Connie Britton has made a career out of playing women who other women want to be. Which isn’t to say they’re perfect or all the same; rather, they have an inherent strength and moral center that’s admirable and that, one can only assume, Britton also possesses. We want to be compassionate yet tough like Tami Taylor of Friday Night Lights, fierce and headstrong like Rayna James of Nashville, devoted and sensible like Abby Clark of 9-1-1. She even managed to make a character who was pregnant with the Antichrist—Vivien Harmon on American Horror Story—someone to emulate.
This month, in the new HBO limited series The White Lotus, which centers on the guests and employees at a luxury resort in Maui, Britton plays another strong but complicated woman: Nicole, an exec for a Google-like search engine who’s trying to balance her high-powered job with her Gen-Z kids and needy husband. In a lesser actor’s hands, Nicole could easily be written off as a type-A corporate narcissist. But Britton makes her whole, showing us a woman who’s trying to do the right thing. Trying, she stresses, is the key.
“As women, we’re paving the way, we’re figuring it out as we go,” Britton says, calling from her home in Los Angeles. Here, she talks about the show, a woman’s complicated path to success, raising a Black son, and, yes, her luxurious locks.
The White Lotus is fantastic—funny but also nail-bitingly tense. How did you get involved with it?
I was just sitting around during the pandemic, and Mike White reached out to me. He wrote a movie that I did a few years ago, Beatriz at Dinner, and I have always been obsessed with him as a writer. He has such an amazing eye and interpretation of the culture. So, anyway, he sent this to me, and he was like, “We’re shooting it in Hawaii, and we’re going to basically take over a hotel in Maui. It’s going to be amazing.” And I thought, Oh my god, this is the perfect pandemic cure. It was a no-brainer.
It sure sounds dreamy—getting to take over the Four Seasons Resort in Maui and make a project with people you respect. Was your son, Yoby, with you?
He was, yeah. But it was strange. Here we were in this beautiful place, but we could not leave the hotel. Ultimately, it felt a little confining for a 10-year-old boy.
You adopted Yoby from Ethiopia 10 years ago. How did becoming a mother change you as an actor?
I feel like becoming a mother changes everything, in terms of how we look at life and how we know ourselves. But so much changed at the same time for me, because when I adopted Yoby, I then also immediately moved to Nashville and started doing that show. And that was a very ambitious, difficult show. It was extremely long hours, and I was a brand new mother, and I had no support system in Nashville. And so, at least initially, I would say being a mother mostly taught me grit, frankly. And to rely on myself and my instincts. So I do think that being a mom has brought that out even more in my work—and in everything, really.
How do you feel about raising a son who is Black in America right now?
Well, I have cried many tears. I could probably cry right now. Aside from the interpersonal for us, and for me wanting to really nurture his love of who he is, his understanding of where he came from, and also to empower him as a Black person in America, I’m also aware that, as a white person, the reality of what he is going to face in this world is one that is so complex for me [to understand]. And it’s one that I have a deep sense of longing to change for all of us. And yet, as a white person, I have to come to terms with my own responsibilities and my own accountability around that. And also, I am a fierce mother of a Black son. Period. End of conversation. Beyond everything, don’t f*** with my kid. I will be a mama bear to the end. And when I see Black men and Black women and Black children being abused and destroyed by the system, and by this white systemic racism, I have zero tolerance. I’m enraged. That’s a personal journey for me. So it’s brought up a lot of complexities for sure.
Speaking of complexities, there’s a specific scene in The White Lotus that I found really powerful. It’s when your character, Nicole, is approached by Alexandra Daddario’s character, Rachel, a struggling journalist. The conversation starts out positive, about women supporting women, but quickly turns dark when Nicole learns that Rachel wrote a story about her that belittled how hard she had worked for her success. This rang so sadly true—that women still feel the need to take down other women.
Yeah. It’s really interesting that you bring that up, because in the last few years, with the Me Too movement and all of this really important progress and vocalizing that we’ve been doing as women, I think the part that’s harder to look at and much less discussed is when women take down women. That is a much more subtle aspect of misogyny. I think to some degree when you are coming up in a culture that is telling women that they are a certain thing, and keeping them at a certain level, that even women start to believe that we shouldn’t ask for more, and we don’t deserve more.
Did that scene resonate with you?
I’m really lucky, because I have the most incredible female friendships and support system. But particularly in Hollywood, you hear all the time about women stabbing each other in the back or not supporting each other. It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon, because I think that too is ingrained in this deeper issue of women not having equality, and equity, and that we don’t even expect it for ourselves. We, as women, can have certain points of view about what we have a right to ask for, even when we’re thinking of ourselves as being empowered. It’s just this crazy conflicting notion, and it’s very deeply subconscious. So, for me, that was why that scene was so interesting, because I think both characters have really good intentions, and both characters were behaving from their own cultural tradition that had been handed down to them.
It strikes me that in this culture, which still has a hard time with female power, and in which strong women are so quickly characterized as being shrill or b****y, you’ve played a series of roles that make the competent, empathetic, and powerful authority that a woman can have seem so appealing. I think Nicole fits into this, though she’s far from perfect.
One of the things I love about that character is that she’s so flawed, but ultimately she’s trying to figure out where she fits into the culture, where she fits in as a wife, as a mother, as a successful woman. Honestly, we don’t have a lot of examples of it. [The path] feels messy, and we meet resistance at every turn, and we get labeled as b****y. She’s trying so hard to be successful in the way that she can be successful, and she is disappointing everybody. I find that to be a fascinating part of how all of us misunderstand how to accept successful women into our lives—and how to be successful women.
This also makes me think about your character in Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell’s powerful revenge thriller from last year. She’s another authority figure, but someone who has been defined by the patriarchy and is having to own up to her mistakes.
I’m glad you brought that up, because that was a really hard character for me to play. But at the same time, I’ve been very interested lately in exploring that. For instance, the number of women in our country who say that they don’t believe in the Equal Rights Amendment—I am fascinated, fascinated by that psychology. What is it that is driving them? What is it that is making them feel like they need to [stay] in this male-driven world? In Promising Young Woman, that character came up in a man’s world, and she had become very successful, but she had done so within the confines of those structures, and there were certain belief systems that she, for her own safety in her progression, had to adhere to. And she didn’t realize it. So much of it is unconscious.
It makes you realize how much more work we need to do.
Yeah, and also to have empathy for those women. Because, honestly, we are all products of this culture that is just centuries of deeply ingrained tradition. Everybody has their own experience of what that is to them, and how they’ve had to learn to function in the world. When I’m playing these characters, I always look at them with empathy. I grew up in the South. I know a lot of women who lean more in that direction, and I want to understand them.
When did you first feel like a celebrity?
It’s funny, as you say that I’m still like, “I don’t know if I really feel that way even now!” I guess, probably, when we were doing Friday Night Lights, there was something really magical about it. We were shooting out in Austin, Texas, and we felt so far removed from the Hollywood scene. We were just doing this thing that we loved. And I remember one time, toward the end of that first season, we were actually shooting at the Astrodome or something, and there was a reporter there, and she came up to me and said, “People are really loving the show, and they’re really loving what you’re doing. I’ve even heard people talking about you in an Emmy conversation.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” It was the first moment of, Oh, this is actually getting out there? And it’s actually impacting people? And there’s an Emmy convo? What? Which, by the way, I did not get nominated for that season [laughs].
Well, you should have. Your character, Tami Taylor, resonated with people, and she became this fantastic role model—someone who wasn’t perfect but who cared deeply.
Yes, exactly. I feel like I learned so much playing that role. I got a lot of what my values are as an actor from that experience, and I’ve tried to hold on to them. Tami taught me a lot.
Now, after seeing you sing your heart out on Nashville for five seasons, my dream is that they’ll make a Friday Night Lights musical for you to star in.
OMG. That’s all I have to say to that. Wow. Ha! Never say never…
Lastly, I feel like I can’t not bring up your hair. It’s on the same level as Tina Turner’s legs at this point—like you need to have it insured. Do you ever just want to chop it off?
It was short for a lot of my life. Listen, when I got a Dorothy Hamill haircut when I was in elementary school, I thought that was the be all and end all. For anybody who’s too young to know what a Dorothy Hamill haircut is, look her up! And I had short hair even when I was on Spin City.
That’s true. But post–Tami Taylor, your hair became a celebrity in its own right.
I know. And, by the way, that was totally out of left field for me. I was like, “Where did this come from?!” It was so funny! But anyway, at this point I doubt I would chop it off unless I did it for a part.
That makes sense.
But even then I’d probably wear a wig!