Country stars court new fan base by trying their hand at acting

Nashville may be the capital of country music, but stick a shovel in the ground in Hollywood and you’ll find a country root. Maybe two.

Gene Autry, “the singing cowboy,” was an early film star, and Elvis Presley made his mark on the movies. Johnny and June Carter Cash were familiar faces on television, and Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton rank among the most recognizable personalities in America. Given that, it shouldn’t be surprising that country stars are again becoming players in Hollywood.

With country’s huge fan base, and with country stars finding critical and commercial success at the box office, it may be a surprise that Hollywood hasn’t figured out how to make better use of country’s talent pool.

“I don’t know why they don’t cross-pollinate more,” says Reba McEntire, who is hosting tonight’s Academy of Country Music Awards. “I think they’re missing out.”

McEntire has sold more than 48 million albums and is among the most well-known country crossover stars in the nation. She has appeared in 10 films and numerous television shows and starred on Broadway in “Annie Get Your Gun.” She has the signature role in the WB laffer “Reba” and is featured as the voice of Dixie in this year’s “The Fox and the Hound II” as well as the voice of Betsy in the upcoming “Charlotte’s Web.”

She says the industry occasionally recognizes country music’s potential.

“Every once in a while, country music will be the hottest thing,” she notes.

Now, she says, Hollywood is once again catching on.

Dwight Yoakam made his bigscreen debut opposite Nicolas Cage and Dennis Hopper in 1992’s “Red Rock West” and is widely respected as an actor for roles in films such as “Sling Blade” and “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”

Tim McGraw has been taken seriously as an actor since the 2004 hit “Friday Night Lights,” and his wife, Faith Hill, played Sarah Sunderson in that same year’s “The Stepford Wives.” Toby Keith stars in the upcoming Paramount and Country Music Television Films “Broken Bridges.”

Fox 2000 prexy Elizabeth Gabler, who produced “Flicka,” a new film starring McGraw, says Nashville offers all kinds of untapped opportunity. She says McGraw, who co-wrote and performs the original song “My Little Girl” in the film, brings a pre-existing audience and a strong artistic and commercial sensibility to the movie.

“He’s really involved in the whole plan for the movie, and we are absolutely (planning to) use him to help promote the movie,” she says.

Peter Berg, who wrote and directed “Friday Night Lights,” says McGraw has a strong connection to his audience and went out of his way to promote that film.

“Tim did a tremendous amount of publicity that he didn’t have to do,” Berg says. “It didn’t hurt that when the film was coming out, Tim was touring and playing the trailer to the film before his show on a giant TV screen.”

McGraw’s formidable audience responded, and “Friday Night Lights” took in more than $61 million at the box office.

McEntire says country stars excel at promoting their projects.

“They’re used to going and doing the press,” she says. “If they had a person like that in the movies, then you get double-exposure. When they’re out doing the concert circuit, they talk about the movie. That’s just added press.”

Sara Risher, who produced Keith’s newest project, “Broken Bridges,” along with CMT, says country stars bring a storytelling sensibility that translates well to film.

“Country music is basically telling a story,” she says. “It’s all about emotions. It’s about, ‘My dog died, my truck got stolen, and I lost my one love, I never told her that I loved her.’ “

Risher, whose production company is called ChickFlicks, says that while country stars appeal to a wide demographic, they have special appeal to female audiences. She considers herself “a new convert to country music” and says stars like Keith bring “a natural honesty.”

“He is not a matinee idol type. He’s not a kid,” she says. “He is 40 years old, but he’s got a brooding frankness and a charisma that shines, and a warmth.” She points out that a recent album review in the New York Times called Keith “charismatic.”

Paul Villadolid, vice president of programming and development for Country Music Television, says the network recognizes the potential of country stars and plans to make use of it.

“There’s a big opportunity there,” he says. “There’s some great stories to be told that might be ignored by some of the other studios but that really fit in with our audience and our particular niche, and we also know that there’s a strong stable of artists out there … that we think are ready to step onto the bigscreen.”

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