With two big movie releases on the horizon, Emmy-nominated actress and Austin regular Connie Britton is in the mood to celebrate in the city that inspires her.
While living in Austin for five years as she filmed NBC’s Friday Night Lights, Connie Britton created one of the most memorable and beloved television characters in recent memory. Her performance as Tami Taylor—a grounded, small-town Texas woman of integrity, warmth, and humor—resonated with female viewers hungry for relatable characters on the small screen.
In ABC’s Nashville, Britton plays yet another strong protagonist, country music star Rayna Jaymes. Britton, who received Lead Actress Emmy nominations for her roles on those two shows as well as in American Horror Story, will star in two movies set to be released this year: Me & Earl & The Dying Girl and American Ultra. Although she now lives in Nashville with her son, Yoby, Britton often returns to Austin to soak up the music scene. Here, she talks to Austin Way about why this city means so much to her and why she comes to South by Southwest, even as her local friends flee the crowds.
You lived in Austin for five years while shooting Friday Night Lights. What do you miss most about the city?
CONNIE BRITTON: Everything. I love Austin. I’m a huge Austin fan. I love that there’s music everywhere, and it’s so laid-back, nonchalant, and creative. It’s a great community. It feels very inclusive. The food is great…. I could go on. [Laughs] I get back here whenever I can—[especially] for music festivals.
People love to compare/contrast Nashville and Austin because of their music scenes. Now that you’ve lived in both, what’s your opinion?
CB: It’s funny, because when I first came to Nashville, people told me, “Oh, it’s just like Austin,” and I thought it would be. But I feel the two towns are very different. Certainly, in terms of the friendliness of the people, they are comparable; the people in Nashville have been as incredibly friendly and welcoming as people were to us in Austin. But I do feel that Nashville is really much more spread out. Nashville is where the music business lives. In Austin, it feels less [about the music business] and more as though people are just playing live, writing songs, and making music. It feels much more immediate because it’s a lot more about the live music.
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How did all that exposure to live music in Austin influence your role as country music star Rayna Jaymes on Nashville?
CB: I learned so much about music when I lived in Austin, and I think it shaped some of Rayna’s values. The musicians I met or have seen perform in Austin have a real honesty and pure love for the music they’re playing. There’s a lot of heart and soul in it; that’s where I’ve always imagined Rayna coming from. It’s like you can’t get away with anything because it’s all live. [Laughs] You go to the Continental Club, and you’re right there; everybody is in it with you. It feels like there’s very little separation between the audience listening and the performers playing. There’s something really unusual about that.
What do you love about South by Southwest?
CB: I lived in Austin for five years of SXSW, and I’ve gone to the festival several times since then. My friends who live in Austin are like, “Oh, it’s SXSW! We’ve got to get out of here!” and inevitably, I always want to come in for it. I know so many filmmakers and musicians who are coming into the city as Austin locals are pouring out. It’s so much fun to be here for SXSW; there’s always something to see, whether it’s a movie I’ve done or a movie a friend has done. I remember being blown away by an amazing documentary about the Dixie Chicks [Shut Up & Sing]. You just don’t know what you’re going to come across during the festival.
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You were a big supporter of Wendy Davis during her ill-fated bid to become Texas governor. What drew you to her?
CB: It started when she took that amazing stance during the [June 2013] filibuster…. I was just so impressed by her and awed by her stamina and fortitude. I was curious about who this woman is. She resonated with me because she’s a Texas woman: Obviously, I spent a lot of time in Texas and have grown to really love the place, and I played a Texas woman. To see this woman, who demonstrates so many of the qualities and values I admire about Southern, and in particular Texas, women—was really exciting. During that time there were a lot of parallels between Tami Taylor, the character I played on Friday Night Lights, and Wendy Davis. Even though she didn’t win this election, I think she’s going to be a powerful force in the world. It’s too bad that politics is so divisive, because as a woman and a role model, she’s exceptional.
Why do you think women related so strongly and personally to the character of Tami?
CB: It’s astounding to me and incredibly humbling and flattering. It still blows me away when people tell me what that character meant to them. It’s a great reminder that we can create stories that can impact people and make them think about their lives. To be able to play a role that genuinely sinks into the core of the audience and leaves an impression is an honor. I couldn’t have done it without all the great people I worked with, including Kyle Chandler. I feel fortunate that I was able to play this character who, without hitting anybody over the head, became a role model. She did that by being human, making mistakes, and trying to live the best life she could while taking into account the world around her and never discounting her own femininity or humanity.
Now on Nashville, you have another strong female character; did you have specific goals of what you wanted to do with Rayna?
CB: We all have stars we look up to, so it is exciting to play a character who is a star like that and [expose] her humanity. I want to play the flaws and the great, powerful moments and the weaknesses and the strengths. Being able to play a character who is a country music star is thrilling and a huge challenge because I had never played anything like that. I hadn’t sung since my early 20s in a real Off-Off-Broadway setting.
Friday Night Lights was such a perfect and complete experience, so after that, I did go through a little bit of a crisis. I thought, What am I going to do now? How am I going to top that? And the answer was that whatever I did next, I wanted it to feel challenging, like I was stepping out of my comfort zone. American Horror Story, which I did in between FNL and Nashville, did that for me because it was such a different genre. When Nashville came along, I thought, I’m going to be stretching some new muscles; here we go. It’s scary to do that, and it’s been challenging and rewarding—that’s what happens when you take risks. It’s been really fun to explore the larger-than-life aspect of Rayna, but also to try finding very subtle human aspects of her character.
What’s next for you?
CB: It takes 10 months out of the year to shoot Nashville, so I only have a couple of free months over the summer. I have been cocreating and producing a show [for Showtime Networks] that I’m hoping to do as my next project. I’m also a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. Since I majored in Chinese in college and studied in China for a while, people would say, “What are you doing with that? Are you going to be an ambassador?” [Laughs] So in many ways, it’s a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to parlay the work I’m doing into something that can be useful on a larger scale.
PLUS: Tell us who your woman of influence is on Instagram by uploading a photo using #ShesMyInfluence. On May 11, you're invited to VOTE for your favorite woman.
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