As Deacon Claybourne on "Nashville," Charles Esten plays a talented musician with a troubled past, a conflicted relationship with both female stars of the show (Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere) and a history of addiction. In real life, Esten is also a singer/songwriter, but fortunately he doesn't share Deacon's angst. I spoke to the actor at this winter's TCAs, and found the former "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" improv artist and onetime Buddy Holly (for the London production of "Buddy") to be country-cool and thrilled to be putting his real-life songwriting skills to use.
HitFix: Can you talk about the evolution of Deacon's character? Because he wasn’t what we thought initially.
Esten: Well, he’s an addictive personality and he has a lot of weaknesses… and I like that.
HitFix: And that has caused trouble for people around him.
Esten: Yeah, yeah, and it’s a hard way to be and a hard way to live but it’s a fun thing to play. Because, you know he, vacillates between being strong and being weak. Which is just human beings, right? So, in the one moment he can find that strength and stand up and go chase what he wants to do, and in the next he’s backing up; he’s real emptied out. There’s a line: “Me and happy don’t get along real well.” That’s just sort of a wry way to say I’ve had a hard time finding that. So again, uh, a fun one to play. Or not fun, but interesting.
HitFix: I'm sure his struggle with addiction resonates with viewers.
Esten: I’ve met a lot of people right there in Nashville that attend meetings and the different 12-step groups and it’s been really kind of…what’s the adjective I want to use? Moving and special in that a lot of them, they care about him and [say stuff like] “Don’t tell me he’s going to do drink!" They’re worried about him. He’s a strong enough guy that there’s people who seem to care about him and that, that blows me away. That’s really kind of nice.
HitFix: I’m not sure how I would feel about Deacon falling off the wagon at this point. It would be really hard to watch.
Esten: Yeah, but the things that are hard to watch are what tend to show [character]. I know personally, I’m not really anxious for that to happen. I’m fighting for Deacon’s sobriety as much as he is in some ways. Because the battle’s interesting. It's moving.
HitFix: And you perform on the show as well, which must be fun given the caliber of songwriters, plus having a legend like T Bone Burnett producing.
Esten: This album we just did, we just put out this compilation album. It said it’s over a million now. That is a testament to, first of all, the song choices, which, are T Bone and Callie [Khouri] and the different people working on the show in that department and…and he affects it there. And then he affects it in the production of it. He was the producer for many of mine. I was lucky enough to have that. It’s a little mind-blowing at first. You just have to breathe your way [through it]. But he makes you feel utterly at ease. Utterly at ease. It’s just about being as truthful as you can. It’s very similar to acting. We keep running into the same thing. Doing a scene truthfully is very similar to doing a song truthfully. They’re really parallel. It’s just sort of letting go of the affectation and all the [posing] and just try to talk to somebody.
HitFix: That there's a marriage between the story and the music seems appropriate, given that Callie and T Bone are married to one another.
Esten: Also that they’re pushing each other to be better. They’re writing a song that’s good enough for the scene, and then they’re writing a scene that’s good enough for the song. And the two ends do tend to push each other.
HitFix: You also have people who are known as actors, like Connie Britton, singing.
Esten: I mean, that’s the strength that T Bone brings out of Connie, for instance. I mean, that’s insanely brave. We even talked about those things that make you nervous or give you the shakes if you’re an actor. She’s definitely the kind of actress that says, I’ve gotta take a bite of this and do my best at this. T Bone, what he’s getting out of her is, first of all, her voice is lovely. And then on top of that, she’s amazing as an actress. She’s very tuned in to what’s true and what’s not true.
HitFix: It was also a surprise to find out that Hayden Panettiere could sing like that.
Esten: Yeah, it’s great, because she’s been in the public eye for that long, and to have that up her sleeve is great.
HitFix: So, how did you end up in "Nashville," so to speak?
Esten: [Callie] could probably tell you better than I could…I only know what I know. What I do know about it is that I played music for years, I was in a band in college, and I always maintained that. And was actually pretty focused on country music songwriting about five years before I got this show. A friend of mine who I had been writing songs with and getting songs pitched internationally for other artists, twice we had planned for me to go out with her and her husband and go play at the Bluebird. Twice I had to cancel.
HitFix: The Bluebird Cafe being a pivotal part of both "Nashville" and Nashville.
Esten: The second time I remember saying to my wife, when am I ever going to get to go to Nashville? And within a year from that, this job pops up. So, it was a long road. It’s a hard thing to do, because this is such a great role there are many names that would like to play it. I was very lucky that the music sort of narrowed the field a bit.
HitFix: Since you're a songwriter as well, do you get to put pen to paper very often?
Esten: I do actually. That’s one of the things that, from this, I’m able to meet these great writers, first of all, that are working on this show. I am so excited to be able to meet with them and I’m able to write with them and that’s more than I imagined could be possible. But it’s also great because once you’re in the room writing with them, they might have whatever reason they get together with you . Certainly it’s because I’m on the show—they weren’t writing with me beforehand. But, once you’re there, you gotta bring what you can bring and you’re either going to earn their respect and they’re either going to want to write again with you [or not]. You’re either going to contribute to the song or you’re not. So…I’d like to think that I am. That all the times that I had been doing it by myself for years and years have given me some tools to be ready for this moment.
HitFix: Any experience stand out?
Esten: Brad Tursi was one of the writers of the song "The Sideshow." I ran into him and he was being complimentary about the song, about the performance, and I was being insanely complimentary to him about that amazing song and thanking him. It’s a little daunting when you’re singing a song that great and you feel a real responsibility to the song writer to do it justice when you show it in public. In any event, he said, “Let’s get together, let’s write.” And we got together, and our writing session got cut very, very short. We only had an hour, he said let’s see what we can do. And it just hit and we went in an hour and came up with a song that we both love already.
HitFix: Is there anyone that’s still on your wish list that you want to work with, that you haven’t gotten a chance to? I heard that Elvis Costello has contributed music...
Esten: I don’t have the nerve to put him on my list, because he is such a hero of mine. Elvis Costello’s song writing is so peerless and individualistic. It’s storytelling and it’s deeply intelligent and clever.
HitFix: How much has it helped to be filming in Nashville?
Esten: One of the songwriters with a giant footprint is Jeffrey Steele, and he has written a lot of hits—Rascal Flatts, among others. He was one of the guys that inspired me, on just hearing him. I heard him talk on the radio briefly in Los Angeles, where they said he was going to go do a show, and then he sang a song where he talked about what had inspired him to write them. I called him up and said, I need to go check this out. I knew nothing about country music writing at that point. I went, I watched, and was blown away. It inspired me. That’s what put me on the five-year path to start writing. He doesn’t even know this. And on Tuesday I’ll be writing with him. So it’s one of those full circle kind of things. I’m just going to do my best, try not to embarrass myself. And see if Jeffrey Steele and I can come up with a song.
HitFix: Do you think fans of the show who think they don't like country music are having their eyes opened to it?
Esten: Yeah, well, first of all, a lot of it isn’t country music. A lot of Nashville isn’t country music. A lot of [Nashville] is very broad now, you know. But "Nashville" songs and country music have always been about storytelling and about the heart and confessionals. They’re monologues. They’re monologues of broken people. And if you care a little bit about Deacon, and he sings that…
HitFix: Deacon is definitely a broken person, and that's what's exciting about watching him. Can you tell us what to expect for him? I don't know what to expect from this character now.
Esten: Nor do I.
HitFix: Oh, come on! So when they sat down with you to talk about the character, they didn't give you an arc to work with?
Esten: No. First of all, they didn’t because I don’t know that I would want one. I mean, there’s something to that being in the moment. And not pre-planning and acting where you’re going to end up. It allows yourself to be more surprised at where it’s going and where it ends up. But also, there’s also a lot of puzzle pieces. If they were to plan it out that far in advance they would not be able to react week to week, episode to episode, about what they’re discovering about the characters. So when they find that something, 'Oh! That, that’s interesting!' They can pursue that a bit.