Tami Taylor, full of Southern charm but always the smartest and often the most opinionated person in the room, resonated with Britton and with viewers. “I have a lot of similarities to Tami at a core level,” says Britton. “My values are the most closely aligned with hers of anyone that I’ve played.”
On FNL, Britton and Kyle Chandler, who portrayed her husband, Coach Eric Taylor, created what may be both the best and the most realistic marriage ever seen on TV. Tami and Eric were a team, and so, professionally, were Britton and Chandler. Several times the two caravanned together, she in her car and he on his motorcycle, making a road trip of the drive to Austin, Texas, where FNL filmed, from their homes in L.A.
“Kyle and I shared the same point of view on how we wanted that marriage portrayed,” says Britton. “We said early on, ‘Don’t even try to write one of us having an affair because we’re not going to do it. We want to portray what most people who live in small towns do: They get together, live together, have good days and bad days. They make it work.’ ”
Chandler, who remains a close friend, especially admires Britton’s insistence that the show be about more than football. “Most people don’t know how much she fought on that set to get a woman’s perspective across,” he says. “And that was a great benefit to the show. We always knew that Tami knew what she’d given up for her husband’s job. There was always that tension.”
As FNL was finishing its run, Murphy, riding high on Glee, met with Britton about his next series, the lurid American Horror Story. He wanted her to play Vivien Harmon, a homemaker who moves to L.A. seeking a fresh start with her unfaithful husband but inadvertently ends up living in a haunted house. Her character would have sex with a masked man wearing a black rubber suit, eat brains and give birth to a demon baby. “I told her, ‘Why don’t you go from being the best wife and having the best marriage to being and having the worst?’ ” Murphy says. “She just laughed.” Britton took the role, finding herself drawn to the risk.
The fall of 2011 was beyond busy for Britton. FNL ended its run, Horror Story began airing, and she was learning to be a mother, having just brought Yoby, then nine months old, back to L.A. She had begun the adoption process three years earlier, not long after her father died. “I was going, What am I waiting for? I had always thought, I’m going to find a man first and have my own babies before I adopt, but [my father’s death] was a wake-up call,” she says. She decided on Ethiopia because she had been working on a self-financed documentary (as yet uncompleted) about orphans there and was active on behalf of the African Children’s Choir, a charity that promotes education for children in the region. (Sharp-eyed viewers will remember that Britton regularly wore an African Children’s Choir T-shirt to bed as Tami on FNL.)
Once she’d set her course, Britton says, there was no turning back: “Being a single mom is challenging, but never in a million years would that have stopped me. You get an idea in your head, and you’re going to do it. People can tell you how hard marriage is or how hard it is to birth a baby, but we do these things. We want the journey of that.”
As for her son, she’s enamored. “He’s incredibly openhearted. One of my favorite qualities is that he has an enormous curiosity about everything, but he’s not stupid about it. He wants to open and close doors, but he immediately learned that he’d better watch where his fingers are. Of course, I think my kid is brilliant.”
Draining her coffee cup, Britton reflects on where she finds herself today. “My whole life has been building to all the good stuff that has happened to me in the last few years,” she says. “I think—and this is ironic when I’m working harder and have more responsibility than ever before—that I now know the importance of grace and sitting back. I have a deeper understanding of how most people are just trying to do the best they can.”