PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER YANG
The thought of a teenage girl spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week with her parent -- and actually enjoying it -- seems like a stretch of even the most optimistic imagination. Especially if that teenager is a millionaire many times over and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2008.
So when Billy Ray Cyrus starts to talk about all the things he and his daughter, 16-year-old singing and acting sensation Miley Cyrus, like to do together, people are truly amazed.
“One of the things we do together is listen to records and feel them out and talk about them,” Billy Ray says, explaining that they recently worked their way through Etta James’s entire musical oeuvre. “That’s just one of the things, though. We pretty much do everything together.”
As dubious as the claim may sound, Billy Ray isn’t kidding: He and his daughter live, work, and play together. Though she’s maturing into quite a young lady, she’s still daddy’s little girl to Billy Ray. And she’s got her father wrapped around her little finger. For that matter, she’s got a good portion of the world clinging to that polished pinky too. Now in its third season, her smash Disney Channel series, Hannah Montana, averages more than five million viewers per episode in the United States, and even more fans in 140-plus foreign countries tune in regularly. The show follows teenager Miley Stewart (played by Miley) as she strives to maintain a normal life while clandestinely moonlighting as a pop goddess named Hannah Montana. Bending the metafiction to a near breaking point, Billy Ray, a multi-platinum recording artist and sometime thespian, also plays her father on the series.
If one were to accuse Miley Cyrus of being a Method actress, he or she would get little argument from the ubiquitous starlet. Her new film, Hannah Montana: The Movie, with its infectious pop songs, goofy gags, and touching father-daughter moments, pulls the curtain back further on the parallelism of her life and her fictional characters’ lives.
“When people see this movie, I want them to feel like they know me a little bit more,” Miley says. “Not just the characters I play but me. I think this movie really is my life story.”
AT THE CORE of Miley’s life story -- both on-screen and off -- is the sincere father-daughter relationship, which began at the height of the first incarnation of Billy Ray Cyrus’s career. It was 1992, and Billy Ray was breaking “achy breaky hearts” all over the world, headlining arenas, making network TV appearances, and launching a breathless blitzkrieg on the Billboard music charts. He’d become the poster boy for country-to-pop crossover success, but it hadn’t been a quick, or an easy, journey to the top. His popularity had come after he’d persevered through a decade of dodging bottles while playing in dives, using his pickup truck’s steering wheel for a pillow, and having nothing but IOUs and loose change in his pockets.
“At the risk of sounding too cliché, I think it goes back to, ‘That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,’ “ says Billy Ray, now 47. “I came pretty close to the edge, to be honest. I was on the verge of giving up for 10 years. only problem is, my vocabulary doesn’t include the words giving up. Persistence isn’t always a very glorified word, but, man, it’s an important one.”
It was then, at the peak of his celebrity, that Billy Ray became a father. He and then-girlfriend Tish Finley -- whom he is married to today -- welcomed a beautiful baby girl. They named her Destiny Hope Cyrus. Destiny Hope’s cheerful disposition and ever-present smile earned her the nickname Smiley, which was later shortened to Miley. (Requiring still more correction fluid on the family tree and on her birth certificate, Miley recently adopted Miley Ray -- long a nickname of hers in the family -- as her legal name.)
“It was [Miley’s] purpose and her destiny to bring hope to the world,” Billy Ray explains. “That’s certainly what my daughter has always done -- in my life first, but now in the lives of everyone she meets.”
Their bond was instant. Since the moment she was born, Billy Ray and Miley have been inseparable, even as Miley has grown and her interests have changed -- largely because her interests aren’t usually very different from her dad’s.
“We’ve always watched movies together and gone out to dinner together, like all the time,” Miley says. “We ride bikes, play baseball and basketball. I’m kind of a tomboy. We hang out and do all the things he loves.”
As a youngster, Miley zigzagged across America with her father when he was on tour. She would frequently beg to join him onstage, and eventually, Billy Ray incorporated a father-daughter duet of the Elvis Presley classic “Hound Dog” into his encores. The fans ate it up.
“From the first time she stepped on stage, I knew she was a star,” Billy Ray says. “She always wanted to be front and center, and she had everything she needed to be there too.”
For Miley, touring with her father was a way to remain close to him. But more than that, it allowed her to see her father’s work ethic in action and witness the respect with which he treated the people around him. Those are lessons that she has carried with her throughout her own burgeoning career.
“My dad is a huge believer in karma, in that the way you treat people is the way they’ll treat you,” Miley says. “Work hard for people so they’ll work hard for you. Treat your fans with gratitude so they’ll keep coming out for you. That’s how my dad is, and that’s what I do too.”
In the late 1990s, Billy Ray’s music career slowed. He segued into acting, playing a small but memorable part in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. before nabbing the titular role in the uplifting cable hit Doc, in which he played a small-town doctor living in New York City. Never far behind her father, Miley soon began making appearances on the show. She’d been bitten by the acting bug at age 8 when she’d gone to see a performance of Mamma Mia! with her family. “That was it for me,” Miley says. “Right then and there, I said, ‘I’m going to study and become a great actress.’ “
Miley was just 11 years old when she first auditioned for the lead role in a new Disney Channel series. Producers initially thought her too young for the part, but she eventually won them over with her persistence. When it came time to cast her character’s father on the show, Miley knew just the guy. Disney executives, however, weren’t as sure and required Billy Ray to audition for the role of his real-life daughter’s TV dad. “That was weird,” Miley remembers. “It’s always been something to laugh about around the dinner table.”
Just a few years after the show’s debut, the Cyrus father-daughter team are veritable superstars (again, in the case of Billy Ray). Both have released solo albums under their own names, with Miley’s effort going multi-platinum. Additionally, her Hannah Montana alter ego, whom Miley regularly performs as in concert, has yielded a cornucopia of merchandise, chart-topping CDs, a 3-D concert film that was released to blockbuster box-office numbers last spring, and this month’s scripted feature film.
“What we’re trying to do with the show, and we’ve really expanded on this in the feature film, is to make something for the entire family,” Billy Ray says. “We get through everything a family could go through and then put some humor with it. That’s how my family does it.”
Director Peter Chelsom made the decision to shoot the film just a few miles away from the Cyrus family home in Tennessee. But he quickly realized that the location wasn’t the only aspect of the movie that was autobiographical for the pair.
“It was often reflected on how rather eerily like the Cyruses’ real life the film’s story was,” he says. “It’s really life imitating art imitating life. It’s a very personal story about how fame can go to one’s head unless family and friends and responsibilities remain a priority.”
That’s something Miley already knows all too well -- at the tender age of 16. Though she carries her strong Christian faith as a shield against the pressures of celebrity, she admits that life’s deeper meaning can “get a little lost” when a girl is constantly getting her hair and makeup done and being dressed by the world’s top designers. That’s partly why she and her dad were so relieved to be able to film in Nashville. It proved a revitalizing escape for the two, who were able to spend their days off doing “normal” father-daughter activities; Billy Ray even taught Miley how to drive.
Chelsom, who also directed the films Serendipity and Shall We Dance, was wowed by the father-and-daughter team. But this case, he says, was one of the rare exceptions where the closeness wasn’t merely faked once the cameras were on.
“Sometimes when you’re working on a scene with two actors and it’s not going well,” Chelsom explains, “you give an actor a direction, like, ‘You need to make a decision to really like [each other], because you haven’t done that yet.’ I never once had to do that [with these two].”
Miley offers an easy explanation for her and her father’s compatibility on-screen.”It’s as simple as this: We’re best friends, and we love each other,” she says. “I don’t think we could do this whole Hannah Montana thing and have people believe it if we were lying. We’re not that good of actors.”
ABOUT TWO-THIRDS of the way through Hannah Montana: The Movie, there’s a moment so powerful that Chelsom can only describe it as “pure magic.” Everything has gone wrong for Miley Stewart. And at that point, standing in a hillside gazebo with rain falling all around them, father and daughter sing a duet called “Butterfly Fly Away,” which was penned for the movie by film composer Alan Silvestri and Grammy heavyweight Glen Ballard.
“You feel like you’re peering into their little cocoon,” Chelsom says. “I don’t think I could ever have achieved that [feeling] with any other actors -- or fathers and daughters -- in the world. It’s a completely private moment.”
It’s easily Chelsom’s favorite scene in the movie, though he shares plenty of his favorite offscreen moments, too, like when Miley’s grandmother -- known to Miley as Mammie -- would perch near him to help call “action” and “cut” between scenes. He also reveals a sillier side of Miley, saying that she lovingly ribs her father when he gets too emotional over his eldest daughter. But who can blame him? Miley, née Destiny Hope, has more than lived up to the ambitious name her father bestowed upon her.
“She was always destined for this; I know it,” Billy Ray says proudly. “Hope is what Hannah Montana is all about. It’s all about finding and following and fulfilling your dreams. People always ask, ‘Is Miley Hannah or is Hannah Miley, or how does this all work?’ And the truth is, every word that Hannah ever speaks or ever sings -- every word -- comes from my daughter. Whether she’s wearing the Hannah Montana wig or not, she is who she is: the real deal, a true artist, a beautiful and honest soul.”
For Miley, the success of Hannah Montana is twofold. The show is a testimony to the wild superhero ambitions that all of us secretly harbor -- “even though we’re all just ordinary beneath our wig or cape or whatever,” she says -- and, more importantly, it’s an enduring ode to the love between a father and his daughter.
“I think that people do love the glamour and the music and the double-life stuff,” Miley says. “But what I think people really love about it is that they can tell how much my dad and I love each other and how much we mean to each other, and that makes people feel good for what they have in their lives. My dad and I would do anything for each other, and I think people see that. That love and friendship is better than being a big star.” AW
J. RENTILLY is a Los Angeles–based journalist who covers film, music, literature, and pop culture for a variety of publications. He has profiled celebrities such as Hugh Laurie, Samuel L. Jackson, and Annie Leibovitz for American Way.