Carla Gugino and Connie Britton on Their 25-Year Friendship and Taking Career Risks
The stars of 'The Haunting of Hill House' and 'Dirty John,' respectively, look back at their evolution as actresses and reveal the fights they've taken on for their new shows.
Connie Britton and Carla Gugino have been best friends for 25 years. Still, their recent conversation with The Hollywood Reporter was the first time in a while that the two were able to carve out a catch-up session amid busy production schedules. "Getting 45 minutes on the phone together is the biggest luxury!" says Gugino, 47, whose Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House debuted Oct. 12 (she's now wrapping her next project, as star and executive producer of Cinemax drama Jett, written and directed by her longtime offscreen partner and creative collaborator, Sebastian Gutierrez). The 51-year-old Britton, a single mom of one young son, recently jumped back to her American Horror Story roots for a cameo and just completed production on Bravo's Dirty John. The adaptation of the popular podcast about a woman whose boyfriend pulls her into a web of lies premieres Nov. 25. (Britton is also filming the upcoming Fox News drama where she'll play Beth Ailes, the wife of the late chief Roger Ailes, on the big screen.)
The pals took a pause with THR to reflect on how their long-lasting friendship has influenced their careers, and how each other’s support has pushed their voices forward.
How did you two become friends?
CONNIE BRITTON We met on the set of Spin City.
CARLA GUGINO Out of many great things from that experience, by far the most special is that I met my best friend. It was such an interesting time. We were two girls in our 20s who were getting this opportunity to work with Michael J. Fox. But it was also an opportunity for us to actually make a living at what we do.
BRITTON I had done a recurring role on Ellen but other than that, Spin City was my first big job. Everyone on the cast was such an amazing comedic actor in their own right. And on top of that, we were able to find each other and discover New York together, as grown-ups.
GUGINO We were on our own, and with a half-hour show, the schedule is pretty doable. You're not working 16 hours every day. We found many cosmopolitans. (Laughs.)
BRITTON Yes! It was the time of the cosmopolitan.
GUGINO We bonded over just really liking each other, but also in this quest as young women coming into this business. We would have these philosophical conversations and the notion of empathy came up so much early on — the idea that as actors we would be in the position to bring people to life and give an audience a sense of people they might not experience in their own lives.
BRITTON Something that we were recently talking about is that environment with Michael J. Fox and Gary David Goldberg [on Spin City]. Do you remember how Gary used to talk about character laughs? His favorite kind of laugh wasn't the one with the written punchline, it was when the audience knew the character so well they would laugh because they loved their behavior. I realize now how much I value that perspective and being able to have been around that at a young age, at a moment where we were just starting out.
GUGINO Storytellers are so imperative — and, certainly, at this moment in time — for a number of reasons. The ability to tell stories about people, with the most personal being the most universal. And it empowers you. At a young age, you need to see somebody that is doing something that you hope you can do but aren't even sure what it looks like yet. It paves the path.
As your careers took you to different places, how did your friendship influence your professional choices? Were you ever up for the same role, did you consult each other on projects?
GUGINO Probably one of the reasons we became such good friends and that it has lasted this long is that I'm constantly inspired by Connie's work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything she's done where I’ve thought, “Had I played it, how would it be different?” The people that Connie brings to life onscreen are people that, Connie, you have made and owned so fully. One of your magic powers is the undoing of any kind of artifice or cliche that might be in the writing and elevating it to a level where it immediately socks you in the gut, even when you’re doing comedy. Seeing someone you know so well do something that really surprises you is empowering on a creative level. From the very beginning, we’ve been very big champions of each other.
BRITTON One of the things you've always said, Carla, that is so valuable is in response to people talking about actors not being able to be friends. You have always said there is enough for everyone. That we should never look at roles as if there's some finite amount and that we're all in competition. I can't even think offhand if we were ever up for the same role — which means either we weren't or, if we were, it didn't matter. What Carla can bring to a role is so complete that I can only see her in that role. It’s so gratifying to see in the victories and the ones that people really respond strongly to, like The Haunting of Hill House, but also for the ones that maybe don’t hit big. There have been the moments where career stuff feels frustrating and we didn’t get the job we wanted. I've always gone back to that with Carla. You have something that is so specific. If that’s not the thing they’re looking for in that particular job, then screw 'em.
GUGINO Sometimes you do some of your best work that nobody sees and sometimes you do something that’s incredibly successful, but might not represent what you were trying to do because the project as a whole didn’t turn out the way you wanted. It’s just the nature of the beast and of collaboration. As we get older and better and wiser, and are also in different places in our careers where we're able to be more involved in projects early on and actually get to the screen something we actually intended to do, we need each other along the way. Because in the moments where you do feel unseen or that the process is very difficult, you can come back to that person and stay true to what we’re here for.
Years after Spin City, you briefly shared another set when, Connie, you cast Carla in your last episode on Nashville [playing her mom in a hallucination]. How did that feel to now be an executive producer and have the power to cast your friend?
BRITTON That was one of the most important moments of friendship. Nashville had been a very ambitious project, and the ending was a very sad one and a tumultuous one. She jumped to do it. It was a very last-minute request and something we always wanted, to be working together. So for her to just make it happen the way she did, I will forever be so grateful.
GUGINO With Friday Night Lights, Connie took a character where there was a seed and it bloomed into the most amazing tree, and the whole topography of that show changed. And then she jumped into Nashville. Connie, you were deciding whether to do it because you had just adopted Yobi [a nickname for son Eyob] and sometimes people forget that we are asked to make decisions that might affect the next seven years of our lives. She brought this woman to life in the way that she wanted, under a lot of complicated circumstances. It was beautiful to watch her do that with grace and then to watch the world embrace that character. I felt like I lived through it with her. So for her to ask me to play [Rayna James' mother]? I grabbed a wig from my closet and flew in to shoot the scene. It was an auspicious way to close that chapter.
BRITTON Let's talk about Haunting of Hill House for a minute. You were involved in this role and in this project, really, from the beginning, so I feel like I got to walk with you through this one. And it was also not an easy process. It was unclear what this was going to be in the beginning. There was a lot that was really exciting, but then there were a lot of risks. You had a great relationship with [creator] Mike Flanagan and you never lost sight of what you were trying to bring to the project and what you were trying to accomplish. You're in a place now where you are really gaining ownership and empowerment of what you have to offer and bring to a role, and I can see that so clearly with Hill House.
GUGINO That's also one of the really interesting things in this moment in time — both in our lives at our ages and in the experiences we've had in this business — but also this time in history with women getting a proper seat at the table more and more. I feel like I have been a bit of a late bloomer in terms of really taking ownership. In terms of having a voice from an early stage and collaborating, I've always done it, but there was a part of me that was maybe wanting to be a little invisible while doing it. Then you find the people who do want to collaborate with you and who do see your value. Because I had worked with Mike, and because he was excited about what I was going to be able to bring to the table, I was able to be a part of creating some very key elements in the character [of Olivia Crain] before she was even fully written. That gave me more ownership of who I was playing that directly relates to how I was able to bring this woman to life.
BRITTON As women, it's very hard. This is one of the things I find to be a constant exploration and education as a woman: how to best use our voices to hold truth to our own values. We have to wade through our own concepts of who we are supposed to be as women, which sometimes gets in the way of our being able to articulate those things for ourselves. We have things that hold us back and, frankly, there are some environments that are really not welcoming. This is obviously a big conversation in the culture right now, but I’ve really worked hard at that. It’s a constant rediscovery of having to figure out how to get your message across in an environment that may be hostile to hearing it. That’s where the grace comes in. I see in Hill House that you were able to do that and, at the same time, it probably wasn’t easy even though you had a partner in Mike that was empowering you to be collaborative.
GUGINO You're right. People often hire someone and want their voice to be heard. Then, when things get difficult, it's the nature of human beings to look for what has been done before or, certainly in Hollywood, to fall in the mindset of, "How many people watched it? What do people want?" and start to look at it from the outside in. Our job as artists is always to look at it from the inside out. The only thing we can do is be tenacious and true about the story we're telling. In something like Dirty John, you’re also dealing with real people and a podcast that has laid the groundwork. One of the things I think is apt for this conversation is about this voice we are finding— and that I hope all women and artists are finding — that comes from integrity and not ego. If there isn’t someone who stands up for the integrity of the story, then the show or movie doesn't have a chance in hell of coming to the screen the way it was meant to be told. Sometimes there’s a group of people on the same page. And sometimes you’re the one who has to carry that banner.
Dirty John is a thriller and Hill House is horror. Those are two genres that historically haven't had the best representation of women. Is having a seat at those tables a sign of changing times — and is this a no-turning-back moment?
BRITTON One hundred percent of the reason I wanted to do Dirty John was because I found the character in the story to be an opportunity to do exactly what you're saying, which is to transcend that form as a woman. There was a lot of victim-blaming after the podcast, of people saying, "Well, she was just so stupid," and "Why did she let this happen?" I wanted to get into her psychology and show how she's just trying to be the best version of herself, as we all are as women. But she's doing that given the rules that she's grown up with and the confines of how she perceives herself culturally, in her church and her family. As women, we all have our own ideas of who we’re supposed to be. I wanted to explore that and try to show her as a relatable woman who is trying her best and who ends up in this situation, with the hope that other women will recognize that in themselves and maybe ask questions.
GUGINO We have these deep societal ideas and you don't realize how deep-seated they are until you come up against them — and you could look at the political climate as well. We have these judgments about how a woman is supposed to behave or not behave. "Was she asking for it?"
BRITTON I will say that, even with a really collaborative group of people, it was still an uphill climb. The genre and the ideas that a lot of people have about that world, you really have to go against it. I was really having to push in terms of exploring this woman from a place of real humanity and empowerment, as opposed to victimization.
GUGINO That again comes back to empathy. Because the genre is heightened with Hill House, it was very important to me that you're watching a woman who is losing her mind, or might be losing her mind, and what are the judgments about mental illness? This is a woman who is coming from a very clear perspective of wanting to protect her family and her children from the fate of the world, and I think we're in a moment in time where we are really afraid for our kids. We are afraid to send our kids to school. It was important to me that it wasn't just the trope of, "This is the crazy woman in the house." But rather, this is a mother-cub instinct taken to its nth degree. You could look at Hill House as a study on grief, loss, what is insane and not insane. People have been moved by Hill House, something that theoretically could just be a really scary show. To your point, Connie, about what you fought for in playing [Debra Newell in Dirty John], those are the things that will always resonate with an audience. It’s much more interesting to play and watch flawed characters, because we are all flawed.
Connie, you have said "never say never" to the possibility of playing a new role in season two of Dirty John , which is an anthology . Carla, would you do a second season of Hill House if there is one?
GUGINO Mike Flanagan said he would be interested in the notion of an anthology, where some actors come back to play different characters. I think he feels like he has told the complete story of the Crain family. But if I was invited and I was able to, I would really love to, just because I do love to collaborate with him.
BRITTON Carla and I have this in common, where we're always open to an exciting exploration if it feels like the right thing.
GUGINO For sure. And finding like-minded collaborators along the way. When you find one of those — and in the case of Mike Flanagan that is for sure the case — then I’m always excited about the idea. And [Connie and I] are also always looking for opportunities to work together, so hopefully we'll get to do that in the near future. Maybe this conversation that we're having now will spark that.
A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.