After years in the role of NYC socialite Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl, pretty brunette Leighton Meester welcomed the chance to go to Nashville to play a stage-shy country music wannabe in the new romantic drama Country Strong — even if it meant a grueling schedule filled with music rehearsals, plane flights and character confusion.
We are in Beverly Hills with Leighton Meester, who is dressed in a cute Derek Lam dress with a denim-country vibe. Meester told SheKnows that Country Strong has changed her in a host of ways, including a total re-vamp of her musical tastes and style.
The pop princess with an edge is stepping aside at least temporarily while Leighton picks up her new acoustic guitar and is determined to “write songs from my heart.”
Meester got caught up in YouTube research on both femme country singers and beauty pageants (her character Chiles claims she’s “Miss Dallas”) but got “a bit evil” watching titles like Beauty Queen Falls or Beauty Queen Buys her Sash on E-Bay.
At our interview, Leighton Meester asks her assistant where her “baby” is and we think we’ve got one heck of a scoop until she explains that the “baby” is her little rescue terrier mix Jack. Kick back and let’s visit with Ms. Meester who tells us first that she hasn’t given up on love.
Leighton Meester dishes!
SheKnows: Let’s talk one of the major themes of Country Strong. Do you feel that love and fame can co-exist?
Leighton Meester: I would like it to. I haven’t really been faced with that yet. I’m just doing work and that’s what I focus on now. But, I love love and I want it in my life. I have a lot of it in different ways. When it comes, I welcome it and when it isn’t there, it kind of sucks to be honest [laughs] but you have inspiration coming from other places.
SheKnows: Do you think love has to be the foundation when you are matching up with someone else in the same career field? Tim McGraw was saying that was certainly true for him and wife Faith Hill.
Leighton Meester: Yeah. If it’s just that you have your careers in common, [it won’t work]. People say to me, “Well, if you have trouble, don’t date actors.” Well, who the hell else am I gonna date when I work 24 hours a day? [We laugh]
SheKnows: Which character do you identify most with? Blair or Chiles?
Leighton Meester: They are completely different and that’s what keeps me happy and not bored. I think Blair is larger than life [laughs]. She’s doing things that I would never do. She’s very manipulative and conniving in this heightened reality whereas Chiles feels like somebody who I know or may be a part of myself. She’s a lot of things I want to be. [My director] Shana [Feste], during rehearsal was like, “You’re not all that naive or light and happy about things, are you?” I was appalled. “How dare you?” [Laughs] I was like, “Oh, I guess not.” She said, “You should try to be.” So, from then on I did and even to this day, I’m much happier.
Leighton Meester meets Garrett Hedlund
SheKnows: You and hottie Garrett Hedlund play the young lovers in the film and have the same agent. Did you really know him though beforehand? How was working with him?
Leighton Meester: I had met him but we had a chemistry reading together. I walk in and he’s sitting on the floor. I felt very drawn toward the character. Obviously, Beau is the knight in shining armor but [Garrett] lends a totally different flavor to it with his sweetness and his vulnerable side which changes the character completely to suit him. He’s great and wonderful to work off of.
SheKnows: You have a couple of scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow. Did you two get a chance to talk and bond before, during or after?
Leighton Meester: Yeah. I think, because of her role, I wasn’t sure exactly what the interaction would be. Obviously, our dynamic in this movie is two women in this industry who are not necessarily happy all the time. As an actress, I really admire her because she is incredible but, as a person, everybody loves her because she is so generous and, off camera, she’s very funny and down to earth. She’s just a down, cool chick.
SheKnows: Kelly [Gwyneth’s country music superstar character] gives Chiles seven or eight pieces of advice. What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about the business and who did it come from?
Leighton Meester: I feel really lucky that I’ve gotten good advice as I’ve gone along in my career. Anything that would come from my family would be like, “Okay, cool. You’re working. Go take out the trash.” I think the best advice was from this director Julian Farino [The Oranges] who was very supportive of following your heart. If you are doing what you love, it doesn’t matter if a smaller percentage of people like it. At least you like it.
Country Strong inspiration
SheKnows: Were there any young country singers that you took moves or sounds from?
Leighton Meester: Yeah. We would go to lower Broadway bars in Nashville and see singers downing whiskey shots on stage and Shana is like, “Now that’s the beginning.” Then we went to the Ryman [Auditorium] and saw Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood, much more powerful — these huge stars, very comfortable in that atmosphere. I don’t know what’s more nerve-wracking; standing in front of a small crowd and having everyone boo you or having to stand in front of a crowd of ten thousand people with them all cheering and you have to be really confident. This movie has taught me to sing and write from my heart and, in that way, I like Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. I like the simplicity of that paired with the presence of emotion.
SheKnows: Chiles starts out frozen with stage fright. Can you relate to that?
Leighton: Yeah. It terrifies me when I have to go up on stage. Even just for the movie, that scene is really uncomfortable. It felt so uncomfortable, I’m sure, for everyone who was there. For me, if I ever have to do any kind of public speaking or be up on a stage in front of people, my hands are sweating just thinking about it, honestly. It really terrifies me.
SheKnows: We know you hit YouTube pretty hard to research. Did you watch any movies set in the same world?
Leighton Meester: I think the beauty of this movie is it’s written about human relationships and the characters and the interactions between them. That’s where life comes in. You can’t really watch a movie for research necessarily. But, obviously Coal Miner’s Daughter and the tone of that and Crazy Heart.
SheKnows: You had to fly back and forth from NYC and Gossip Girl to Nashville to shoot this. What was the most difficult thing about that pressure? Slipping back and forth into two characters quickly or just the exhaustion?
Leighton Meester: I rarely find myself physically tired because I do get a decent amount of sleep. It’s putting your priorities in order. I’d be going back and forth and be on the plane and say, “Where am I going? Who am I now?” But I chose that for myself and I had to do it and wanted to do it. I enjoyed it. I’d show up in the morning and Shana would have coffee for me and come in my trailer and sit and talk and work it out. Luckily we had a lot of rehearsal time that got my head switched to the [Chiles] character. The thing about Gossip Girl, I’ve been doing it for about four years so the dialogue comes so easily.
SheKnows: Did you have any time to party at all in Nashville while filming Country Strong?
Leighton Meester: I didn’t get to do a lot of stuff other than working which was kind of unfortunate because everyone else was always going out and I just said, “I’ve got to catch a plane.”
SheKnows: You grew up in Florida so how hard was getting the Texas accent right?
Leighton Meester: I had a dialect coach. He seemed to say I got it pretty easily. It was hard on set with everybody doing their Tennessee accent which is different but it was fun and all the dialogue was perfectly suited for her accent so I was into it that way. I fell into it and I still do sometimes. A lot of people in my family are from the South so I sort of drew on certain things that they say. It’s a different, slower way of talking.
SheKnows: Chiles really wants to learn new things. She is using flash cards while on tour in the film. Any further education in your future or any subject you would like to take classes in some day?
Leighton Meester: A couple of years ago I was thinking about that because that was about the time I would have been graduating from college and I didn’t go. I’m thankful for that because I’ve had a lot of other life experiences but I’ve always read a lot and that’s part of my life that I enjoy. It’s how I decompress. I love to live in a little fantasy world sometimes which can be good and bad. Then I decided I want to be really smart so I started reading books that you would read in college and started educating myself that way. I read all these classic books.
Gossiping Gossip Girl
SheKnows: Wasn’t joining the Gossip Girl cast sort of like going away to school?
Leighton Meester: Yeah. When I moved to New York it was like that. Everybody in the show had moved at the same time and we all hung out and shared life experiences.
SheKnows: What do you wish the showrunners of Gossip Girl would let Blair do or have?
Leighton Meester: I want a cute guy to be honest. She’s not gonna be with Chuck for a minute so she needs someone else. I really liked it when she was dating the Prince for a while.