Gwyneth Pal­trow mis­be­haves

To play a fallen mu­sic star, the or­ga­nized mom lets her hair down and her fists fly

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS&STYLE - BY RE­BECCA KEE­GAN

The con­sci­en­tious wife and mother plays a coun­try singer bad girl in “Coun­try Strong.”

Gwyneth Pal­trow is the kind of well­man­nered celebrity who never — even in her gre­gar­i­ous 20s — raised eye­brows by wear­ing her skirts too short, sway­ing boozily on a bar top or kiss­ing a man who wasn’t her own. So it is with rel­ish that the ac­tress, now 38 and the kind of con­sci­en­tious mother of two who co­or­di­nates play dates from 5,000 miles away, does all that mis­be­hav­ing and more as a coun­try star in her new movie, “Coun­try Strong,” which opens Fri­day.

“My life is all re­spon­si­bil­ity,” says Pal­trow, shrug­ging into a hooded sweat shirt and­kick­ing off her three-inch heels af­ter a per­for­mance to pro­mote the film atYa­hoo in San­taMon­ica. “Ana­maz­ingth­ing about play­ing Kelly was this aban­don that she had. I en­vied it in a way. I’mso or­ga­nized, and some­times you feel like the re­spon­si­bil­ity you put on your­self is just gonna choke you. It was won­der­ful to play some­one who, to ev­ery­one’s detri­ment, just didn’t have a care in the world.”

Pal­trow’s Kelly Can­ter is a train wreck with plat­inum records — like Brit­ney Spears a decade from now, plus some twang and mi­nus the in­ter­ven­tion. Pulled out of re­hab pre­ma­turely by her hus­band­man­ager (played by coun­try star Tim McGraw), Kelly at­tempts a come­back. But things get com­pli­cated when she takes a shine to a smol­der­ing young man with a gui­tar (Gar­rett Hed­lund of “ Tron: Legacy”) and faces some fresh-faced com­pe­ti­tion (LeightonMeester of “Gos­sip Girl”).

Al­though she’s best known lately for play­ing “Iron­Man’s” hyper-ca­pa­ble sec­re­tary Pep­per Potts, this is Pal­trow’s first ma­jor lead per­for­mance in seven years, since she be­came mother to Ap­ple, now 6, and Moses, 4. It took a role that would re­quire her to sing, dance, rage, weep and ac­cess her in­ner­bad­girl to lure the ac­tress out of the life of pro­tected do­mes­tic­ity she leads in London with her chil­dren and hus­band, Cold­play vo­cal­ist ChrisMartin.

“I’ve al­ways been home and I want to raise my kids my­self and you can’t be star­ring in three movies a year. You know, it just doesn’t work,” says Pal­trow, who moved her fam­ily to Nashville for the five-week “Coun­try Strong” shoot. “I went for a week by my­self, ’cause I thought there’s noway I can get into this char­ac­ter with my tod­dlers run­ning around. You come home from play­ing drunk and sob­bing and you’re like, ‘Hey, let’s make a paint­ing!’ They’re just two dif­fer­ent worlds.”

Writer-di­rec­tor Shana Feste said she cast the cos­mopoli­tan Os­car win­ner as her fallen coun­try star be­cause of the ac­tress’s will­ing­ness to en­ter Kelly’s tur­bu­lent re­al­ity. “I heard the love in her voice, and I knew she wasn’t gonna judge this char­ac­ter,” Feste says.“Kelly does a lot of very bad things.”

Amongthe worst is deck­ingMcGrawin adrunk­en­tantrum, as­cenePal­trow­found ex­cru­ci­at­ing to shoot. Af­ter mul­ti­ple takes fak­ing the punch, Feste and the ac­tors agreed to try one for real. “ Tim started be­ing very com­bat­ive with her and egging her on,” Feste says. “She ended up whack­ing him, and she started cry­ing after­ward.”

The take was a keeper, but Pal­trow was shaken. “I’d never hit any­one in my life, and I didn’t like it at all,” she says.

Com­pared to its emo­tional rig­ors, the role’s mu­si­cal de­mands were more straight­for­ward. Pal­trow, who had sung in the movies “ Duets” and “ In­fa­mous,” took gui­tar lessons while her chil­dren were in school. She watched Loretta Lynn videos and con­sulted fa­mous friends such as Bey­once andMcGraw’s wife, FaithHill, on ev­ery­thing from ex­ud­ing mag­netism to hold­ing a mi­cro­phone. (Cu­ri­ously, Pal­trow doesn’t men­tion get­ting point­ers from her mu­si­cian hus­band, though he did write a song for the sound­track.)

Once she ar­rived in Nashville, Pal­trow took in shows at le­gendary coun­try venues such as the Ry­man Au­di­to­rium and the Sta­tion Inn. By the time she first per­formed on set, in an in­ti­mate scene in which she andHed­lund co-write a song in re­hab, the mu­sic was the least of Pal­trow’s wor­ries. “I al­ways think, ‘Well, she did it’ — Deb­bie Reynolds or Judy Gar­land,’ ” Pal­trow says. “Peo­ple do it. So I think if they can do it, I can give it the col­lege try.”

Sing­ing for a crew and en­thu­si­as­tic ex­tras is one thing. It’s quite an­other to do what Pal­trow did in Novem­ber to pro­mote the film: per­form­ing at the Coun­try Mu­sic As­so­ci­a­tion Awards in Nashville, strum­ming a six-string and har­mo­niz­ing with Vince Gill in front of the in­dus­try’s elite and a live TV au­di­ence.

“Why would you put your­self in that sce­nario?” Pal­trow asks. “ Two weeks be­fore­hand, I re­ally thought I had lost my mind.” In the days be­fore the show, the ac­tress stayed in­Hill andMcGraw’sNashville guest­house and got some coun­sel. “ Tim was like, ‘You’ve got no choice now. Man up.’ And Faith said, ‘ Try to have fun. En­joy it.’ ”

Though vis­i­bly ner­vous, Pal­trow de­liv­ered a ca­pa­ble per­for­mance that night, one she calls “one of the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing, sur­real, chal­leng­ing mo­ments in my life.” She fol­lowed it up with more sing­ing on a sweeps-week episode of “Glee.”

Mu­sic is just Pal­trow’s lat­est pro­fes­sional di­ver­sion. In 2008, she filmed a travel show and penned a cook­book with chef Mario Batali, and she main­tains a blog, Goop, that’s the ob­ject of some de­ri­sion for its rar­efied life­style sug­ges­tions. (Rec­om­mended Paris ho­tel? The Ritz.)

Next up for Pal­trow is play­ing a busi­ness­woman with amys­te­ri­ous ail­ment in Steven Soder­bergh’s thriller “Con­ta­gion.”

“I’mgood at act­ing, but Imay be more in­clined to do some­thing that I’m less good at and more in­ter­ested in,” Pal­trow says. “ The­most­dan­ger­ous thing is buy­ing into the idea of what you’re sup­posed to be, the pro­jec­tion of what peo­ple think you are. If I’ve done the best I can do and my in­ten­tions are su­per clear, then it’s re­ally not my busi­ness what any­body thinks of me.”

SCOTT GARFIELD/SONY-SCREEN GEMS VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

NO RE­FRAIN: Gwyneth Pal­trow plays a coun­try star at­tempt­ing a come­back in “Coun­try Strong,” a reck­less char­ac­ter that “ to ev­ery­one’s detri­ment, just didn’t have a care in the world,” she says. It is the Os­car win­ner’s first ma­jor lead role in seven years.

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