Actor Garrett Hedlund plays up-and-coming singer-songwriter Beau Hutton in the new film, ‘Country Strong,’ co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw and Leighton Meester. For the role, which he sandwiched between two other movies, he learned to sing and play the guitar, and he even has a song, ‘Chances Are,’ on the film’s soundtrack, which he sings with such conviction that it is hard to believe he has not been performing his whole life. Even one of his co-stars, whose main career is in music, has been very complimentary of his newly discovered talent.
“People are going to be really blown away by Garrett,” Tim McGraw told The Boot. “His music is so soulful. I would kill for his voice.”
A Minnesota native, Garrett grew up on a small farm, and in the ninth grade, he and his family moved to Arizona, where he began taking acting classes. The young talent graduated from high school a semester early and moved to Los Angeles. He made his mark in movies just one short month after moving to Hollywood, when he was cast in the feature film, ‘Troy.’ He then appeared alongside one of his musical heroes, Tim McGraw, in ‘Friday Night Lights.’ He has gone on to appear in the urban drama ‘Four Brothers,’ the female-led ‘Georgia Rule,’ the otherworld fantasy ‘Eragon,’ and now ‘Country Strong’ and ‘Tron: Legacy.’
Garrett’s role as Beau in ‘Country Strong,’ which opens nationwide January 7, is a janitor in a rehab facility by day and a honkytonk singer by night. He finds himself in a romantic entanglement with Gwyneth’s character, fallen country star Kelly Canter, who is in rehab to combat her drug and alcohol problems. She is taken out of rehab a bit too early by her husband James, played by Tim, and Beau suddenly finds himself on the road doubling as both opening act and caretaker for Kelly. In the meantime, he starts falling for the other opening act, beauty queen-turned-country novice Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester).
The Boot recently sat down with Garrett to talk about learning to play the guitar, working with Tim and Gwyneth and what drew him to the role of Beau Hutton in the first place. He also revealed his love for the city of Nashville and his plans to someday live there, as well as recalling the “greatest night of his life,” which was performing at one of Music City’s most revered clubs. The charismatic actor also tells us a spine-tingling story behind the song ‘Chances Are,’ which he performs in the movie and more importantly, at the deathbed of his most important fan.
We understand for your role in this movie, you auditioned by singing karaoke?
It was sort of like that. I was given the script saying if I responded to the role that [writer-director] Shana [Feste] would fly up to Vancouver to meet with me, because I was working on ‘Tron’ at that point. We went to a little country bar, and I expressed my feelings towards the script, because by the end of it, I had tears in my eyes. She asked if I’d be willing to put in the work necessary for the role, and I said, “100 percent, undoubtedly.” So I ended up taking her over to a karaoke spot and I got up and sang ‘Better Man‘ by Pearl Jam. [laughs] I get back to the table, and she goes, “That wasn’t country!” But it was my go-to, I guess.
So you already knew you could sing, but you had to learn to play guitar.
Rob Jackson, the guy that was training me on guitar, said, "Now, you're not gonna be another one of those Hollywood guys getting up and playing a 'G' when we're singing a 'C.'" [laughs] So, I didn't want any hand doubles or vocal doubles, and I wanted it to be genuine.
Obviously, Tim has successfully crossed over from music to movies. Would you be interested in crossing over from movies to music?
Not necessarily. I really enjoyed my time in Nashville, and the hospitality of this city and being able to stay out in Franklin on the ranch and work on the tunes and have great people to work with. Frank Liddell was the producer on it, and a guy named Luke Wooten did the engineering, so to be with these guys, it was such a wonderful experience. At the end of the day, it was a role for me and I was really pleased with what we acquired. But if somebody said, "Hey! Would you come over and sing this with me?," maybe that would be something fun ... but no personal plans.
You mention living out on a ranch ... and it was not just any ranch!
Yeah, it was Tim McGraw's ranch, and he let me stay there and have as much time as I wanted to myself, just to get that experience, rather than being in a hotel downtown. I'd be out there with this guy Bobby, who lives on the ranch and maintains it. We would be in the back of the barn shooting clay pigeons and riding around on the wheelers, and I'd go over to [local restaurant] Puckett's every night and watch a lot of the people get up and play while eating a little pulled pork. Then you look out the window every morning and see Hank Williams' old plantation home. The feeling was just much more there. Once you feel it, then you know that there's a lot of big shoes to fill and also a lot of expectations -- not really expectations from Nashville, but just me expecting myself to not let Nashville down.
You've worked with Tim McGraw before in 'Friday Night Lights,' and in a recent article, he was very complimentary about your acting and said that you were destined for great things. What did you think of Tim's acting in 'Country Strong,' especially since 'Friday Night Lights' was one of his first major roles? Did you see any progress from then until now?
Yeah, which I'm sure he's seen in me, as well. It's always a confidence thing. It's knowing your way around the territory. It took me a while. You get on this thing, and you think it's all about the acting and this and that, but there's a lot of technicalities, and once you know all those, the set becomes much more of a home than a strange land. Tim, in this, he's such a driven person. I wouldn't say a perfectionist, but he always wants to do the best he can ever do, be it music or this, and to have that on set is great. He's always been so supportive of me, and I owe him so much for what he gave me in this film. It's so strange, if that character wasn't played by Tim, I don't think I would've been able to do what I did in the film. I owe a lot to him. I guess there's some expectations when you're playing for Tim that make you work a little bit harder.
What were your preconceived notions about Nashville, and how did they change once you arrived?
I had never heard much about Nashville before coming out here, and that's why it's so surprising, because I'm the biggest enthusiast on the city of Nashville now. I'm looking for a place out here to live. I came in this week, and I call one member of the band, and he calls all the other ones and all of a sudden the band's back together hanging out, and a lot of people who were involved in the recording process. We're all just sitting at a table and I raise my glass and say, "Cheers, but this cheers means a lot more to me because I'd rather be sitting here seeing you guys than you seeing me, and you probably mean more to me than I do for you."
For me, and this may not be everybody, but because I do love country music so much, there's such a feeling of home in Nashville, especially because it's such a small town. You bring up one song, everybody knows who wrote it, everybody knows their mother and what their cell number is, and all of the stories. You can go anywhere and be incredibly entertained by the music. Every artist out here has something great to contribute to the city, and everybody I feel is in it together.
What were your favorite spots in Nashville?
I liked going to Robert’s to see some night gigs. Chris Scruggs, who was playing the steel guitar on this, he’d get up there once in a while, and the whole band would go down and some of us would get up with Chris. I’d get up to sing. And the Station Inn, I loved. I loved going to see the Time Jumpers and Vince [Gill] playing on Mondays. I got up at the Station Inn with Jim Lauderdale and sang ‘Chances Are’ there. So that was one of the greatest nights of my life, because sitting at the table in front of me was Gywneth and Chris Martin, Caleb [Followill] from Kings of Leon and Faith Hill, and Dierks Bentley was standing up behind them. I got home, and I had to work at five in the morning the next day, and I woke my mom up, and I said, “Guess what just happened?” It was great!
What was it that drew you to the character of Beau Hutton, who has been described as the "heart of the movie?"
At first, it was just seeing the opportunity to play a poet. We had the blessing of having such wonderful singers and songwriters contribute, like Lori McKenna and Nathan Chapman, who wrote that one, and Hayes Carll, who I just think is like a god in terms of a great new singer-songwriter. All these songs came into play to add to the poetic side of Beau. Everybody saw his potential. I saw him as the heart of the film in that, because he’s constantly dealing with the joys and vicissitudes of this new life. He’s found himself in the middle of a lot of chaos, unknowingly, and having to deal with that. Also, he reminded me of a young Kris Kristofferson, when he just moved out here with all of the stories you hear of Kris mowing lawns down on [Music Row] and all the ladies in the studios just googling at him out there without his shirt. You see little things like this that add to the soul, but also to the charm of someone.
What was the dynamic like between you and Gwyneth Paltrow?
I haven't worked with a lot of big female actresses whatsoever, so this was an incredible experience to work with just a wonderful actress, somebody who listens so wonderfully. She was always so sweet to me, and to be there with her, you have less worries when you know who you're with, not who you're up against, but who you're in this together with. You both work and do the best you can do and express a character to the fullest of which it was hoped to be expressed. That's why you're cast to work as hard as you can work to overcome this obstacle and complete the objective of a wonderful film and a wonderful piece. It was a great experience.
You read the script for 'Country Strong' while working on 'Tron: The Legacy,' alongside Jeff Bridges, who won an Oscar for playing a country singer in 'Crazy Heart.' Did you get any guidance from him?
I did towards the end, since I didn’t play anything and I knew I’d have to audition. I almost wanted to say, “Jeff, would you just play the guitar and maybe we could set up a camera and we can sing together?” It wouldn’t be me singing by myself. It was great to see him in the trailer playing guitar and singing these cool songs and just seeing him as an example of where to get to; that’s already setting the standard so high and then you come down here and see all of these incredibly talented people in the bars on Lower Broad. It’s like, “God! Doesn’t the world know how good some of these people are?” But it was fun! Jeff taught me how to play ‘I Don’t Know,’ that Stephen Bruton tune from ‘Crazy Heart,’ and showed me some other ones. When ‘Country Strong’ was all said and done and we wrapped, and I saw Jeff again, we were just jamming to all these songs.
You have a song, 'Chances Are,' that you sing in the movie and on the soundtrack. How did you connect with the song on a personal level?
Nathan Chapman and Lori McKenna wrote it, and it is such a great song. My grandpa was in the hospital and I said, “I’m going to come visit.” He said, “I’m not making her through this one, feller.” And I said, “Well Grandpa, I’m going to be there in two days.” He said, “Naw, I ain’t making her through this one.” So, the next day I called and he couldn’t talk any more, so they put the phone on speakerphone and I sang ‘Amanda‘ by Waylon Jennings, because it’s my sister’s name and she meant the world to him. I sang that once for him and once for the nurses. [laughs] He seemed to be trying to move his lips and his eyes, and the next day I called back and I played ‘Chances Are’ for him. And as soon as it got to the point “I’m not the worst love that’s making, but better at the breaking, a guy like me knows how to disappear,” he passed away. So now he’s with me going through the journey. For me, every time I performed the song, it made me appreciate every time I got to sing it. Every time was meaningful.
You've got 'Country Strong' and 'Tron' in theaters at the same time. What's next for you?
I'm a little beat now, because I just worked for six months straight on this film, 'On the Road,' the Jack Kerouac novel. It was an incredible experience around the world. Playing this character, Neal Cassady -- that's Dean Moriarty in the book -- it's such an infamous, rich, vibrant, rare role. We were in Canada to South America, back up here -- New Orleans, Arizona -- down to Mexico, back to Canada and over to 'Frisco. I've been on that since 2007, so I've been prepping for that this whole time; that's been three or four years of preparation and research. It became a little hard at times, too, because being on that one, then jumping onto 'Tron' and 'Country Strong'; you've flown this kite so high in terms of prep and everything you read -- all of Proust, Twain, Wolfe, Kerouac, Cassady', Ginsberg and Burrows -- and all the jazz research. You fly this kite so high that you're scared, and you think you have to tie it to a post and hope it's there when you come back to it. Ultimately, I had to read everything all over again just to have it fresh. I wrapped that the day of the 'Tron' premiere. I had to go straight from Frisco to L.A. for the premiere, and then the next day an all-day press junket for 'Country Strong.' I was just like, "Whew!" So, everybody was going, "So, 'Tron,' huh?" And I'm just like, "I want to go home and cry, I'm so tired."