Teen queen Miley gets all serious
Already a global marketing phenomenon, Miley Cyrus tells Evan Fanning about her new film and life after Hannah Montana
It's a beautiful spring evening and I'm waiting for the phone to ring. The person I'm expecting the call from is teen idol and worldwide phenomenon Miley Cyrus. It's a surreal moment. There have been two calls already making sure I'm ready and waiting by the phone, which I am, but with someone as in-demand as Cyrus you can't afford to take any chances.
She was due to visit Europe in person but the Icelandic volcano scuppered those plans. It has its benefits: a few days off from the gruelling schedule of a 17-year-old who has been working relentlessly for six years (or even before if you count her occasional singing appearances on stage with her dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, the Achy Breaky Heart himself).
It's a professional career that has seen her have her own television show on the Disney Channel since she was 13, as well as the movie spin-off released in 2008. She's had a No1 US album and several more Top 10 singles. Then there's the merchandise: video games, sing-a-long DVDs, toys, dolls, schoolbags, stationary, you name it. If it can be packaged up and sold to six-year-olds, it has been.
For anyone who might have missed it, Hannah Montana is a series about bubbly schoolgirl Miley Stewart who leads a secret life as a pop star as soon as she dons a blonde wig, a role Cyrus won through a stringent audition process. Guiding her through her adventures is her father/ manager (played, of course, by Miley's real-life father/ manager Billy Ray). In Miley Cyrus's world, where real life ends and fantasy begins has always been a bit blurry.
Things are starting to change, however, and with the final season of the show (titled Hannah Montana: Forever, which must be wishful thinking from the Disney bean counters) due to air in the US in July, Cyrus is moving on already. Her latest film, The Last Song, is certainly the most grown-up project she has been involved in, and has been viewed as her break out into serious acting.
I wonder if it is a conscious effort to grow along with her original fanbase, or is she trying to engage a new audience? "I think a little bit of both," she says on the line from LA when the call does come. But this stage of her career isn't really about maintaining the brand or selling lunchboxes. It's about proving her chops as a serious actress. "I'm not going to worry about what audience goes with what. I'm just going to do films that seem right to me."
Cyrus's presence, and the fact that The Last Song is
written by Nicholas Sparks -- whose film The Notebook didn't so much jerk the tears from your eyes as tie you down and induce them through some form of emotional waterboarding -- have led many critics to dismiss this latest venture as one every bit as cynical, manipulative and packaged as the Hannah Montana brand.
Its star, however, sees things differently, as she does her future career where she is adamant she is not going to be a child actor who disappears when they reach adulthood, even though, with a personal fortune estimated at $30m and with Conde Nast Portfolio magazine estimating that the Miley Cyrus industry is on track to be worth $1bn by the time she is 18, she could retire tomorrow and never think about work again.
That's not going to happen. Nor is she going to be a Britney or a Lohan and go off the rails. She seems far too level-headed for that. Although she throws in the occasional "like" and "totally" just to remind you that she was born in 1992, she speaks with such a smooth professionalism that it's almost eerie.
"I want to do films that are unique," she says of her post-Hannah Montana decision-making process, "but I'm not going to be making choices for other people. I'm definitely going to do movies that are important to me and stuff that I enjoy doing. You just can't think about everyone else when you're making those decisions. You've got to do things that inspire you."
The Last Song sees Cyrus play Ronnie, a surly high school graduate who is reluctantly forced to spend a summer in her dad's (Greg Kinnear) idyllic beach house in Georgia. Ronnie holds her father responsible for her parents' break-up, and storms about the place slamming doors, moaning and basically being a normal teenager.
Anyone who has seen or read any of Sparks' canon knows that he didn't get where he is by writing about grumpy teens, and so there is plenty of love and loss along the way in a story about forgiveness and growing up which will leave the girls weeping in the aisles and their boyfriends wondering what their problem is.
It wasn't just on screen that love blossomed on the set of The Last Song, and Cyrus is dating her 20-year-old Australian co-star Liam Hemsworth. "We're really relaxed and were super professional," she says. "No one on set even knew that we were dating until the last day because we didn't want anyone to think that we were there to play. We wanted them to know that we were there to work hard."
Whether people on the set knew about their relationship or not, Cyrus says she found that transition from a daytime kids' show playing a character not a million miles from her to grown-up emotional drama not too difficult. The presence of Hemsworth made it that bit smoother.
"I think it definitely makes it easier because you want to go to work each day. You want to be with that person. Not only that, but you also want to work hard not only to make you look good, but to make them look good, and vice versa. You would want to be prepared so you could make the scene easier for one another and you didn't mind being there working super late because you would have a friend on set. That's huge when you go on a location to even have a friend, but to have someone that you really care about is really cool and not everyone finds that on set."
She has been to Australia to his home on Phillip Island off the coast of Melbourne. "I understand why he is the way he is. There is no drama on the island that he's on. Everybody knows each other."
Of course, in Cyrus's world, something like a relationship with your hunky co-star serves to further fuel the interests of the omnipresent paparazzi. She's been in relationships before, with another teen idol of America's Christian Right, Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, and with Justin Gaston (who seems to have "Bible-reading underwear model" as a prefix to his name when you Google it -- let's just hope he doesn't do them both at the same time).
She is already adjusting to the ducking and diving required to find some quiet time with Hemsworth. "We're together every day all the time. We find ways to get away and be alone or be with our friends. We have tons of friends who aren't in the business as well so we can hang out with them and not be in the public eye."
However much a part of her life it has been for the past five years, the intense media scrutiny is something that she still has some difficulty with, and understandably so, if you've ever seen any footage of her being pursued as she goes about her business.
"The paparazzi are a weird thing to me. I don't really understand it and don't understand why it's right. I definitely think it's super intrusive and don't really think it should be allowed but because it is you just have to find ways to get away from it. If they don't leave you alone you find a way. Sometimes they're dangerous and they threaten your safety because they drive crazily and they're flashing cameras at you while you're driving. Sometimes my Dad will talk to them and say, 'Today she is just going to be a kid so leave her alone'."
Cyrus's ride hasn't always been as smooth as it may seem. A photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair outraged America as it showed the then 15-year-old apparently posing topless with just a bed sheet to protect her modesty. Then there was a blink-and-you'd-miss-it pole-dancing routine during her performance at the Teen Choice awards, and a tearful acceptance speech which many people felt was staged at last year's Kids Choice awards.
There have also been various scantily-clad self-portraits posted on her MySpace and Twitter pages and another where she was making what seemed to be a "slanty-eyed" gesture. All these events brought intense scrutiny on Cyrus and debate about everything from the sexualisation of teenagers to race relations, and whether or not Cyrus was a suitable "role model".
Cyrus has learned the hard way that not everyone is as enthusiastic about her success as she is. "Definitely," she says when I ask if it ever feels like people are out to get her; if they are just waiting for her to slip up. "But you just try and make decisions in private. You've got to try and stay positive and not live for what people are saying about you but just live for your art.
"I know when paparazzi are taking my picture that they're not trying to take a beautiful picture. They're not trying to get the cover of a magazine. They're trying to take the worst picture of me possible. So you just try and guard yourself and I try and shield myself away from that as much as possible."
If The Last Song is a departure from Hannah Montana, her next project (aside from a walk-on role in Sex and the City 2, her favourite TV show) will be a departure from Disney, the company which has walked hand-in-hand with her on her way to fortune and fame. "It's a film with Demi Moore called LOL. It's edgy. It's something that I'm making independently with her because we want to make it as edgy as we want and not have a production or a studio telling us what we can and can't do."
For someone who in many quarters is regarded as the ultimate example of a manufactured star, Cyrus is frank, honest and articulate; frighteningly mature and seemingly uninhibited by any fears of saying the wrong thing. Perhaps she has nothing to hide having lived the majority of her life in the public eye.
Before the voice comes on the line and tells us our time is up, I ask her about her visit to Ireland last year. "Oh my God, Dublin is my favourite place in the world," she blasts, and suddenly she sounds like a teenager. "I told my mom the other day that if it wasn't so freezing cold I would move there. But I'm really not good with weather."
Volcanoes and the Irish climate, it would seem, are the only things that can bring a halt to Miley Cyrus.
The Last Song is in cinemas nationwide