When we last saw Connie Britton on television, she was playing the role of admirably supportive wife, mother and guidance counselor Tami Taylor on “Friday Night Lights.” Starting tonight, however, she leaves behind the “I appreciate that, y’all”-ness of Tami — one half of one of the healthiest marriages ever depicted on television — to become Vivien Harmon, a woman in a frayed, semi-toxic relationship with a cheating husband (Dylan McDermott) on “American Horror Story.”
“American Horror Story” — which debuts on FX tonight and has been called “the most visually arresting and twisted new television show of the year” by the Post’s Hank Stuever — is a most definite change of pace from the world of pep rallies and morale-boosting barbecues in Dillon, Tex. On “Horror Story,” Britton now must deal with adultery, mysterious dudes in S&M costumes, a house that has been a crime scene multiple times over and weird neighbors who randomly break and enter her home on a regular basis. And that’s just in the first two episodes.
Britton recently took a few minutes to chat by phone about her new, decidedly freaky-deaky series, last month’s Emmy wins for “Friday Night Lights,” that much-discussed “Friday Night Lights” movie spin-off and how her attitude toward horror was shaped by some wise words from Rob Zombie. Yes. That’s right. Rob Zombie.
I can’t think of a more different TV show for you to do after “Friday Night Lights.”
Britton: Right? I know. Isn’t it crazy?
Just in terms of basic things. Like some of the words you get to say.
Britton: I know! Listen, I think I could not be speaking the obvious more loudly when I say that was a lot of what drew me to doing this show. Coming from “Friday Night Lights,” which was such an amazing experience and such a unique experience, I wanted to do something completely different. This filled the bill in every way. And also, in such a specific way because, as much as Tami Taylor was in this wonderful marriage and we were playing all the different facets of that — you know, this is being in probably the most devastating marriage and playing all the different facets of that. But also the same challenges for me, which is trying to find the reality in that and sort of go and play all kinds of the psychological rumblings of that.
My biggest fear is that people are going to be like (gasps) did Tami Taylor just do that? My hope is that we’ll be able to move away from that. I think the world of this will be different enough and the character will be different enough that people will really embrace it.
You had finished shooting “Friday Night Lights” a year before starting “American Horror Story.” Even with the break, was there still a bit of whiplash involved in shifting from that show to this one?
Britton: There actually was a little bit of whiplash, even though it was about a year — it was not quite a year since “Friday Night Lights” that we shot the pilot of the show. I did a couple movies in between, and they were both kind of comedic. So that was a really fun departure. But this show, it was challenging doing the pilot because I went into it and realized this is just such a completely different genre and I really had to consciously adjust myself from what I had become used to on “Friday Night Lights,” which was a very specific way of working. And realizing that I love that way of working, and this is also a legitimate way to do something that’s going to be appealing and wonderful to an audience.
Do you know what’s happening on the show in terms of the backstory? There are a number of things in the first two episodes that are purposely cryptic.
Britton: We sort of have been creating the backstory as we go. I sat down and had lots of great conversations with [“American Horror Story”] co-creators Ryan [Murphy] and Brad [Falchuk]. Way before we started doing the pilot we had a lot of great talks about how we wanted these characters to be. And then when Dylan [McDermott] came on board, it was fun to just sort of say, it’s kind of fun to figure out backstory a little as you go along.What is it that’s motivating these people to do the things that they do? And Brad and Ryan have been really open to both mine and Dylan’s interpretations of that. That is one thing that I love about working with them, and one thing that was important to me because that was a big, important thing on “Friday Night Lights,” too, was that they’re really collaborative in that way and really open to our ideas. Yet there really is a big mystery to it, too, and I think, to some degree, we’re all kind of coming up with it as we go.
The house on the show — where is that? Is that a set that has been built?
Britton: That house is the most amazing thing. It is a location. We shot the entire pilot in that house in Los Angeles. So then, to shoot the series, they have actually built sets that are exact replicas. It is the most amazing thing what these set decorators and set designers are able to do because, having shot the pilot in the house, you see these heavy wood banisters and all this heavy molding and all this really great, old stuff.
When we’re on the set, it feels like we’re in that house, to the point where on the set you know if you run up the stairs to the second floor, it kind of ends. It sort of just ends into nothingness, like you could actually eventually walk off of a platform. I get thrown every time I run up the stairs. And by the way, I do a lot of running around on the show, a lot of running up and down stairs, usually in a great deal of fear. And every single time I get to the top of those stairs I go, woah.
You mentioned being in fear a lot on the show. Is any of this bleeding into your real life? I mean, obviously I assume none of this stuff is really happening to you —
Britton: Gosh, I’m knocking on wood as you say that. That would be horrible.
But there’s such a dark tone to the material. After watching the first two episodes back-to-back, I had to peel my brain out of that mindset and I’m wondering if that’s the case for you as an actor.
Britton: You know, that’s such an interesting question. I have always had a hard time with horror because I’m just a big baby and I take it all too personally and too seriously. So I haven’t really been a big horror watcher, but it’s very interesting when you’re actually doing it, there is something — because I’ve had conversations with people over the years about, what is it about horror? What does that create for people psychologically? And I actually remember having this conversation with Rob Zombie once, about his movies. You know, because he’s the greatest guy and such a sweetheart and a hard-working, nice guy. And yet he makes these crazy, horrendous movies.
I was like, Rob, what’s going on? He said, there’s an outlet for that. There’s something about getting that energy and that darkness out. I have to say, shooting it day in and day out — which, while we’re shooting it, for me, it’s difficult. Sometimes as an actor it can be really hard to sustain that state of being for the six hours or the eight hours that I need to to get a scene done. But I do find that in being able to do that in that moment, I actually feel very free from it when I go out and back into my life. Which is surprising to me and I didn’t know that was going to be the case. Oddly enough, we have a very cheerful set. I think it’s because there’s some element of, we get into this dark place and then we get to just leave it.
I want to talk to you about the Emmy Awards — when Kyle Chandler won the Emmy for best actor, he did not seem to be expecting it. It looked like he was trying to say something to you and to his wife at the end of his speech but got cut off. What were your feelings when that happened? Do you know what he was trying to say — am I right that he was trying to address you?
Britton: Yeah, I think he was. I think he was really shell-shocked. He suddenly looked over at us and realized, oh my gosh, what did I just do? He came up to me later and he goes, “All right, this is your half and this is my half,” with the Emmy. Yeah, I think he was really surprised. I was just thrilled.
It was funny because the Charlie’s Angels [cast] presented him his award, and Minka Kelly being amongst them. I think Drew Barrymore was with them, so I think the four of them kind of said his name at the same time. I couldn’t understand what they had said. So I didn’t actually hear his name announced and only sort of realized it when I saw all these people looking our direction. I looked over at Kyle and he was like, his head was kind of down. It was like, wait a minute — what? It was really a thrilling moment and I was just so happy for him and for [“Friday Night Lights” showrunner and Emmy winner for writing] Jason Katims both.
It didn’t seem fair that you didn’t win, though.
Britton: I really never expected to win. So it was almost more — when they won ... I think that gave all of us in our little “Friday Night Lights” camp a little hope. Oh maybe, maybe, you know. I don’t think I would have ever even considered being disappointed, except then in those moments it was like, oh shoot, that would have been really fun, too, if I had gotten up there. But honestly, it was just so great being in the midst of it. It really felt like a victory for all of us that night.
There has been some talk from [“Friday Night Lights” executive producer] Peter Berg about a “Friday Night Lights” movie. Has there been any progress on that?
Britton: I actually was talking to him about it last week. I know he really wants to do it. I know he’s had conversations with Jason Katims about it. I do think everybody’s so busy. I know Jason is really excited to write but is very busy with “Parenthood.” But I really think they’re committed to getting around to it and I think it’s just about having everybody’s schedules aligned and having a good idea in place. Because nobody, least of which Pete Berg, would ever want to do it if it was not going to be a story that would do justice to what that show has been.
Do you know what that idea is?
Britton: No, I don’t. I don’t, and I don’t know how far they’ve gotten with it either. I know Jason has really wanted to talk to us and talk to some of the actors about it. I know that if they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it right. We’ll see. But it would be really great.
Back to “American Horror Story” — some may wonder how you can sustain a horror story over many episodes. How do you feel that’s working as your continue to shoot the rest of the season?
Britton: You know, it’s that funny thing — whenever you watch a movie and they’re in this horrible place, you find yourself screaming at the screen: “Just get out! Get out!” And you always wonder why they don’t. I think in this case — and that’s been my running thing, too, with Ryan — we want to make that real for them. If they’re going to be in this house, we want to know why they’re staying there. One thing I will point out is, at least in the first episode and at least for my character, she didn’t really have that much crazy stuff going on in that house, at least that she was aware of. All the ghosts and stuff — I mean, Jessica Lange is a little weird. But that’s just a weird next-door neighbor.
But she’s really weird. That’s beyond a weird next-door neighbor.
Britton: I know. But still, you don’t move your family across country and move your family into a beautiful new house and then decide to move out because you have a weird next-door neighbor. You know? You maybe would try to set up some kind of police restraining order ... But I think that what has been fun as the episodes have gone on is the conflict that’s being created about the need to get out of the house and the things that are keeping us in the house. I think they’ve been doing a really great job at creating that conflict. ... It is actually a fun thing, because you will find after episode two that there is a real push to get out and also things happening to keep them there. I think that just adds more conflict to the whole thing. And lord knows there’s plenty of conflict there.
I look forward to seeing how it progresses.
Britton: I have to tell you — and I don’t know what you thought after seeing the second episode — but I thought the second episode was scarier than the first one ... I have actually found each subsequent episode to be, if possible, more horrifying than the last.
Britton: So anybody who’s worried that we’re not going to be able to sustain it? Just hold on to your hats.