“Nashville” star Chris Carmack has a face that belongs on a billboard. Chiseled jaw, piercing blue eyes and just the right amount of stubble. It’s served him well over his years in the entertainment industry, though it has also presented him some challenges.
Before you roll your eyes and break out the tiny violin for the really good-looking guy, picture this: You’re 23 and living in Los Angeles, 3,000 miles away from home. You pay the bills with modeling gigs where you’re ordered around by casting directors who treat you like a walking set of six-pack abs instead of an actual person. Suddenly, you land a part on a hit teen drama. Now you can’t even go to a laundromat without being chased by hysterical fans.
Amazing? Sure – and also a surreal experience that changed the way Carmack, 33, sees the world today. At the moment, the Maryland native is enjoying a rare bit of Hollywood stability. He’s got a series regular gig on ABC’s soapy drama “Nashville” (the second season finale airs May 14) that not only gives him a juicy role as a closeted country singer, but a platform to be a real-life recording star. Though he might be best known to some for his role on Fox’s “The O.C.” a decade ago, he’s determined to squeeze every advantage from this opportunity.
“You know how most kids look back at college and go, ‘I could have gotten a lot more out of that?’ That’s kind of what ‘The O.C.’ was for me,” Carmack says about his first brush with fame. It’s a Sunday night in May and he’s backstage in his dressing room at D.C.’s Lincoln Theatre. In a few hours he’ll take the stage for the second show of “Nashville’s” inaugural cast concert tour. “Sometimes I look back and I’ll be like, ‘God, Chris, you were such a damn idiot.’ Just ’cause I didn’t know enough to really drink it in for everything it was worth.”
Carmack, a Magruder High School graduate, had his breakout role in 2003 as high school jock Luke Ward on the Fox teen drama. Luke’s the one who got in a fistfight and uttered the now-iconic line in the show’s pilot episode: “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” The show became a phenomenon, and members of the young, beautiful cast (Adam Brody, Rachel Bilson, Mischa Barton and Benjamin McKenzie) became instant stars. Carmack recalls the days somewhat fondly but says he simply wasn’t prepared for the level of fame, nor ready to navigate the tricky politics of being on a new hit show. Luke was written off after the first season, and Carmack was left to start over in Hollywood – though this time, with his foot in the door.
On some level, he was as surprised as anyone to break through in the first place. Growing up in Derwood, a suburb of Rockville, Carmack spent his early days involved in sports. (His nickname was “Scrappy.”) In high school he started playing saxophone in the jazz band and realized how much he liked being on stage in school plays.
His parents suggested he major in theater in college – that’s how he wound up at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He was ready to start the typical college experience until one of his classmates handed him a flier for an Abercrombie & Fitch modeling open casting call and told him, “You would be crazy if you didn’t go to this.” So he went.
Now, Carmack describes his modeling days as “a little weird.” The jobs were fun, he says, but the cattle call casting process was miserable. A group of bored casting directors would say, “Take off your shirt. Walk to the other side of the room and back. Thank you.”
“It was very dehumanizing,” Carmack recalls.
Carmack spent a couple years in New York City and then moved to Los Angeles, where he auditioned for acting jobs and avoided waiting tables by modeling on the side. “The O.C.” paycheck was helpful but didn’t completely change his lifestyle. (Being chased from a laundromat means you’re still washing your clothes at a laundromat.)
Around 2006, needing to clear his head from Hollywood, Carmack found himself drawn to live theater in New York City and London. In one role, he starred opposite Alec Baldwin. When he moved back to Los Angeles (“At which point all the casting directors were like, ‘Who are you again?’ ”) he was back to Square One, getting one-off parts in TV shows and made-for-television movies. Until 2013, when “Nashville” called.
Fortuitously, Carmack had also been honing his musical talents in L.A., playing in a couple of bands. When a friend alerted him to the role of an up-and-coming singer named Will Lexington, Carmack jumped at it. He didn’t know many country songs, so in his audition, he sang Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country” while stealing glances at a lyrics sheet on the floor. The producers were immediately impressed – before Carmack made it back to his car, he got a call that the “Nashville” team was very interested.
Producers told Carmack from the start that Will Lexington would harbor a secret – he’s gay and has desperately tried to keep his sexuality a secret so as not to alienate traditional country music fans. After hearing more details, Carmack didn’t hesitate. A chance to play music, be produced by T Bone Burnett (the legendary producer served as music supervisor for the show’s first season) and get an intriguing story line? Sign him up.
“The writers really are telling it with such care that it’s great, because they really don’t want it to become a cliché,” Carmack says. “They really want to tell the story with a lot of specificity and care, and it’s a real blessing to act in a story line that has that much thought put into it.”
Though that plotline has made Will Lexington a fascinating character, there’s one thing that’s challenging: Carmack suddenly finds himself thrust into the role of being a spokesman for a polarizing issue that for him is purely fictional.
“It’s a little bit hard to be asked things about ‘Well, what do you think would have to happen for audiences to be accepting of a gay musician?’ And I’m like, ‘That’s way beyond my scope of understanding,’ ” Carmack explains. “I have my beliefs and my opinions, but I tend not to get political in political forums. I’m finding people asking me to do that a lot more these days.”
As the second season of “Nashville” draws to a close (there are “good rumors” about a renewal), Carmack is focusing on making inroads to a real singing career. Living full-time in Nashville, he plans to spend the summer writing music and playing shows around town, figuring out how to capitalize on his sudden fame as a TV singer.
During the concert at the Lincoln Theatre, hundreds screamed as “Nashville” cast members arrived on stage, playing some songs from the show in addition to original material. For Carmack, guitar in hand, that included “What If I Was Willing,” Will Lexington’s first hit single; fast-paced track “Hurtin’ On Me”; and “A Showman’s Life,” a Gary Allan cover that Will performs for superstar Rayna James (Connie Britton) on the show. Carmack worked the stage during an original rocker, “Holding My Breath.”
He also got in a good-natured on-stage feud with co-star Charles Esten (who plays embattled songwriter Deacon Claybourne). Esten boasted that he was from Alexandria and his mother was in the crowd. Carmack let it be known he was also a Washington area native. “I see your mother and raise you a grandmother,” he joked; Grandma waved as the audience cheered wildly.
As he embarks on the next stage of his career, older and wiser in the madness of the entertainment industry, Carmack just wants to appreciate everything he can during what he knows is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I just don’t want to look back at this and say, ‘I missed that opportunity,’ ” he says. “I’d rather look back and say, ‘I knew what it was and I had fun with it.’ ”
“Nashville” (one hour) season finale airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on ABC.
(Carmack also performed “City Boy” by Keb’ Mo’ in his “Nashville” audition — he played us a sample of it here:)