Connie Britton has come a long way since first appearing onscreen in Edward Burns’ directorial debut “The Brothers McMullen,” which won the grand jury prize at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. She’s since netted herself three Emmy nominations for her work in “Friday Night Lights” and “American Horror Story,” and she’s won over country music lovers with her acclaimed performance as a fading superstar in Callie Khouri’s new hit show “Nashville.”
This Friday Britton’s back in theaters in Burns’ latest, “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” (it’s also currently available on VOD). “Christmas” marks her fourth feature with Burns, whose new family drama marks a return to the working-class, Irish-American roots that defined his phenomenally successful debut. In “Christmas,” Britton plays the mysterious love interest of Burns, whose character struggles for much of the film to reunite his entire family — estranged father included — for Christmas dinner.
Britton called in to Indiewire from the set of “Nashville” to discuss her long-standing relationship with Burns and her success on the small screen.
You’re an Ed Burns vet, having appeared in “The Brothers McMullen,” “No Looking Back,” “Looking for Kitty” and now this — how did you two first meet?
I could talk about this all day, because it was my big break… Everything that happened for me, for my career, came out of meeting Eddie Burns and “The Brothers McMullen.” We actually met for the first time after I answered an ad in Backstage Magazine; I would do that every week, as a struggling actor with no agent. They called to have an audition, but then they canceled it… I think they kept canceling it and then, finally, they said, “Okay, come this Sunday.” I was just getting off a train from visiting my sister, and I dragged my suitcase from Penn Station to wherever this place was to meet Eddie and audition for this movie that I hadn’t even read, or seen, or knew anything about. That’s how we met. He cast me on the spot, which made me extremely skeptical of his intelligence.
I read somewhere that you initially turned down the audition?
Well, no, it was just that I was out of town. Because they had called several times and then canceled the audition, I had been visiting my sister and it was a question of, “Do I take the earlier train and go to the audition, or do I stay later and blow off the audition?” At the last minute, I thought, let’s go ahead and get on the train a little bit earlier and go to this stupid audition.
Thank God you did.
I mean, seriously. That was one of those charmed moments in life that I’ll always remember. And the whole experience of the movie was charmed; I think that part of what made “The Brothers McMullen” so great was that nobody had any expectations. We were just doing it because we wanted to be making a movie. It just so happened that Eddie pulled together this great group of people; we would get together and rehearse even when we didn’t know when we would get to shoot. We’d have to wait until he has money before we could shoot. In the meantime, we’d get together when everyone was off their day job; we’d hang out, rehearse, get to know each other so that we felt like a family, and there was such purity about how we did it and how he did it as a filmmaker at that time.
You’re no doubt attracted to the way he works, having worked with him numerous times after your first film together. How has your relationship evolved over time?
It’s actually remained very similar over time. He’s a great collaborator, and he’s obviously very interested in naturalism, he’s very interested in authenticity and realism. It’s always been very important to him that he be the writer as well as the director of the film. I think his idea of being a filmmaker is that he is playing both of those roles; I think that’s his ideal of what a filmmaker is. I think part of the reason for that (for him) is that he can be in charge of the vision and really collaborate with the actors in the creation of that vision. They really feel like they have a strong part in the collaboration and the creation of character, and storytelling. Eddie doesn’t have any ego about it; he really gathers people around him who he admires and he takes from them. He gleans things from them. He expects that he’s going to make his script better from the people he has around him — and that’s everybody.
How did you approach playing your character in “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas?” Out of the ensemble, your character remains the most enigmatic throughout. She’s not given much of a backstory.
I love this movie because it harkens back to “The Brothers McMullen” for me in a way that I think a lot of his more recent movies haven’t. I didn’t have a lot of time to shoot, and he wanted me to be in it; he thought it’d be really fun for us because we haven’t really played opposite each other in a love interest kind of way, and he said: “Christy [Turlington, his wife] would be totally fine with this!” We thought that would be a fun, different thing to do – and I was going to manage it with my schedule.
It was interesting for me, having worked with him before where it’s always that familial relationship, and you’re really trying to establish that familiarity – this one was the opposite. It was actually really interesting to be playing opposite Eddie as somebody who’s just meeting him for the first time. But, since we’ve never actually played romantic interests with each other, it was sort of like, “Okay. We can just play it that way.” It was actually kind of fun, to drop in there for a couple of days and do it; to create this character that we really don’t know very much about. That is her role. She is the outsider in the midst of this story of all these very, very complexly intertwined relationships.
So it wasn’t awkward?
It really wasn’t. Maybe that’s just an actor who’s been around for a while talking, but I always say, when you have to do a make out scene with somebody, the only thing that matters is if you’re doing it with someone you really trust. As long as you can trust the person, then you just shift into a gear with it. Eddie and I have known each other long enough that we can laugh through it.
On page 2, Britton talks about her work on “Nashville,” “Friday Night Lights” and “American Horror Story”…
You’ve found great success on the small screen in the past decade with “Friday Night Lights,” “American Horror Story” and now “Nashville.” Is TV where the better parts are for women over 30?
I’ve gotten really lucky, that’s for sure. I’ve gotten really lucky in television, but, to use “Friday Night Lights” as an example: I did the movie for “Friday Night Lights,” and that role that I played ended up on the cutting room floor. That was not a great opportunity to play a very strong, female character. Peter Berg wanted to use the television medium to give the women in that town, the women of “Friday Night Lights,” a voice because he really wasn’t able to in the movie. I think that’s a really great example of how, in television, there really is room to create these complex female characters.
It’s so exciting because, growing up, I watched a lot of TV, and there really weren’t characters like that for women. There were a few exceptions – and, actually, I watched a lot of comedy, so I was a big “I Love Lucy” fan and “Mary Tyler Moore” fan; in my recollection, those were the most powerful women on television. They were playing from a very comedic point of view.
I do think there is an incredible opportunity for women in television, and, because of what’s happening in TV, there’s room to push boundaries and limits, and to keep doing it. I think we can still go further, as women, and it’s a great opportunity to do that on TV.
You’ve pushed yourself in a big way just by taking on “Nashville.” How intimidated were you when you were first offered the part?
Extremely. It’s funny, I think a lot of the reason I did the role was that I tend to have a lot of good luck taking on things that scare the shit out of me – including “Friday Night Lights,” which I was terrified to do and thought I was ruining my life, because I really thought I was going to end up playing this thankless wife character. Even “American Horror Story” scared me, for a lot of different reasons. Not just because it’s scary, but because I didn’t know what that role was going to be like to play, and I didn’t know what I was going to be asked to do. I think there was something about how terrifying the idea of trying to put together a singing voice and a character who was this country star — there was something exciting to me about that. T-Bone and I have laughed many times about that. He always says, “You’re just so courageous. You chose to take this risk in front of 10 million people.” Yeah, maybe not my smartest move in the world, but it’s been really rewarding.
How has your fan base grown or changed since “Nashville” first started airing?
That’s always something that’s hard for me to assess because I’m not on Twitter, I’m not a person who counts fans. There does seem to be a strong awareness of this show and a real appreciation for it, which is great. With everything I do, I think the bar is really high, and I want to try to get a strong female voice out there, no matter what the context is. I think “Friday Night Lights,” “American Horror Story,” and now “Nashville” – the context has been very different in all three of them, but my hope is that all the characters will make an impact in some way, and I feel like the fans and audiences appreciate it.
Going back to “American Horror Story”: do you know if your character, or you — in any way, shape or form — are going to be brought back to the show, like so many others have this season?
I believe, yes. I know for sure that I’d love to go back, and Ryan [Murphy] and I have talked about it. It’s really just about ever finding the time. I would very much love to go back, it would be so much fun.
Ryan seems like the type of guy who’d be open to ideas. Would you be open to calling him up to tell him a story arc you want to explore?
I could do that, but honestly, the folly of calling up Ryan Murphy and telling him some great story idea that I came up with — you go into the mind of Ryan Murphy, and you see whatever story he has in store for you, it’s going to be so many thousand times better. I would pick up the phone and just say, “Ryan. What are you going to do?” And then wait to see, because that would be a blast.
Would you do anything?
Pretty much. I sort of feel like I’ve already done everything – it would be actually really fun to play a more outwardly dark character next time around. Even in our first season, I kept saying to Ryan, “I just want to go crazy. I just really want to go crazy.” So maybe, with any luck, I’ll play somebody who is just completely off of her rocker.