Connie Britton on Her Risky Path to Happiness

She studied Mandarin, got certified as an aerobics instructor and counts a U.S. senator among her friends. So how does "Nashville" star Connie Britton stay so down to earth? She talks about taking risks, dealing with disappointment—and becoming an adoptive single mom

by Leah Rozen
connie britton image
Diane Von Furstenberg sequined silk dress; bergdorfgoodman.com. Jimmy Choo suede sandals; jimmychoo.com.
Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Years later, Britton returned to Dartmouth for a reunion. “Somebody was saying, ‘I think Kirsten Gillibrand is going to speak.’ I was like, ‘Who is that?’ because at Dartmouth she was Tina Rutnik. So I had no idea who it was and that she was a senator from New York. I was like, ‘Wait a minute! You mean my roommate from China? The one I lip-synched a Madonna song with at the American Embassy?’ ”

The senator has no memory of making like Madonna, her spokeswoman says, but “she does remember winning a raffle there, and the prize was dinner at a nice restaurant, and she took Connie with her.” In recent years the two have rekindled their friendship; Britton says Gillibrand helped her navigate the international adoption process that brought Yoby to the U.S.

After graduating in 1989, Britton enrolled in a two-year acting program at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. (She’d hoped to attend Yale’s prestigious drama school but was rejected, which she says still hurts.) Then the hard work of looking for jobs began. “Mom and Dad helped [pay the bills], and I was with my then husband,” Britton says. As a trained aerobics instructor (she got certified in college), she also taught in the city’s health clubs.

That would explain the enviably toned body she displays today. But in 1994 a big break put an end to her aerobics career: She auditioned for -director-writer-actor Edward Burns, who was making his first feature film, a no-budget indie called The Brothers McMullen. Burns says about 15 actresses had already read for him, and he worried that his script was lousy because the scene kept falling flat. “And then Connie came in, and I knew that it wasn’t the script. She was incredible,” he says. “We cast her right there.”

Brothers won the Grand Jury prize at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. Within weeks, Britton had her first movie and TV agent and was taking meetings in Los Angeles. While there, she had dinner one night with Burns, who said he’d just read a script that had a swell part for her. He pulled the screenplay for Jerry Maguire out of his briefcase. Over a six-month period, Britton came achingly close to landing the role of Tom Cruise’s love interest in what would become a 1996 box office smash. She read with Cruise and was told she was on a short list of two or three actresses.

It was not to be. Renée Zellweger landed the female lead. “Looking back, I don’t think my screen test went well. I was still so green in front of a camera,” says Britton. “For the subsequent 10 years, it was probably the biggest heartbreak of my life.”

 

Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed Jerry Maguire, confirms that Britton lost out in a “squeaker,” adding, “We loved her real-girl quality.” What he saw in her work then, and continues to see, is a “wisdom and spark that connects with men and women; she’s full of charisma but doesn’t lead with it.”

Picking herself up after that disappointment, Britton became a regular as the forthright Nikki Faber on the snappy sitcom Spin City. (Her first line in the pilot episode? “It was just a run-of-the-mill orgasm. I didn’t mean to scare you.”) Acting on the show “was a great experience,” Britton says. “I learned a ton. Michael J. Fox is a comedy master, and I got to be at his feet for four years.”

The role with which she is most closely identified, that of FNL’s Tami Taylor, came to her because Berg felt guilty. When she played the coach’s wife in his 2004 FNL movie, her lines kept getting eliminated, first during filming and even further during editing. “I think they made my character mute,” Britton cracked to a friend during the movie’s premiere—and Berg vowed that he owed her. Two years later, he made good, offering her the role of the coach’s wife in the TV series.

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