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October 09, 1994|MICHAEL McCALL | Michael McCall is a Nashville-based free-lance writer

NASHVILLE — Reba McEntire discerns one primary difference between her dual careers as a singer and an actress, and that's artistic control.

"I have absolutely no control as an actress of how I end up on screen," she says. "When I make records, I sing and then I listen to it. If I don't like it, I can fix it right there. But when I'm acting, I have somebody, a complete stranger, telling me how to act. Then when they go and edit it, they might edit out the thing that drew my reaction. Then my reaction looks so overboard and blown out of proportion, and I cringe. That's the only thing I hate about movies, having absolutely no control."

Control is an important issue for McEntire. As she's grown into one of country music's highest-profile stars, McEntire has increasingly absorbed control of all aspects of her career. As co-founder of Starstruck Entertainment with second husband Narvel Blackstock, McEntire manages her own career, concert promotion, publicity, music publishing, record production, travel arrangements and fleet of small aircraft.

(McEntire has chartered her own flights since one of two planes she'd hired to carry her band and crew crashed into Otay Mountain shortly after taking off from San Diego in March, 1991. Seven band members, her road manager and the pilot were killed. McEntire and the other band members were on another plane.)

She also owns Starstruck Farms, which raises thoroughbred horses, and recently formed Starstruck Construction so she could oversee the details of erecting a high-rise office complex in the middle of Nashville's music community.

Nonetheless, the award-winning singer, who appears this week in the lead role of the CBS movie "Is There Life Out There?," sounds like an eager up-and-comer rather than a savvy business magnate when discussing her increasing presence in movies and on television.

The thin, animated redhead retains the Oklahoma twang she acquired during her upbringing amid rodeo contests and religious revivals.

Sitting in a cluttered office of her current Starstruck headquarters--the new office building won't be finished until later this year--she excitedly recounts the success of her recent best-selling autobiography "Reba: My Story," and her current million-selling album with the literary tie-in title, "Read My Mind." (Both the book and album feature the same photograph on the cover.) But she displays her greatest exuberance when talking about her screen work.

McEntire made her film debut in 1990 as a gung-ho, weapon-wielding survivalist in the sci-fi spoof "Tremors." Despite recent feature roles in Rob Reiner's "North" and Penelope Spheeris' "The Little Rascals," as well as lead parts opposite Burt Reynolds in "The Man From Left Field" and opposite Kenny Rogers in "The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw," she admits to feeling insecure about her acting skills.

But, she says, "I feel better about my acting. I mind very well." When director David Jones suggested she perform a scene a certain way, "that's how I do it," she explains. "If I do it a couple times and I'm not comfortable with it, I go to him and talk about it. I might make a suggestion then, but if he says no, I don't do it."

Jones, speaking from London where he's directing a Dennis Potter play for the BBC, admits that when he was first approached about doing the movie he thought working with a country singer could be a challenge. "But we hit it off very well, right from our first meeting," Jones says. "She was terrific to work with. She's extremely direct as a woman, and honest about her fears."

Jones compared McEntire's "instinctive way of working" to the two young actors who play her children. "She had the same kind of directness that they had," he says. "She didn't pre-plan very much. She wasn't 'method' oriented; she doesn't have that kind of training. She has more of an intuitive approach. I think she surprised herself a few times, to be honest."

One such time occurred in a scene where she gets slapped. "She was very upset, very tearful, in that scene," Jones says. Afterward, the director asked her if the slap was too hard, if it bothered her. "She said that it wasn't, that it was too violent," he recalls. "She said she'd forgotten how her elder sister used to beat her up. ... it all came back to her."

"Is There Life Out There?" is based on a hit song McEntire recorded in 1991. Written by Susan Longacre and Rick Giles, the song tells of a housewife and mother who married at age 20. Once her children are grown, she begins to ponder what to do with her future and how to experience life outside of the home. "When I first heard that song, I thought, 'My cousin Trisha Ann could really relate with this.' She got married right out of high school and has two wonderful boys. She kind of lived life through them. After the kids were gone--the youngest graduated last year--she had to start a whole new life."

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