The long-time friends, co-stars, and musicians first met playing father and son in 2004’s Friday Night Lights, before going on to collaborate on music videos, songs, scripts, and more films (2010’s Country Strong). Their mutual admiration, rural upbringing, and love of music, amongst many things, have kept them close over the years. They now have one more thing in common—fatherhood.
While McGraw is a girl-dad three times over, with wife Faith Hill; Hedlund just welcomed his first child—a son, born just before New Year’s of this year, with actress Emma Roberts.
In the lead-up to Hedlund’s new film The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, from Academy-Award nominated director Lee Daniels, the two stars spoke candidly on fatherhood, reflecting on everything they’ve learned over the years—what it means to be a working parent, first steps, sleepless nights, the melancholy of time, strong women, driving in tractors, and being the first to make it out of the woods alive (literally).
Tim McGraw: Alright, let’s kick this off then… The Man, The Myth, The Legend, Garrett Hedlund, introduce yourself.
Garrett Hedlund: [Laughs] Let’s see. I was asked to do a story about my first days of fatherhood. And I thought, I like that. But there’s no one that I respect more as a man, a husband, musician, and a father than Tim McGraw. Why don’t we have a conversation about fatherhood, since coincidentally we met back in 2004 playing father and son on Friday Night Lights, and getting to watch your daughters play outside of the tour bus, from—they were what, one, three, and five?
McGraw: Yeah. They were just babies. Our youngest is 19 and living in New York City now, I mean, it’s crazy. It goes by so fast. You think you’re giving them good life lessons. You know, as a parent—look, [laughs] you’re going to get half of everything wrong. That’s just the nature of it. There is no handbook with it.
To look back now, over Faith [Hill] and I’s 25 years of marriage coming up in October, and see where we’re at and see where our kids are, see how fast it’s gone by, it’s almost… it’s unfathomable how time flies.
What starts happening is you start marking your time by their years. And the next thing you know, they grow so fast and it’s like every two years there’s a different child that you have as they age. It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s a sad thing at the same time. You find yourself reflecting and looking back at pictures and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I remember that time, I remember when they looked like that.”
Hedlund: Yeah, of course…
McGraw: It’s so sweet; there’s some melancholy that goes along with it as they age.
Hedlund: That’s what I find as a son as well. I was looking at my father. In that same vein, when he was alive, I remember celebrating his 40th birthday. I was ten. And the next thing you know I was 20 and in Los Angeles and off doing films. We had already shot Friday Night Lights by then, and then suddenly, he’s 50.
It’s crazy what happens in that time. Every time I would go back to the farm, I would see him move differently, you know, and I’d be listening to his stories he had to offer… they were always kind of about how the barn blew down in the storm, and he couldn’t really take care of the cows anymore; had to ship the cows off to pay for medical bills, stuff like that.
McGraw: It’s the same stories with just a little bit of a different timber to them as they age.
Hedlund: Yea. And we think of it in that same, sad, beautiful way.
So every time we check in with each other we say, “how long have we known each other now?” Now that’s been what, seventeen years?
McGraw: Well at least seventeen… I can’t count that high [they laugh]. Well, I can’t count that quickly. You were nineteen, right?
Hedlund: Yeah, I was nineteen.
McGraw: And I don’t remember how old I was. I’m 53 now. I was 38, that sounds about right. That was my first big film, and working with you and getting to know you… we hit it off right off the bat, and—I know you were playing my son—but I looked at you as sort of a son-figure. Even now. I don’t know if it’s quite a son, or maybe I’m like a cool uncle? [laughs] Maybe that’s it.
Hedlund: [Laughs] That’s what you always say, anytime I said you’re like a father to me. You’re like, ‘Screw you, I aint that old.’ We’ve talked about this a lot, but you know I grew up on the farm listening to your tunes and admiring you so much. If we were lucky enough to have a tractor with a cab and a radio, it was playing Tim McGraw. And, obviously, I was singing Don’t Take The Girl.
McGraw: I do know. You sang it every time we got in the car during Friday Night Lights. I had to tell you to stop. [Hedlund laughs]. And you actually sang it in LA at the Staples Center.
Hedlund: Yeah, yeah and you weren’t too happy about that.
McGraw: Nah, I was fine to let you go. Let him run, because the more you sang it, the better I sounded [they laugh]. No, you have a great voice, you know that.
But that’s funny you say that about driving in a tractor and listening to my music, because when I was that age, when I was 14, 15, 16, growing up in Louisiana, I did a lot of driving in a tractor with a plow behind me or just a cotton picker. And if I was lucky enough to have a radio, I listened to country music and I listened to George Strait. Fantasizing about what it would be like to be George Strait. It’s kind of ironic.
People from all over the country do those sorts of things. And watching movies. They’re watching movies of you now. There are kids now that are watching you and thinking the same thing, “I want to do what he’s doing. That’s my dream. He’s the guy that I think is cool. That’s the guy that I try to be like.” And that’s something, in a way, that drives you as a father. Your kids are looking at you.
Your kids are looking at you like, alright, this is my dad; this is someone who is doing really cool things; and it’s somebody that I respect and somebody that I—hopefully they think—that’s somebody I want to emulate in my life in some ways.
Hedlund: I think it’s so interesting how the community that you’re raised in definitely affects how you are as a father. How you were as a child. How you were treated in your community. And not everybody is from the same type of community. But for us, being from those rural sort of places… you know, my town was 2,500, we lived 30 miles outside. Everybody knew each other and you’re hunting, you’re fishing. And it’s cold as hell, and the elements. And you’re farming and doing chores as a kid. You have this space to grow up in.
I know you take the girls hunting and fishing, and they love it all… how do you think where you were raised has affected you as a father? Are there things that you try to prevent them from experiencing that you experienced as a kid? Or do you try to put them straight into the gambit?
McGraw: Yes. I mean, yes to the first part. For sure the things that I experienced as a kid and the time that I did not have… we provided them a different kind of life, but we also gave them the best of both worlds in a sense. We tried our best to never be away from them. They were on the road with us, they flew with us. If we had to go to Europe, they went to Europe with us. Whenever we were working, they were with us most of the time.
However, when they started school and when we were home, we didn’t talk about business. Their friends called us Mr. and Mrs. McGraw. They all knew us as Gracie’s dad, or Audrey’s dad, or Maggie’s dad. They sort of all grew up in the same community with the same friends. All their parents knew us. We were at PTA meetings. We were at football games. We were at basketball games. I coached softball. I coached basketball. We were part of their life, their community growing up. We made a real effort for them to not just to be part of our lives, but for us to be part of their lives.
Hedlund: There are two kinds of parents: those that live their child’s life and those whose children live their lives. I know you have had to take them on tour because the show must go on, whether it’d be you touring around or you and Faith would be, and you really had no choice—but it was also, I’d assume, the biggest blessing because you guys are getting to experience places all over the world as a family. It’s not like you’re taking off to go on tour and leaving them behind with some nanny at home.
You had the blessing of experiencing everything great about what you do as an artist. What some would call the double-edged sword became your blessing.
McGraw: Yes. Every time people ask me about my life and country music and my career, I always say—and this is a true answer, it is not a hyperbole— everything good in my life has come from country music. I would have never met my wife if I had not been in this business and touring and making music. I wouldn’t have had these three beautiful head-strong, [laughs] strong-willed, smart, self confident daughters that we have.
I think part of that came from the business that we are in, because their mother being a woman in this business is always tougher. They have the best role model in the world with Faith because—you know Faith; she’s a strong woman. She’s a fantastic mother and a great wife and a good business woman. She knows her head better than I do for sure. They have that to look up to.
Hedlund: She sets the bar exceptionally high when it comes to everything. Anytime I’ve come to visit she is unabashadley a mother before all else. She has always treated me as a mother—or let’s say an aunt [they laugh]. A very young, beautiful aunt.
McGraw: You treat her better than you do me.
Hedlund: [Laughs] I know it’s always going to be—walking into the house knowing I was going to see Tim, but didn’t know I was going to see an angel.
McGraw: I still feel the same way every time I walk into the house with her. She is always going to make you feel at home. There is something really cool that our daughters learned being around us when we are working and being around us at home. They got to see her being superstar mama, all made up, in these beautiful dresses on stage, killing it, being very professional. And then they cut her off as she gets on the bus, or see her be a mom all day until she has to go to work.
It’s the same with me being a dad. Flying back. Leaving at 6 o’clock in the afternoon. Flying to a show, then being back at 3 in the morning, then being up in the morning to take them to school. That was something that we made a priority out of.
When we first got married, we had a long talk about both of us doing this for a living—how are we going to navigate this? And we decided that we were going to put our family and our kids first. We were going to teach them that working hard and being professional and being on point and showing up, and doing what you needed to do to support the people around you, and being present with everybody you need to be present with, while being present with them at the same time is doable. Teaching them to have a great work ethic but being human at the same time, and teaching them how to be a parent at the same time.
And as they grew up, when they started school, I slowly dabbled in work on weekends until school was out, and then I would tour. I would fly home every night, then leave every morning or every afternoon. When school started back, then my touring would shut down, and I would be home.
We were fortunate enough that when we got married we both had successful careers, so when we had kids we were in a good position that we could dictate when we would work. But you have to make that decision as well, and we made that decision early on.
Hedlund: You guys were traveling together for quite some time even before you had Gracie. I remember when I was 10 years old, and Faith played at our country fair. Big shows somehow were planned in our tiny town, like at the county fair circuit, it was such a big thing to have Faith Hill come to our town.
Which brings it back to how funny it is, because I didn’t have enough money to go in and pay for a ticket to see the show; but I could hear the show from behind the grandstands, and I could hear her bring you out on stage… [McGraw laughs].
And then jump 9 years to when we are doing Friday Night Lights… and they were trying to figure out who was the right person to play this father, and to play him right, and as excellent as you. It was like the second day of shooting and they said, “Do you want to come meet your father?” Nobody had told me who it was, and I walk in [McGraw laughs], and it’s you.
I remember walking up to you, and we introduce each other. I was just like, “Oh yeah nice to meet ya’ ” [laughs]. And I walked out of the room and was like, “Holy fuck.”
When I was talking to Emma yesterday, I said, “I’m gonna interview Tim. Do you mind if I interview him about fatherhood?”—it being in the early stages and stuff like that. She said, “I think it’s great.” And I told her, “You know what’s really great is when people say, don’t meet your heroes… and you know I can be a fucking critic, but you are definitely a hero that everybody should meet.
McGraw: Well look, it goes both ways because had we not thought mutually about each other in that regard, then we wouldn’t have been friends for 17 years. From all the trips that we have done together, the hang-outs, the scripts we have done together. It was a mutual affection from the beginning.
Hedlund: You often say that you are constantly outnumbered.
McGraw: Well I am out numbered. My house is full of estrogen [laughs]. I cry at hallmark commercials. But here is what the truth of the matter is. You know I’ve grown up with all sisters and my mom. I didn’t really have a dad around much, and when I did have one around, they weren’t the best role models.
My daughters and my wife and having a house full of women—and being the kind of guy’s-guy that I am, up to doing the things I like to do—sometimes I think myself more macho than I am for sure. But they have made me such a better man. They made me see things in a different way. They taught me so much more about life, about how to be a man.
There’s nothing like three daughters and a wife who are head strong, smart, love you unconditionally. There’s nothing like being surrounded by that. That can teach you how to be a man as much as that can. They can teach you how to be a man more than I can. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I don’t know if I would be the same person without it. For better or for worse [laughs].
It’s a blessing. It really is. It has affected my art in a lot of ways as well. The music that I make, the movies that I make, the choices that I make. It’s made all those things more defined, more emotional.
Hedlund: A little more sensitive.
McGraw: More sensitive. All those things. I do hope for a grandson one day because—
Hedlund: [Laughs] I don’t see that too far along.
McGraw: There are quarterbacks and pitchers in my heritage, so I’m hoping for one down the road somewhere.
Hedlund: Well, you have a godson.
McGraw: But I have a godson. There you go. Lets see what young Mr. Hedlund does.
Hedlund: My father was such a hero in my life, and he was such a key component of who I am, and how I maneuver my paths throughout the world—especially when it comes to treating women. My father was such a gentleman and such a teddy bear.
I think on the flip side from my parents divorce at a very young age—I remember my childhood being Dad and Dad out on the farm; and so either you were out on the tractor with dad, or you were riding around in the Jeep chasing timber wolves through the field with Grandpa Jean. He has a fond memory of me standing up on the seats saying, “Run over the sons of bitches Grandpa! Run over the sons of bitches!” [They laugh].
McGraw: That sounds incredible. What a great memory to have and what a great childhood to grow up in. We all take those beautiful things we grew up with, and even the bad things that we grew up with, or the things that happened that we wished wouldn’t have. They are part of us, and part of what makes a human being. You take those things.
As a parent sometimes, this is probably the worst to me, and I don’t know if it’s bad or good or different. This is what I found myself doing as a parent, and you have to hold back on that. You know all the faults that you think you have, and they’re sort of embedded in you. When you see your kids, you start seeing in them some of the bad traits or faults that you think you have.
Hedlund: Or the ones you never knew you had.
McGraw: The ones you never knew you had. But what happens is you start hyper-focusing on those things, and you try to weed those out of them instead of letting them sort of absorb those and experience those and guiding them, and let them come apart from them in a way. But you find yourself not seeing because it scares you so much. You start not seeing all the loveliness they have, and start hyper-focusing on all the things you see that you have, and that you don’t want them to have.
Hedlund: It is interesting. For my mom, one of the things that I admired so much was the fact that she traveled so much. She worked in telecommunications when I was growing up, and everywhere she traveled to she’d send a postcard. She was traveling to every state, and we would always look forward to these. I remember one time she went to Graceland and sent me a postcard that said, “To my little rockstar. One day I hope for you to visit here.” All these checkmarks through all these places.
When I was graduating high school, I was so eager to get out to Los Angeles, and she didn’t want to see me leave the house, she didn’t want me to travel. The things that were so formative of my experience with her growing up… it was one of her things, being on this journey and traveling around, which to me was such a wonderful, worldly, beautiful thing. But to her, when I went off and started doing films, she couldn’t have worried more.
McGraw: There’s two parts to it, right? You want to keep your arms around them, keep them safe, but at the same time you want them to step out there and start experiencing the world and start growing. It’s so hard to let go.
Hedlund: Even with Rhodes. He is three weeks old. I know at a certain point the best thing to do is to let them cry themselves to sleep, but I can’t handle it. I’ll hold him quietly and awake all through the night. I know that for us, as babies growing up, eventually you’re left to cry and sort that out. But I can’t handle it at this point. Which is a wonderful thing, but eventually I’m going to have to let him cry himself to sleep.
McGraw: [Laughs] Eventually, but it is still tough. It’s never easy and it’s never going to get easy. The way to fix that is to just throw a couple other kids in there; then you don’t think about it as much [they laugh].
Hedlund: On their first sleepless night, say, for Gracie’s first sleepless night, which was probably pretty early on, what did you do?
McGraw: I was up all night. Same thing. Just up all night. I can tell you she ended up in the bed with Faith and I quite a bit. [Laughs] Which is probably not the best thing to do.
When we took Gracie home—Faith and I had been married for about a year when we had Gracie, not quite a year. We had sort of taken care of ourselves for a while and been successful for awhile. When we were taking her home, we couldn’t believe they were letting us take this baby home. [Hedlund laughs]. We didn’t know what we were doing. I can’t believe they let us put her in the car with us and bring her home.
Here’s one of the things that we did that was really so beautiful for us. What we did is that we told everyone that for six weeks, we just didn’t want anybody to come. I mean, they could come say hi or something like that, but we wanted to spend that time with her. We rarely left the house. We stayed there with her.
We built a nursery that was upstairs in our house, and we never used it. We ended up putting a bassinet right by our bed, and everytime she would cry, we would put her in bed with us. So it took a while to break that. Like you were saying, not wanting to hear Rhodes cry because you couldn’t handle it. We were in the same boat.
Hedlund: It’s the same thing [for us]. Bassinet in bed.
McGraw: I can tell you this. It’s a beautiful connection down the line.
We had all our girls home for Christmas—19,21,22. And we were still up until six in the morning putting out gifts, just like Santa Claus had shown up, like we had done our whole life.
Up until the girls left the house, they would come, and they would make paillettes on Christmas Eve night all through high school. Even when Gracie came out here the first couple years after leaving. They would come back, and they would make paillettes in our bedroom, and sleep with us all night in our room. There was never a time they didn’t.
I know there’s rules about, ‘don’t put your kids in bed with you because they’ll never grow up or never leave’. You know what, for us, it was a beautiful thing.
Hedlund: I think I laid next to my dad just three times, when I was scared or wanted some comfort. It wasn’t about ‘don’t let me sleep next to him because I’ll never leave home’. I think it was on the third night, in my sleep, I came across with my arm so hard to his jaw that he had to have a root canal [laughs], and when he went in they said, “If you hadn’t come in when you did, you could’ve died from this.” He goes, “That little son of a bitch is never sleeping next to me ever again.” It was a strengthening thing.
I remember when a twister was coming through our farm, I woke up and the sound was so loud I couldn’t even stand up. I hit the ground and I crawled upstairs. It was like The Wizard of Oz. I saw barn doors flying across the yards and antennas, stuff like that. I never even thought to go to Dad’s room. I don’t know what that says about my childhood, but it was a strengthening thing.
The lessons. For us, in particular: never cut with a knife towards you. Or shoot a gun at the sun—you’re never going to hit it; what goes up must come down. And don’t eat yellow snow. All the classics. The electric fence, stuff like that.
McGraw: Oh I know the electric fence [they laugh].
Hedlund: But it was such a thing to be able to adjust to whatever elements. My father was in the army. My brother and sister had gone off to school. I was home, and my dad would take me into the woods and we would march to a cadence all the way out there. He taught me things then that I still use now.
When I got into high school, it taught me to not take other kids’ opinions or taunts or this and that seriously. He would take me out into the woods and show me, before going in, to mark where the sun was at, which direction the clouds were going; the dry side of a puddle was south, moss only grows on the north side of the earth, that sort of stuff. He would take me to the middle of the woods, have me cover my eyes, have me spin around in circles counting to 10-15-20-something. He would hide, and the whole thing was to find my way out of the woods on my own; and he would hide 30-40 yards away, and creep along, and watch what I was doing and analyze.
I’ll never forget it, because when I moved to Arizona I went to high school, and it was a big change. I left home when I was 14, going from 100 kids in my grade to 800 kids—and being in the city, which was the farthest thing from. If anybody was ever negative, especially when they found out I wanted to be an actor—what made me never care about that was the lesson that my dad had taught me: I don’t care what any of these kids think or say. We can be as book smart as they want, but I know if we all get dropped off in the center of the woods I’m making my way out first.
McGraw: If the Hunger Games show up, I’m going to win [they laugh].
Hedlund: My mom said, one thing you got to learn is tenacity. I think she was living in Grand Forks North Dakota—
McGraw: That takes a lot of tenacity [they laugh].
Hedlund: She was trying to get a job as an MC at the radio station; during the days she was working at The Potato Factory, separating reds from russet, but she wanted to work at the radio station. She would sit in the lobby and try to apply, and they would say nothing’s available. The next day she came back and sat in the lobby. She would sit there all day, and finally, after a week, the guy came out and just said, “You know, you got tenacity. We will give you a job.”
I remember going to the radio station, and her having us put down little commercials for plumbing companies and this and that, and getting to act these things out, and pretend something creepy was down in the basement—but that’s just where the plumbing needed to be done. And I think that might be one of the first little memories of acting, in a sense. Or maybe my brother got to do it, and I got to witness what not to do [they laugh].
McGraw: That’s always the best lesson is learning what not to do.
Hedlund: Of course. Ok so. First smile, first step, first word. Do they ever get old?
McGraw: No, never. Because they are going to occur in your life almost every day, right? Those first smiles, first word, first step, not only from an infant’s point of view. In your life as you move forward, you are always going to have a first word and a first step in everything you do. When you step into an audition, you have a first word, you have a first step, you have a first impression. Everything you do in life, that’s going to be part of it. That’s a lesson you learn when you’re an infant and you take that first step and you fall on your face. From when you touch a hot stove, and it burns you.
All those lessons that you learn, they carry on through your life because you’re going to have them over and over and over and over again. That is just part of the cycle that we all go through. That’s part of being successful, not only in your profession, but being successful as a human being, and you have to learn those things every time you take that first step. Every time you say that first word to somebody. Somebody you don’t know, somebody you’re trying to introduce yourself to. That first mile you go, and in that first business venture, or in any relationship that you have.
All those firsts are always going to be there, and you have to prepare yourself for those things. Always be prepared for an opportunity. All those things connect. It goes back to always learning. You never stop learning. You teach your kids that, and that is something that is very important.
Here is what you can want for your kids. You hope for the rest of their life that they will always have the opportunity to take a first step on a great adventure.
Hedlund: That’s beautiful. I’m always going to hang on to this recording.
McGraw: For sure. Hang on to it for as long as you want [they laugh].
Hopefully we will have more of them.
Hedlund: Thank you for doing this. It means the world to me.
McGraw: You have so much compassion and love. I can’t wait for Rhodes to really get to know you because he is going to be so proud that you are his dad, and he is going to feel so loved. He is going to get so much inspiration from you because you’re a good man. You know your heart, and your children know your heart, and there is nothing that can beat that.
Hedlund: I love you brother.
UP NEXT FOR GARRETT HEDLUND
Hedlund’s new film The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, from Academy-Award nomined director Lee Daniels, with a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks based on the chapter The Black Hand on Billie Holiday in Johann Mari’s 2015 bestselling book, Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. The film releases as a Hulu Original Film on February 26, 2021 on Hulu.