Renée Zellweger Makes Her Music Video Debut Harmonizing With Filmmaker-Singer C M Talkington, Three Decades After He Directed Her in Love and a .45 (EXCLUSIVE)

Renée Zellweger has her first co-starring role in a music video, appearing in “Two Steps,” the visual accompaniment for a new song by C M Talkington, a singer-songwriter who is only on his second album. At first glance, at least for those who don’t know their movie credits too avidly, this might seem like a case of a well-known actor doing a favor to help gain some visibility for an up-and-comer making his baby steps into a musical career. And that part is not untrue, exactly.

But the backstory to their jointly making this video actually goes back three decades, and involves both parties possibly owing each other one. Because before he started making records, Talkington was (and still is) known as a filmmaker — and it was him that gave Zellweger her first big break, by going to the wall with a production company to cast her in the 1994 feature “Love and a .45,” where the indie film world first met and fell in love with her.

So there’s about 30 years’ worth of mutual affection filtering into “Two Steps,” a Texas-flavored song which was filmed a few weeks ago at a very Lone Star-looking desert location outside Lancaster, California. At the helm was Mark Pellington, who’s been one of the most famous names in music video directing since since the early ’90s. Together, all three old or new friends offered or pulled in favors for a video that is unmistakably a labor of love. Variety is premiering the video.

“It was joyful,” says Zellweger of the experience shooting the clip — and of additionally joining Talkington for his South by Southwest performance debut in mid-March. “It’s joyful to play with your friends. It’s joyful to do creative things with your pals. I was thinking, when we were in Austin for that week (for SXSW), that it was so representative of the spirit of that town when Carty and I first collaborated” on “Love and a .45.” “At that time in Austin, everything was possible. There was this confluence of different creative mediums, where everybody was supporting each other, and the photographers were calling the actors, who were calling the musicians, saying, ‘Hey, I need this, and can you come help out on that?’ There was nothing anyone was afraid to try. And it felt like these experiences were such a representation of that: ‘Hey, come play.’ ‘Yeah, I’ll come play.’ It was a wonderful thing to get to be part of.”

In Pellington’s music video, Zellweger appears alone at the beginning and end, a woman alone at a ramshackle house in the desert who seems to dream up a band that comes and plays with her — in the form of Texas Radio, Talkington’s backing band — and the singer who, of course, does a two-step with her between verses, in the magic hour. She’s left alone at the end, but now with her guitar for company, singing a solo refrain of “Two Steps.” Her duet part and solo segment at the end mark the first time she’s really sung in her own voice, on screen, just as herself, although she’s obviously been known for carrying a tune in “Chicago,” “Judy” and even “Empire Records.”

For Talkington — aka “Carty” to his friends — there was a synchronicity they felt when they were singing together at SXSW in March, especially when it came to the song “Two Steps,” that dated back to a specific experience when they were about to start “Love and a .45” in Austin.

“It was a celebratory night right before we started shooting, wasn’t it, Renée?” asks Talkington, requesting backup, in a shared phone call. “I had to threaten to walk off the movie to get the company to cast Renee. So it was a big risk — I mean, they were like, ‘We’re not gonna cast her,’ and I’m like, ‘You’re gonna cast her or we’re walking off the movie.’ So we kind of won and they cast her. We went out to celebrate at the Continental Club in Austin, and I had the honor of doing some swing dancing with Renée. Little did we know, literally 30 years later, a few blocks away from where we two-stepped in celebration, we would be singing a song together about two-stepping. So that’s cool.”

“It’s pretty cool, Carty,” Zellweger affirms with one of her frequent warm laughs.

Talkington says that, although they haven’t stayed in constant touch since “Love and a .45,” there have been times over the years where Zellweger would win a major acting award and send him flowers, with a note thanking him for helping kickstart her career with that film — which got her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best debut performance, prior to “Jerry Maguire” following up on that promise.

He sent her some songs while he was working on the album and asked if she’s sing on one. She picked “Two Steps,” the most pure country song on an album that otherwise skirts around Americana, swampier sounds and Texas rock. That was fine by him, since he had a certain pair of harmony singers in mind for how that number could be completed: Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

“He sent me a few of ’em that seemed like they would be a good fit and, immediately, ‘Two Steps’ was obvious to me,” Zellweger says. “I love this song. The other songs that we had talked about, it just didn’t seem necessary or additive. It felt like (adding a voice) would be too much and it should be simpler and stay what it is. With ‘Two Steps,’ I heard it and I couldn’t stop singing; it was in my head — and it still is.” I love this song. It seemed like, no, that’s you — that’s how it felt to me. It’s not not necessary. it’s not additive. It just felt like, oh, it’s too much and it should just be simpler and what it is.”

When Pellington got on board and Zellweger agreed to shoot the video in mid-February, the weather in the desert was getting down into the 30s at night. “I mean, Renée almost died driving up from L.A. to the set in Lancaster the night before, because of the snow blizzard on the 14. She was hydroplaning, and I’m (on the phone) going, oh my God. If you look in the back of those shots, you see snow-topped mountains… ” Says Pellington, “On any other movie set, you probably would’ve had her in thermal underthings. It was really cold as they were doing their last performance and the sun ball had dropped — in the thirties, for sure. So she was a real trouper.” Zellweger doesn’t complain about it, though — saying “anything for Carty.”

For Pellington, this was a close-to-no-budget affair after he has directed music videos for artists like Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains, INXS and Demi Lovato, as well as the feature films “Arlington Road” and “The Mothman Prophecies.” “I think that these lower budget, more homemade kinda things are my favorite things to do now for music videos,” says the director. “But it all comes from the desire of the artist, and I think Carty just really wanted to do something with his friend, and that’s what we captured. Their affection is so sincere. I probably haven’t made something this sincere and positive in my career. I usually make darker or weirder things for music videos. But this was like watching two old friends. I loved it. And I hope that people get to see it and it brings some ears to Carty’s music. It’s quite a good record.”

Pellington had an acoustic guitar on the indoor set that he hoped Zellweger might noodle around with eventually — she did. “We’ve got a whole version of the song with just her singing on the guitar. We show a bit of that at the end of the film, with just her alone. She’s got a great voice. She was so humble, though, and very much about this being part of the team and her just playing her role, almost kind of like the little sister.”

Says Talkington, “With Renée, music is in her blood, and it always has been, from all the way back in the day. Mine too. Our circles of friends and roommates always played and had guitars and amps and cords around everywhere.”

Is it possible she could make a record someday? Zellweger doesn’t do much more than tinker at that thought. “Oh. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really think about that,” she says. “I just kind of tinker and it makes me happy.”

But Talkington has more faith in that possibility than she will own up to. “Luckily, I had the honor of her sharing a few of her original songs with me while we were at the recording studio, just privately. And they’re really extraordinary, they really are. I think she would do a great record. So I hope she continues the tinker, and I’m going to definitely keep saying, ‘I think you should really do this,’ and be a cheerleader for her, just because I think it’ll make her happy, and I want her to be happy. I know it’s in her heart.”” But, if nothing else, “I’m definitely gonna see if I can get her to come (be) Emmylou Harris with me again on another song one of these days, on the next record, which I think we’re getting ready to hopefully do soon.”

Talkington hasn’t given up filmmaking for music. He made a documentary five years ago, prior to cutting his first album; in the present, he and Pellington have a project in development for which Carty wrote the script and Pellington is attached to direct. The director calls it “a pretty fucked up anti-war piece and hostage thriller.”

Talkington may also be the subject of a documentary, as he has another friend who was doing a making-of when Talkington was recording his first album four years ago and just kept filming when his subject became seriously ill. The health problems he’s had are an undertone to the record and to the desire of his friends to see him branch out artistically.

“Four years ago is when I got the record deal. — not a big record deal, just someone that’s gonna pay to make a record.” he recalls. “I wasn’t gonna make any money, but that’s the first one in my life, so here I am, ex-filmmaker guy, weirdo dude, is 52 and gets his record deal. So I called my friend and said, ‘Hey, let’s make a little short film about this while I do this record.’ While we were doing that, literally I got diagnosed with colon cancer. I was feeling horrible, I couldn’t even believe I recorded the (debut) record, but I did. And then because of the cancer and because everything was so intense, the guy said, ‘I wanna keep filming you. Do you mind?’ So the’s been with me through the diagnosis, through chemo, through the near-death, and then the building back of recording and releasing this record and going to South by Southwest. Hopefully, it’s like a Phoenix rising from the ashes kind of story. I’ve been shooting a lot of it with my phone, myself, so in a way, I’ve kind of been making a film with my phone about my life and death, near-death, for the past four years.”

Pellington calls his friend and collaborator “an old-school artist and a real gentleman” and, in the same breath, “crazy — so crazy. But some of us are like that — they have to push it for the rest of the world to see things differently, and I think he’s that kind of guy. … He has been through a lot of pain. He’s been through a lot of shit in his life,” says Pellington. “So it’s a big reservoir to draw on. As I listened to this album, I was like, wow, it’s very much a tale and a survivor’s kind of album, kind of reclaiming his life after he was really sick. I think he’s been through a lot and come out the other side and I think you really feel that in the album, like when you listen to Steve Earle and you’re like, ‘Man, that’s some shit going on in the music,’ and you feel it.”

Meanwhile, Zellweger says that everything about the current album and its aftermath is “such a great story. It makes me smile.” Talkington says that “it makes me smile, too. — a lot. I mean, honestly, maybe it was the whole cancer thing and getting cut in half and sewn back together and literally coming back from the brink of death. But everything has seemed so magical in my life since that happened. All these amazing confluences and coincidences, and sort of like Easter eggs — and R.Z.’s been a big part of it.”

Says Zellweger, “I’m super grateful to Carty because I know that the chances and the risks that he took because of his faith, and I’m super grateful for that. Every day I’m grateful.”

Carty responds, “I’m super grateful. And by the way, it didn’t take some kind of visionary genius to recognize you. So I just sort of lucked out. But I’ll tell you what, man, I never recognized anything more clearly in my life.”

Zellweger still sounds impressed that he was impressed, 30 years ago. “Wow,” she says.

C M Talkington and his band Texas Radio have a “Texcellent” record-release gig lined up for April 21 at downtown L.A.’s Redwood Bar & Grill. Tickets are available here.

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