by Andrea Mandell, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES - Hayden Panettiere's outfit for this evening has been carefully laid out - just as a chart-topping country star would expect - on a mirrored cocktail table in her sleek purple and green living room. A short black dress is steamed and ready to go, with caged black sky-high sandals and a contrast clutch waiting beside it.
All that's missing is the microphone.
But tonight, that dress is meant for Panettiere the TV actress, not the sassy superstar she plays in Nashville, the country-infused drama in which she and Connie Britton star. The former Heroes cheerleader known for supernatural healing powers is preparing to premiere a more earthly skill in the ABC drama that launches Wednesday (10 ET/PT): a pitch-perfect country twang.
In Nashville, Panettiere, 23, plays Juliette Barnes, a country-pop sensation whose catchy singles and ability to sell out concert venues slowly becomes a thorn in country legend Rayna Jaymes' (played by Britton, 45) side.
The skill set required to pull off the musical drama is nothing new for Panettiere, who recorded singles for several of her Disney films in her pre-Heroes days and an album in her teens (it was not released). "I said if I was ever going to do it again, I would do country music, but I knew that people would find the disconnect there between me being from New York and not from the South," says Panettiere, who grew up listening to Willie Nelson, Alison Krouse, Union Station and Faith Hill.
That made Nashville "the perfect scenario for me," she says.
Britton's mountain was higher to climb. After scoring two Emmy nominations for her work on Friday Night Lights and an additional one this year for American Horror Story, the new mom to adopted son Yoby had planned to take some time off and develop her own projects. And, as she reminded Nashville creator Callie Khouri (who won an Oscar for penning Thelma & Louise), she hadn't sung in years. "I'm talking about back in the dark ages when I was doing, like, off-off-Broadway and regional theater," says Britton by phone, on her way to the set.
But it was Khouri's resolve and Britton's toddler son that persuaded her to take the risk. "I have to say, stupidly, that's probably why I thought, 'Oh I can pull this off,'" says Britton with a laugh. "Once he came into my life, I found that I'd sing to him all the time. I was like, 'Oh, yeah, I can sing.' But it's really the equivalent of singing in the shower."
Behind the show
In Nashville, the music business confronts itself with a respected legend facing lagging sales squaring off with a pinup digital queen.
But there's more to Juliette, says Panettiere. "When you see her at first, she just reads as the snotty, bratty little queen, another young girl in Hollywood," the petite actress says, today makeup free and curled up in her Hollywood Hills home in a cowl-necked sweater and leggings. But with a tough past and a drug-addicted parent, "this is a broken little girl who is running so far from her past."
Conversely, Britton plays a woman struggling to hold on to her future, along with her marriage to an aspiring politico. "Rayna is somebody who has always been all about the tradition of country music and the authenticity of that and storytelling," says Britton.
While the setup seems to beg for a surface-level Taylor Swift/Faith Hill-type comparison, the women aren't biting.
Britton says Rayna was inspired by an amalgam of country superstars, from Hill and Reba McEntire to Patty Loveless and Bonnie Raitt.
And Panettiere finds no similarities between her character and Swift. "Taylor's known to be a very nice person and handles herself well," she says. But she did take a few dance cues from Carrie Underwood. "She's one of those girls that doesn't do the whole dancing-around-choreography thing but has that stage presence like no other. She can just stand there and be incredibly interesting."
The power of the spotlight
In the series, both women are happy to put a spotlight on the scrutiny of women in Hollywood.
"People will very rarely give the benefit of the doubt," says Panettiere, who's enjoyed living out of the spotlight in Nashville, despite recent leaked photos of her on vacation with her boyfriend, former New York Jets football player Scotty McKnight, who comes downstairs briefly to introduce himself during the interview before running out for a smoothie.
But she admits to testing the limits as Heroes became a cult hit. "It gets very confusing, and you just kind of get swept up in it. And I'm sorry, but it can happen to the best of us. I saw myself test those boundaries, and I saw the people around me pull me back and confront me about it. I had a 12 (midnight) curfew until was 18 years old."
"We can tend to have such clichéd ideas about women in show business," says Britton. "The idea of the opportunity to show women as full-fledged, complex, three-dimensional human beings who also happen to be country music stars, in this case, is a great thing for us to be able to do on television."
And while Rayna faces a stagnant career at 40, Britton says her experience has been the opposite. "My hope with this show is to not dwell too much on the, 'Oh, well once you hit 40, the business doesn't want you anymore.' Because frankly, that's not my experience. I've been able to play some of the most interesting characters and have had some of the greatest success once I hit 40."
Khouri has been itching to tell Nashville's story since she lived there in her early 20s "and talk about all the different things that I'm interested in: music, culture, aging, politics, the South."
The cast feels the weight of responsibility to get the city right. "To be the representatives of Nashville is a huge deal," says Panettiere, who opens her sliding doors nightly to let the strip's live music waft into her apartment.
Britton has found a community in Nashville to lean on. "Initially, it was difficult just for me," concedes the single mom, "moving away from my support system and from people I know. But I've already really made some lovely friends here - friends who have kids, which is important," she says, adding that Yoby is "at a good age where this is a really fun world for him."
Khouri calls Britton a superwoman. "I really feel for the amount of work that this woman has to do. It's not the easiest road, but she walks it beautifully. She has one nanny. That's it."
Nashville is also a literal marriage of talent. Khouri's music producer husband, T Bone Burnett, is producing much of the music on the series, which features his famous friends "cameo-ing off-camera right now," he says, by contributing original songs.
"I've been primarily going to friends and asking if they have any songs laying around," says Burnett, noting the country music community's pride in this series. "Everybody has songs that they haven't recorded that they like that haven't fit on a record or they haven't found a place for." Contributors include Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello and The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach.
"The music is truly insane," says Panettiere, "and people are going to get to see that the term 'country music' is a very broad term." To get the women ready, the Grammy-winning producer leaned on skills he sharpened preparing Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix for Walk the Line.
Panettiere, he says, is kismet in the role and compares Britton's sound to "a mountain sound, and I dig that," he says. "The thing is, Joaquin and Reese and I and Jeff (Bridges) and I had months and months to work before we ever started shooting. Connie's been having to work and learn to sing while she shoots. It's an amazingly courageous thing that she's done."
Both she and Panettiere are pulling double duty on set, shooting 14- to 16-hour days and then heading into a music studio to record. "It's definitely grueling, but it's really rewarding because the music is such an extraordinary part of what this show is," says Britton.
The result is music that, like the Glee and Smash tunes, will be available on iTunes, although appearing on fans' iPods is a concept Britton isn't quite ready to face.
"That part is still a little unbelievable to me," says Britton, laughing. "I'll believe it when I see it."