To a certain clear-eyed, full-hearted, can’t-lose segment of the television audience, Connie Britton will forever be Friday Night Lights’ Tami “Mrs. Coach” Taylor, a pillar of strength and support in the Taylor household as well as the football-mad community of Dillon, Texas. Within the fictionalized universe of ABC’s new drama Nashville, however, millions of country fans know her as Rayna Jaymes, the scion of a powerful Music City clan who spurned the family business in order to pursue her artistic passions. Created by Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri, the series requires Britton to play multiple roles-within-a-role: in-command performer, wife of a mayoral candidate (Eric Close), and fading icon pushed toward touring with young upstart Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), to name a few. Just as she did in her Emmy-nominated turns on Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story, she infuses each side of her character with power, grace, and an effortless charm. Before Nashville’s October 10 première, The A.V. Club spoke to Britton about learning to be a country star from T-Bone Burnett (the show’s executive music producer and Khouri’s husband), getting to know the show’s setting from the inside, and why she hasn’t gotten around to reading the script for the Friday Night Lights spin-off movie.
The A.V. Club: Between all the screaming you did on American Horror Story and all of the singing you have to do for Nashville, how’s your voice holding up?
Connie Britton: [Laughs.] Well, I tell you: I’m losing my voice a lot less now than I was then.
AVC: The pilot opens with Rayna singing onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. What was the experience of shooting that scene like?
CB: It was so exciting, I have to say. I think that that was a lot of the reason I was so excited to do this role, the opportunity to play a character who’s standing there and commanding that stage. By the way, it was terrifying to do all that. Especially in the pilot. But it was thrilling to be there. I don’t know if you noticed or not, but there’s a round circle of wood floor from the original Grand Ole Opry. The Grand Ole Opry has been through many various hardships and renovations over the years, and so there’s this circle of wood floor from the original Grand Ole Opry on the stage where you stand and sing, and you can really feel the energy of all the people who’ve been there over so many, many years. It’s really exciting. I kind of lay down and wriggled around all over it. [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s your personal history with country music?
CB: My personal history with country music is not particularly extensive. I grew up in Virginia, so there was always a lot of country music around. But it wasn’t necessarily the music that raised me. But it was the tradition of music from where I came from. There’s something about country music that feels to me like tradition and like storytelling, and that’s the part of it that I always loved. What I’ve learned from T-Bone Burnett is that there are so many different levels of country music and types of music that come from country music, it’s a broad spectrum to consider.
AVC: And if you’re going to learn about country music from anybody, it’s hard to beat T-Bone Burnett.
CB: Yeah, I know, no kidding. [Laughs.] That’s the understatement of the century, because he is amazing. You know, the idea that I was going to be able to do this show and work with T-Bone Burnett, as an actor, it felt like something I couldn’t pass up. And it’s funny, because before I started working with him, I thought, “What is it about this guy that makes him so great?” And then I started working with him, and I’m telling you, man, he’s like a song whisperer. We would spend hours together listening to music and playing music and picking things out on his guitar or whatever, and I felt as if a spell had been cast on me, and I was instantly a better singer than I was when I arrived. He’s kind of astounding in that way. He has a beautiful knack for bringing out a person’s true voice. So I feel so fortunate to work with him.
AVC: What’s the most important lesson you learned during that time with Burnett?
CB: I think the most important lesson for me is to always tell a true story and to trust your voice. That’s been a big lesson for me. Your voice is the voice you want to explore and listen to, and to trust that. It’s been a journey.
AVC: You mentioned standing in that circle on the Opry stage—does filming the show in Nashville make it easier to find the spirit of the music?
CB: There’s something about being in the place. I learned that on Friday Night Lights. I was pretty committed to starting it off in Nashville. My theory with Friday Night Lights is that if you want to do something that’s really authentic, and when the town is such an important part of what you’re doing, you need to be there. For us, being able to shoot at the Grand Ole Opry and the Blue Bird Café and to be in the environment of this place where there is great music everywhere, that’s pretty hard to duplicate. Especially because we’re all so committed to the show being true as far as how we depict Nashville. It’s really important to us to not show Nashville in any sort of clichéd way. If we are able to tell a story in Nashville while staying pretty true to all the different elements and levels of what the place is, then we’ve done something that’s never been done before.
AVC: In light of your experience of shooting Nashville in Nashville and Friday Night Lights in Austin, Texas, is living and working at a shooting location a good way to get to know a city?
CB: Yes and no. Definitely after five years of shooting Friday Night Lights in Austin, I feel like I have a really good experience of Austin. To some degree, it’s getting to be the same with Nashville, too. It’s something that evolves over time. The more you shoot on location, the more you can get to know the city. There are lots of early mornings with the GPS or the MapQuest out. [Laughs.] Finding your way into another pocket of the town where you’ve never been before.
AVC: So you’ve already encountered that with Nashville?
CB: Oh yes. I can’t even tell you how grateful I am for my GPS. It’s exciting to learn about a new place. And really, on a show like this, it’s part of our job. So it’s a great way to do it.
AVC: Rayna displays several sides of herself in the première: She’s a different person at home than she is when dealing with record-label execs or negotiating with her father. Is every aspect of the character’s life a type of performance?
CB: That’s interesting that you bring that up. That was a really big conversation that I had with Callie [Khouri]. It was something that was really important to her, all these different facets of Rayna. You know, really, each one is a different character, in a way. But they are all true to who she is. Because she’s someone in the public eye, she has the character she plays as a performer, and that really is the character she steps into to go out and perform. And I’ve talked to other performers about that, and it’s almost a kind of protection. They can take on the persona to go out and perform, and it allows them to have the courage to do it. But with Rayna, she’s also the mother and wife at home. But even when she goes out to the grocery store, that’s a different level, too. She’s not performing, but she’s in the public eye. People will be watching her, and she has to be aware of that. And as we discover in the pilot, she will also have the aspect of her that is the politician’s wife, which has a whole other complexity. So yeah, that’s one of the things I really loved about playing the character.
AVC: Khouri wanted you specifically for the role of Rayna, and she stuck by that decision even after she found out you were looking to take on more behind-the-scenes roles. Do you feel any pressure to make good on Callie’s insistence that you’re the only actor who could play this part?
CB: You mean pressure on me, or pressure on Callie? [Laughs.] I don’t think so. For sure, I was definitely reticent about it. I had some reservations about doing it, mostly because I had actually been developing other things that I was really involved with and excited about doing. But I was also so intrigued by the fact that Callie wrote the pilot, because I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time, and have such admiration and respect for her. So that was really exciting for me. And the idea of being able to sing and work with T-Bone Burnett and play this role in this kind of context, it was all very exciting to me. It felt like an exciting risk for me to take at this point in my career, when it’s tough to know where to go next. And she did do quite a lot of convincing. So I do hold her to it, for sure. We both have really high standards for what we want the show to be, and we’re both going to just keep pushing for that in the hopes that that’s what we come out with. I see it as we’re both collaborating to make the show something we can be really proud of.
AVC: Was one of the other projects you were developing the David O. Russell show for FX?
CB: Yeah, it was. And you know, with TV, you never know what’s going to happen. And I love, love, love that project. I love David O. Russell beyond measure, so I do hope we’re going to be able to do it at some point down the line. It’s not out of my sights at all.
AVC: There’s a sense moving forward from the pilot that Juliette is nipping at Rayna’s heels. Is that an anxiety that actors and musicians alike can relate to?
CB: It’s funny, I had a lot of conversations with Callie about that. My initial take after reading the pilot was not that that was really going to be the main thrust of what we were doing. My experience really isn’t that. I’ve been fortunate. As I’ve matured in this business, I’ve found it to be more rewarding. My take on all of that is that there’s really enough out there for everybody, and as actresses, we don’t need to be competitive as artists. That part of it, I think we’ll probably explore a little bit more. I’ve said to Callie, and to everyone who’s working on this, that I’m not really interested in this being a catfight between these two women, because that doesn’t ring true to me in my life experience. I don’t see that kind of interpersonal conflict going on. I think it’s more of a story about how the business has changed, and different styles within the framework of country music. I think Rayna and Juliette come from very different places in terms of their style and their performances and who they are. That’s where there may be a real disconnect between them.
AVC: It sounds like you’ve had a lot of in-depth conversations with Khouri about the direction of the show. As an actor, do you seek out projects with that level of collaboration, where you can be frank with the showrunner or the director about where the project is headed?
CB: I do. On Friday Night Lights, we had such a sense of freedom and collaboration with each other—with the crew, with the writers—and it really showed me how that kind of collaboration can make an all-around better show. It helps everyone do their job better. That was why I was really interested in developing a show. I love the creative process of coming up with a show from the very beginning and having a part in that. I think I can do better work when I have a really deep understanding of the creation and where it’s coming from. And I said that to Callie, and she was very open to that, and actually welcomed it. And she has continued to be a real partner in this with me, for which I’m really grateful. Because that’s not the norm, for sure. I do think you can do better work that way.
AVC: On the subject of Friday Night Lights, do you have any news you can share about the show’s potential spin-off movie?
CB: You know what? I actually have a script. But I haven’t read it yet. Your readers will be so disappointed to know that I’ve been so busy working on Nashville, I haven’t had time to read it yet. But there is a script. And where there’s a script, there’s a way. [Laughs.] I think there’s some serious movement forward on this. It’s just about finding a time when everyone can do it. Or at least time for everyone to read the script. [Laughs.]