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A little bit country, a little bit Hollywood

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

(Chicago Tribune, Published October 29, 2006
)

 
 

Do one thing and do it well.
  
What used to be good advice for anyone trying to succeed is no longer good enough. The mindset now, at least in Nashville, is that having credibility as a country singer begets the license to act. But when an artist journeys deeper into Hollywood, is anything compromised?
  
Tim McGraw doesn’t think so. Despite being a country music big shot, having sold more than 33 million albums, he was able to pull off the starring role in the just-released "Flicka." In a call from Los Angeles, where he was promoting the new film, McGraw told the Tribune "My schedule was clear anyway because I was planning on being off. I can’t do a lot of movies normally, but this one fell into place." So the McGraw family temporarily moved from Nashville to their Beverly Hills home for three months.
  
In the remake of the 1943 film "My Friend Flicka," McGraw plays Rob McLaughlin, hard-working Wyoming rancher, husband to Maria Bello and over-protective father to Alison Lohman. "I wasn’t interested at all," said McGraw about receiving the script. "I didn’t want to play that rancher-in-a-cowboy-hat role. But the more I read, the harder it was to turn it down."
  
The music may suffer
 
Clearly, McGraw has the music thing down. And after his supporting role in the 2004 film "Friday Night Lights," critics agree he’s a natural on screen. But "Flicka" was his first attempt at a lead. "I had no doubts about my ability, but some apprehension about being on the screen that long," he said.
  
Even if he can handle tougher roles, his music may not be able to. Since McGraw started taking acting seriously, with "Black Cloud" and "Friday Night Lights" in 2004, he hasn’t released an album with all new songs. Earlier this year, he put out a greatest hits album with only fours new recordings on it.
  
And McGraw’s not alone. Country-music queen Reba McEntire has had plenty of movie roles and a long-running TV series "Reba." While no one on team Reba will admit to any sacrifices, her top ten hits have been fewer since she took on a grueling TV schedule. Since starting "Reba" five years ago, only three of her songs have made it to the top ten on the country charts. But in the five years before starting the show, she had 13 hits in the top ten.
  
Another country music star, Billy Ray Cyrus, also started acting in 2001 in the TV series "Doc" and more recently in "Hannah Montana." Since he made the jump to acting, he hasn’t had a single in the top ten. But that wasn’t by accident. Cyrus knew that pursuing an acting career meant leaving country music behind. "At that time, Nashville was shucking out cookie-cutter cowboys, and it was obvious that I didn’t fit in with what country radio was playing," Cyrus told the Tribune. "You couldn’t tell the songs, hats or faces apart. I thought I could go away quietly, or do what Dolly Parton did and branch out." Cyrus knows that life–-and record execs–-can be fickle. But he didn’t let that stop him. "I’m not over just because they say I’m over," said Cyrus.
  
It’s too early in his acting career to know if country superstar Toby Keith’s ever going to put his music on the back burner. His first attempt was "Broken Bridges," which opened in early September with a limited release. "I have no intention of giving up my day job for acting," said Keith. "But I’d like to release a movie every 18 months or so."
  
A handful of other country artists have done some entry-level acting, too. McGraw’s wife Faith Hill did a stint in "Stepford Wives," Willie Nelson recently showed up in the "Dukes of Hazzard" movie, and Dwight Yoakam had a part in "Panic Room." Even Kenny Chesney has shown signs of wanting to validate himself beyond the confines of Nashville. He turned his latest single, "You Save Me," into a 9-minute short film that doubles as the tune’s music video.
  
Casting for country

  
The decision to cast a country artist in a movie can come from anywhere. Sometimes, an artist will push for a role. Other times, artists get a call to read a script out of the blue.
  
Chet Flippo, CMT’s Editorial Director, thinks it’s about time. "The desire by country artists has always been there, and now Hollywood has come around to accepting country artists as regular people," Flippo told the Tribune. "It proves that country music has been mainstreamed into popular culture."
  
But it’s not always just a case of an open-minded casting director.
  
Sometimes, it’s all about incremental box office sales. Think about how many more people will see "Flicka" just to see McGraw. Or how many Keith fans will pre-order the "Broken Bridges" DVD.
  
"More agents are pitching country artists as actors," said Danny Roth, owner, Casting House. "If you get a singer in the movie, you have a built-in market. Studio heads know that they should cast more for marketing reasons and less for traditional reasons." So this specialty casting trend could be all about business, and less about an artist stretching his creative potential.
  
According to "Flicka" director Michael Mayer, McGraw was not his first choice. He had originally considered Kevin Costner for the lead. "When I first read it, I thought of the obvious tough cowboy types. Guys who fit the more conventional ideas of a rancher," said Mayer. "But Tim was so passionate about the character, I couldn’t imagine doing this film without him."
  
A glimpse of success
 
Mayer also found that McGraw refused special treatment. "He was dedicated to my pushing him. He said ‘Don’t let me get with away anything’," Mayer said. And to his credit, McGraw does his own riding and roping in the film. And when it came time to rehearse his lines, he did so at home with Hill."I’m not a big coaching guy. I’ve never had voice lessons or guitar lessons," McGraw admitted. "Memorizing lines isn’t hard for me because of all the songs I’ve memorized."
  
But McGraw knows he’s not perfect. He admits that making movies is much different than making music videos. "In my videos, I’m in charge. But in movies, you’re at mercy of everyone else," he said. "And in videos you look into the camera, in movies you have to pretend it’s not there. I’m sure I blew a lot of shots because of that."
  
While his character in "Flicka" doesn’t show how far away he can get from the cowboy image, his role in "Friday Night Lights" did. In that, he played an over-the-top abusive alcoholic and was nominated for an MTV Movie Award for Best Breakthrough Male. The film was also a box-office hit, grossing $61 million.
  
Box office numbers for Keith’s "Broken Bridges" haven’t done nearly as well. The film was criticized as a weepy country ballad of a movie, and has only managed to pull in a paltry $250,000so far in its limited release. But producer Donald Zuckerman has plenty of faith in Keith’s acting ability. He told the Tribune that Keith worked hard with an acting coach to get ready. He didn’t just saunter onto the set with his tough-guy attitude and start acting. "Toby’s very natural in his performance," said Zuckerman. " He's comfortable with who is is, on and off camera."
  
   
Big enough for both

     
This new generation of singers-turned-actors are in a danger of neglecting the music that brought them fame in the first place. In their efforts to break the Nashville chains that bind them, they could stray too far. To succeed, an artist needs to have reached a level where country radio will continue to embrace the music even if it’s been on the shelf a while. And where your fans will stay loyal despite fewer CDs and a less aggressive touring schedule. Bottom line? You have to be big enough to get away with it.
       
"I wouldn’t turn my back on Tim just because wants to do more than sing. His music’s still the best in country," says McGraw fan Tina Goudy from New York. "Absence just makes the heart grow fonder."
    
And McGraw knows not to turn his back on fans like that. Like Keith, he has no intention of acting full time. "Music will always be my first choice. I love both," said McGraw, "but music is my passion."

 
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