Garrett Hedlund had never been to Nashville prior to accepting the role of rugged singer-songwriter Beau Hutton in the new film, Country Strong. Although he didn’t even know how to sing or play guitar, Hedlund worked closely with director Shana Feste to develop his musical talent. In fact, it’s his deep singing voice you’ll hear first, as he delivers Merle Haggard’s classic “Silver Wings” in a honky-tonk. Meanwhile, new songs like “Chances Are” and “Give In to Me” (sung with co-star Leighton Meester) are musical highlights of the film, which stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim McGraw, along with countless Nashville musicians in the roles of … Nashville musicians. The film opens nationally on Friday (Jan. 7).
During a visit to CMT, the friendly Minnesota native (whose credits include Friday Night Lights, Tron: Legacy and Troy) talked about the emotions behind the music in Country Strong, discovering the songwriting community and his love for Nashville.
CMT: I think everybody knows “Friends in Low Places,” so that song fits perfectly in the scene at the Stage. What do you remember about filming that scene?
Hedlund: That was our first public performance scene, so I was a little bit anxious waiting for it. By the time that day finally came, all the stress was gone because everybody knows the song. When you’re playing “Friends in Low Places” to a crowd in Nashville, everybody else knows it as well. You almost don’t have to sing, because the audience is. It’s great. I was a little nervous about this public performance stuff, but it was fun.
“Give In to Me” is a very sensual song, especially as a duet, and it moves the plot forward by bringing you closer to Chiles [played by Meester]. What makes that song work so well?
I think it’s the subtext of what the characters are feeling. That helps to speak the emotion of the relationship. At the same time, it shows people that Leighton’s character, Chiles, isn’t quite what you thought she was when she’s singing these more pop-country songs — or in Beau’s words, “bubble-gummy.” Then he gives her a chance to finish writing the song, and write the hook, and it turns into something like this. I think that’s really the start of their relationship.
Did you have a chance to see how the Nashville songwriting community works?
I got to be in a few situations with the Warren Brothers, hanging out and hashing out some songs. You get to realize how small Nashville actually is. You say one name and everybody knows who that is. You say a song and everybody knows who wrote it — and knows their cousin, too. I got to see that world. Also, we had guys like Hayes Carll contributing to my songs, which was great, because I think he’s an incredible singer-songwriter. That was an honor.
I know you worked closely with the director when it came to rehearsing your role. What was a typical session with her like?
We’d be watching documentaries or listening to tunes. We’d watch Be Here to Love Me about Townes Van Zandt or the Highwaymen. A lot of Kris Kristofferson — checking out all his records and watching him and Rita Coolidge singing together. Seeing that kind of charm that he’d had onstage and off and just finding that raw soul of the character was what we did.
Your character is talented enough to make a living as a performer, yet he’s not concerned about playing big arenas and being a “star.” Did that contrast appeal to you as an actor?
Of course. It’s always undeniably the more respectful route to go, but also the hardest route for people because the money and the fame are such big things. Happiness and love sometimes are not [as big], or they don’t think about happiness and love when they think about money and fame. They don’t think they can co-exist.
What do you hope people will take away from watching the movie?
For me, I hope it’s an appreciation of what Nashville is. I know that’s hard to say or explain. But from being out here, I acquired such a love for Nashville and an even higher amount of love for country music and what it means. If somebody buys a ticket to come to Nashville after seeing the film, that’s awesome. If somebody buys a country album after watching the film, that’s great. I’m just really proud of it.
Do you think you’ll ever perform your own shows?
I don’t know. When we were out here, I really enjoyed getting up in different places and performing. I guess if it happened once, it could maybe always happen again. So we’ll see.