Move over Clint Eastwood. Stand aside, Willie Nelson.
Pure Country, George Strait's first film, is about to be released.
Bets are in that Hollywood audiences will take to George as easily
as his country fans. Only the box office knows for sure.
by Michael McCall
George plays Dusty, a country singer faced with major decisions. His co-star-and love interest-is Isabel Glasser. It's a movie for the whole family. The Cast and crew agree that acting came quite naturally to the country star
George Strait walks slowly and deliberately down the center of a huge stage in the elaborate amphitheater of The Mirage hotel in Las Vegas. He's trying to appear casual yet focused-a difficult task considering a movie camera, an intense director, a tired film crew and a crowd of several hundred fans are silently and expectantly following every step.
He reaches the designated spot and stops. Then the director yells "cut" - yep, he really does, even on a by-God real movie set. The second-to-last day of filming is underway for Pure Country, the specially designed vehicle built to carry George straight to the stratosphere of Hollywood in his first film role. All in all, the quiet, humble country music superstar seems to be taking to the challenge quite well.
At this particular moment, director Chris Cain has interrupted the scene because the singer isn't perfectly groomed. "Your hair is underneath your hat, George," Cain announces over an intercom. The singer smiles, pauses and raises his eyebrows as he looks toward a group of fans intently staring up at him from a table in an orchestra pit. With comic timing worthy of Jack Benny, Strait softly drawls into a microphone, "Yes, it is."
The director meant a wisp of hair had slipped from under the brim of George's black Stetson and disruptively splayed itself across the singer's forehead. The makeup woman hurriedly sweeps the errant strand into place and dusts a pad across George's nose and cheeks.
"I wish I had your job!" shouts a member of the audience, one of many dedicated George Strait fan club members who trekked to Las Vegas to become patient, obedient crowd members on the set of their idol's film debut. The woman's comment shatters the silence imposed on the audience. Fans howl, the crew laughs, and even the intense director chuckles. The next attempt to complete the scene is a success.
It's 7:20 in the morning, about halfway through the 39th consecutive day of filming. Since arriving in Las Vegas five days earlier, the large production staff has been working from 1 A.M. to 2 P.M. daily because it was the only time the Casino Theater was available. Besides being tired, the crew is also under immense time pressure-the filming must be completed within 30 hours.
Still, considering the life span of film and videotape, a bad close-up can haunt you for along, long time. So the director wants to get it right. And, because the star maintains a sense of humor amid the intensity and pressure, an atmosphere of focused camaraderie pervades the set and keeps the tension from thickening.
Nearly everyone involved in the film, from the big cheeses to several low-level (and knuckle-busting) assistants, vows that working with George on his initial movie has been an enjoyable experience-despite the hectic schedule and his inexperience as an actor.
"I worry going into every movie," says Cain, whose best-known film has been Young Guns, in which young Hollywood brats strap on six-guns and pretend to be outlaws of the Old West. "With George, the concern was how well he could act and how fast he would be able to pick it up." In the end, the versatile singer adapted better than Cain expected. "He's been an absolute pleasure to work with," he says. "I assured him at the beginning that I wouldn't make him do something he wasn't comfortable with. He trusted me, and he learned very quickly. He figured out where the marks are, where the lights are, how to find 'em and how to hit 'em. He learned how to tap into an emotional moment. He's a very together man. He'll be able to go on in this business, no doubt about it."
George plays a country singer who achieves massive fame but discovers he's lost touch with himself and his music along the way. After a concert with too much smoke and too many lasers, he deserts his band and his special effects and returns to his native Texas. He also shaves the beard and cuts the long hair he grew for the part. There's no need to reveal any more of the plot, except to say it involves rodeos, self-discovery, a good fist fight and a significant love interest.
Isabel Glasser, a New York-based theater actress who plays the girlfriend, will draw the envy of a fair portion of the American female population. The cast also includes Lesley Ann Warren as his manager, Rory Calhoun as a grizzled cowboy and John Doe (formerly of the rock band X) as George's drummer and friend.
Isabel is a fresh-faced, delicate redhead with an enthusiastic manner, and she is among the chorus praising the movie's star. "He's just such a nice man," she says of George. "He's been so easy to be around as a person. He's really good at responding and working with you in a scene, and he's got this great sense of humor. There's such a natural confidence and charisma about him as a performer, and he has really transferred all that into this medium. And he's not a prima donna! He's a regular guy." Okay, okay, enough already, Isabel. Tell us about the love scenes. "Well, what we have is very romantic and a little flirtatious." Now we're getting somewhere. Is he a good kisser? "I don't know, I haven't kissed him yet," she smiles, admitting the truth will come the next day. "I'm not one to kiss and tell, but one can only hope, of course."
So what's George think about all this? Sitting in a leather-upholstered chair on his bus behind the theater, he admits to struggling with insecurities at first. "I was a little scared," he says. "I thought I could do it, and I really wanted to try, but you don't really know how it's going to go until you do it. We shot the big concert scenes first, and that went okay. But the first day I had some serious dialogue, I was really nervous. I was doing a scene with Lesley Ann Warren, and I was nervous because I didn't want these people to be sorry that they committed to make this movie with me. I wanted to be good enough to where they were happy they did it."
The interview took place a few hours into the final day of filming. It was about 5A.M., and the sun had not yet begun to shine on Las Vegas. With only a final scene to finish, George resisted the temptation to say he felt positive about his first film. But his upbeat manner and easy confidence revealed more than his words. "I can't really tell you how I'm doing," says the soft-spoken, humble Texan. "All I can tell you is what they tell me, and they seem pleased with it."
In truth, George was lured into acting with severe reservations. Producer Jerry Weintraub, whose credits include Nashville!, Diner and The Karate Kid, received a call from an old friend, Colonel Tom Parker, the famous manager of Elvis Presley who still apparently sits around thinking about how gifted, shy singers with matinee-idol looks should supplement their already enormous incomes with million-dollar movie deals. Parker told Weintraub that George could be a movie star. Weintraub attended an Ace in the Hole concert in the Houston Astrodome, saw tens of thousands of screaming women the whole time George was on stage, and, drawing on his years of experience, he figured the Colonel might be right.
"He was kind of hesitant at first," says Weintraub, a tall, brawny fellow who speaks with a casual, confident persuasiveness common among laid-back moguls with killer instincts. "He said to me, 'What do I have to gain? I sell a lot of albums. I've got a great life. What is this going to do for me? And I don't know how to act."' Weintraub, over several meetings, tried to convince him otherwise. "Acting is reacting," he told him. "It's not that big a deal." George finally asked for a script. Weintraub paid for a customized job tailored to the singer's strengths. He can sing. He's an authentic rancher who can ride and rope.
"This is a story about a country singer and a story about a man in turmoil," Weintraub says. "It's a family movie and a terrific love story. I think country music fans, who are legion now, will love it." George liked the script, though he suggested a few changes. "Originally we were going to call the main character 'Bubba,' and George said we couldn't do that," Weintraub relates. "He taught me a few other things I wasn't familiar with. There's a very sensitive area right now with country singers. They don't want to be considered hicks. This movie doesn't do that. It's real life stuff." (Later, I complimented George on the name change, suggesting Bubba was a name only people outside of the South would use for a country singer. He gently corrected me. 'Well, we call my son 'Bubba,"' he said, and I looked to see how many steps it would take to get out the door of the bus. "I just didn't think it was right for the character." Gentleman that he is, I was allowed to stay.)
Weintraub, a big-time producer who tends to gamble and who wins more than he loses, climbed further out on a limb. He edged beyond promoting his $10 million movie venture to predict that his cinematic discovery has a future in Hollywood. "It was important that George was a singer in this movie, and he will sing in future pictures, the producer pronounced. "But I think there will come a time when he makes a movie where he doesn't sing. He reminds me of Alan Ladd, back when Ladd was a number-one box office star. "The women are going to go nuts over this guy, and guys like him because he's a man's man. I mean, he did all his own rodeo stuff in this movie. He got on a horse, he's a great rider, and he did his own ropin'. He shows up on time. He works real hard. And he's a great guy on top of everything else. I've enjoyed this experience with him more than anything else I've done in years." George, however, offers a more low-key assessment. "I never saw it as a risk," he says of his new role. "I see it as an adventure. It's a good change of pace for me. I got to try something new. I'm enjoying it, and depending on how it goes, I'll consider doing another down the line. If it comes out okay, and I can see that I can do it, and if it's possible for me to do more, then I will. I feel comfortable out there."
Part of the charm of his first role was how strongly he identified with the character. He, too, finds certain obligations and trappings of stardom distasteful. But the more the real George's stature and income have grown over the years, the more the singer has seized control of his career. He tours less than most major country stars. He rarely takes part in the van-otis promotional activities expected of performers. He rarely grants interviews on television or to print reporters. He's removed himself from certain burdens, and he can argue that doing so hasn't seemed to hurt his career in any significant way. When it came to choosing his first role, he found plenty of parallels between his life and the fictional tale of Dusty, the overworked superstar from Texas. "For one thing, he's a country singer. I figured I could pull that off. I don't where they got the story about the guy starting off by touring with his equipment in the back of a pickup, but I went through all that. "And, to be totally truthful, I've experienced the kind of burnout this guy has in the movie. Back seven, eight years ago, when I was working 250 dates a year, you get to a point where you wonder if you can do that another year. It's not an easy thing to deal with. It's pretty serious. Everything starts happening so fast, you feel like you've lost control. That's kind of what this guy is going through. He's unhappy with a lot of different things in his life."
Working on the film, though, did the reclusive, private star think of following his character's lead? After all, George is a millionaire many times over. He loves ranching, and he says he enjoys nothing more than tending to his livestock and riding around his extensive plot of land. He gives the question some thought, then says with some deliberation: "I don't see myself as totally retiring from the music any time soon. I may cut down more. But I'm going to make albums as long as people keep buying them and tour as long as people keep coming to the shows. But I do think I'll eventually retire and live on the ranch and do nothing. (He chuckles, low and slow.) After all, isn't that what we all work for?" He pauses again, seemingly running through his own thoughts, before adding "But I'm not like the guy in the movie. I've never been to that point where I'd just walk away from it. I've been close to where I thought I might. This guy actually does it."
George also relates with another aspect of Dusty's nature. He, too, disdains the urge to equate bigger with glitzier. Even as his show has started filling enormous arenas, he keeps the focus on the songs, his voice and the terse, swinging quality of the Ace in the Hole Band.
"I've never seen the need for a big show with a lot of effects," he notes. "There's a point where you can go overboard with the production end. It just doesn't make sense to me. The cost is incredible, especially to put on a show like this guy is doing in the movie. Besides, I wouldn't be comfortable with that. The way I see it, I just try to do as many songs as I can in a concert. That's why I figure people come to see me: They want to hear the songs, the hits."
Meanwhile, Hollywood will follow the success of Strait's first movie eagerly. At least six other feature films with country music themes are currently in pre-production. If Pure Country draws crowds, then hold onto your hat. The gates will open and the stampede will come. "It's important for country music that this thing gets off the ground," says Weintraub, the veteran producer. "If it does, there will be a hundred."