The CMT Insider interview with Tim McGraw airs Friday (April 16) at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT.
HOUSTON — As if making a new album, planning a new tour and trying to raise three kids weren’t enough, Tim McGraw is spending his “spare” time taking on Hollywood with a role in the upcoming film Friday Night Lights. The film, based on the critically acclaimed book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.G. Bissinger, follows the real-life story of football-crazy town Odessa, Texas, and its high school team, the Permian Panthers, as they vie for the state championship during the 1988 season.
McGraw, a former high school football player himself, plays Charlie Billingsley, the domineering father of one of Permian’s star players. McGraw talked to CMT News about his new supporting role during a visit to the set in the Houston Astrodome.
CMT: You’re stepping into a new artistic arena. How’s the movie been going for you so far?
McGraw: I wouldn’t call it a full-on step! (laughs) I’m sticking my toes in to check it out a little bit. It’s fun. I’m enjoying doing it. It’s a role that, for me, I felt like I could step into and really take a hold of and connect with. I grew up seeing a lot of these kind of guys growing up in Louisiana and playing high school sports … so it was interesting to me.
What do you remember about playing football back in Louisiana?
I remember having a great time, and I remember the last time taking the pads off in high school football and knowing it was the last time that I would put some pads on. I remember that feeling. And I remember the Friday nights and the smell of fireplaces and the marching band. Anybody who played high school football, you can still step out on your porch at night in the autumn, and you can almost hear a marching band in the distance.
Your character is not a really nice guy. How would you describe him?
I play a guy named Charlie Billingsley, a real guy. I don’t know what he’s like now, but this was a time in his life when he was kinda challenged on a lot of different fronts. He was challenged on what he was going to make out of his life, and his life never materialized in what he wanted it to be. He was challenged on how he was going to have this relationship with his son that was very strained. He didn’t know how to be a father, I think, and his son, in his eyes, didn’t seem to live up to his expectations on how good of a football player he ought to be. Charlie was an all-state football player in his time, and he was the crown prince of Permian High School. So, a lot of expectations in his life didn’t come to fruition. I think at the end of movie he has a little bit of an epiphany, but I think he was just a lost soul.
How do you prepare to play someone who’s so different from you?
I get to wear some cool ’80s hair and all that kind of stuff and the clothes. I’m a little older in the movie, so the makeup is done to make me look just a tad older and just a tad not in best of shape, I guess. All those little things help, but in the end you just have to find a vision of what you want this guy to be, and then having Peter Berg, who’s a great director, tell you how he wants the character to be. And then, I’ve got Billy Bob Thornton, who’s probably one of the best actors in the business, here to bounce ideas off of.
How well did you know Thornton before this movie?
I met him at the CMAs years ago back when Faith and I first got married. Then he came to a show in Vancouver and flew up and came and hung out with me and the band backstage. We had dinner with him and really hit it off. He’s a genuinely, genuinely nice guy. Billy Bob grew up being a musician, and he plays drums, and he started in bands, and that’s what he wanted to do for a long time. So I think he’s a musician first, which is backwards from most actors who want to be musicians. He’s a very poetic writer. He writes really great images when he writes songs. He’s just fun to hang out with, and maybe we’ll get to work with him a little bit in the studio. That would be fun.
What have you learned from him about acting since you’ve been working on this?
He’s not giving me acting lessons or anything, but I think the best way that I’ve learned from Billy is just watching how he’s so believable when he goes into character. You can sit and talk to him like we’re sitting and talking now, and they can say “action,” and he goes into a scene, and he’s a different guy, but he’s the same guy.
You’ve been in front of the camera a lot over the past 10 or so years doing music videos. How does that compare to making movies?
Shooting music videos, you’re looking right at the camera most of the time, and in the movies, that’s the last thing you want to do because you blow the shot. Somebody can have a great performance, and you look at the camera and ruin it for everybody. And you don’t want some Arkansas redneck like Billy Bob Thornton coming down on you because you blew the shot. (laughs)
Tell me about the Gridiron Heroes benefit concert that you, Thornton and Berg [did] in Austin.
There’s a lot of athletes who get hurt [with spinal cord injuries] every year. Gridiron Heroes started here in Texas, and they’re trying to expand. People don’t realize the devastation that happens to a family once a kid gets hurt like that. Lots of times the parents have to quit work, and it’s a big burden on the family. Most times families are very ill equipped and ill prepared to take on a challenge like that. So, what this foundation does is tries to raise money for these families who find themselves in a situation where they can’t help themselves. As a parent, there’s a camaraderie that you have with other parents when something happens to their children. Your heart goes out to them
Speaking of kids, did you get to see yours very much while you were on location in Texas?
We had a lot of fun when the kids were on spring break, and we were in Odessa. They came down and spent the whole week on the set, and we had a great time. If the kids can be around, then it’s fun. But I get homesick when the kids aren’t around.
What’s it been like on the set? What do you do to kill time?
There’s a lot of down time on the set. I’ve been here for four days now, and I’ve worked one day, but they won’t let you leave just in case they might get a shot in. We kinda come up with things to do. We went sand dune surfing in Odessa, we rode motorcycles. We went ice skating. Last night we got bored so we went to Toys R Us and bought these $15 remote control cars, and we had a big race track set up in the parking lot. We did that until 11 p.m. I know it’s sick! It’s sad, but what’s a grown man to do? But I figure when we get through with these cars, Kenny [Chesney] might could use ’em, ’cause he needs a way to get around town! (laughs) Just kidding man!
If this takes off, I’m sure you’ll do more movies. How will that affect your music career?
Not at all. I’m making an album right now. Music is how I make my living. I certainly don’t make my living doing this. Do you know how much they pay me for this? It ain’t a whole lot, understand? I get a burger. Yeah, I’m not going to feed the kids making movies, that’s for sure. (laughs) No, I love making music, and my fans have been good to me over the years. I can’t see a time where I’m not going to make music.