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

The hair is tawny, thick and tousled to casual perfection. And it’s all her own.

“It’s funny because every day people compliment me on it,” says Connie Britton, running her hand through that long strawberry blonde mane. “I don’t have a Twitter feed, but I’m told my hair does. Apparently, there’s a blog—I haven’t seen it—about my hair.” (It’s at conniebrittonshair.tumblr.com.)

Ryan Murphy, who cast her in the first season of his show American Horror Story, echoes the obsession. “She has the best hair in Hollywood,” says Murphy, who is also the co-creator of Gleeand The New Normal. While she was starring in American Horror Story, he says, “her hair was its own side character. She’d run and scream, and her hair would swing and sway. I love her hair—and I love Connie even more.”

It’s hard not to love her, even from afar. Britton brings authenticity to every character she plays, whether on TV’s Spin City (1996–2000) and Friday Night Lights (2006–11) or in such indie films as The Brothers McMullen (1995) and last year’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. That ability has earned her consistent critical praise as well as three Best Actress Emmy nominations and, this year, a Golden Globe nod for her performance in her current series, ABC’s Nashville.

“With Connie, you get the truth,” says director Peter Berg, who cast her in the 2004 movie version of Friday Night Lights, about high school football in a small Texas town, and the spinoff TV series. “She does it by being very honest and present. She’s able to find multiple bits of emotion in just a moment. Just pouring a cup of coffee becomes an event.”

Actress Carla Gugino, a close friend since they costarred in Spin City, says, “In all these different shows, she stood out because she has this steadfast commitment to the truth. And that’s who she is as a human being, too.”

Since last fall, Britton has been bringing her sense of truth to Nashville. She stars as Rayna Jaymes, a long-reigning queen of country music whose place at the top is threatened by an ambitious young rival, Juliette Barnes (played by Hayden Panettiere). Rayna has a rich power broker father (Powers Boothe), a weakling husband (Eric Close) and a soul mate (Charles Esten), an ex-beau who’s her longtime musical collaborator. Nashvilleis Dallascrossbred with All About Eveor, as Slate TV critic Troy Patterson waggishly dubbed it, Y’all About Eve.

 

Over a late lunch at an upscale bistro in Nashville’s Belle Meade section, Britton candidly talks about the joys and challenges of her life today. But first the star, dressed in jeans, a white T‑shirt, a navy cardigan and Ugg boots, pulls out an iPhone to check on her son, Eyob, whom she adopted from Ethiopia. “My little boy has been sick with stomach flu this week, and I want to make sure everything is OK,” she says. A text from his nanny assures her that Yoby (his nickname) ate a full lunch and is on the mend. Britton exhales in relief. “He woke up without a fever, and he hasn’t thrown up since yesterday, so I’m thinking maybe we’re good,” she says.

Then she settles in to chat. “I’m always honest in interviews, to a fault, really,” she says. She doesn’t lie about her age (46 as of March 6) or her politics (liberal; last fall she cowrote a USA Today Op-Ed piece endorsing Obama for president). During an interview on Lifetime’s The Conversation last year, she felt sure that host Amanda de Cadenet would press for personal details, so Britton pre--emptively told her that between working long hours and tending to her new son as a single mom, “I have no sex life.” To her chagrin, that quote was picked up and bannered across celebrity websites.

So does she want to take this opportunity to clear up any confusion? Does she now have a sex life? “I’m going to say, ‘No comment,’ ” she says, laughing. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

It’s safe to say, though, there’s still scant time for romance, given her commitment to her son and her new show, for which she’s working 16-hour days. “The schedule is insane,” she says, “to the point where I lose a lot of sleep at night worrying about how little time I have to sleep and mostly how little time I have to be with my son. And yet the flip side of that is, he’s doing great. He comes to the set every day. As working moms go, at least I have that luxury.”

Nashville’s creator and executive producer, Callie Khouri, says she wanted Britton for the series even as she was initially mapping it out. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Thelma & Louisehad admired the depth Britton brought to her portrayal of Tami Taylor, the salt-of-the-earth educator and coach’s wife she played on FNL. “She has a steel spine but so much softness around it,” says Khouri. “Once she popped into my head as Rayna Jaymes, all I could do was feel really bad for all the other actresses who might audition, because unless they’re Connie, they were never gonna be right for the part.”

When first approached, Britton wavered; she hadn’t sung professionally since doing regional theater early in her career. But, she recalls, “the idea of putting on all those sequins and walking out onstage and rebooting my singing voice—that seemed exciting. There’s something really great, once you hit 40, about taking on something that genuinely, fully flexes new and different muscles. Because, man, is it scary. It’s more than twice as scary as when you do it when you’re 20.”

Britton credits T Bone Burnett, the show’s renowned executive music producer (he’s also Khouri’s husband), as well as vocal coach Valerie Morehouse, with helping her find her singing voice. “She takes her job incredibly seriously,” says Morehouse. “Even if she’s having a bad day, she does the work.”

Is Britton successfully selling herself as a Nashville legend? While Reba McEntire, a genuine country music queen and the star of another ABC show, Malibu Country, notes that all of Nashville’s singing actors “have a hard time keeping up with the competition of shows like The Voiceand American Idol,” she says Britton is doing a “great job” in finding the heart of her character: “She shows strength in all the battles a woman in her position has to face.” And in his review of the Nashvillesoundtrack for the industry website Music News Nashville, critic Chuck Dauphin praises Britton’s duet with Esten “on the heartbreak stunner ‘No One Will Ever Love You,’ ” adding that in the future, the actress might have “some real success” as a recording artist. A Tennesseanblogger was even more encouraging, asking, “How come the country music in a soap opera, sung by actors, is better than the stuff I hear on mainstream country radio?”

 

Britton was born in Boston, spent her early years in Rockville, Maryland, and then moved at age seven to Lynchburg, Virginia. Her birth name is Constance Womack; Britton is a relic of her brief early marriage, to a fellow graduate of Dartmouth College. She is close to her fraternal twin sister, Cynthia, even more so since they lost their parents. Britton’s mother, a music teacher turned community activist, died in 2005; her father, a physicist and energy-company executive, in 2008.

She starred in all her high school productions, including Hello, Dolly!, and dreamed of becoming an actress. Incollege, however, a crummy -freshman-year experience in a Bertolt Brecht play led her to major in Asian studies instead, since she’d already taken Mandarin classes for her language requirement. In 1986 she spent a summer in China studying at Beijing Normal University. (She says her Mandarin is now too rusty to use.)

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.

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.”

Tami Taylor couldn’t have put it better.

Leah Rozen profiled Julianne Moore in the March 2012 issue of More.

Next: The Unsinkable Katie Couric

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First Published Wed, 2013-02-27 16:00

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