- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

LOS ANGELES

Miley Cyrus isn’t a country music star, but after a couple of months of playing one on TV, she’s starting to get a pretty good idea what it feels like.

For one thing, impromptu visits to your favorite Southern California shopping mall are out unless you arrive in a disguise.

“The last time me and my mom went, it turned out to be not such a good idea,” says Miley, who plays a country singer in the new Disney Channel show “Hannah Montana” (airing weekends at 7 p.m.).

“People rushed into the store we were in, and they had to shut the doors until everyone would go away,” she recalls with a giggle. “It was crazy.”

Not that the 13-year-old isn’t used to being around frenetic fans. She is, after all, the daughter of country music star Billy Ray “Achy Breaky Heart” Cyrus. But since her TV debut, the fans are starting to direct their attention more to her.

“Miley used to be known as Billy Ray Cyrus’ daughter. Now I’m known as Miley Cyrus’ father,” her famous dad observed recently.

“And I couldn’t be more happy,” he quickly added. “I’m just so proud of that little girl.”

Indeed, with almost no professional acting experience, Miley has leaped into one of the more popular children’s shows on cable television. It scored the highest debut ratings of any Disney Channel series when it arrived in March.

She plays 14-year-old country superstar Hannah Montana. With her brother and father-manager (the latter played by her real-life father), Hannah has taken up residence in Malibu with designs on attending school under her given name, Miley Stewart. There, she hopes to make friends and be just a regular kid.

This being television, all she has to do to pull off the ruse is don a wig.

As for father and daughter’s make-believe roles, both say that wasn’t much of a stretch, either.

“It’s just me; it’s just who I am,” the outgoing, self-confident young actress says of her character.

Not that playing opposite her real father doesn’t sometimes present a challenge.

“You know how when you’re a girl you don’t always want your dad around?” she asks in a rare moment of shyness. “Sometimes it’s like that.” Then she adds, “But my dad’s kind of cool when it comes to that. He’s better than most dads.”

For his part, Mr. Cyrus says he wasn’t sure he wanted to take the role when it was offered at the last minute after his daughter spent two years auditioning for her part.

“I said, ‘I don’t want her to have worked so hard to get this show and me come on and mess it up,” says Mr. Cyrus, who starred in his own show, “Doc,” a few years ago and has made numerous TV appearances.

As it turned out, playing a show in which both of them can trade quips, sing and pick guitars was a natural fit for him, too.

“Since Miley was a little girl we’ve been writing songs together. We sing together. We do a whole lot more of it offstage than onstage,” Mr. Cyrus says. “That’s how we really communicate the best with each other.”

It was her musical talent, Disney officials say, that in the end finally landed Miley the role.

“We decided we would not go through with this series until we found a kid who could carry a sitcom as well as she could carry a tune,” says Gary Marsh, president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide.

They found other actresses who could play the part, he says, but none who could match Miley musically.

“But she was only 11 (when auditions began),” Mr. Cyrus recalls, raising concerns that his daughter wasn’t mature enough to carry her own show.

So the network waited for her to gain enough confidence and — Miley believes — enough height.

“At first they thought I was too small. I was just a little string bean,” she says in the soft Tennessee drawl that betrays the years she spent growing up on a farm near Nashville.

“I can’t really get rid of it,” she complains.

Not that Disney would want her to alter any part of her personality.

“She has the everyday relatability of Hilary Duff and the stage presences of Shania Twain, and that’s an explosive combination,” says Mr. Marsh.


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