When most people think of country music, they think of singers like Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton, fake tarantula lashes, a tsunami of Aqua-Netted blonde curls, cowboy boots, maybe dip – but Gwyneth Paltrow? Not so much.

When the lithe, blonde Oscar winner walks into a room at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills sipping a bright green smoothie, a wide-necked, bat-winged sweatshirt by Nation wilting off her shoulder, her Tracy Anderson-toned legs showcased in a pair of black sequined shorts by Diane von Furstenberg and high-heeled Brian Atwood booties, she lives up to her image as sophisticated urbanite, the macrobiotic queen of Manhattan. But then she promptly takes that reputation and punts it, first when her BlackBerry goes off, blaring her custom ringtone, Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” next, when you realize how amicable and charming she is and then when you see her new film, Country Strong, in which she plays Kelly Canter, an out-of-control alcoholic country superstar trying to rebuild her career after a shattering tragedy.

Knowing the preconceptions that dog her, when asked if her AstroTurf-colored smoothie came from M Café, a restaurant frequented by fans of hot yoga and Master Cleansing, she takes a sip and says with a wry grin, “There’s banana in it, and banana is not macrobiotic.” Laughing, she adds, “The image I had for a long time was extremely exaggerated.”

She contends that playing Kelly was “much closer to the real me. When the script came to Clint Culpepper, the head of Screen Gems, I was already attached, and he was like, ‘You all are crazy. She is so wrong for this part.’ Now he’s like, ‘I can’t believe I thought you were wrong for this. I was wrong, I admit it!’ You might not think of me immediately [for Kelly], but she’s in there.”

As she was preparing for the role, Paltrow says she was less nervous about singing – which she did in her father’s 2000 film, Duets, and recently on an episode of “Glee” – than “about playing a person who is a huge star, which is very different that playing someone who has their guitar and is trying to make it. I obsessively watched Beyoncé perform because she’s it in terms of performance and confidence, self-belief and abandon onstage.”

Paltrow spoke with her husband, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, about a few things but reveals, “I picked the brains of my girl singer friends more because I think it’s a very different thing to be a male in a band as opposed to the lead, like Beyoncé or Faith Hill, out there by yourself. They were amazing, so supportive. They were so generous of spirit.”

The actress says Hill, whose husband Tim McGraw co-stars as Kelly’s manager-husband, James, in Country Strong, was a major resource during the film’s Nashville shoot.

“Faith said all this stuff, like just start singing [right away] so it’s in your muscle memory, wear one of your inner ears in and one out so you can hear the room. I just did everything she told me to,” Paltrow smiles.

McGraw, on the other hand, wanted to make sure he distanced himself from his own singing reputation in the film. Wearing a fitted red plaid shirt, grey V-neck cashmere sweater and dark jeans, McGraw crosses his Popeye-sized forearms and admits he was afraid he would be “a distraction” for country music fans who went to see the movie.

“Hopefully, I’ve gotten a little past that, but initially I thought it would be too much to ask audiences to put me in that world, ask me to play a character and ask them to accept that I’m playing a character and not think of me the whole time.”

McGraw, who is the sole lead character who doesn’t sing in the film, a distinction he relishes, says it was only after seeing writer-director Shana Feste’s debut feature that he agreed to sign on.

“I saw The Greatest,” McGraw says of Feste’s much admired but little seen first movie, “and thought, if she brings those sensibilities and that eye to this movie, then maybe we can build a character that people would buy into.”

Asked for his professional opinion of his leading lady’s singing abilities, McGraw beams, “She sucks you in and just melts you. There’s an honest, heartbreaking, Appalachian loneliness in her voice.”

Told of his praise, Paltrow grins and returns the compliment.

“Tim’s got so much in there,” Paltrow says. “You look in his eyes, and there’s so much. He’s so intense. It’s fun to work with someone who’s discovering how good they are at a different thing. He’s got real chops.”

When the subject of Paltrow’s other leading man, TRON: Legacy star Garrett Hedlund who plays Beau Hutton, a rising singer-songwriter who catches Kelly’s eye, comes up, Paltrow grins, “Garrett is so sweet. He’s so big and tall and strong, but he’s got such sensitivity and vulnerability. They’re both hunks, love them both.”

McGraw, who played the 26-year-old actor’s abusive father in the 2004 film Friday Night Lights, says of Hedlund, “I really do think he’s going to be a huge movie star, one of our best leading men. I always thought he was a good kid. He’s got a good heart. He’s like my kid brother.”

For Hedlund, working with McGraw a second time on a film about country music was both a dream come true and a taste of home.

“I grew up on a farm in a very small Minnesota town where we only had one radio station, and it was all country music,” Hedlund, in a crisp black button down, recalls. “That’s why it was very surreal on Friday Night Lights to be working with Tim McGraw, because ‘Don’t Take the Girl’ was my favorite song. I’d be driving in the tractor and singing it, [and the] next thing I know, Tim’s playing my father in a film.”

Hedlund says that his singing experience was limited to a single performance with McGraw in 2004.

“I got up on stage and sang ‘I Like it, I Love It’ with him in Austin, but I wasn’t a country singer by any means,” he laughs. “But I was very familiar with all the great old men. My grandpa used to play Johnny Cash to our turkeys, and they’d start bobbing their heads to the music.”

“When we were doing Friday Night Lights he was always singing ‘Don’t Take the Girl’ in my ear, and I kept telling him to shut up,” McGraw ribs, saying he knew Hedlund would have a great sound because “he’s got such a resonant, cool speaking voice.”

The singer-turned-actor says the key to country music isn’t talent as much as self-belief.

“You just have to believe that you’re good,” McGraw reveals. “A commitment to what you’re doing is what the audience is going to respond to. I told Garrett he should come to town as if he was a country music singer, not as if he was playing one.”

“It was living and breathing country music every day,” Hedlund says obediently. “[In] August, I started guitar training with a wonderful singer-songwriter who was very patient with me. And me and Shana would meet up every Tuesday and Thursday and watch documentaries on the Highwaymen or old Kris Kristofferson and Roger Miller, Waylon [Jennings] and Merle [Haggard], [talking about] what they were about, the soul to them and trying to bring that soul to this. You have to live and breathe it to understand it and express it confidently.”

After moving to Los Angeles in 2004, Hedlund began relying on country music as both a security blanket and tether to his roots.

“When I came out here, country was home,” he says, “I sort of flew back to it. It made me relax in the chaotic city of Los Angeles.”

Considering that within a week of arriving in Hollywood, Hedlund had landed his first acting role, a major part opposite Brad Pitt and Eric Bana in Wolfgang Petersen’s blockbuster, Troy, relaxation must have come at a premium. In the six years since, with starring roles in nine films but the remarkable ability to stay grounded and still fly somewhat under the radar, Hedlund’s real life isn’t dissimilar to his role as Beau in Country Strong. Likewise, in many ways, Nashville and Hollywood have many parallels – in L.A., every waiter is an actor, in Tennessee, everyone is a singer-songwriter – so we asked Hedlund if he could relate to the storyline of being plucked from relative obscurity and flung onto a massive stage.

“Last [night’s (Dec. 11) premiere of TRON] was the most similar to that, I think,” he nods. “Walking down onto Hollywood Boulevard and the barricades being up and the crowds roaring, was very similar to Beau coming out of a concert when he’s caught by surprise because people want his picture and his autograph. I’m just glad I got to act it before I had to experience it,” he laughs.

Country Strong releases in theaters Jan. 7.