Connie Britton Does Not Want You to Be Cynical

Connie Britton is dripping wet and thinks it’s hilarious. “The rain had cleared up when I left my house. Apparently it hasn’t!” she laughs as giant drops cascade from her oversized blue baseball cap and lightweight sweater, which is adorned with cheery multicolored butterflies. Britton has taken a break from work on Fox’s just-renewed Ryan Murphy–produced drama 9-1-1 to chat over lunch at Café Gratitude in L.A.’s quaint Larchmont neighborhood, and it doesn’t take long to see how easily the hippie-dippie vegan joint melds with her state of mind as she reflects on her most eclectic year yet as an actor. In between bites of (cashew) cream of broccoli soup, the Maryland-and-Virginia-raised Britton, 50, offers a frank and often self-deprecating appraisal of her steady rise to fame, the “paralyzing” career moments that led to her biggest risks (hello, American Horror Story’s Rubber Man!), what she’d want out of an onscreen reunion with her Friday Night Lights co-star Kyle Chandler, and why now is most definitely not a time for cynicism in America.

It’s been a year since the Sundance premiere of Beatriz at Dinner, a movie I think kicked off the most interesting 12 months of your acting career, during which you were also cast in Showtime’s SMILF and Fox’s 9-1-1. Does it feel that way to you too?
It’s funny, you never know how or if something’s going to hit. Beatriz has been a slow burn; people are still finding the movie. It’s actually similar to the first few years of Friday Night Lights. As for 9-1-1, what I’m doing definitely feels difficult, which is essentially acting opposite computer screens. [Laughs.] I’ve had moments where I think, This is not my strong suit or comfort zone. At the same time, boy is there a great challenge in bringing depth and life to the job of a 911 dispatcher.

I also see a lot of parallels between your Beatriz and SMILF characters. Both are wealthy housewives who could easily have been caricatures, but in your hands become empathetic and funny. SMILF creator Frankie Shaw told me that she cast you because she loved Friday Night Lights, but didn’t know you’d be, in her words, “a brilliant comic.”
People have always asked, “Do you prefer comedy or drama?” And my answer is, “Both, at the same time.” At this point in my life, I’ve lost my parents, and at each of their funerals, I experienced the most laughter of my life alongside the most sadness. Humor is such a salve. So I love hearing that about my Beatriz and SMILF characters because that’s exactly what I hoped. I never wanted to judge them. I also thank my lucky stars for [Beatriz director] Miguel Arteta. We had this brilliantly funny script by Mike White and we wanted to run with the comedy, but Miguel insisted we keep it grounded. In the moment I thought, “That’s no fun!” But when I saw the film, I was so grateful. Had we reduced those characters to clichés, the film wouldn’t have worked. And the same with SMILF. It’s been a joy working with Frankie. She and her writers — and the female directors she hires — have facilitated a lot of unexpected comedy. She has such a clear voice. It’s the same reason I love working with Ryan Murphy: total authenticity.

9-1-1 marks your third partnership with Ryan, which started with season one of American Horror Story and then your turn as Faye Resnick in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. I’ve always wanted to know: How worried were you about going from Everywoman Tami Taylor to having sex with Rubber Man?
[Laughs] That was definitely the time in my career when I felt the most paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do after Tami Taylor; I’d been so spoiled on that show in terms of realizing exactly what I wanted as an actor. And that was all because of [series creator] Peter Berg. Although, saying yes to Friday Night Lights felt like a huge mistake, like I had some kind of death wish. I put my trust in Peter, but … he was making a show about football. [Laughs.]

Peter had expressed remorse that your role in the Friday Night Lights movie had been so thin and he vowed to make this up to you in the series. Did that help assuage your fears?
Yes, I knew he had good intentions, but I also knew how TV worked! Thankfully he hired [showrunner] Jason Katims, who felt it was very important to give the female characters strong voices. That’s why, despite the joy now of working on such a woman-centered show like SMILF, I never want to take away from the great men I’ve worked with. Peter Berg, God bless him, is a boy and with a capital B. He and others like Eddie Burns and Ryan Murphy are men willing to look in the face of their own constraints. They are committed to looking outside themselves and seeing the impact that women have. It’s important, particularly where we are now in our business, to acknowledge that. With all of the work being done in this movement, it has to also be a men’s movement. We can only be empowered when men are empowered to see us as equals.

And despite cynicism about celebrity, Hollywood can be a powerful platform for those who don’t have one.
Yes. This is not a moment to be cynical! Yes, there’s a lot to feel that way about in our country right now. But I think after what we saw at the Globes, this is not a time to be cynical. I’ll get back to the Globes in a bit! But about doing Horror Story after Friday Night Lights, what Ryan told me was: “Look, this is an opportunity to do the exact opposite of what you’ve been doing for five years.” I needed to shake things up, but also worried, My God, what are people going to think when they see Tami Taylor having sex with a man in a rubber suit?[Laughs.]

Were your agents worried too?
Not at all. I was the only one freaking out. [Laughs.] Really, the entire time we were shooting the pilot, I was convinced I’d made another horrible mistake.

Did your co-star Dylan McDermott have the same fears?
Oh no, Dylan was in heaven.

Well, sure, he didn’t have to have sex with Rubber Man.
[Laughs] Right, but after a while I made him put on the rubber suit. I’m like, “If I have to do this, it’s going to be you wearing that thing.” Of course he loved it: “Great! I get to go again?”

You mentioned Ed Burns earlier. It’s been 23 years since you broke out in his indie The Brothers McMullen. That production was famously low budget and ragtag. Did you know him before you were cast?
No, I just was a struggling actor with no agent, teaching aerobics all over New York. Eddie had put an ad in Backstage magazine. I remember I walked to the audition from Penn Station with my little suitcase after visiting my sister in D.C. When I was done, they chased me out the door and cast me on the spot. I was like, “This movie must really be a piece of garbage.” [Laughs.] Then we shot it, which took eight months because we could only shoot when we had film stock. And I’ll never forget when Eddie told me he’d given the rough cut to Robert Redford. I was horrified that Robert Redford was going see me. Eddie was still a PA on Entertainment Tonight at the time, and he and Robert were in an elevator together. He handed him the tape. “Mr. Redford, I’m an independent filmmaker. Would you please take a look at my movie?” And that’s how we got into Sundance.

After it premiered in Park City, were you suddenly in demand?
My life completely changed. I moved to L.A. and had agents knocking down my door.

So you had not opened that issue of Backstage
I know — it was the quintessential big break.

Were you plugged immediately into network pilot season or did you focus more on film?
I did everything and met with everyone. [Producer] Jim Brooks had seen Brothers McMullen and loved it and called me into his office. Also, around that time, I picked up Eddie at the airport — he was coming to L.A. to do a talk show —and he told me, “People are offering me all these movies, and there’s this one really cool film, but I only want to do my own stuff. I think you’d be great in it.” So I read the script and the next day walked into my brand-new agent’s office and said, “I have two words for you: Jerry Maguire.” So he called Jim Brooks, who was attached to produce, and I auditioned for him and [writer/director] Cameron Crowe. Cameron was like, “You just showed us how this role needs to be played.” That began a six-month odyssey, during which they cast Tom Cruise and flew me to New York to read with him. Then there was talk about them casting a bigger name. Then more time passed and they said, “Okay, there’s now just one girl you’re going screen test against: Renée Zellweger.” Needless to say, it was one of the great heartbreaks of my life.

But Renée wasn’t a star then, either. Why do you think they chose her?
I was so green and my background was mostly in theater. The only thing I’d done in front of a camera, besides an infomercial and one commercial, was Brothers McMullen. I’d also been super nervous. And it was a Tom Cruise movie. I can only imagine that my screen test was probably not great. [Laughs.]

You were cast in the ABC comedy Spin City not long after that. You had great mentors in writers Gary David Goldberg and Bill Lawrence, and of course Michael J. Fox. But was it tough to be a woman in that environment? Did you feel limited by the format?
I learned so much from all of them and that type of comedy definitely flexed different muscles, but yes, the writing ultimately became a struggle for me. When Michael announced he was leaving, and they decided to continue the show with Charlie Sheen, I asked if I could move on [in 2000]. I didn’t feel I could go much further with that character.

You’d work steadily until Friday Night Lights premiered on NBC in 2006, which was a major turning point. But I know becoming a parent to your son, Yoby, whom you adopted from Ethiopia in 2011, was even more life-altering. How is he doing?
It’s funny, his birthday is always around Sundance and this is the first year we won’t be there for it. He’s gotten so used to what he calls his “snowy birthday.” [Laughs.] He’s so funny, curious about everything and very social. He’s now in first grade and it’s his first year in school in L.A. since growing up in Nashville. But he’s thriving. I also feel like he doesn’t fully know what I do for a living yet.

What does he think you do?
He knows that I go in front of a camera, but he hasn’t seen a lot of what I’ve done. He was friends with Nicole Kidman’s kids in Nashville and the first movie he ever saw was Paddington, so I had to explain to him, ‘That’s your friends’ mommy!” [Laughs.]

What is it like being a white mother raising a black child in America right now?
He’s still young and hasn’t seemed concerned yet that his skin color is different from mine. Recently, though, his hair has been growing — he has the most gorgeous hair — and he’s been asking questions like, “I want my hair to be straight. Why can’t my hair be straight like other kids in my class?” But he’s very proud of being from Africa; we went back together on a trip. I want to keep instilling that pride and encouraging him to feel how cool it is. But his safety definitely concerns me the older he gets, and it enrages me to such a huge degree that I have to be worried for him. I have so much rage. I want to protect him. But I don’t want to be overbearing, and I don’t want him to be overprivileged. It’s a strange balance.

You told me in 2013, when you were still living and working in Nashville, that you hadn’t yet lost your privacy to fame. Has this changed?
I will say this: I still find people for the most part to be very respectful and I’m grateful for that. But I did have an experience recently where somebody published my alleged real-estate holdings. It wasn’t approved or fact-checked. I was upset because I want to be involved in my community. I’m not someone who’s going live in a tower. I want to be close to the people around me. So for someone to feel it’s their right to disclose something about my personal life, it felt smutty, disrespectful, and irresponsible, especially where are we right now with the press. More than ever, we all have to be committed to a higher purpose.

Speaking of, I’ve noticed you’ve become increasingly political over the years. I particularly loved the USA Today op-ed you co-wrote in 2012 targeting Mitt Romney over his use of the Friday Night Lights slogan “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” in his presidential campaign.
Yeah, gosh. Those were the days!

And at the Golden Globes this year, you wore a sweater that said “Poverty Is Sexist,” which got a mixed reaction on social media. What was your goal with this messaging?
I was thrilled when I heard about the Time’s Up campaign’s legal defense fund for women who’ve experienced harassment and sexism. I’d been longing for this movement to extend beyond Hollywood. I’ve spent a lot of time with the U.N. and ONE seeing firsthand how women around the world are constrained by poverty. My hope with the sweater was — in a fashion-appropriate way — to create more awareness. The response from my peers was overwhelmingly positive. What surprised and disappointed me were people dismissing the meaning of “Poverty Is Sexist” because of the price of the sweater. But I get it. It’s uncomfortable to look at the pain of poverty and ask, “Why must so many live this way? And what can we do about it?” My hope is that people see beyond the trappings of judgment and ask the tough questions with me.

Could you ever see yourself running for office?
I’ve actually been asked to run for office. I feel it’d be the ultimate sacrifice. Back in college when I was deciding what I wanted to do, I had always loved acting …

And yet you majored in Chinese.
[Laughs] Yes, I did. But acting was what I really loved. So it was always with the hope of having a bigger role in the world, a means to a bigger end. Politics is a dirty business, so for now I think I’d rather use characters and storytelling to try to make changes in the world.

I think both Friday Night Lights and Nashville showed Hollywood’s ability to attract a more inclusive fan base across political, geographic, and class demos — which is to say, viewers outside L.A. and New York — but only if the writing is good and the characters are compelling.
Yes, exactly — the power of reflecting a culture back to itself in a way in which we aren’t judging. If we’re able to do that, it’s a great accomplishment.

Speaking of Tami Taylor, the world is in a constant state of inexorable glee at the prospect of you and Kyle Chandler working together again. Have you figured this out yet? We’d like to know all the details, please.
Yes, we talk about it a lot. It would definitely be comedy, but I don’t want to say more than that for now. [Laughs.]

Finally, how amused are you — or annoyed — with people’s obsession with your hair? It’s such a thing that it was immortalized in an episode of Family Guy, where Peter Griffin nibbled on your locks while lying in bed with you.
Yes, I did that episode for Seth [MacFarlane]! It mystifies me, honestly. I’m like, “Why my hair and not someone else’s?”

Have you ever wanted to pull a Keri Russell and chop it all off?
No, no. I’ve had my hair shorter, but it’s so thick that when it is short, I can’t do a thing with it. It’s like a shrub. [Laughs.] Keeping it long is way easier. That’s the only true secret to my hair.

Connie Britton Does Not Want You to Be Cynical