Country stars have the acting bug
Ethan Hawke
Credit: Doane Gregory

&#091Holiday Encore&#093 What is it about country singers that makes them so attractive to directors casting films? Is it their regretful songs, which show emotional depth? Is it their tireless energy while performing? Is it their big ol’ hats? Whatever the reason, more country stars seem to be walkin’ the line between Nashville and Hollywood — including George Strait in “Pure Country;” LeAnn Rimes in the TV movie version of her book, “Holiday in Your Heart;” and Randy Travis in “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker.”

Following in the bootsteps of such old-time crooners as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, the new breed of country singers is trading Fender Telecasters for Stanislavsky on tape. Dwight Yoakam is piggybacking on his acclaimed “Sling Blade” performance with a role in Richard Linklater’s “The Newton Boys;” and Garth Brooks has a development deal with Fox Family Films.

Along with selling millions of records (to loyal fans who also love hot buttered popcorn in dark theaters), these country crooners have an attribute Hollywood finds attractive: sincerity. “They’re believable because deep down they’re not trying to be something they’re not,” says Jerry Strobel, house manager of the Grand Ole Opry since 1970, who has met hundreds of country performers. And it doesn’t hurt that these melodizers have honed their performing skills before demanding audiences of 50 to 50,000 or more — often acting out romantic numbers in dramatic fashion.

But in the end, the successful transition from music to movies may come down to simple hard work. Says Jim Boerlin, an acting teacher at Uta Hagen’s New York studio: “It’s like people in professional sports. They’re willing to put in the long hours necessary for training.” Of course, having emotions as outsized as their Montana ranches doesn’t hurt. “Maybe not every country-western star sings about heartache,” suggests Boerlin, “but 99% of the ones I’ve heard do.”