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COUNTRY STRONG

The Performances
The rich, layered and unforgettable acting at the center of COUNTRY STRONG is all the more impressive when one realizes that Gwyneth, Garrett and Leighton sing all their own songs. "Each has a very unique voice and I think that they've created credible country performers,” says Poster. "People will be very impressed by the quality of the singing in the movie. When we first started, it was important that the music we created sounded like the real thing. Then, as we were getting all the songs recorded it dawned on us that not only did it sound like the real thing, but it actually is the real thing which I think is a testament Shana's focus and the quality of the work that was done.”

The actors took their responsibilities very seriously. Paltrow remembers that "the music was a huge draw because it's always fun to play an aging, failing country star with big hair and I really enjoyed recording. I came to Nashville before the Christmas holiday and worked a lot on strengthening my voice, doing a lot of singing lessons and I learned how to play guitar, so the musical aspect of it has been really fun.”

The composers of Kelly Canter's onscreen songs were full of praise for Paltrow's performances as the country superstar. "Her voice is great--so smooth and so believable,” says Hillary Lindsey. "Just a beautiful, very strong voice.” Tom Douglas notes. "I sing my own demos, so it's thrilling when you finally get an artist like Gwyneth or Tim McGraw to sing one of your songs. I went on YouTube and saw her singing in the movie Duets--it's just amazing one person has all that talent. She's a great actress; she could clearly be a singer. I mean, she really brings it.”

For the less experienced Hedlund, the demands were greater. "I'd never played guitar before and definitely never sang for crowds, so back in August I started working in LA four-five days a week with Neal Casal, who's a tremendous musician, singer and songwriter. Initially my fingers were so uncoordinated. And then you're in a studio space and you've got a guitar in your hands and it's just man, I never thought I'd be here! A couple weeks later you go back into the studio and you can see that there's been some progress.”

"For years Neal had played in Ryan Adams' band, The Cardinals, so he brought a real kind of performer's reality to the process,” says Poster about Casal, who recently saw publication of a book of photographs taken during his time with Adams, and who appears in the film as a lead member of Kelly's band. "This made it fun for Garrett in terms of being able to play with and harmonize with him and make it seem fun and spirited. So it's been great to have Neal here on set.”

Casal notes how "when I first started working with Garret he knew very little on guitar--only a few chords that he struggled to play, and the progress he made was surprising and amazing. He worked so hard at it and in six months he made the kind of progress most people take three-four years to do. On the guitar he plays deceptively, simple chords but that doesn't mean it's easy; it's really hard to make that look comfortable, to make it look like you own it, like it's yours. That's the hardest part for anyone and that's one of the most impressive things about his progress. People can spend years and years and get nowhere on an instrument. And he not only had to learn to play guitar in a short amount of time but he had to learn to sing as well. He was doing all these things simultaneously and there was a lot of pressure on him—and we've all been blown away at how far he's come.”

After months of training and practice in LA, Hedlund arrived in Nashville in October to expand his opportunities to learn. Between excursions to Lower Broad -- the area where free live music flows at almost all hours from the bars – and to key outposts of traditional and new country music performing like The Loveless Café and the Bluebird, Hedlund got a taste, he says, of "how hard I had to work in order to portray this character.” He recounts a conversation he had with Tim Douglas about performing: ”He said that back in Louisiana when he was playing in the little bars he'd have a catalog of fifty cover songs that he'd be doing, and he'd be in the truck trying to get down every exact intonation of how they were singing in order be convincing and to be entertaining and so that's what I tried to do.

"When I read the script and started playing guitar,” Hedlund continues, "I knew I wanted to get there. I mean I wasn't going to have a hand double come in and be playing the chords, having to have two different set ups just because I couldn't get it down. And once we got to the performing scenes it was like, ‘Yeah, let's do a little more of this performance stuff.' We were filming over at The Stage down on Lower Broad, our first time getting up in front of a lot of extras, and there wasn't anything too scary about it. It felt great. I feel really proud of how far I was able to come along in my ability with the guitar, the singing and putting these songs across. It's definitely a tool that I'll never let go of.”

Like Hedlund, the other cast members and filmmakers found the "live” performances invigorating. "It was so much fun,” remembers Feste. "I'm not a public speaker at all, but I was so moved by all of the extras and what they gave to the performances [at the final "Dallas” venue]; it was like they were co-directing with me because the more love they gave to the actors when they sang, the better their performances got. Gwyneth said that they should win the Oscar® for the best crowd and I totally think that's true. They helped us so much.”

"I never ever thought in any scenario I would be doing a concert in front of thousands of people,” says Paltrow, "and I worked hard and prepared as well as I could. I did a lot of research--I watched a lot of Faith Hill in concert and I watched a lot of Beyonce in concert, because what I realized watching Beyonce is that she has this confidence above everything and for me that was very hard to achieve, so I studied her. She's so self-assured, like she knows she's going to blow everyone away, and so even if there's a mistake you wouldn't catch it. I watched a lot of concert tapes, everybody from Dolly Parton to… everyone, and I just tried to not feel nervous because Kelly wouldn't feel nervous in front of people.”

Choreographer and dancer Wes Veldink was called in to work with the actors on those moments that involved not just normal dance steps, but bits of movement with a guitar, perhaps, or in relationship with a band. Says Veldink, "I like to have an outline based on knowing the venue, the story and the music, asking the actors questions about what they think their character would do and then watching them sing and perform the music before giving them any steps in order find a nice natural marriage between what they want to do naturally and what I would like to see them do.

"Gwyneth is a pro,” Veldink observes, "she's a mover. She works so hard, she does her homework and she is really intelligent. She would consider any suggestion that I made--whether or not Kelly would do that and whether it would feel comfortable to her, and I really appreciated that back and forth. Kelly's performance style is playful and it's confident and she's always having fun. She enjoys the interaction with the audience, she loves her fans and she needs them so I think that that makes for a very exhilarating performance; she's an exciting performer because she's happy on stage.”

Working with Leighton on Chiles required a different emotional approach to stage movement. "With Chiles

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