It's 2020, and Jamie Lynn Spears is ready to step back into the spotlight.
"I had been in denial, not really admitting to myself how much I missed acting," Spears tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I was working on my music for a while, and then I focused on my family for a bit. With acting, I was just waiting for a project that made sense."
The former child star is making her long-awaited return to television in Netflix's new drama Sweet Magnolias, adapted from author Sherryl Woods' popular collection of romance novels set in the fictional town of Serenity, South Carolina. Spears, 29, finally found the right role in Noreen Fitzgibbons, a young nurse whose affair with Dr. Bill Townsend (played by Chris Klein) and subsequent pregnancy make her an easy target for pervasive gossip.
Spears can relate. Her award-winning Nickelodeon show Zoey 101 — on which she played the lead role of Zoey Brooks — ended after a four-season run in 2008, the same year she welcomed daughter Maddie, now 11, with ex Casey Aldridge following a highly publicized teen pregnancy. Attempting to curtail media attention, Spears escaped Los Angeles for the comforting embrace of her beloved hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana. But no matter where she lived, she was subjected to tabloid scrutiny.
"It didn't even feel like acting," says Spears, whose personal experience helped fuel her performance as Noreen in Sweet Magnolias. "Although it was nerve-racking to get back in front of the camera, this felt very natural for me. I remember being 16 years old, being pregnant in a small town. And then on top of it, the whole world was watching. Don't get me wrong, I didn't view myself as a victim. And with Noreen, it was important to not play the victim either. She put herself in a compromising situation. She's a young girl who made some adult decisions, and she's trying to take some responsibility for that. That was me, too."
According to director Norman Buckley and showrunner Sheryl J. Anderson, Spears' empathetic approach to playing "the other woman" is what made her the apparent pick for Noreen. "There is a sincerity and a lack of guile that Jamie Lynn brings to the role that is very moving to me," Buckley tells THR. "She made Noreen a fully embodied human being who is doing the best she can in an awkward situation. She ended up being one of my favorite characters in the series."
Adds Anderson, "From the beginning, Jamie Lynn had a great take on the character. I immediately saw an incredible vulnerability in her, and I was drawn to her as an actress. The extra layer that she brought in from her own life didn't even hit me until later."
These days, Spears is happily married to Jamie Watson, with whom she has daughter Ivey, 2. With her family of four living in Louisiana and her country music career ongoing, the multi-hyphenate now wants to break back into Hollywood. Below, Spears talks more with THR about Sweet Magnolias, the latest plans for a Zoey 101 reboot and taking a page out of big sister Britney's book.
What was it about Noreen that made you want to play her?
On the surface, she's "the other woman." And I could have played that stereotype easily, just being the young nurse who sleeps with the doctor. But I really knew she had a story to her, and that was important for me, especially coming from a background where I've been misunderstood a lot. For years, people have assumed they know who I am just by reading a headline. With Noreen, I wanted to show that the worst-case scenario is sometimes not what you would think it is at all. My main goal was to bring her to life in a way that was more layered than just "the other woman." I wanted to show her heart.
Noreen is judged because of the circumstances of her pregnancy. You also dealt with judgment — and a great deal of public scrutiny — during your first pregnancy as a teen. How did your personal experience inform the way you approached that part of Noreen's story?
Noreen is trying to deal with it as gracefully as she can, but she's also trying to maintain some positivity. She's still hopeful for a happy ending. And in my own situation, I was as well. But at the end of the day, you have to stand up for what's best for you and your baby. I think that’s what people didn't understand about me and my first pregnancy. Every decision I made came from a place of wanting to do right by Maddie and being the best mom that I could be. For this part, I really just drew from the experience of being a young girl who was trying to do what was best for her and her child. I was under a microscope, and in Noreen's case, she has the whole town of Serenity watching her. So there are definitely parallels there.
You were a teenager the last time you were on a set. How did it feel to return to acting after taking so much time off?
To get this opportunity was amazing to me: to have people take a chance on me, to give me freedom with this role. To be honest, I was very, very nervous. But I was so excited to be working again, and that outweighed the fear completely.
Why was now the right time for you to come back as an actress?
I fell in love with the part. It's that simple. I didn't want to do something just to do it. I didn't want to come back and do something that I didn't connect to, because I knew that would read on camera, and then that might blow my chances of ever getting another job.
I'm sure you've had a lot of offers over the years. Were there any roles you passed on during your hiatus?
Honestly, no, there were not that many offers. I've kind of been behind the scenes. I was in Nashville writing music for a while, for other artists and for myself. So I think people maybe just didn't know if acting was the direction I was going in anymore. I didn't have an acting agent or anyone working on that end for me. So there might have been possible opportunities that I didn't even know about. There have been little things here and there, but nothing that stands out like something I definitely should have done. When I was younger, there were roles that I read for that maybe passed me by. But there's nothing since I've had my children that I've passed on that I regret or that I remember being some huge deal.
In many ways, for you, Sweet Magnolias seems to be kismet. Of course, you personally relate to Noreen. But it also takes place in the South, where you're from; the town is called Serenity, which is the name of the Spears family compound in Louisiana; the main character is named Maddie, like your daughter…
There were so many little nods from the universe telling me that this is what I was supposed to be doing. Number one, Serenity being the name of the town. That's a big part of my life, that word in general. Also, we shot in this small town [Covington, Georgia] that happened to be where my first music producer's wife is from. Her mother came in and watched Ivey for me one night while I was on set. It was just so bizarre, but in a cool way. Everything literally was just meant to be.
How did you prep for this project? Has that whole process changed since you were a kid?
Before production started, I flew in maybe a week or two ahead of time. I was able to sit down with Norman and Sheryl, read through the scripts with them and just make sure I was giving them what they felt they wanted from the character. That time with them was so crucial for me, because I love the validation of them saying, "Yes, that's great" or "We love what you did there." That gave me more confidence, which I needed at times. It's important to collaborate with everyone working on the show. As a young actress, I was focused more on remembering my lines and doing my part right — maybe forgetting the overall story and that everyone is working together. I was so thankful that Norman and Sheryl gave me that time with them to prep for Sweet Magnolias. It made a big difference.
How has your approach to navigating the industry changed since your days as a child star?
Not much has changed in that regard. The one thing that has remained the same is that, even when I was younger, my mom [Lynne Spears] did a really good job of making sure that I had balance in my life. I would go and shoot Zoey 101 and then I would come home to Louisiana and I would go to regular school for part of the year. That was always really important to me, and it really helped me stay sane and balanced. And I continue to keep that balance in my life now. I go, I do my work, and then when I get a break, I come back home so I can re-center. The difference now is that I have children. When I'm planning to take a job, I'm always trying to do 100 percent what makes the most sense for my family.
It seems like your original experience in Hollywood made you a stronger person, in contrast to the many child stars who lose their way due to the pressure that comes with being in the spotlight at such a young age.
I had to fight really hard for balance. If you want to do something other than take the next job right away, the industry will look at you and say, "She doesn't want it enough. She's not willing to work, but this girl is." You get compared, and then this guilt trip is thrown on you when you're just fighting for something as normal as going to school where you grew up. In Hollywood, sometimes normalcy seems like a no-no. I felt a lot of guilt for turning things down because I wanted to go to school or, later, wanted to take time off to be a mom. The pressure to constantly work is really unfair, especially for young kids in Hollywood. They shouldn't feel guilty for wanting to be kids. Even as adults, we shouldn't feel guilty for wanting to have more for our lives than just our careers. Don't get me wrong: I am in a position now where I really want to focus on my career, I want to work hard, and I want to put myself out there again. But I do think that it should be OK to say no to some things, especially if it's for matters of your heart. I don't take for granted that I get to do something that I love, but I also don't let it compromise how I raise my children or the life that I want to give them.
You also had a great vantage point with Britney as your big sister. Because of her, you knew exactly what fame and hard work looked like. How do you think having that example worked to your benefit when you were first starting out?
Having Britney as an example was crucial for me. Not only did my sister build me up, but she made me feel like I was the star when she was clearly the star. (Laughs) Britney was always really open and honest with me about the good and the bad that comes with this industry. And that's what gave me the confidence to say no sometimes. If I hadn't had someone like Britney to warn me, I probably wouldn't have had that confidence to say, "No, I've seen this. I know where this goes." I was so lucky, because I had someone who's walked the road, and she's walked it so successfully. So having her tell me, "You can say no here. This is something I didn't want to do, I did it and now I regret it" — or whatever it was — that has been my secret weapon. She walked through the fire and then shared all the secrets with me. Without Britney, I probably would've made a lot of different decisions. I probably wouldn't have valued my personal time, wanting to just be a kid, and I might have said yes to projects I didn't actually want to do.
Of all the advice Britney has given you throughout the years, what resonates with you the most at 29?
There is so much that she has told me. She's given me some funny pieces of advice, and she's told me things that are really serious. Honestly, the most important thing I've learned from Britney is that you've got to prioritize your family and the people who really know you. You've got to keep those people around. Those are the people who are going to bring you back to what's important. Keeping your roots really strong in where you're from — whether that's New York City or Serenity, South Carolina — you've got to surround yourself with the people who love you. Have a little bit of home with you at all times. That's how you stay grounded.
And what advice would you give to your younger self?
Overall, the best advice that I could give myself — and could give anyone, for that matter — is to listen to your mom. There were so many times where I should've just listened to my momma growing up. That's who's going to save you when you make a mistake — or save you from making one in the first place. Me and my sister, we both would have saved ourselves a world of trouble and a world of pain if we had been more open and honest with our mom, and then listened to her. Looking back, I realize that she was right nine out of ten times.
You were only 13 when Zoey 101 premiered in 2005. There's been a lot of discussion about a reboot. I know it's something you and the cast definitely want. What kinds of conversations are happening behind the scenes?
Everything and anything is on the table, whether that's a movie or a series. In all of the discussions I've had with Nickelodeon — which are in baby stages, by the way — the main thing is figuring out the right home for the reboot. We couldn't do it justice by putting it back on Nickelodeon, because our fanbase has grown into young adults like me, 29 or around the same age. We want to tell stories about where the characters are now. We want to connect with the fans and touch on topics that are impacting millennials, so it would have to be aged up and be more mature.
It’s interesting that you say that, because Disney+'s Lizzie McGuire reboot previously halted production due to creative differences between the streamer and series star Hilary Duff. Hilary said she would be doing Lizzie's audience a "disservice … by limiting the realities of a 30-year-old's journey to live under the ceiling of a PG rating."
Exactly. Hilary and I literally grew up playing these characters. I couldn't play Zoey today without some type of connection to who I am now. She grew up, and so did I. You need that freedom to explore where the character would be. I'm sure Hilary had the same kind of thoughts that I have. When I saw those reports about the Lizzie McGuire reboot, that was validation for where my mind was at. We're definitely doing the right thing by taking our time and not taking the quick route.
In your mind, what is Zoey up to these days? What part of her story would you like to explore in a reboot?
We know she's in charge of something. She's a boss of some type. On Nick, Zoey was the problem solver and the good-at-everything girl. But we need to add some depth to her. She and Chase [Sean Flynn] would definitely have some type of tangled love story. I don't think they would have just left PCA and gotten married. Maybe Zoey would be working in fashion in some capacity. When the cast had a mini reunion on All That last year, Erin [Sanders] and Matthew [Underwood] had some really funny storylines for their characters. Erin said that [her character] Quinn would be running to be the first woman president. I could totally see that, because she's a scientist and is so smart. And then Logan [Underwood] would probably be bankrolling her with Daddy's money. I really can't wait to get the ball rolling — once quarantine is over, of course.
Now that you mention quarantine, how are you holding up?
For me, it's important to remember that we are only being asked to stay home. Our nurses, doctors and essential workers on the front lines are the ones who are really suffering throughout the COVID-19 crisis. My kids drive me crazy and homeschooling is probably the worst thing in the entire world, but I have to remind myself that I'm so lucky. My parents and siblings are healthy. My kids are healthy. My husband is healthy. Because of that, I've been trying to help those in need, doing things like the #DoYourPart challenge. Also, with this recent downtime, I've been able to write and get back into music a little bit.
Your released your debut EP, The Journey, in 2014 and then dropped your last single, "Sleepover," in 2016. What's next on the music front for you?
Obviously, music is something that will always be part of me. I love writing music, whether it's for me or for other people. When I released my EP, I was an independent artist. I did all the festivals, I did a radio tour, and I did everything I could to promote it. It's very hard to compete as an independent artist. Going out on the road, it's time consuming. I have a young baby right now, so it's not really ideal for me. While I was pregnant with Ivey, I did shoot some sort of visual album, but it's not ready to be released. With new music, I live a little bit of life and then I have so many stories to tell. Whether it's on a big scale or a small scale, music is something that's a part of me. It's something that I love to do, and hopefully, I'll get to share some new stuff very soon.
Speaking of music, Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of Britney's second studio album, Oops!...I Did It Again. It was such a monumental album that, for 15 years, it held the record for highest first-week sales for a female artist. To date, it's sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. How would you describe that era in Britney's career and the mark it left on pop music?
I look back at that time as the best time of my life. All of the highlights run through my head like a movie montage. Before Oops! came out, I was like, "My sister sings, that's so cool." But after that album was released, that's when it really clicked for me that she was on her way to becoming an icon. With Oops!, Britney really came into her own, who she was as a young woman, and she was getting to share that with the world. At that time, it's funny thinking about the things people would push back on: certain outfits she would wear or the way she would dance. Now, those things would be completely G-rated. I remember thinking to myself that not only is my sister a superstar, but she's changing things. She's really the best of the best. She made me believe that anything was possible. At the same time, though, I can't believe it took nearly 18 years for the rest of the world to figure it out that my sister was this huge talent. Oops! is when Britney's fame went from household name to absolute superstardom, in my opinion as a young girl observing it all. That's when things around me started to change. She had to have security everywhere, hotels were a little nicer, and we got to fly in the nice part of the plane. I remember thinking, even at 9 years old, "This can't be our reality."
Do you have a favorite song from Oops!...I Did It Again?
Every single song is so good, but I love "Lucky." That's one of my favorite songs of Britney's ever, and I love the video for it. And I'll never forget when Britney performed it on her Dream Within a Dream Tour, when she came out of this music box and then sang "Lucky" in a little sailor's outfit. It was my favorite part of the show, and that song is still so special to me all these years later.
What do you make of your sister's enduring legacy?
I tell her all the time, "You are a living legend. You are such a badass!"
And does she get that? Does she see herself as a living legend?
No, not at all. She just doesn’t. She waves me off and is just like, "Whatever, whatever, whatever." But I still try to explain that to her. People always ask me, "Is there a lot of pressure being related to Britney, someone who is an icon?" And the answer is no, not really. If anything, it's an honor to be the sibling of someone who worked very hard and created a dream and a legacy that will last forever. I'm so proud of Britney for everything that she's been able to accomplish and the impact she's had, not just on pop music but the industry as a whole. And the best part about being a living legend is that it's not finished. There's always more to come.
Glory, Britney's last studio album, came out in 2016. Her fans recently launched a #JusticeForGlory campaign on social media and, through sales and streams, got it to No. 1 on iTunes' Pop Albums chart. Does she have plans for more music in the near future?
I don't really think so. I mean, right now, she's quarantining in L.A. But, in general, she's kind of just relaxing. And I think that's good. Britney deserves that. She's worked her ass off. So if she wants to make another album, great. But if she doesn't feel like it, she doesn't have to. She's given the world a lot. I don't think there are plans for anything — at the moment.
So, she's not retiring?
No, no, no. Obviously, right now, she's just trying to quarantine. She's taking it day by day. And when she wants to make music, she'll make it. I don’t' think you can ever retire someone from their passion.
In 2013, you released "Chillin' With You" with Britney, a duet from her eighth studio album, Britney Jean. Would you ever consider another musical collaboration with your sister?
That was such a fun time, being able to record that together as sisters. But I don't know. It looks like we're going to be in quarantine forever. (Laughs) So I don't know how or when we'd do a follow-up. But, in the future, I'm down for anything with Britney. In the meantime, though, I'm really focused on acting.
What are your hopes as you enter this new phase of your career?
If Sweet Magnolias got a season two, that would be a dream job. The cast, the crew and the whole situation was just so ideal for me. But other than that, I'm really open to anything. I'd love to dive deep into more characters and see how far I can push myself as an actress. From here on out, I am looking for more juicy roles. I'm really looking forward to finding out who I am as an actress — as an adult. I'm reading everything I can. I just want to get my foot in the door again, because I'm so passionate about exploring all that I can right now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.