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Connie Britton on American Horror Story and Leaving Tami Taylor Behind

It's a little too soon to say for sure, but chances are good Connie Britton will always be best known for playing Friday Night Lights' beloved Tami Taylor (aliases include Mrs. Coach and the better half of the best married couple on television). But it won't be for lack of trying something different on Britton's part. Starting tonight, she co-stars in Ryan Murphy's new FX series, the gonzo American Horror Story, an over-the-top, gory, twisted, campy show about a woman, her husband (played by Dylan McDermott), their teenage daughter, and the supremely devious haunted house they have the misfortune of moving in to. Excuse the following spoiler, but to put it in perspective, in tonight's premiere, Britton's character has sex with a ghost in a latex suit. What would Tami say? ("Y'all" would be insufficient.) On the occasion of the show we spoke with Britton about that sex scene, the series in general, and moving on from FNL.

So your new show is remarkably crazy.
Oh, you have no idea.

What did you think when you read the script?
I had this amazing conversation with Ryan about it, and then I read the script and I was like, “Wait, what?” There was so much going on, and it was obviously so different from what I had been working on. I was like, “Okay, I’m not sure that I quite get it,” but I loved the idea of playing this character that, while technically on paper I’m playing a wife and mother just like I had just been doing on Friday Night Lights, was so the polar opposite of what I’ve been doing for the last five years. It felt really intriguing.

How did Ryan pitch the show to you?
He said, “I’m making this show. This is gonna be like nothing you've ever done before in your life, and you will get to play something that you’ve never played, and this is about betrayal, it’s about infidelity.” And, of course, this is me coming off of quote-unquote “the best marriage on TV,” so I was like, “Interesting! I haven’t done that in a while.” He was so specific about it, and so specific about it for me. He kind of had me at hello. And then I read the script and I was like, “Okay, so, wait, how does this work?” And we had more conversations about it, and, even when we were shooting the pilot, I was like “I don’t understand how this is going to work, or go together, or whatever.” But he directed the pilot and I really just put my trust in him. Even though, again, a lot of the days I had the feeling like, “Wow, I don’t know what I’m doing!” And then I saw the pilot, and I was like, “That’s amazing.”

Speaking of the pilot: What does one think when one is having sex with a man in a rubber suit?
I read the script on the plane, and when I read that part about the rubber man and I was like, "Oh, that’s gotta go.” I mean, this is television. There’s no way that they’re going to put that on TV. And I was having conversations with [FX president] John Landgraf at the time, and he was saying, “I’m sure there are going to be some changes, this is really just Ryan’s draft” and so I thought to myself, Oh yeah, never going to happen. Little did I know that the rubber man becomes such an important part of the whole thing. So certainly when it came to shooting that scene it was one of those things I kept dreading. And like so many things, when we actually shot it, it was so much quicker and easier and less painful than I ever could have anticipated.

Is it always the same person who’s in that rubber suit?
There is somebody. I didn’t know how that was going to work either and I was surprised to show up and there was, in fact, a guy who was hired to play Rubber Man, named Riley. But when we were shooting the [sex] scenes, it was actually Dylan in the suit. Which felt a little bit — because we were working together in that way already — it felt a little bit more comfortable. As comfortable as you can be in that kind of situation.

Do you like horror? Is that something that you enjoy watching?
No. But I like the pilot. I just thought it was beautifully wrought. There are parts of it I’m not in, obviously, that when I watch it it’s like, “Oh my God, this is horrible.” But I do think that it’s done with such an artistry that that’s what I really love about it. For me, it transcends your typical slasher movie.

In real life, how long would it take you to move out of that house? It would take me like four seconds.
I definitely had people after they saw the first episode be like, “Why didn’t you guys just move?” But our characters are coming from such real-life horror that we do come into it with this idea that we really are trying to rebuild something. So we’re really going in with hope. But by episode two, I’m just like, “I’m outta here,” and from then on, a lot of my story line really is about, “We have to get out of this house.” And then what’s interesting is the conflict that comes up: needing to get out of the house, and yet all the obstacles that start to emerge that get in the way of that. Um, not the least of which are presented by the house.

You had said earlier that you liked that this character seemed very different than Tami Taylor. But did you think about taking a break altogether?
I actually didn’t, because I love working, and I love working in TV. And I really wanted to see what I could do. I wanted to do something that was going to put some closure to Tami, in a way.

Did you feel like she was starting to be too big? In how people imagined what you could do?
No, not at all. Listen, I love that character. I could’ve played that character forever. And people love that character. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to play a character that has really impacted people. It’s really scary to try to figure out what you’re going do when you’ve done something that has made that kind of impact.

Do people call you Mrs. Coach on the street?
Sure, sure. Why wouldn’t they?

Both Tami and Vivien are mothers, and since they're both played by you have they have a similar, like, warmth. Did you think about the ways to make them different?
Yes and no. We wanted her to be somebody that was accessible, somebody who was strong and not victim-y. Which is something that’s always really important to me, no matter what I’m playing. When I thought it through, I thought what I’d like to do is find the specifics of who this character is, and where she comes from, which is very, very different from who Tami was, even though the husband and the teenage daughter part is the same. Literally everything else around it is completely different, starting from where she comes from. She’s much more urban, from Boston, played the cello in the past — which I’m hoping we’re going to get into a lot more, because I took a hell of a lot of cello lessons. I can just tell you as an actor, what I do every day on this show is completely different from what I did every day on Friday Night Lights. I mean, literally, in every way. And this was kind of a big learning curve for me, because I think in my head I thought stylistically I could go in and sort of do the same thing I did on Friday Night Lights, and it just doesn’t work, because we shoot in a completely different way.

What do you mean when you say "stylistically"?
It’s much more traditional. Our shooting style is much more traditional. This isn’t that FNL fly-on-the-wall sort of world. This is much more traditional cinema. It’s all completely different. This feels like a really fun thing to do to really step outside of what Friday Night Lights was for me. I’m getting to flex a lot of different muscles.

Initially I had heard that this was just a one-season commitment, that the show might go on, but you would be done after the first season.
That is actually how it was presented to me, frankly. Which is part of the reason why I felt like this was something that I could do. Whether that ends up happening or not, I don’t know, but I think that was the original intent. I’ve been developing a show with David O. Russell and we’d just sold that to FX, in fact, so when I met with Ryan, I wasn’t even sure that I could do this. But this is an FX show, too, so that’s good. I think Ryan's mind-set has been, “I don’t know! We don’t know! Let’s see!”

American Horror Story is likely to be a lot more controversial than Friday Night Lights. Are you ready for that?
My publicist yesterday was like, “I can’t remember: Do you want to read reviews? Or only good reviews?” And I laughed because on Friday Night Lights we never had to worry about it. I’ve definitely been spoiled for a long time, and this was, for sure, a lot riskier.

What was your answer to her question?
I’m just not gonna read anything. I don’t want it to become about that. For me, I think that this is something that’s either going to appeal to people or not appeal to people. And I just have to say for me, not being a horror fan, I like the artistry of it. I like the character aspect of it a lot. But if I were just a regular person, not in it, I don’t know how I would feel about that. I don’t know if I’d just be totally freaked out by it. For me, this is different from the kind of Friday the Thirteenths of the world. This is more The Shining or the Rosemary’s Baby of the world, which I’ve always been able to appreciate, even though I can only watch them with a big crowd of people around me and a blanket covering my eyes half the time. I feel like that’s what this is. But, listen, I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s gonna get brutal.

Photo: Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images