This week, country superstar Reba McEntire returns to the screen as “loose cannon” traveling circuit judge Kim Wheeler in a new Lifetime movie, Reba McEntire's The Hammer — and also returning, by McEntire’s side, is her offscreen love interest, Rex Linn. McEntire and Linn, who started dating in 2020 but met way back in 1991 when they co-starred in one of McEntire’s first TV projects, The Gambler Returns with Kenny Rogers, have also worked together in Young Sheldon and Big Sky. But McEntire seems especially delighted to share screentime with Linn’s The Hammer character, Bart Crawford, described in a Lifetime press release as “a mysterious cowboy with unknown motives.”
“Well, I thought it was really neat that he made a very handsome mysterious cowboy, too,” McEntire tells Yahoo Entertainment with a sly, flirty smirk.
The natural, easy chemistry between McEntire and Linn is readily apparent in all of their Hammer scenes. McEntire reveals that she was “a little rusty on my acting” before shooting the film, and says Linn “helped me tremendously. … By the time we got to do our scenes together, it was just like talking to each other. I love working with Rex. He's a great actor, and I just get the biggest kick out of the way he chooses to do a scene and then change it up and do it some other way. I've learned a lot from him.”
The real-life, late-in-life love story between McEntire and Linn truly is the stuff of Lifetime movies. While McEntire admits that when she met Linn 32 years ago — not long after she’d married her second husband, Narvel Blackstock — no sparks flew, they “just kept the friendship. And timing is everything, and everything happens for a reason.”
When McEntire shot an appearance on Linn’s show Young Sheldon in January 2020, about four years after her 26-year marriage to Blackstock had ended, she and Linn reconnected and went out for dinner, although she “didn't know then that it was a date.” In fact, when Linn first asked her out, she declined. “I said, ‘Can I take a raincheck?’ I’d had a long day, and I was exhausted.” She eventually met up with Linn, Young Sheldon actress Melissa Peterman (McEntire’s former Reba sitcom costar and current The Hammer castmate), and her tour manager, Marne McLyman, at a restaurant in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
“I left [McLyman] out at the valet station; I just had to get in and see Rex. And, you know, Melissa and Marne said it was a date!” says McEntire. “We just had a really nice evening, and I hugged his neck goodbye to get in the car with Marne to go back to the hotel. And I said, ‘Come see me.’ And on June 16, he did.”
McEntire and Linn’s second in-person date probably would have happened a lot sooner than June 2020, if unfortunate life and world circumstances hadn’t intervened. But they maintained a remote courtship until Linn could take McEntire up on her invitation. Upon McEntire’s return to Nashville after their fateful Sherman Oaks dinner, she and Linn “kept texting,” but sadly, she soon learned that her mother had bladder cancer. “I was texting him and he said, ‘Hey, call me any time, if you need to talk.’ And I just called him and we talked every day; I think that was around the 1st of February. And we talked every day since,” McEntire recalls.
McEntire’s mother died on March 14, 2020, but that same month, the COVID-19 pandemic began, so Linn couldn't come out to Nashville to visit. But he and McEntire eventually reunited in June. “I've just loved him even more for getting on a plane during the pandemic,” McEntire gushes. “So, it was true love, and it's lasted, and we're having more fun now than we did when we first got together.”
McEntire, now age 67, didn’t expect to fall in love again, with 66-year-old Linn or anyone else — “I wasn't looking for it, wasn't looking at all,” she insists — and when Yahoo Entertainment asks her to give advice to any singles of a certain age who might think their chances of finding romance have passed them by, she chuckles, “Well, I promise you, I'm the last person you need to start asking love advice, after being divorced twice!”
More seriously, McEntire, who was also married to steer wrestling champion and rancher Charlie Battles from 1976 to 1987, answers: “It's a good idea to kind of make a mental note of past comments from past relationships, about the things you did wrong, and analyze that — admit if that's right, or if that it was wrong, what I did, and how to be a better partner, be a better listener, be a more considerate, take more time. Instead of knowing that there's 50,000 things I'd rather be doing, maybe sit down and watch a football game, or four [games] in one day. Yes, that's true love! I'm a bigger fan of football now — that's what's come out of this! But wow, I love hanging with Rex. We're good friends. We love each other, and it's just really, really special. And I'm very grateful and thankful to God that he came into my life, at this period of my life. I mean, it's the best.”
Another fantastic development of McEntire’s personal and professional partnership with Linn has been the opportunity to take on edgier, darker, more dramatic acting roles alongside him, whether it be in David E. Kelley’s crime thriller Big Sky (in which she and Linn portray a married couple) or in The Hammer, which tackles serious subjects like drug policy reform and sexual misconduct. “Just to do something different, more challenging… it's just so much fun to go dark,” says McEntire. “I'm known as a very bubbly, uptempo person, and to go into that dark place was just interesting. It was fun to play with.”
But as it turns out, back in the ‘90s, McEntire had an opportunity to take on another sort of against-type dramatic role: Molly Brown in Titanic, which eventually went to Oscar-winner Kathy Bates. Titanic could have changed the entire course of McEntire’s acting career, but as she has already pointed out, timing really is everything.
“I met with James Cameron. I went and auditioned in person and wanted the part really, really bad,” McEntire reveals. “But when our schedules didn't line up, I had to go with my schedule of [concert] touring, because I had all my band, crew, all of the venues already booked. And when they said, ‘No, not these three months; we need these three months,’ I had to pass, because you've got a lot of people's livelihoods standing there looking at you. And if we had have moved those dates, well, we wouldn't have gotten the venues that we wanted. … I wished I could have [acted in Titanic], but you have to take care of your people. And they [the band] were number one.”
More than 25 years later, McEntire has no regrets. Her career is more bustling than ever, with “a lot of plates spinning” in 2023, including her first-ever headlining concerts at two iconic venues, the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden; “a lot more acting things in development,” possibly with Linn; and other ventures like a new Oklahoma restaurant called Reba’s Place, a clothing line at Dillard’s, a footwear line with Justin Boots, and a new lifestyle book. And she’s certainly enjoying her fun lifestyle at the moment.
“I’m very thankful, very grateful, and I absolutely did not think, even three years ago, that I'd be as busy as I am now,” McEntire says, beaming. “But I love being busy. I love to work. Rex and I both love to work — but I like to play hard, too. I love to go on vacations. I love to see the world. And we're going do a little bit of that, too, now that we've worked so hard in 2022. But boy, when the job offers come in, if it's something that you really want do, we'll be doing it — if they let us!”
Reba McEntire’s The Hammer, executive-produced by and starring McEntire, premieres Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime. Check out McEntire’s full, extended Yahoo Entertainment interview above for more discussion of the film, as well as talk about her acting debut in the 1990 Kevin Bacon cult classic Tremors, the challenges of being a woman in country music, and whether she and Linn will ever record a musical duet.
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