Connie Britton got over it a long time ago, the part that got away. But it’s a good story, and she still tells it with feeling: The year was 1995. Edward Burns, who had just directed her (and starred in) “The Brothers McMullen,” reached into his backpack one night over dinner and handed her a script that Cameron Crowe had sent him to read. Burns wasn’t interested himself, wanting to act in his own films instead. But he thought Britton was perfect for the romantic lead.
“So I took it home and I read it,” Britton said, sitting on the edge of the couch in her living room 18 years later. “I was blown away. I loved the script, the role — I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is incredible.’ And I walked into my brand-new agent’s office the next day, and I put the script down on his desk, and I was like, ‘I have two words for you: Jerry Maguire.’ ” Britton giggled, but for only a moment, because the story was just beginning. She nailed the audition. Crowe told her she had shown him just what the character should be. A few months after that, she was flown to New York to do a reading with Tom Cruise.
The success of “The Brothers McMullen” notwithstanding, Britton was at this point not far removed from her days teaching aerobics and going on open-call auditions in New York. Now she started hearing that she was poised for stardom. She did a table read with the rest of the cast, and it was looking like a lock. The day she finally did a screen test with Cruise, Britton said, she heard that “they just want to screen-test one other actress.” Britton laughed, this time a little more darkly. Of course it was Renée Zellweger, an actress so tiny and tousled that she looked newly hatched, who walked away with the part.
“It was heartbreak,” Britton said. A decade came and went, a crucial decade in the life of an actress. Britton played some secondary roles on television, including an ensemble part on the sitcom “Spin City” and smaller recurring ones on “The West Wing” and “24.” And then, 10 years after “Jerry Maguire” had its premiere without her, she was offered a part on a new network series, “Friday Night Lights.” Britton thought the part, a football coach’s wife, was most likely a nondescript role that would take her nowhere; she had played the same small role in the film of the same name. But her mother had just died, and she opted to skip the grueling auditions of pilot season to work with producers she knew and liked. She signed on.
“Friday Night Lights” turned Britton into something of an icon, a 40-something sex symbol and role model at the center of a critically acclaimed show (albeit one that was never a ratings smash). These days, the Internet is crowded with blog posts celebrating her exemplary television marriage, her maternal wisdom, the sheer amazingness of her hair. Britton, now 45, seemed to have emerged in her prime, redefining, in the process, what an actress’s prime exactly is. “Jerry Maguire” may have been the best thing that never happened to her.
“Maybe I was too tall,” Britton said, offering one theory of why she didn’t land the part opposite Cruise. It’s relatively easy to laugh about it now, in her home in her upscale neighborhood in Nashville, where her latest role has taken her. On ABC’s “Nashville,” Britton now plays the country-music star Rayna Jaymes, a legend trying to hold on to her perch. If Britton is still not yet exactly a megastar, she now plays one on TV, on a show that’s another critical hit, having built the rare career for an actress, one that gets better with age.
Britton, sipping a glass of water with mint leaves, was watching her son, Eyob, a 2-year-old she adopted from Ethiopia in 2011, as he romped with the two family dogs, each of which was easily double his size. On her day off, Britton had clipped up her famous hair (the subject of not only its own admiring tumblr but also Twitter hashtags like #conniebrittonshair). She was dressed in leggings and a V-neck sweater, makeup-free, in tortoiseshell glasses and scuffed black boots; later, when she went out for the evening, she threw on a parka.
Moving to Nashville with her son was not an easy decision for Britton, especially because it meant signing a seven-year contract. “You make a decision based on a pilot you have read, that has not been shot,” she said. Britton was in the process of developing a project with the director David O. Russell when Callie Khouri, the screenwriter most famous for “Thelma and Louise,” approached her about playing Rayna Jaymes. Khouri told Britton she could not think of a single other actress she would even consider for the role.
For Britton, almost any career move felt like a potential step down from “Friday Night Lights.” Through her character on that show, Britton had developed the kind of devoted following that only a talented but slightly underexposed star can. “When I grow up, I want to be Tami Taylor” is the title of one post on a site about pop culture. A writer for The Hairpin spied Britton in a coffee shop and promptly posted a list of things she could have said to her. Among them: “Please lend me the key to being a woman and I’ll run across the street and make a few copies because I know I’ll lose it over the weekend.”
“Connie leads with her brains, not her beauty,” says Jeff Reiner, who directed her in “Friday Night Lights.” “I think that’s one reason women find her so appealing.”
With her clinging wrap dresses, she also drew considerable male attention. In its “100 Hottest Women of the 21st Century,” GQ magazine wrote, “Britton’s Tami Taylor — she of the kind heart and the set jaw, the oversize sunglasses and the auburn hair floating wispily in the hard Texas glare — was so obviously finer in every way than the undeveloped bimbos who surrounded her.”
In the first episode, she played a stay-at-home mom pining for a bigger house; by the third season, she was the school principal — her husband’s boss. Britton said she was “rabid” about holding the producers to their promise that her character would do more than just cheer on her husband from the bleachers, “Connie doesn’t lie dormant very well,” Reiner says. “You have to give her something to do. She was inspiring, and sometimes she could be a pain.”
The show ended after five years, and walking away from the role turned out to be wrenching for Britton. “I’m still just in denial and having an identity crisis,” Britton told her friend Chelsea Handler on her talk show, shortly after shooting the last episode. “ ’Cause who am I, if I’m not Tami Taylor?” Britton gave an elaborate shrug.
“I really wasn’t kidding in that moment,” Britton says now. “I felt a sense of responsibility to that character.” She and her co-star, Kyle Chandler, had long conversations about how they would help each other make choices, moving forward, that reflected the values that earned them such fan loyalty on the show. “But you have to go somewhere,” Britton said.
Where she went: Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story,” a gory surrealist drama in which her character slashes her husband’s arm with a chef’s knife and has sex with an incubus dressed in a rubber suit. The show might not have embodied the values of Tami Taylor, but “it was perfect,” Britton said of her one season there. “It really helped me shake out any sense of preciousness about the Tami mystique.”
Comparatively speaking, “Nashville” was a safer choice. Even so, Britton worried about the format, which might or might not rise above the level of a soap; plus, she was a new mother carrying a new show and was expected to play a country-music legend when she was not even sure how to hold a mike.
“The thing about taking risks is, if it’s really a risk, you really can fail,” Britton said. “It’s only a pretend risk if you really can’t fail.”
The next morning, Britton had been dressed and styled and generally transformed for the part of Rayna Jaymes. Her black tank sparkled, her eyelids glimmered and her red hair, around her shoulders, was doing the usual shining and flowing. That day she was shooting a scene in which Jaymes, reeling from bad news about her marriage, performs before an arena crowd. Britton, in five-inch heels, strutted, in character, on a narrow stage, only to trip on a piece of track that someone had laid down for a camera and nearly fall five feet off the platform. She let out an odd, loud noise — the vocal equivalent of someone’s hand smashing a bunch of piano keys — then righted herself and gasped a nervous laugh; the extras laughed back. Rattled, Britton walked off the set, headed to a drafty hallway that served as backstage and cried.
A few minutes later, the director, Eric Stoltz (the same Eric Stoltz who starred in “Mask” and “Pulp Fiction”), wandered backstage, trying to determine what was holding up the shot. He found Britton, an old friend, still weepy from her close call. Britton was expecting some sympathy, but Stoltz saw something he thought he could use. Let’s do it again, he told her. Britton fixed on him a look her fans know well: wide-eyed, wary disbelief.
“She was fighting back tears, which was more interesting,” Stoltz said after he got the scene he wanted.
Britton’s take: “Sometimes my favorite directors are the ones I literally want to punch in the nose.”
Later that day, she crossed paths with Khouri at the craft services table and delivered the story of the accident with high drama, for Khouri’s amusement. “I have two questions,” Khouri said. “One, did you get the shot? Two, are you O.K.?” The women laughed, a little loopy from the long hours. “Connie is only about 50 percent as earnest as Tami Taylor,” Khouri said. It seemed as if that insight came as something of a relief.
It is Khouri whom Britton approaches when she feels as if the show is falling into network traps that seem to her unacceptably unnatural. She draws the line, for example, at act-outs, those scenes before the commercial in which someone typically storms out of a conversation or out of a restaurant three minutes after being seated. “It’s when you end on a big moment before commercial break,” Khouri said. “You could play ‘Dum dah dum dum’ to any of them, if you wanted to. Connie won’t do any of them.” On the show, all around her, villains are narrowing their eyes and romantic rivals are throwing punches, and Britton keeps delivering her usual, specific, understated performance, as if she had wandered off the set of some acclaimed cable series.
Khouri hired Britton without hearing her sing, even though Britton had not sung for an audience since she did regional theater in her early 20s. Khouri’s husband, the music producer T Bone Burnett, was confident they could make it work. “All girls can sing,” he said.
“I figured, Look, she’s going to go on national television, she’s not going to make a total fool of herself,” he told me later. “She must think she can handle it.” Working closely with a voice coach and Burnett, Britton developed what Burnett considers a strong, storytelling voice, more like a Lucinda Williams than a Carrie Underwood. Britton still gets nervous singing in public, but some of the more intimate musical numbers are more compelling for the vulnerability Britton brings to them.
“She has a huge advantage going on television, because she just translates incredibly well in that medium, and that’s a gift — you can’t teach that,” Burnett says. “Some performers, like Dylan — when he was onstage back in the old days when we were young, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Every move he made, you thought, Why is he doing that? She’s like that on camera — intriguing.”
Britton spent the first three episodes of “Nashville” worried she made a terrible, career-altering mistake. She was particularly concerned about the way her character was being positioned — Connie Britton, playing an “aging country-music star,” a phrase she started seeing in countless blog posts and articles about the show.
“Honestly, it was a problem for me,” Britton said. Earlier we stopped by the Bluebird Cafe, a fixture on the show, to hear some music; now we were in the car in her garage. It was just after Eyob’s bedtime, and she was afraid that if she opened the door to go inside, the dogs would bark and wake him. Britton started speaking quietly, but her voice rose in spite of herself. “I was like, the minute I’ve been referenced in writing as aging, I’m done,” she said. “I was furious about that.” She was also concerned about the plot, which early on had Jaymes on a downhill slide, losing ground to a young, blond crossover star played by Hayden Panettiere. That Britton of all people would be asked to play a character whose life seemed to fall apart at 40 struck her as almost perverse. “That’s not even who I represent as an actor,” she said, sitting back in her seat. “My life started being awesome five years ago.”
The actors on a show like “Nashville” — even one with a producer’s credit, like Britton — have only so much leeway for push-back, but Britton consistently dug in during the early episodes. No, she told the director of the pilot, she would rather not stare at her face in the mirror and pull it back aggressively to see what she would look like with a face-lift. She was uncomfortable with what that bit of direction implied about the character’s self-doubt. In the final take, which follows bad news from Rayna’s managers about her most recent record release, Britton does stare at herself in the mirror, and she does massage her face; but the scene registers emotions — fatigue, confusion — as opposed to the simulation of plastic surgery, a more interesting moment, as well as one she found less insulting. (Even still, Jaymes’s husband, noticing her looking at her face, tells her, “If you get plastic surgery, I’ll divorce you.”)
Khouri, a writer who could never be accused of shying away from strong female characters, felt that Rayna, who happens to be 40, needed to have some setbacks early on. “Rocky wouldn’t have been Rocky if he’d started out heavyweight champion of the world,” she said. “We didn’t want it to be Rayna Jaymes, country superhero.”
But Britton analyzes those setbacks for subtext. In a scene in an early episode, in which Jaymes takes a long walk with an old flame, Britton deliberately resisted some lines in which her character expressed fears about being old. “Just drawing on my own experience, I never — I never — personally reference myself as old. I don’t think of myself as old, but I certainly would not say that to a man,” Britton said. It starts to become obvious, as Britton talks, how much of her own Southern upbringing (she was raised in a close-knit family in small-town Virginia) feeds into the characters she creates. “I might have a conversation with some girlfriends — what are we doing about the lines around our eyes — but to a man? There are certain things — it would just be demystifying and disempowering,” she said.
Britton, who was briefly married right out of college, is single now, but she is usually dating someone. “In my experience of watching Connie Britton’s dating life, it has not been Connie getting beaten out by 25-year-old girls, let’s leave it at that,” says the producer Sarah Aubrey, a friend. If Britton bristles at characterizations of a 40-year-old woman as losing her appeal, it’s because she thinks those assumptions are off-base. “Because frankly I’ve had a different experience, as a single woman,” she said. “Younger men and all that.” It’s not that she has a particular pattern of dating younger men, she clarified. “Let’s put it this way: The older you get, the easier it is to date younger men.” She laughed. “There are more of them.”
Over the course of a 15-hour day on set, emotions ran high and low, and Britton seemed to cycle through all of them — elation, entertainment, boredom, disappointment. When the filming broke for lunch earlier than she had calculated, she took out her phone, then realized it was too late to see if her son’s nanny could bring him to the set. “That was a rookie mistake,” she muttered, throwing the phone back in her bag. The afternoon loomed longer.
Britton was also preoccupied with some dramatic scenes that she would have to pull off later that day: there would be sobbing, and there would be kissing. And she was not sure how she would get there, especially if she was exhausted (they ended up shooting until midnight). “I was thinking, I don’t know how I’m going to do it — I don’t know, how does Daniel Day-Lewis do it? He probably knows exactly what he’s going to do.”
Maybe there’s something particularly becoming about success that happens later in life: Britton seems just insecure enough to agonize over her work, still new enough to fame that she wears it lightly, having gone so long without it.
The afternoon before this year’s Golden Globes, Britton invited her closest friends, as well as their sons and daughters, over to her Los Angeles home. Britton, who was nominated for Best TV Drama Actress for “Nashville,” tried on couture while the little girls, some of whom wore their own princess dresses, ate pizza, played with Eyob and weighed in on which sparkly gown Britton should choose. “All the moms were screaming, ‘Don’t touch the dress!’ ” says Aubrey, who brought her 9-year-old daughter. “It was like a children’s birthday party over there.”
Eventually the car pulled up, and Britton headed out; she didn’t win this year. But her alter ego is flying high. Rayna Jaymes has enjoyed the strenuous affections of no fewer than three men. And she is once again every bit as popular as her younger rival, who, if anything, seems to be revealing a certain admiration for the way Jaymes has led her career. Needless to say, Britton is much happier with the direction of the show and how it is treating its “aging” star.
“All it took to get on track,” Britton told me, “was a lot of time and fight.”
Always here for Connie's perfect hair.