Art imitates life (and vice versa) in Hannah Montana: The Movie, in which teen idol Miley Cyrus stars as the titular character, a 16-year-old A-list celebrity desperately trying to balance stardom with her normal life. That normal life is her “real” life as Miley Stewart, a high schooler whose pop identity is only known to family and friends and who is about to get a wake-up call in the form of an extended stay in the homegrown Tennessee countryside where she grew up, courtesy of dad Robby Ray Stewart (played by Miley’s real-life father, country music star-turned-actor Billy Ray Cyrus). RT talked to the elder Cyrus about his favorite films, his transition from “Achy Breaky Heart” recording artist to Hollywood thespian, and how he credits David Lynch (and a letter from Johnny Cash) with helping daughter Miley become the teen entertainment phenomenon that she is today.
Oh my gosh! The incredible acting; the performances that are delivered in such an incredible true story. It’s a great film.
Clint Eastwood is an inspiration to me as an actor. He, Robert Redford, and Michael Landon, might be three of my biggest influences as an actor. In each of those cases, it’s the fact that they play everything with a “less is more” style. There’s just something about that style that I try to tap into every now and then; it’s definitely my approach to a lot of things.
I’m just a sucker for a good love story. And that would be another of my influences by Robert Redford. He’s been a definitive inspiration as an actor and as a role model, if you will.
Let’s go with Elephant Man — no, I’m going to go with Blue Velvet, for my David Lynch pick. I’m going to go with Blue Velvet because I love Roy Orbison so much. He was a great influence on me musically, and still is. That’s when I kind of put two and two together — with Blue Velvet — and thought, film is a great way for your music to be heard, without radio. It’s a great way for your music to be heard.
And that came out before you actually met David Lynch and starred in his film, Mulholland Dr.
Oh yes, it came out considerably before. I’m pretty sure I was a young hellion at the time, about wild enough to shoot at. Just rockin’ and rollin’, playing these little bars and clubs up in West Virginia and Kentucky and Ohio. Wild as can be, just crazy. It appealed to me.
I’m gonna go with the most recent film I saw that was really good. I thought Twilight was pretty killer. Put it up there, I’m gonna go with it! Even though it was about vampires, I thought it was told in a really cool way. I thought the acting was strong. And, I thought the music that accompanied the film was really cool.
Next: Billy Ray Cyrus on auditioning for David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., how he credits Lynch with starting Miley Cyrus’ acting career, and his close friendships with country legends Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Waylon Jennings
Thanks to his hit single, “Achy Breaky Heart,” Billy Ray Cyrus was a household name long before starring on TV shows like Doc and Disney’s Hannah Montana, which spins off into theaters in this week’s Hannah Montana: The Movie (he plays Robby Ray Stewart, father to secret superstar Miley Stewart — played by his real-life daughter, Miley Cyrus). Below, Cyrus shares how he made the transition from country music to Hollywood, how David Lynch figures prominently in both his and Miley’s career, and which fellow country icons helped him along the way.
At what point did you realize you wanted to act?
Billy Ray Cyrus: You know, it was in the mid-90s…my dad came down to ride horses with me, and we were sitting out in front of the campfire, just talking about things in my life. He said, “I always pictured you having one of those careers like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.” And I said, “Dad, I’d love that, but you know, how do you do that? What’s the key?” And he said, “You’ve got to get into acting! You have all of your eggs in one basket with this music thing and you need to branch out.” And so the next week, I was in Los Angeles touring, and I saw in a little newspaper that David Lynch was casting for Mulholland Dr. I called my agent — I’d never been to an audition before — and I asked, do you think I could go in and audition for this movie? I’d seen that they were looking for a character named Gene the Pool Man, and I don’t know why but something told me, surely I could go be Gene the Pool Man. I went into the audition, and lo and behold, they hired me!
During filming, David Lynch pulled me to the side and said, “I don’t have any reason to blow smoke up your butt, but I just want to tell you the truth — I think you could be a serious actor.” And I said, “Really? I’ve never done this before.” He said, “A director is looking for someone who is real, and you’re very real. I love the way you’re playing these scenes. If you just continue to be real, you can do anything you want to do as an actor.” With that note of embracement from David Lynch, I then went on to read a script called Doc, and Doc was about hope and faith and love, a very positive show on Pax TV. I went and auditioned for Dr. Clint Cassidy and they hired me, and four years, 88 episodes later, I was a full-time actor.
You look back on it and without David Lynch, Miley wouldn’t be Hannah Montana. Without Toronto, Canada, and the fact that I did that first series…that’s when Miley fell in love with acting. She started taking a role on Doc — she became this little girl named Kylie in a recurring role — and I took her to see Mamma Mia! on the stage in Toronto. Toronto really embraced the arts and acting; at the time, it wasn’t so much like that in Nashville, they didn’t have acting classes. She was able to surround herself with some great coaches and some great thespians from the moment she said she was going to become a great actress. That was the turning point, when she said that’s what I’m going to do. She applied herself to become an actress. So without Lynch, that wouldn’t have happened.
Does he know that you credit him with Miley’s Hollywood career?
BRC: No, I don’t know that he knows that. I don’t know, but I sure would love to tell him. Why don’t you tell him for me? You put it out there, he’ll read it.
Do you stay in touch with him at all?
BRC: No, I haven’t seen him for quite some time. I haven’t seen him since we made the movie.
One last question from our resident country fan — who helped you through the down times in your music career?
BRC: Johnny Cash. Waylon Jennings. George Jones. Those were guys that I really looked up to. Carl Perkins. Johnny Cash wrote me a letter, encouraging me to continue to be real, continue to love the music, and continue to be an original. An original, he called me; he said I reminded me of a friend of his named Elvis Presley. And that in my case and in Elvis’, the good far outweighed the bad, and as long as I would always remember to give thanks to Almighty God from whom all things that are good come from, that I would be just fine. Then he signed it, “Let ’em have it, I’m in your corner — Johnny Cash.” That’s pretty killer, isn’t it? That letter lived on the wall, right outside of Miley’s bedroom in Nashville, Tennessee. She grew up reading that letter.
Johnny Cash was a great influence in my life, as was Waylon Jennings. Carl Perkins was one of my best friends, if not my best friend at a certain point in my life. I sang at both of their funerals; I was out of town for Johnny’s, but I sung at Waylon and Carl’s funerals.