Meester, who grew up in Florida, got a real crash course in country music - and in what it's like to be a musician performing in front of stadium-size crowds - to prepare for writer/director Shana Feste's Country Strong. "I was definitely aware of country music," said Meester at the LA press day for the Screen Gems film. "I really grew to love it and respect it. I have this movie to thank for that now. It’s the best thing ever."
On her musical experience prior to Country Strong:
Leighton Meester: "Well, I’ve performed on stage before. I think it’s terrifying. I probably agree with Chiles in that way. And I’ve done my share of karaoke. I don't know, I went to some honky tonks in Nashville with Shana [Feste]. Chiles goes through a transformation with her performance so she starts out not so confident. She gets up there and totally chokes. These people performing in Nashville are pretty incredible, but we start of and we see people taking shots and getting up on the bar and not really knowing what to do with her hands and stuff like that. So she’s like, 'Watch that. Watch that for the first performance at the stage.' Then we go [and] see Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride get up there and just own it. So it’s that whole spectrum of going from not confident at all to being completely grown up, I guess. I don’t really know what’s scarier, standing in front of a few people and having them all boo you over and over and over again, or having to do it in front of a thousand people and try to be as confident as possible."
On feeling like a rock star in front of the stadium crowds:
Leighton Meester: "I mean, up in the rafters there were some dummies. They weren’t real people. It was mixed. It was pretty scary looking. We had a choreographer. We did a lot of rehearsals. It was a big stage. It was Tim [McGraw's] stage actually, and I don't know how he does it. I was wearing heels...I think that might’ve been part of it but you’ve got to run back and forth. You really touch the crowd and connect with them. We had run it exactly like a music video. They film everything over and over until you get it right from every different angle. Then we do it again. Yeah, I fell to my knees a few times. It was fun - and you throw your hair back and forth."
On the appeal of playing Chiles:
Leighton Meester: "I think overall, obviously, it’s the script and the relationships between the characters and those interactions that are so human and kind of messed up. Chiles, I feel for her and I grew to love her more as I was doing the movie. She’s kind of pathetic. She wears her heart on her sleeve and for that I like her, but also she gets walked all over. She kind of comes back and let’s people do it again and she’s like, 'Are we friends?' 'No, we’re not.'"
"In the beginning of rehearsals, Shana was like, 'You’re not that naïve or light about things.' And I was so offended. Then I realized she’s right. I should start being like that a bit more and even to this day, I’m happier. I think it’s because of Chiles. She’s got a lot of the same issues that I think everyone has. I relate to her in a lot of ways. I think she’s trying to be somebody. She’s driven and she’s kind of sassy but she also has a past. She has to let that out. I think her love with Beau allows that, but she’s scared of being insignificant or common or interchangeable. She wants Beau to think she’s talented and everyone to think she’s smart and more than just pretty."
On connecting with the themes of the film:
Leighton Meester: "I think more than anything, the movie asks the question can you have love and success? Fame to me is just silliness and I don’t want that. I guess that is somehow part of my job, but I think my job is acting and that’s where I find my joy. I don’t really have any issues or problem with it. The best part about that aspect is that we have good fans, and in the rest of my life I can wear sweatpants around and then I don’t have any problem whatsoever."
On handling the Texas accent:
Leighton Meester: "The hardest thing about the set honestly was probably maintaining the accent because everyone speaks with a Tennessee accent and I’m supposed to be from Dallas. But we had a dialect coach and it’s funny how naturally it seems to come. Now it comes in and out. Especially when I’m talking to my dog or something, I’m like, 'Git outta thayr!' It’s just fun. [...]After the first session with the dialect coach, he was like, 'I think you kinda get this. I think you kinda understand.'"
On having Tim McGraw on the set as a country music expert:
Leighton Meester: "I think he would never want to say that. I think he was there as 'James', and I think as an actor he’s incredible. He was so present every day. He’s my mentor in the movie and very much so in real life. Before the movie we sat down and he just kind of told me everything. He told me his life and how he got into music and his career, every up and down. He’s Chiles’ manager so I think he even just as Tim understands that. Yeah, having him around was fun but it was good to know that we were at least being authentic because he had his little stamp of approval on it."
On working with Gwyneth Paltrow:
Leighton Meester: "I think she’s very admirable in her career, her choices, and it always blows my mind when I get to meet the best, somebody who’s so talented that you love and admire and who’s incredibly successful. They’re also so kind, and she’s very kind and everyone loves working with her. She’s really down to earth so that inspired me because I realized that it’s good to be nice. It really helps you out a lot."
On her personal favorite style of country music:
Leighton Meester: "Well, growing up I listened to a lot of - my parents were always playing Paul Simon and Madonna and Bonnie Raitt. Obviously not all country music, but I always listened to music when I was growing up and I remember it touching me from a really young age. I was in the grocery store with my dad one time and I think Whitney Houston was playing. I must’ve been like four and I said, 'This gives my back tingles.' My dad was like, 'That’s what it’s supposed to do.' Then because of this movie, Garrett [Hedlund] introduced me to Blaze Foley who I listen to all the time and I love."
"I love me some Taylor Swift. I think she’s awesome and I got to work with Nathan Chapman who works with her all the time. I think that was a perfect fit for the music that Chiles does. He’s like a teenage girl in a grown man’s body - as he would put it, not just me."
On hanging out in Nashville:
Leighton Meester: "Yeah, I really love it there I must say. I had been there a couple times and I really got to spend some time there and enjoy it. I just fell in love with it. The music, everybody who worked on the set, they’d known each other since kindergarten. I come from a small town but I live in a big city and it is the perfect culmination of the two. Everyone there is so talented. Everyone that we were working with, all the musicians and the producers and writers and singers, they’re so talented and they’ve been playing guitar since they were three years old. It’s pretty cool."
On what life might be like post-Gossip Girl:
Leighton Meester: "Obviously we’re under contract for a certain amount of time. I think in the fourth year they start going, 'Okay, we know the timing of things. We know how much we need you and how much we don’t.' So they’ve been very kind to let us out. I’ve been lucky enough to find projects that I really like to do. Usually they’re on hiatus. This one was not. I had to threaten everybody in my life, including my manager, my agent and everybody that I worked with. I was like, 'If I can’t do this, if we can’t work out the schedule, I am moving to Costa Rica, I’m never going to work again, I’m turning off my phone.' I was bluffing, but it worked."
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Country Strong hits theaters on January 7, 2011 and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content.