For its first two seasons, Friday Night Lights was the little show that could, repeatedly dodging cancellation in spite of floundering ratings, much to the delight of the series’ small but fervent fan base. Then, miraculously, a shared-rights deal between NBC and DirecTV buoyed Friday Night Lights through three more seasons. In that time, FNL has used the fictional town of Dillon, Texas and its intense relationship with high-school football as a jumping-off point for human drama both outsized and intimate, much of it centering on the family of Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton). Plotlines and actors have come and gone as the show’s high-school characters have aged out of the series, but Chandler and Britton’s onscreen relationship has endured, providing FNL with its foundation and heart. Before the fifth and final season’s October 27 DirecTV première, Britton spoke with The A.V. Club about playing Tami and saying goodbye to Friday Night Lights.
The A.V. Club: Has Friday Night Lights wrapped filming on the final season?
Connie Britton: We did. We wrapped a couple months ago, actually.
AVC: What was it like saying goodbye to the show?
CB: Oh my gosh. I’m still not over it. In fact, I saw Jason Katims, our show runner, last night, and he was saying how he’s been editing the final two episodes, and he says they’re just so great. I’m sure they are going to be major tearjerkers. He said he’s just been dragging it out because he doesn’t want to say goodbye to the show. He’s in the editing bays, and we used to have several different editing bays, and then every day it’s like, one editing bay disappears and one editor disappears, and then the next day, they take a couch out. He said literally, they’re basically just sitting on the floor, watching this stuff on these monitors, and he’s like, “Okay, I think I’ve just got to let it go and let it be over.” It’s just such a big deal.
But in Austin [where Friday Night Lights is filmed], because we had what ended up being two weeks of a lot of really hard work—the cast and the crew traveled because we shot in different locations, and did really hard work and debaucherous goodbyes. But the last scene we shot actually ended up being in this big open Texas field at sunset, so that was kind of a perfect way to go. And everyone, all the people from L.A., all the writers, Peter Berg, who created the show, all the producers all came in, we all gathered around in this beautiful open field while the sun was setting, and watched the last scene be shot. There was not a dry eye in the house. It was pretty great.
AVC: Season four was the first one where Friday Night Lights wasn’t on the bubble for renewal. Then this season was a predefined endpoint of the series. Did that affect the atmosphere on the show, not having the specter of ratings and renewal hanging over your heads?
CB: Yeah, you know, I think it was really nice for everybody to feel like we—it’s always good in life to have some sense of what’s going on, even when you don’t. It was actually really nice. This is a very rare luxury on a show, to have an endpoint, because—I guess that happened for The Sopranos too—we knew going into the season that we were really going to be building an arc toward the end, and there was something sad about that. We kind of went into the season knowing the end was looming ahead, but at the same time, it was nice to have a sense of that, and in the last three episodes, maybe even the last four, you can sort of feel the show ramping up to its ending. It was a very palpable, tangible thing, and a lot of the old original cast members came back, and it was great to have the opportunity to honor the show in that way, and really be able to honor the characters and the town and all that in a way that felt thorough and real. It was actually kind of a gift to have it that way, even though of course we were all like, “But maybe…” Even at the end, when we knew. Our show was so The Little Engine That Could that we were always just thinking that we were defying all the odds, so even at the end of our fifth season, we were all still thinking, maybe…
AVC: Last season, there was a lot of change on Friday Night Lights, with the move to East Dillon and all the new characters. It almost felt like a reboot. Did you have that feeling at all when you were filming it, that you were going down a very different road?
CB: Yeah, totally. That was actually a very stark change for everybody. I think people were really pleased with how it came out, but having all those new characters come in… Certainly for my character, for Tami, it was a very big change, because of the way they structure the show. All the new characters were basically at the new East Dillon High School, and Tami was at West Dillon. So for Tami, it was actually a little bit alienating. But all in all, I think it’s a real testament to just what Friday Night Lights is, and to the nature of the show, that we were able to authentically graduate all these characters who were supposed to graduate from high school and move on in their lives, and authentically bring in new characters, who now we can follow their stories. To me, that is such a great example of the fact that Friday Night Lights really is just about this town and this community and these people, and how their lives interrelate via this football team. And it’s kind of great, because I certainly think it was a challenging thing for the writers to do, to be able to pull that off.
AVC: You, Kyle Chandler, and Aimee Teegarden are pretty much the only main characters left from season one. Do you have an upperclassman mentality, where you feel a responsibility or ownership over the show and its history?
CB: Yeah, I think we really do. Particularly Kyle and I really have a sense of leadership in terms of the show and the cast. And I really attribute that to Pete Berg, because from the very beginning, when we started the first season, after the pilot had been picked up, he really empowered all of us. He empowered everyone in the cast to have a sense of ownership in the show and a feeling of like, “This show is yours.” His quote was always, “Nobody pushes us around,” because we knew we’d be having a lot of visiting directors and people coming in and out and whatever, and he charged us to really own it, to own the show, and to maintain the quality of it. And I think Kyle and I, having been sort of the old people… [Laughs.]
AVC: The parental units.
CB: Yeah, we’re the parental units, and we sort of have a strong love for the show, of course, but also a very strong sense of how that show works, and a strong appreciation for how that show works, and I think our crew absolutely does too. I think our crew really values that we’re there, and our leadership and all that. So it’s really just worked so well. Because it’s a very unusual circumstance. Our show runner is in L.A., and we’re in Austin. And we have a producing director, this guy named Michael Waxman, and he was really great to kind of maintain the look and the style of the show, but it was important for Kyle and I to keep the status quo. New actors would come in, and we would say to them, “Hey, listen, don’t put all this pressure on yourself, don’t feel like you have to do this a certain way, just go in there and have fun.” You know, all those good things. We’re cheerleaders.
AVC: Fans of the show always talk about how realistic and inspiring the Taylors’ marriage is. How much of that relationship is in the script, on the page, and how much did you and Kyle work out between the two of you?
CB: It’s a great combination of both. Kyle and I would typically get our script and we’d get together at our favorite coffee place and talk it over and go through every scene, and say “Okay, here’s what we want to be happening in this scene.” And so we’d do that, and sort of get a sense for how we wanted it to be. Then once we’d get on the set, we would know what the idea of the scene was, and then we’d get into the situation on the set—we don’t really usually rehearse, we’d kind of just drop into it—and then we’d let the scene happen and see what ended up happening. Sometimes we would do the scene verbatim, and sometimes we would say, “Here’s what’s really happening, here’s what needs to be communicated in this scene,” and we would just let it roll and see what happened. And I think the writers really entrusted us to do that, and really counted on us to do that. They knew that they would write a scene and then we would take it and run with it, and make it as real as we could, and find spontaneous moments that may not have been written in so clearly.
AVC: Those spontaneous moments between you two, the little looks and such, I think that’s what really makes it special for people.
CB: Yeah, and I think that’s something too about the way we shoot. The fact that we have three cameras rolling at all times, the fact that we don’t rehearse, we don’t have marks, so there’s not a lot of hyper-preparation, and “You’ve got to be standing there when he says that line,” and you keep shooting the same moment over and over again because you’ve got to shoot it from all angles. We don’t work that way, since we’ve got three cameras going at all times, so we can just walk into a scene and something spontaneous can happen, and I think that’s what audiences really appreciate, because it makes the audience feel like they’re being invited into something very intimate and real. And that’s exciting. People really appreciate that. I’m always really amazed whenever I run into fans of the show and how passionate they are about it. And I really believe it’s because we allow them into these lives we’re creating in a very real and sort of intimate way.
AVC: You’ve mentioned the non-rehearsed, improvisational nature of the way you shoot. Did it take any adjustment for you as an actor to get into that groove?
CB: Oh no, I love working like that. Also, Pete Berg was the one who created this particular style that we used in Friday Night Lights, and he actually did it in the movie—I was in the movie Friday Night Lights as well. But it’s always my favorite way to work, when you’re working with somebody who’s the writer as well as the director, because you feel like they’re creating it on the spot, and as an actor, that’s exciting for me. I like to have things thrown at me, and to have things feel sort of spontaneous and unpremeditated. It’s an exciting way to work. I’ve always actually really been drawn to that style. In fact, even with Ed Burns, who I have done three movies with—and my first movie, The Brothers McMullen—it’s the same. Not the same, but he works in a similar way, in that as he’s sitting behind the camera, he’s working with you and you feel like you’re creating the story and letting the story unfold. It’s really an exiting way to work.
AVC: It’s not really seen a whole lot in drama, that level of improvisation.
CB: It’s interesting, actually, because so many people in the comedy world love our show. And people who have that improv-comedy background, the Tina Feys and the Amy Poehlers, and all those people who I’ve been fortunate to run into, they’re always like, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, we love your show so much!” And it’s always surprising to me, because I like to think that Tami’s funny, but I don’t think our show’s a comedy. [Laughs.] I think they really have an appreciation for the improvisational aspect of it, as well as the reality aspect of it, because I think great comedy comes out of real authenticity.
AVC: What’s so funny about Tami to you?
CB: [Laughs.] Well, she’s a Southern woman. For me, it was really important right from the get-go. I was really excited to play this Southern woman, and one thing I’ve really noticed about women in the South is a sense of humor. They get through the day a little bit by keeping it light. It’s a very powerful tool for the Southern woman, I think, because they’re living in a relatively conventional culture in a relatively conventional world, so they have to be creative about how they can get what they want, or act out, or empower themselves.
AVC: In season five, Tami’s moved to East Dillon as a counselor, breaking the show’s last tie to Dillon High. Are Dillon and the Panthers going to be a factor as we move forward?
CB: It’s pretty much East Dillon. But West Dillon is always lurking in the background. It’s very interesting to me, because West Dillon quickly became very demonized. Post season four, West Dillon will be representing, you know, the establishment assholes, and it’s sort of like, “Well guys, it’s a small town.” So there is sort of this rivalry that seems to be very alive and well and actually sort of growing in season five, but I think we focus much more on East Dillon.
AVC: Are you at all disappointed that Tami is no longer principal? Do you think that was a good fit for the character?
CB: That was a tricky one, because it was a tricky move story-wise. I was always a little bit like—the whole line of reasoning behind her losing her job as principal but being able to be a counselor at East Dillon High School, where the whole abortion thing happened, was always a little bit dicey to me. But at the end of the day, there’s always something interesting about a character having to drop down a couple pegs, but at the same time, wanting to do that. In a way, it was an active choice for her to make that move, because she wants to help kids. So we got to play with that a little bit in the beginning of the season, where she’s sort of in the school, but is definitely a big fish in a little pond that doesn’t really want her that much. [Laughs.] So there was some fun stuff to play with that, for sure.
AVC: Based on the first two episodes, it seems like Tami’s very vulnerable this season, with Julie leaving for college and her feeling out of place at her new job.
CB: I think so, yeah. I think that was sort of the idea. She definitely has been put through the wringer a bit, and she has these ideals, and she wants to try and live up to them, but she’s put in a tricky position. So I do think she’s vulnerable, and I think the ground feels a little bit unstable beneath her.
AVC: A running theme on the show is that Coach and Tami are really well-loved by the kids, but they’re often at odds with the adults in Dillon, going back to the JumboTron, even.
CB: Yeah. [Laughs.]
AVC: They both have an “I know best” mentality that doesn’t always go over well with parents and the school board. Do you think that’s a character flaw they share, that they have a minor hubris?
CB: You know, it’s funny, I never thought of them having hubris. My sense was always that they were trying to relate to everybody and get along with everybody. But that’s actually an interesting point. I don’t think they’re honestly holier-than-thou at all. I think it’s sort of the difficulties of television that we ended up only seeing them probably in relationships with grown-ups who are somehow beneath them in some way. That’s interesting. That was never a thought I had, or a conscious choice by either Kyle or me.
AVC: It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just another facet to the characters. They seem to always know best, but they don’t always go about it in the most delicate manner.
CB: That’s always an interesting conflict. It’s great to play a character that even in their sort of perfection, they’re imperfect. [Laughs.]
AVC: You and Kyle Chandler finally got nominated for Emmys this year.
CB: Yeah, I know, isn’t that crazy?
AVC: For fans, that was a real “finally!” moment. What was it like for you guys?
CB: It was thrilling, and it came at just the right time. The nominations came in about maybe three weeks or a month before we were going to wrap the show, and we were right at that place of feeling like things were winding down, and it was starting to feel a bit melancholy, and people having to think about saying goodbye. When those nominations came in, it sort of shot adrenaline through everybody, because Kyle and I and Rolin Jones, who was nominated for writing, we really looked at it like it was an acknowledgment of the show. When I found out I was nominated, my first question was, “What about the show?” Actually, my cousin who called to tell me I was nominated said that Kyle was nominated, so I already knew, but then I was like, “Well, what about the show?” But we really looked at it like it was an acknowledgment of everybody. It was really just a wonderful gift for all of us to have as we were winding down, and it was nice that we all got to celebrate it together, and it didn’t just sort of come in a void after the show was long over or anything like that.
AVC: How did you celebrate? I’ve read how the Friday Night Lights cast likes to go all-out with its parties.
CB: Yeah. [Laughs.] It was a lot of that. In Texas, you do a lot of tequila drinking, a lot of going out into fields and enjoying it. And then there are quieter celebrations. Kyle keeps saying we still need to sit down with a bottle of whiskey and talk over the past five years, because it’s so much to process, and we certainly haven’t processed it yet.