It’s a risk to hinge a show named “Nashville,” detailing the ins and outs of the record business in Music City, on an actress who has no professional singing experience. If the actress is Connie Britton, however, that’s a gamble worth taking.
Britton is a calm powerhouse onscreen, bringing strength and complexity to roles on “Friday Night Lights” and “American Horror Story,” both of which earned the Boston native Emmy nominations. On her new ABC series, Britton plays Rayna Jaymes, a country queen whose singing career has recently hit a speed bump. She’s presented with the option of co-headlining a tour with the genre’s hot new thing, a Taylor Swift-like pop tart (Hayden Panettiere), which sets up the show’s central rivalry. But here you’ll also find family drama that blurs into corrupt local politics, broken love stories and music — such good music! — from the offices on Music Row to the tiny stages at such storied venues as The Bluebird Cafe.
In anticipation of the “Nashville” premiere, we passed Britton the mic, and she sang the praises of her new series.
What made you say, “This is a role I have to play”?
Rayna is a really, really strong character. She’s a self-made character and she’s a survivor. It’s an interesting thing to watch where she finds her strength; she just pulls from whatever she knows to keep going. She supports her family and she has created this career not out of folly, but because she really needs it as a woman and as a person kind of moving away from her [father’s legacy] and creating her own path. Rayna has lived a life with her band members and she’s had a relationship with the head of her band and now she’s in this marriage. There’s a lot of back-story, and I don’t want to give it all away.
How much does the established artist versus young upstart conflict between Rayna and Juliette Barnes (Panettiere’s character) play into the overall plot?
I never saw the show in those terms, and I’m working hard to not have the show become about [a young versus old rivalry], because I certainly don’t feel old and I’m not interested in playing old. I don’t want it to be about one woman versus another woman. I think what our two characters represent is two people in very different phases of their life and different phases in the music business. Our show is called “Nashville,” and a big part of that is the music business. And so I think our two characters are a gateway into that story.
How will their relationship play out?
Knowing Rayna the way I do, I think that there’s going to be redemption for everybody involved. I’m always interested in that.
Do you intentionally look to play strong women?
I try to play such different characters, but there’s always one strong intent, and that is to play women in a way that portrays them as powerful and true and complex and comfortable in their own skin, even in the midst of crisis and chaos, whatever form that takes. In TV we have a lot of opportunity, we’re seeing a lot of really strong women characters on television. But I like to play a strong woman who is also accessible and vulnerable and has a lot of the same qualities as most women do. I think that people appreciate that and my hope is to keep doing that.
Giving voice to a music icon
Connie Britton’s singing experience before “Nashville” was much more of a personal hobby than anything professional. So to play the role of country superstar Rayna Jaymes, the actress began taking voice lessons and has teamed with the show’s music supervisor, superstar producer T-Bone Burnett.
“I call him the voice whisperer,” Britton says of Burnett, “because he has this amazing [ability] to bring out the voice in people that he works with.”
Britton calls the experience “an immersion” into country music.
“I’ll go and spend maybe three or four hours in his studio, and we’ll do everything from just listen to music and talk about music and talk about the music that Rayna would listen to. Then we decided to start a band, so we just sit down and he plays guitar and we sing.”
But don’t expect to see Britton and her new musician pals playing a packed concert venue near you anytime soon.
“There would have to be such an enormous level of growth in my self-confidence for that to happen,” she says, laughing. “Never say never — but almost never.”