Just as Connie Britton was starting to stare down the big 4-0 nearly a decade ago, along came her career-changing role as Tami Taylor on TV's Friday Night Lights. On a show about football that isn't really about football, "Mrs. Coach" was no simple foil — she was a guiding light for nearly every major character at some point, and a complicated character herself. Since then, Britton has become one of TV's most-beloved leading ladies, from American Horror Story's first season to Nashville, which she stars in and co-executive-produces.
ABC's country-music soap has at times been "on the bubble," ratings-wise, but the show's fan base is a mighty one — counting among it the musical stars who've found themselves face-to-face with Britton's Rayna Jaymes (Luke Bryan, Christina Aguilera, to name just two). Season four feels like one of the first times that Rayna has caught a break, between the usual soapy antics (evil fathers, imprisoned exes, secret baby-daddies, terminal illness, and a business endeavor that has brought out the fighting side in her). "I'm always rooting for a woman who's really trying to do something that's really challenging and outside the box," Britton tells Vulture. "A lot of times in network TV they use the word aspirational, but I really feel like that's the kind of aspirational I'm into."
We recently caught up with Britton to discuss what's next for Rayna and for herself, how TV roles for women have improved in the last decade, and, because we couldn't help ourselves, her iconic hair.
Rayna is the only lead on Nashville who doesn't seem to have some sort of major demon she’s wrestling with. Is that something that comes out eventually in her, or is she untouchable — pure, even — in this sense?
That's a good question. I never like to play characters who don't have flaws and don't have things they're struggling with that you could certainly call demons. I feel like Rayna does have Deacons ... I mean, demons. Oh, interesting, I did a little Freudian slip there. [Laughs.] I feel like actually that was a very relevant slip because where we've seen her struggle has been in the realm of managing relationship and career. Rayna has definitely felt setbacks. What always ends up prevailing for her, which might make it look as if she doesn't have demons, is that she really is a self-made woman. If you're using the antithetical part of the Rayna-Juliet characters, Rayna is self-made and Juliet is, to some degree, self-destructive. There's an interesting comparison there, but it doesn't mean that they both don't have demons — it's just about how they manage that in their lives. Ultimately, whether it's self-made or self-destructive, they both end up being vindicated. That's a real story in show business, particularly in the music business; we see the artists who seem to have it all together come crashing down, and we see the artists who seem to be completely self-sabotaging later shine bright.
There are a lot of people who watch you in this role and can't help but see a little bit of Friday Night Lights’ Tami Taylor in there, too — specifically, the tough-love wisdom of a kindhearted southern matriarch you want to root for. After a pair of beloved roles in this vein, your own persona has started to become intertwined with that kind of character. With Rayna and Tami, do you feel like Connie is in there somewhere?
You know, I do. I've come to realize that I've gotten some really amazing opportunities to depict these kinds of characters. I find a lot of people talking now about this golden age of television for women, which really has happened in the span of my career. And yet, I think back — my inspirations were Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball and Marlo Thomas, all amazing women who were doing it back in the day, and that was amazing television, too. I’ve had a great opportunity to depict women who are striving to empower themselves, but in ways where they still maintain their femininity, their grace, and their vulnerability. I never get preachy about it, never get on a soapbox about it. But I do feel fortunate that I can create characters that maybe sometimes will impact somebody in a profound way.
To answer your question, in the case of Rayna, I certainly see aspects of myself in the character. There are also aspects of her that are not familiar to me. Any character I play, I always start with what's inherent in me. There are always elements of that because I feel like it gives more truth to the character, and then I can shadow it and shape it into whoever the character is. I can see the comparison between Rayna and Tami, but to me they are so completely different, like the experience of playing the two of them is just so utterly different, which is delightful.
When Nashville first came out, there was a New York Times Magazine profile on you that mentioned you had pushed back on the initial positioning of Rayna as the aging star, emphasis on the aging part. As it stands, she's clearly in a different part of her life than Juliet and the other 20-something characters, but there's not that gross subtext of youth envy within Rayna, which I think women appreciate since it’s so common among portrayals of females over 40. How big of battle was it to get those kinds of lines nixed?
I appreciate you bringing that up because now that you mention it, it kind of was a big battle in the beginning. I feel like that was such a simple way for them — whoever "them" are, the big "them" — to basically whittle down into one concept what the show was about: It was a very simplistic young-versus-old battle. I really, really took that on because that was never my intention with the character — to me, as a woman in my 40s, that's genuinely not my life experience. So I certainly have no intention of depicting that as the life experience of an artist in her 40s, particularly someone as successful and competent and self-made as Rayna. I feel we really have been able to move on from that now. The argument I was making early on is that, in my life experience, being in your 40s is so great because there's so much life experience and so much wisdom and so much complexity of life. We have a great opportunity on our show to demonstrate the difference in lifestyle and decision-making for people who have a little bit more life experience versus those who are still struggling to figure it out. There are a lot of joys in the struggle to figure it out, too -- I mean, my gosh, when I was in my 20s and 30s, that was such a fun, exciting time to take risks and make mistakes and not feel like you're going to fall over and die if you do.
Do you think TV roles for women — not just very young women, but women who have more life experience, too — have grown more nuanced in recent years?
I do, I really do. Of course, as soon as I said that, I immediately thought, Oh no, she's going to ask for an example, and I'm so bad because I watch so little TV now that I'm working and taking care of my son, so I'm so not as up on things anymore. But I do see who is out there, being able to do great work. It's really exciting and long overdue, the fact that television is including so many women and really becoming a very sought-after medium for everybody in this business. In a lot of ways, TV is providing much more interesting material than a lot of films right now. In spite of growing up with Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball, I feel like when I started out — and to a lot of degrees, this is still the case — there was the token woman and a lot of guys. That still exists, but I think that there really is a natural trend shifting away from that, and that television is leading the charge.
Is there any kind of character you’re dying to play, or maybe a specific collaborator you have your eye on?
I am dying to work with Paul Thomas Anderson. I keep thinking about that. It comes to me in random moments and I think to myself, I've got to get on this! I haven't worked with Paul Thomas Anderson yet, I've got to make this happen! Does anybody know — do my agents know? [Laughs.] Yeah, I really love him.
Well, step one, tell Vulture.
Yeah, exactly. By the way, when the news of Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story first came out, you guys suggested that I play Nicole Brown Simpson [the first season focuses on the O.J. Simpson trial]. It's because of that that I'm playing Faye Resnick [Nicole’s BFF]; a friend of mine saw your story and was like, "You've got to get on this," and so I reached out to Ryan and I said, "Are you doing this thing? I want to do something in it." That's how it happened.
Glad we could help! Speaking of portrayals of real-life people, a lot has been made of Rayna’s inspiration; Reba McEntire confronted you once about it, even. I know the character isn’t based on one star in particular, but personally, are there any country artists you especially pay attention to?
I have been really fortunate to meet a lot of really amazing country artists down here in Nashville. I've mentioned Bonnie Raitt before — she's just been one of my idols my whole life. I got to watch her play at the Ryman and then have her come visit the set, which was pretty dreamy. I love her. I've gotten to be really good friends with Sheryl Crow, who is just so inspiring on every level of her humanity and who she is as a woman. Kacey Musgraves, I've gotten to know a little bit, and she's coming at it from a different angle and a different life experience and doing such great stuff. Of course there's Faith Hill and so many other wonderful women whom I haven't gotten to know as well, but you can still really feel their presence here in Nashville. That part has been a really extraordinary experience, and sometimes I really pinch myself because I feel like, Wow, I could've never imagined that this would become my life.
When the show started, you hadn't sung since you did regional theater, so this was a thing where you were like, I have to nail this. Did any of these musicians, whether they've been on the show or you've just met them around town, share any musical advice with you? Not that you need it.
Well, first of all, I do need it. I take anything I can get. Mostly everyone has just been incredibly supportive: Sheryl in particular, and Kacey, oh, and Emmylou Harris — my gosh, who I've gotten to know, and she is just ... it just doesn't get any better than that. To have these wonderful, generous women be genuinely 100 percent supportive, not even remotely judgmental, is just heartbreakingly lovely to me. It helps give me confidence. It helps for me to feel brave enough to give it another shot every time.
To have that kind of support is very cool, because there could be tension between a show about Nashville and actual Nashville.
I know, and that was a big for me from the beginning, and for everybody on the show, too. It was very important that we were shooting in this town and doing a very honest representation of this world, even though obviously we dive into soap-opera land a little bit. There really are elements that feel very authentic, and the music is absolutely a product of Nashville. It was very important to us from the beginning that this not in any way ruffle feathers, but you never know. We definitely had a lot of people in the beginning say, "I can't watch this show because it's too close to home," which was probably a good thing, but there was never any sense that there was anything but support for the show from the country world.
Empire has felt a similar kind of embrace from hip-hop, what with all the musician guest-stars and original music. Have you watched it at all?
I actually did see it because I was curious about it and I became totally hooked. As I said to you earlier, I really don't have time to watch TV. So it was one of those things where every once in a while I could sit down and be like, Oh, I could watch TV right now. What do I watch? Where do I start? I don't even know! I had been hearing about Empire, so I watched a couple episodes and was like, Wow, that's a show I would watch. I thought it was so fun — all those actors are doing a great job, and the music is fantastic. I love what they're going for, and they're really going for it.
You get this all the time, but I have to ask because it's Peak Vulture: If Peter Berg called you and was like, "Okay, we're doing (another) Friday Night Lights movie, or a reunion season for Netflix," would you be onboard for that kind of thing?
[Sighs dreamily.] I would, I just would. Listen, I love that world. I love those characters. I love those actors. I so understand the argument that it's already done and we ended it perfectly. I get all that. Yet I feel like if Pete wanted to do it, that would mean that he had an idea that was good enough and worth doing. I don't believe that he does, which is why I think it's kind of another point. But if that was the case and he had an idea and it was worth doing, I would be onboard 100 percent.
Last question. Would you ever consider insuring your hair?
Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? Of course I wouldn't! [Laughs.]
I mean, J.Lo supposedly has her butt insured. Your hair is pretty iconic ...
Does she really? That has to be an urban myth. Anyway, to me, it's so funny that my hair has sort of taken on this life of its own; to me, it doesn't have any of that. I don't have the attachment to it that others do. So the minute that I get my hair insured, somebody just put me in a straitjacket because I will have officially lost it.