Country singer Tim McGraw has sold more than 40 million albums, had over 20 No. 1 country hits, won everything from Grammys to Country Music Association Awards and, with wife Faith Hill, headlined the highest-grossing tour in country music history. He's also been the minority owner of an Arena Football League team, and his name was the title of Taylor Swift's debut single. That's enough accomplishments for several lifetimes, but in the last few years, the 43-year-old love child of former Mets and Phillies relief pitcher Tug McGraw has added another notch to his belt: actor. He successfully played an abusive drunk in the film "Friday Night Lights," was Sandra Bullock's husband in "The Blind Side," and now, in "Country Strong," he's the husband-manager of a country star (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is out of rehab and trying to jump-start her career. Lewis Beale spoke with the Louisiana native by phone from Los Angeles.
You're one of the few country music stars to segue successfully into film acting. How come there are so few?
Overall, in terms of music stars in the movies, there are not very many; it's not an easy transition. Acting is the hardest thing I've ever done; it's not easy to step into someone else's shoes. And musicians, our mantra is to be cool, you spend so many years cultivating that, so when you do a film, sometimes cool is not called for.
What made you want to become an actor?
I think in the back of my mind I thought it would be fun to do, but I didn't want to do it until I established my career first. As a musician, anytime you go do a movie, you're taking a risk, because you can turn people off. I was getting scripts all the time. I picked up the script of "Friday Night Lights," and instantly I felt I knew that character. I felt I could get into his skin. They had already given the part away, and [director] Peter Berg had never heard of me, and I bugged him until he gave me a read. And he decided to give me the part.
Have you had a lot of training? Gone to acting school?
I did read-throughs with a coach, and that's about all I've ever done. I'm learning all the time, I'm a quick study and I just try to be honest. I'm never gonna stop learning. The best way to learn is to watch. I know I'm better in heavy drama, that's what I like the most; I'm not that good at comedy. If I had to say what kind of actor I am, I'm a minimalist kind of actor.
You know there are plenty of people out there saying "Gwyneth Paltrow? Country singer? No way!" What do you say to them?
She's an actor, and she's a damn good actor, because you believe every word she sings, she's got a great country voice. What's authentic about this movie is you can hear the songs she does, and you can totally believe she would be a star. And that's what makes it authentic to me.
Do you have a favorite film about country music?
"Tender Mercies," because it's not about the music, it's about the characters. It's tough to get the music business right. Any genre.
So what's your definition of "country?"
Country is blues, honest blues, music about real life. Do you have to be from the South to be country? I don't believe that's the case at all. For me, you're not gonna get very far without being honest in your music. You don't have to be the greatest singer in the world. You have to communicate.
In the days following Hurricane Katrina, you and your wife, who's from Mississippi, were involved in relief efforts, and hosted several charity concerts to benefit people displaced by the disaster. Have you been back since?
I have been back. New Orleans is a resilient place. It's gonna come back. It's a great American city, and it's a city we can't afford to lose. But the government hasn't done things correctly, hasn't rebuilt the levees the way they should be rebuilt.
You're an outspoken Democrat. How do you think the president is doing?
I thought it was a great day when he got elected. Is he doing a good job? Yeah. Could he do more? I think he could be more forceful, but it's a tough job and no one knows how tough it is until you get into it.