Family values

With a new 'Hannah Montana' film opening, Miley Cyrus and dad Billy Ray talk about the ties that bind - and rope in celebrity gold

Billy Ray Cyrus says daughter Miley ''was just a natural-born entertainer'' the first time she walked onstage and held a microphone. Billy Ray Cyrus says daughter Miley ''was just a natural-born entertainer'' the first time she walked onstage and held a microphone. (Evan Agostini/Associated Press/File 2008)
By Lynda Gorov
Globe Correspondent / April 5, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - No one's saying Miley Cyrus is a typical teenager, least of all Miley Cyrus herself. After all, she's no normal kid who just happens to live in Malibu by day and become a pop star by night, like her TV and now movie alter ego. She's all star. And hair. Just ask her (not the hair part).

"I'm mature for my age, but then again you kind of have to be in this world," she says. "It's not that you've got to be mature, you've got to be smart, or otherwise people will trample all over you."

Don't her father know it.

Daddy both offscreen and on, of course, is singer/actor Billy Ray Cyrus, first of "Achy Breaky Heart" fame (and let's not forget that mullet). In a conversation separate from his daughter, seated on a balcony at the Four Seasons Hotel, Billy Ray just shakes his head (now fan tastically layered with blond highlights) when asked what all the attention on Miley has wrought.

"I worry about it all the time," he says. "Sometimes I think, 'Why couldn't everything just be normal? Why couldn't my kids go to a normal school? And why couldn't Miley just be a cheerleader, just be a teenager?'

"But honestly, for Miley it was in her head," he says of the drive to perform. "No, I guess she had it in her heart. From the second she came out on that stage for the first time and took the microphone, she was just a natural-born entertainer."

Billy Ray Cyrus, being, well, a Cyrus, has plenty more to say on the subjects of fame, the famous (who are his friends), and family. He winds his way from a story about his close friendship with country superstar Carl Perkins, which involves a hilarious impression of a rabbit dog in the chase (Cyrus disclaimer: He doesn't shoot or kill animals) to a moving story about his own steelworker father returning to college and becoming an AFL-CIO union leader and Kentucky state legislator, to a surprisingly personal one about his parents' divorce when he was 5.

Ultimately Billy Ray's father died of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer caused by asbestos, which was in the mills. He came to Boston for treatment, and his son followed. But however upset the cancer made his father, what Billy Ray says upset him even more was that the Red Sox had just traded Johnny Damon to the Yankees. Billy Ray wrote "I Want My Mullet Back" for Damon, who "had a heck of a mullet, a beautiful mullet, it was something." His father wanted him to play the song for Damon.

Then there's a Tony Bennett anecdote that unintentionally shows how Cyrus has kept it humble. Apparently when Miley was 3, the men were performing at an Elvis tribute. Cyrus was belting out a blues version of "Amazing Grace" when his daughter broke away from the nanny and crashed the stage. A performer picked her up, and she was passed from one to another, landing in Bennett's arms. (Even pre-Hannah, it wasn't a normal childhood.) She started singing "and waving her little arm and she knew the words and she was on pitch," Cyrus says. "Tony Bennett handed her to me and said, 'Let me tell you something, you've got a special little girl here.' "

Speaking in an interview on her own, that "little girl" sounds both like every 16-year-old who ever lived and like few who have. But wait a minute? Is she texting? (She is.) Twittering? (Yep, again.) In the middle of a long conversation that's all over the place? As Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana would say, "Oh sweet niblets."

Miley doesn't talk like that in real life, in part because she's trying to lose the Tennessee accent that oozes out of her anyway. It's for her career, of course, because Miley is nothing if not proud of being from the South. But this summer the "Bolt" star shoots her first non-animated, non-Hannah role from a script "Notebook" author Nicholas Sparks wrote with her in mind. She calls her character "a little bit edgy . . . a little messed up," and from New York.

For now she's out pitching "Hannah Montana: The Movie," which, as anyone with an eye or an ear knows, opens Friday. The film takes her back home to Tennessee, where the pop sensation works through whether to keep the wig and her daily life anonymity. That's something Miley lost almost immediately when the Disney Channel three years ago launched the franchise - CDs, concerts, key chains, school notebooks - that can cause 8-year-old girls to hyperventilate.

But even Miley knows she can't have Hannah forever. So she's in that awkward transition phase every child actor encounters and few overcome. At the same time she's in that teen phase made especially embarrassing by the Internet, with people posting pictures of her doing things that don't seem so stupid when you're young: showing your underwear, making faces that could be construed as inappropriate. The sexed-up photo shoot for "Vanity Fair" magazine is another matter.

"It's scary," she says. "All of a sudden you're not 4-foot-9 anymore and you're not, you know, you're wearing heels and, you know, you've got a body and people just definitely take that into a different aspect. They can think she's grown up too fast and what not. But there's a difference between growing up fast and not growing up at all. I would say I've grown up quickly."

Still, she sounds genuinely glad that her brothers and sisters - blended and blood - live in LA, too, along with her grandma (who she boasts went back to college at 70) and of course her mom, who she says warns her how fast words and images and mistakes travel in the Internet age. Her affection for her father - and his for her - is obvious on camera and off. The connection to the extended clan who knew her way back when is clear, too. It's a theme of the new movie, which has her daddy dragging her home to Tennessee when she gets too big for herself.

"That's what I like about the movie," Miley says. "You see me go back to that. Even though the character has changed, you still get to go back home. And that's important to me. I go a lot."

Having recently published her autobiography, "Miles to Go," Miley says she is looking forward. That includes catching Miley Cyrus up to Miley Stewart in high school. The former is a 10th grader, the latter an 11th. "I'm not doing too good, but we're trying to speed up the process," she says. The hurry? "I've got too much going on. It's hard to finish three hours of school a day. So as soon as I can get it done, I have things I want to do. I want to keep working. I need to get through it. But it's important."

Her next film is aimed more at teenagers; she's not 13 on the TV show anymore, and it's perhaps not as appropriate for her youngest fans (5 and 6). There are boyfriend issues. And kissing. It's Disney, but still. In that respect, the G-rated movie might be a last stab at innocence, although she says she'll keep doing the show as long as Disney will have her.

"I love the innocence of this movie," she says. "It's like the Cinderella fantasy. She's working hard on the chimneys and all that stuff and then, like, she's this glamorous princess. That's what I love. It's almost like a new and improved Cinderella. To me you can't do that forever. Because not only do you have to believe it, the audience has to believe it. And now it's coming to the point where it's not a reality."


Featured review
Miley Cyrus'Hannah Montana: The Movie'
2.0 Stars  The whole thing explores whether Miley Cyrus can afford to bare her true self to the world. Does she at last remove Hannah's blond wig or not?