Connie Britton with Dylan McDermott in American Horror Story
Connie Britton and Aimee Teegarden in Friday Night Lights
Connie Britton and Charles Esten in Nashville
Saying yes — when it would be easier to say no — has served actress Connie Britton well.
The first big test came sixteen years ago, after she'd scored some early roles in series such as Ellen, Spin City and The West Wing. She landed a role in the 2004 feature Friday Night Lights, as the wife of the high school football coach at the heart of the story.
When its director, Peter Berg, developed the film as a series for NBC two years later, Britton was initially reluctant to accept the corresponding role of Tami Taylor, wife of Kyle Chandler's Eric Taylor. But Berg would not hear no. Finally Britton did accept, going on to earn accolades, including two Emmy nominations.
After that beloved series ran its course, Britton again pushed herself to yes, overcoming her fear of the horror genre to join Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story: Murder House, seen on FX. In so doing, she earned a third Emmy nomination for her performance as Vivien Harmon, the troubled wife and mother who moves with her family into a restored L.A. mansion, unaware of its violent past.
Britton's subsequent portrayal of country-music superstar Rayna Jaymes in ABC's Nashville earned her another Emmy nod. The actress' own singing can be heard in The Music of Nashville, the companion albums. And more recently, her pitch-perfect performance in HBO's The White Lotus brought her Emmy nomination number five, for her role as Nicole Mossbacher, the CFO of a search-engine company vacationing with her entitled family in Hawaii.
Massachusetts-born and Virginia-raised, Britton attended Dartmouth College, where she majored in Asian studies; she studied Mandarin and spent one summer in Beijing. In 2014, Britton joined the United Nations Development Programme as a goodwill ambassador and the following year visited Kenya and Rwanda in support of programs to empower women.
Britton was interviewed in March 2015 by Adrienne Faillace, producer for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be an actress?
A: No, I didn't. I went to a public high school in Lynchburg, Virginia, called E.C. Glass, and I had a great teacher there, Mr. Ackley. I started taking acting classes and doing plays. Around ninth or tenth grade is when I started dreaming — I thought, "If I could do anything I wanted, I would be an actor."
I ended up going to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. I did a play in the fall of my freshman year but didn't have a great experience, so I ditched acting for a while. I thought, "I'm in college now — it's time to focus on being a grownup." But by the end of my sophomore year, I really missed it. That's when I thought, "I really do want to try to pursue this."
Q: And you did pursue it. After graduation, you went to New York and studied with Sanford Meisner....
A: I did. I didn't major in drama at Dartmouth, even though I did a lot of great acting when I was there. I majored in Asian studies, with a focus in Chinese language. After that, I wanted to go to drama school. I auditioned for Juilliard, Yale Drama School and all these great places, but I didn't get in.
I did get into The Neighborhood Playhouse, and studying with Sanford Meisner was fascinating. The technique is very strong. I ended up rounding that out in later years with other acting teachers. But that basic technique of listening — the benchmark of the Sanford Meisner technique — is very useful.
Q: And soon after, you were cast as Molly in the Edward Burns film The Brothers McMullen.
A: I almost didn't go to that audition! I had been visiting my sister for the weekend. I had just gotten off the train and dragged my luggage to the audition. The guy who was casting it came chasing out after me and said, "You've got the part." That was Eddie Burns.
So we started working on the film, which he was funding himself. We were shooting at his parents' house. They would make us corned beef and cabbage — that was our catering. It took us almost a year to shoot, because we would just shoot whenever he had film stock and we could all get together. It was a beautiful time. We were doing it for the love of doing it. Nobody expected anything to come of it. And then the movie won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Q: What was your first big break in television?
A: Well, The Brothers McMullen got a lot of attention, and I was able to get my first agent from that, which was exciting. My first TV experience was on Ellen. I did three episodes. After that, I got cast in Spin City.
My four years on Spin City were a huge learning experience — my background had been theater, and I hadn't had a lot of experience on camera. The Brothers McMullen didn't really count, since half the time we were holding our own lighting equipment! On Spin City I had some of the best teachers in the world, certainly for that genre — Michael J. Fox, Barry Bostwick, Alan Ruck, everybody in that cast. I had a lot to learn, and it was a great place to do it.
Q: Jumping ahead a bit, in 2004 you were cast as Sharon Gaines in the film Friday Night Lights. Was there any talk of a TV show as the movie was being made?
A: No. I think the show came up two years later. I ran into Sarah Aubrey, Pete Berg's producing partner, and she said, "We're thinking about making a show out of Friday Night Lights, and we want to talk about you playing your part."
I resisted very strongly. I said no a number of times. I didn't want to play a coach's wife in a TV show.
Pete started putting on the pressure, and said, "Listen, this is our opportunity to give these women a voice. I didn't get to do that in the movie. I couldn't figure out how to do it, but those women are a very important part of the culture of this town." [The film and the series, both set in a small town in west Texas, were inspired by the 1990 nonfiction book by Buzz Bissinger of the same name.]
He was very convincing, so I went against all my better judgment and decided to do it. And it was a great experience.
Jason Katims came on as our showrunner. Pete empowered everybody with a sense of ownership of the show, our characters and how we were going to shoot it, which was incredibly unique.
Q: How so?
A: We were shooting with multiple cameras, and we did not have marks. We very rarely rehearsed. We didn't have a soundstage. Everything was shot on location. When we were shooting at the coach and Tami's house, we used a house that we had for five years — it was their house. We would go in and Kyle would start making bacon, for real, on the stove. We'd start cooking or doing whatever we had to do.
The script would be a strong guide to what the scene was going to be. Because of the great writing, we then had the freedom to take the words and let them come to life. Sometimes that meant being on script and sometimes that meant not being on script. They trusted us to improvise.
And I made a point of not knowing where the cameras were. The camera operators were empowered as well to tell the story. They would find a little moment — something that you did with your hand, for example — and then it would go into editing, and the amazing editors were always true to the storytelling. It was a beautifully collaborative experience.
Q: How would you describe Tami Taylor?
A: She was the coach's wife, of course, and when we started the show, she didn't have a job. It was Jason Katims's idea to give her a job at the high school. That created so many great stories over the next few years. We got to see her as a school counselor, so she was able to work with many of the student characters in the show. And she could butt heads with the coach, because there would be conflicts of interest among the students.
It started as a story of a football coach — and a town obsessed with football — and we ended up telling a very feminist story, one that feels very accessible. A story about a couple who is doing the best they can. I think that everyone did it in a beautiful way.
Q: Let's talk a little about the Taylors — Tami and Eric.
A: Right from the beginning, Kyle and I hit it off. We saw life in very similar ways and more importantly, saw relationships in very similar ways.
And we were adamant with the writers that this couple could never have affairs. We definitely got some pushback on that. TV writers like to write about affairs — they don't think it's interesting TV if you've just got a couple that's together. But thankfully, they supported us in that.
We got to tell a story of a couple who has their ups and downs — they had a difficult time sometimes. They had the complexity of most of the people I know who are in relationships. I think audiences really appreciated that.
Q: The show had a very famous catchphrase.
A: Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.
Q: What does that mean to you?
A: Thematically, it was the heartbeat of our show. More importantly, it really did impact our audience members. Our show didn't get great ratings, and we were working in this little bubble in Austin, Texas. Every year that we got to go back and do another season, we felt so fortunate. But gradually, we started to realize that people were being impacted in various ways.
I'll never forget the first person I met — I have subsequently met several people in this situation — who had cancer, and had the phrase tattooed to their arm, and had taken the words on to remain strong as they were fighting the cancer. That was really meaningful.
Q: Shifting gears a bit, in 2011 you played Vivien Harmon in the first season of American Horror Story. What attracted you to that role?
A: I had just finished working on Friday Night Lights and I was a little panicky, feeling such a strong love for that character and that show and thinking, "Now what am I going to do?" I wanted to do something that challenged me in a different way. And then up pops Ryan Murphy.
I remember hearing that he was doing American Horror Story and that I would only have to do one season. For most TV, you sign on for maybe six or seven years of your life. So I had breakfast with him, and he described the character. Now I have always been terrified of the horror genre. I am squeamish and ridiculous. So it was really hard for me to imagine doing that kind of show.
Ryan, much like Pete Berg, is incredibly persuasive, and I think the clincher was when he said something like, "You are going to be playing something that is completely different from what you've been doing for the last five years. There will be almost no similarities between these two characters."
On top of that, the whole idea scared the shit out of me, which was also something I was looking for. And I was very aware of what a visionary creator and director Ryan Murphy is.
Q: And in 2012 you began playing Rayna Jaymes on Nashville. How did that come about?
A: After American Horror Story, I had been interested in developing and had a couple of ideas that I was working on. Then my agents sent me the script for Nashville by Callie Khouri.
That it was written by Callie was the first thing that drew me to it — I had been a huge fan of Thelma & Louise [the 1991 film that she wrote]. I read the script and thought it seemed like such a fun world. And then I was hearing that [musician-producer] T Bone Burnett was going to be involved, because Callie and T Bone are married. I have been a huge fan of T Bone Burnett's for years. It started to feel like an exciting prospect, so I met Callie and R.J. Cutler, who were producing the show.
I hadn't sung since those regional theater days in New York when I was pounding the pavement. It felt challenging, scary and outside my comfort zone. The projects that I was developing were coming along, but they were stopping and starting. I realized I may never have the opportunity again in my career to do something where I'm playing a big music star and I'm singing and working with T Bone Burnett and Callie Khouri and R.J. Cutler.
Q: What were your initial thoughts about Rayna Jaymes?
A: When I first read the script and had conversations with Callie and when we shot the pilot, I never envisioned Rayna as this fading star. I never envisioned that until I saw the show being described in print. And I said, "What are you talking about?"
There's an easy trap to fall into, young versus old. To me, Rayna was an opportunity to play a woman in her forties who has to keep readjusting because the world is changing. She has an amazing amount of wisdom. She's made a lot of mistakes, but she's also learned a lot and she can use all those things as she moves forward in her life.
Q: What advice would you give an aspiring actor?
A: To really know yourself and know what you have to offer. That is sometimes the hardest thing to do. When you're trying to find a niche in this world, it can feel as though you need to do what everybody else tells you to do. That actually isn't going to help.
The way to set yourself apart, and the way to have a much happier life, is to learn what you have to offer — what your voice is, what your story is. Then take it out in the world. Eventually somebody is going to want that. It's a stronger way to go.
The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace
To see the entire interview, go to: TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #10, 2022