'Nashville's' Charles Esten Talks Deacon's Demons, Earning Praise From Locals

Charles Esten Hayden Panettiere Nashville - H 2012

Nashville's Deacon Clayborne has a past he can't let go of and a future he's clearly standing in the way of.

The singer-guitarist, played by Charles Esten, is balancing a deep personal conflict between helping the (married!) woman he loves in Ryana Jaymes (Connie Britton) and salvaging the country star's fading career and finances all while a brighter future is pushing him to let go of his past so his star can rise again with Juliette (Hayden Panettiere).

"Deacon has loved Rayna forever and she has a place for him but something happened and it started to get harder for both of them," Esten tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Then when they did that song together [at the Bluebird Cafe], that brought some things out that made it really hard. She knows right from wrong and what she should and shouldn't do and that started them on the road to have to break it off."

After fireworks erupted between Deacon and Rayna's husband Teddy (Eric Close), the singer began to march down the worst-case scenario -- firing her longtime bandleader, whom she clearly still has feelings for.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Esten to discuss Deacon's ties to Rayna, why the character often makes the worst decisions possible and how the ABC country music drama is being received in Nashville, where it is filming in locations including the Grand Ole Opry.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What kind of fallout will there be from Deacon and Teddy's issues? 
Charles Esten: For the first time, Deacon and Rayna don't have each other in the way they have had before. It won't stay that way forever, I'm sure. Deacon knows what Rayna's facing and what she has to do but he's angry now and he's been hurt a little too much recently. Deacon has enough pain, damage and demons -- even with Rayna -- and she's always helped him keep those in place and since he got clean, he's been able to keep that at bay. But without her, he's going to slip and go to a darker place than he's been at in a while. This episode is great because Deacon is two people: who you want to be and who you find out sometimes that you are. The best of Deacon can come out and is right there for who needs him -- he's loyal and cares -- then the worst of Deacon is that darkness and that self-destructive side.

How will Deacon begin setting boundaries with Rayna? 
That's always hard to do. I imagine he'll set some in his mind and put some forth but when he's around her, it's Rayna and she's got the deepest hold on his hard on his heart. (Laughs.)

Might we learn more of Deacon and Rayna's past together? 
I'm certain. They're just laying out the cards and peeling back the layers of what's gone on for them as individuals and as a couple. It's exciting to see what's buried in everybody's pasts. Everyone has things haunting them; it's country music, you have to write from some place of pain and everybody has some of that.

In the pilot, there's a definite vibe that one of Rayna's daughters might belong to Deacon. Anything you can tease there?
I was taken off-guard by that as everybody else. They're keeping us in the dark on that. That could be there and when you get the kids involved, that's going to be really difficult; Rayna and Deacon don't want them to get hurt and that's what Rayna is trying to do: navigate all this without causing more pain because she's received some from her parents. She doesn't want to pass that on because she has feelings that are eating her up for Deacon.

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How will Rayna respond to learning that Deacon is seeing Juliette? 
She can't say much, she's married! She always expects more out of Deacon and thinks so little of Juliette even though Deacon has gotten to know her. She has layers and Rayna hasn't even seen Juliette's heart yet and she has talents and gifts that right now seem very pop and bubble-gummy but she's got a deeper part that she's about to tap into in her writing and performing. Rayna doesn't understand it yet and it's a strange but interesting dynamic between Juliette and Deacon.

Deacon consistently makes the wrong choices with women. Why? |
There's the self-destructive part of it and then the heart wants what it wants. There's a line in the first episode that says, "There's only one thing that was ever going to make me happy and I lost that a long time ago." That's where he is; he's given up on the booze, pills and he's filling it with other things that are maybe not the best for him but Deacon has got to do something to get by (laughs).

How will his decisions impact his future?
The trick and wisdom is making those changes from the past so they don't lead you around. Right now, he's still under the influence of an awful lot and he hasn't processed and knows the language of healing but clearly hasn't done it all.

Rayna nixes a co-headlining tour with Juliette. How will Deacon play a role in getting them out on the road together? 
Deacon's role and impact with Rayna has been receded but he will be part of their lives but won't be pivotal in making them work it out. Whether they do or not, they're grown women and they'll find their way to or from each other.

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Is Deacon is a weak person or is he a stronger character than what we've seen so far?
There's something he's strong about -- if you need help, protection or something like that, he'll be there and be strong. But as Oscar Wilde says, "I can resist anything but temptation." That's a little bit Deacon. There are things that he should stay away from and doesn't and he has a weakness for things and certain people.

What's been his favorite song so far, or is it yet to come?
It's hard to chose but I confess I love the duets like "Undermine" with Hayden and "No One Will Ever Love You" with Connie because you're always acting as well but especially when you're singing across from somebody, we get to say so much more in the song than we do in the scenes. 

Has he seen reaction to the show in Nashville since it started airing?
More and more we're starting to see that. This is a friendly town anyway but the great part is we feel as though we've gotten the approval. People come up and say they were worried about how we were going to portray Nashville and they now seem to not only approve of it but are very excited by it all. They've always known they have a great city but now they get to see just how beautiful it is. A bunch of us went to the CMAs and that was an experience; when you see some of the actual artists and they enjoy the show as well. Kelly Clarkson tweeted she was a big fan of Nashville and someone said John Taylor from Duran Duran.

A lot of music business insiders say Nashville is the closest a show has come to what working in the industry is really like. What examples have you experienced when changes were made for authenticity? 
It happens constantly where they adjust things to what is rather than what we think it is. One of guys playing in Rayna's band was at a wardrobe fitting and they asked him to tuck in his shirt. He questioned it and then she asked if that was something he would do. He said no and wardrobe went with it. They wouldn't say, "I don't care what you would do." That's why it's also so great to have so many actual great musicians, songwriters and performers -- when ever we're doing music, we're surrounded by actua unbelievable performers. When I got to do my first song, Pam Tillis was in the writers' room and I freaked out. Not only do you have the real deal there but frequently I'll ask for and receive advice from them. If you can steal from the truth, do it! (Laughs.)

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What kind of direction do the actors get during musical segments?
The direction we get is from the scene they set and they set it so authentically and intimately and small that if you have any inclinations to get big and showy, you're already going to feel it yourself that that doesn't fit. What I found about Nashville coming in is it's about these small performances. It can be on a big stage but detailed, small, heartfelt, real performances from musicians and singers. So if you try to do something bloated or showy, the directors dial us in and let us know.

Is there a trick to lip-synching convincingly? 
(Laughs) No, you just know the song really well. If you know your song extremely well, like a song you hear on the radio, you sing along to it so well you don't even think about the fact that you're matching it up. The biggest trick is that it isn't hard when you love the song to get to know it.

What are you looking forward to seeing for Deacon? Are you Team Rayna or Team Juliette? Hit the comments with your thoughts. Nashville airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.