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On ABC’s freshman drama, the former Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story star plays Rayna Jaymes, an aging country music superstar who’s asked to team with a young starlet in Juliette Barnes (Heroes‘ Hayden Panettiere) when her record fails to catch on as the new label owners had hoped.
For Britton, the role brings her full circle to her Virginia upbringing, where her mother was a music teacher and she grew up with a love of Southern rock before studying musical theater in drama school.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Britton to discuss what drew her to the project after going down the dark path of FX’s American Horror Story, how she prepared for the musically demanding part (lots of studio time with Grammy winner T-Bone Burnett) and what’s next — including that buzzed about Friday Night Lights feature.
What kind of musical preparations have you done for Nashville?
Connie Britton: It’s been really extensive, as opposed to American Horror Story where my prep consisted of which scream tone I needed to use. For Nashville, I’ve done a lot of work for the singing because I haven’t sung in a really long time. I started out taking voice lessons with this amazing voice coach, Valerie Morehouse. I started doing that really extensively and then started working with [Nashville music EP] T-Bone Burnett. I’d spend hours with him in the studio listening to music and talking about what music Rayna Jaymes might have grown up with and what might have inspired her. It really was a country music immersion but very tailor-made to this character. T-Bone is a master at creating very specific characters through music and really helping find their voice. From there, we started recording. The music is a lot of the reason why I took this job, but it’s also the most challenging part of it for me, which is why I wanted to do it.
What was your musical background like before Nashville?
I grew up in a pretty musical house. My mom was a music teacher when I was little and there was always a lot of music around. Then I did do music training when I was younger and I did musical theater in drama school. I had to let that go once I started doing film and television. At the same time, I also saw people who were coming up around me and had these amazing, extraordinary voices and I thought, “I’m going to let them go be the Broadway stars of tomorrow.” Music is something that I always loved and I thought as an actor, facing the next challenge, creating the next character, adding a musical component would be a really interesting way to go.
Were you a country music fan growing up? What did you listen to?
I grew up in Virginia and there was a lot of country music around. I always enjoyed it but that wasn’t the primary type of music that I listened to. I was more of a classic, Southern rock kind of a girl. Southern rock has country roots and elements to it, as does so much American music. Growing up it was Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’d say that was sort of considered Southern rock and roll. Even though that’s not really country but you can definitely hear country elements to that.
What are you listening to these days?
In the Americana world, since I’ve been down in Nashville, the Civil Wars, who are helping with a lot of the music on the show. Amy Cook is a friend of mine, too, who I’m helping to write with. It’s really exciting to be hooked into the music business right now because I’m getting to work or spend time with people who are doing some of the most interesting music out there: Amy Cook, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, these are all people who I admire, idolize and love their music. So to be able to be working on their music and spending time with them is really exciting.
You’re writing music right now?
I’m working on it. My friend Amy Cook is an amazing songwriter from Austin and we’re going to try to write something together. I’m toying with it right now, playing around with it and we’re trying to write something for the show.
How did you wind up connecting with Nashville? Who approached whom?
I actually asked [the producers]; they didn’t even ask if I could sing. If you talk to [EP] Callie Khouri,she will always insist that I was the only person that she wanted to play the part. I do have to say, as persistent as they were in talking to me about it at the time, I’m inclined to believe her even though a lot of times people tell you, “You’re the only person I ever wanted.” I asked the producers in our initial conversation and said, “So, would I be doing my own singing?” They were like, “Well, that’s up to you. Do you sing?” I said, “Well, yeah. I mean, I have sung; it’s been a long time, but it would be fun to try.” Honestly, as big a risk as that was for me, to try to get into that and create that aspect of the character, that’s also a big part of the appeal of it; it was that I wanted to be able to do that.
Seems like the next logical step after dying during childbirth on American Horror Story.
It’s funny. After Friday Night Lights I was faced with a very big conundrum because on a lot of levels that was such a great character to play. Where do you go from there? I was really fortunate when Ryan Murphy came along with American Horror Story because I thought that that would be such a great departure. I got to really flex different muscles as an actor and play things that I’ve never played before, such as dying in childbirth. I don’t need to ever necessarily do that again, but I’m really glad I got to do it as an actor. When this came along, I thought if I want to keep ratcheting it up, if I want to keep pushing myself as an actor, adding this musical component would be a really interesting way to do that.
Hayden’s a Grammy winner. What have you learned from her about being in the studio and this whole process?
We’re not really in the studio together. Hayden’s really funny, she has enormous stage fright. So even though she’s spent a lot of time in the studio, we both have different fears that we’re always trying to overcome when we walk into the studio and certainly walking out to perform something onstage. So we’ll talk a lot about that and coping mechanisms.
What’s it been like getting to film — and sing — at the Grand Ole Opry?
That was amazing. We shot the Grand Ole Opry stuff at the end of the pilot. The pilot is really a pretty long kind of arduous experience. When you shoot a pilot you’re trying to learn so much about what you’re doing and how the production is and learn so much about your character. So, the final days that we did were at the Grand Ole Opry. I remember it was like 5 a.m. on the first morning that we were there and getting into my costume that I wore in those scenes and literally having this feeling like, “This is why I did this job.” It was so cool to be there and so exciting to be there. We got to go there before we actually shot and rehearse in the space. Those are really exciting moments. It’s really wonderful for us to be in Nashville and have them roll out the red carpet in the way that they have.
Would you be open to returning to American Horror Story?
Oh, yeah! If we could ever schedule it, I would definitely love to. Ryan and I have talked about it; it’s a little tough shooting a series in Nashville and they’re shooting Horror Story right now. But if we could pull it off, I know we will try to do that.
Any update on the Friday Night Lights movie?
They keep going full speed ahead, I think the only thing is going to be getting people’s schedules together. That’s surprisingly the hardest part making that happen. I know that there’s a lot of forward motion with it.
Are you looking forward to seeing more of Britton singing on Nashville? Hit the comments with your thoughts. Nashville airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.
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