A woman looking for role models could do worse than Connie Britton. At 46, she's the star of one of the hottest shows on television, comfortable with herself, excited about her career, and not quiet about any of it. As the legendary country-music star Rayna Jaymes on ABC's Nashville, she gets to show off the qualities that make her one of the most riveting personalities on prime time: steely determination, a sense of humor, and sex appeal. In the process, she plays a major role in bringing sophistication and snap to that old TV standby, the nighttime soap opera. Speaking from her home in Nashville, where she has relocated with her 2-year-old son during filming, Britton talks about the ideas that got her here.
"The most scary and the most risky things that I have taken on have been the most rewarding. And that sucks."
When Britton accepted the leading role on Nashville, she did so despite several major concerns. For one thing, Jaymes is supposed to be a multiple Grammy Award-winning artist, whereas Britton hadn't done any singing since performing regional theater in her twenties. What if her singing wasn't good enough to be believable? "It may have been the most anxiety-inducing thing that I have done to date in my life," she says.
Britton concluded long ago, though, that a lot of good stuff comes from fear. She worked with the show's executive music producer—the legendary T Bone Burnett—to get her vocal cords in shape for Jaymes's singing parts, and the result is a bright, occasionally throaty voice that, paired with Britton's willowy onstage strut, has the believability thing down pat.
When reviews came in, many critics called Nashville the best new network series of the season, singling out Britton as the best thing in it. As Variety's Brian Lowry wrote, "Britton is quite simply a TV star."
"I'm really just a big mouth."
Britton has never been shy about speaking up to writers when they try and push her characters in directions that feel "inauthentic." She did it as Tami Taylor, the coach's wife on NBC's Friday Night Lights, a role she once thought would relegate her to lots of supportive smiling from the stands. The show became a critical favorite, not least because Britton fought to make "Mrs. Coach" a principled character with something to say.
Challenging the writers on Nashville has had its risks. While the TV industry is changing, Britton says, there are still plenty of shows where "every and and every the" is scripted. But Britton wouldn't back down. Her job as an actor, she says, is to help the writers "deepen" their portrayal of her character. She explained her logic to one of her costars, Charles Esten (a former player on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, who plays Jaymes's bandleader and old flame, Deacon Claybourne), after he confided that his character had been scripted to say a line or two that wasn't quite right. "I said, 'Of course they want to hear that from you; you're here representing this character.'" Now, she says, "he's a regular. He's having long conversations with the writers."
"When people started writing about the show, and when the pilot came out, there was a lot of emphasis on young versus old. . . . I was like, Oh, no-no-no-no-no. I am in no way ready to be playing the old broad on TV. That's not happening."
In the Nashville pilot, Jaymes is at a low point in her career. She isn't able to fill auditoriums like she used to, and she's challenged by the much-younger country-crossover ingenue Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere. The fickleness of a youth-hungry celebrity culture is hardly news to any actress in Hollywood, and Britton understood that these early challenges were important to the plot. But she also thought it was important to push back against scenes that portrayed her character as insecure or unhappy about her age. For one thing, Britton doesn't share those insecurities. Also, she thinks it makes for dull television.
"In my experience, what's true as a woman is very different from some of the more cliched ways we've represented women over the years. I want to tell a more complex story. I want to tell a more empowered story, a more joyful story, a more sexy story."
Britton says her models for Jaymes's brand of toughness and charm include the scrappy Southern women she grew up with in Lynchburg, Virginia. "It's a more defined cultural role that the woman plays in the South; the boundaries are a little bit more rigid," Britton says. That tension, between strength and traditional femininity, is what makes for an interesting acting challenge. "I've seen women in the South use their beauty, their softness, in ways that make them incredibly strong. To me, that's fascinating and fun," she says.
More broadly, Britton has resisted efforts to make her character anything less than complicated. The way she sees it, an idealized Jaymes wouldn't work for the same reason that a deeply insecure one wouldn't. The character's sharp edges are part of the story, as are her soulfulness, her stubbornness, and the tangled emotional affair she carries on with her musical collaborator. Jaymes has been "buffeted around" by life, Britton says, but rather than becoming "a victim," she reacts with "wisdom and grace and self-awareness and, I think, to some degree, humility."
Standing up for this complexity—taking risks for the sake of her career and her characters—matters, Britton says, because television not only reflects but also shapes how we, her audience, see the world around us. "I have a great sense of responsibility about what my voice is in the world, and as a woman in the world. I don't take that lightly. There's an opportunity to create a new way of looking at women in the culture, and that's by example."
[Photo by Casey Rodgers; makeup: Lori Hamlin; hair: Creighton; styling: PJ Pascual (Jacket: Milly, Top: Cynthia Steffe, Jeans: J Brand); illustration by Justin Mezzell]