and, not necessarily happy all the time. As an actress, I really admire her because she is incredible. She is so generous and very funny and down to earth. She’s just a cool chick.

It’s hard enough to act a role but you had the music part to worry about too. Did that seem like double duty?

Country Strong - Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester
Beau (Garrett Hedlund, left) arrives at The Stage to find that Chiles (Leighton Meester) has taken over his dressing room © 2010 Screen Gems

Yeah, kind of. I think that was one of the things that drew me to the movie; this beautiful music and how it narrates the story. The type of music that I was doing was very specific to the character, so it was easy to just sing.

It’s not singing as myself; it’s like trying to do the character justice and sing it from her point-of-view. The songs are pretty emotional and meaningful and I felt like I could relate to them and so can she.

This movie shows what can go wrong if you can’t handle fame. Can you relate to that?

I think there is a bigger question involved if you have to choose between love and fame. I think that’s the more important question. Obviously, people can go one way or the other. If you have real love in your life, you’re less likely to go [downhill] but that’s a really tough question.

I know somebody like Kelly probably has problems already, but her marriage is not filled with enough love, honesty and support so she circles the drain.

How are you dealing with your success? Do people come up to you on the street?

Actually they don’t. I don’t really have that. Here or there, it’s very rare. I think if they do recognize me it’s like ‘She’s doing her own thing.’ They don’t usually approach me at all. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t really go to places that people would find interesting. I feel like all I do is work.

Which character do you identify most with? Blair or Chiles?

I think that’s the beauty of it, and why I was really intent on doing this movie is I like the fact that they are completely different. That’s what keeps me happy and not bored. I love things in both of them.

I really grew to love Chiles doing this movie. I think Blair is larger than life [she laughs]. She’s doing things that I would never do. She’s very manipulative and conniving in this heightened reality, whereas I think everything that happens in this story could really happen. I love Chiles. She feels like somebody who I know or maybe is a part of myself. She’s a lot of things I want to be.

Because of this movie, Shana, during rehearsal was like ‘You’re not all that light and happy about things, are you?’ I was appalled. ‘How dare you?’ [she laughs]. I was like ‘Oh, I guess not’. She said ‘You should try to be.’ So, from then on I did and even to this day, I’m much happier.


Judy Sloane

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