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The Saturday Interview

Connie Britton: ‘If you think you’re the one white person who can do no wrong, you’re not’

The ‘Friday Night Lights’ star has made it her mission to play privileged white women in the years since Trump’s election – and her new role in ‘The White Lotus’ is no exception. She tells Alexandra Pollard why it felt necessary to look into the heart of bigotry and separatism

Saturday 14 August 2021 08:42 BST
As the political landscape of the US became increasingly toxic, Britton decided she needed to change tack
As the political landscape of the US became increasingly toxic, Britton decided she needed to change tack (AFP via Getty Images)

Connie Britton cried the day she said yes to Friday Night Lights. The soul-nourishing show about a Texas high-school football team may now be in the pantheon of great TV, but Britton didn’t know that then. She didn’t know that the tough, maternal Tami Taylor would become the show’s backbone; that she would be inundated with awards for the role; that a YouTube compilation of Tami simply saying the word “y’all” would get 300,000 views. She just knew that she’d be playing the coach’s wife. Take one look at the testosterone-laden TV landscape in 2006, and you’ll get why that scared her. “There was a part of me that was like, ‘I’m never going to be able to expect more for myself than this,’” says the actor, who’s more recently had scene-stealing roles in Promising Young Woman and Bombshell. “I was weeping for my own aspirations, and the fact that as a woman, I can’t imagine more for myself than playing the supporting character on a show about football. So I wept. And then after that, I fought.”

Britton had already been burnt once. She’d played Tami in the film version two years earlier, and her role had been all-but eradicated in the final cut. “When I watched the premiere, I was like, ‘Did he make my character mute?’” she says, talking to me from a hotel room in Toronto. We’re here to discuss The White Lotus – the brilliant, needle-sharp HBO satire that has proven so fantastically popular in the US that it’s already been renewed for a second season – but we’ll get to that. “So then when they said they were making the TV show,” she continues, “my first instinct was, ‘Absolutely not. That would be six years of being a mute character.’”

But director Pete Berg was persuasive, and casting directors weren’t exactly hammering down Britton’s door. She was nearly 40. It had been 10 years since she’d got down to the last two to play Tom Cruise’s love interest in Jerry Maguire, losing out to a young upstart called Renée Zellweger, and she was yet to fully prove what she could do. Sure, she was on the map – a breakout performance in Sundance winner The Brothers McMullen in 1995 had led to supporting roles on the sitcom Ellen, Spin City (she was written out of it when Fox left) and The West Wing – but she was hardly a major landmark. So she said yes to Friday Night Lights. And then she got to fighting.

The first thing she did was make her plea to showrunner Jason Katims. “I remember sitting down with him and saying, ‘We have to do right by this character,’” she recalls. “‘We have to do right by the women in the show.’”

Before you could say “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”, the role of Coach Taylor’s wife started to grow. Over the course of five seasons, Tami went from stay-at-home mum to guidance counsellor to school principal. Always fighting for the underdogs, always ferociously protective of her female students, she was not only one half of the most loving, egalitarian couple on TV, but so morally steadfast that for several years, I would see Britton on my screen and feel comforted. When Friday Night Lights ended in 2011, she starred as fading country star Rayna James in the soapy yet compelling Nashville. She got a Golden Globe nod for that. There is something elegant about Britton as a performer. Never brittle or timid, she plays women who are made of sturdy stuff – the type to hold your gaze, whether delivering harsh truths or words of comfort. Charm, to put it another way, is Britton’s currency.

In recent years, though, she’s deployed this charm differently. As the political landscape of the US became increasingly toxic, Britton decided she needed to change tack. She began playing women who were… well, not bad people exactly, but dripping with privilege. In Promising Young Woman, as the college dean who dismissed a rape victim’s accusations as “he said/she said”, she turned what could have been a straight-up villainous role into something more subtle and insidious – couching her victim blaming in soft tones and sympathetic expressions. She was also the wife of Roger Ailes, the Fox News CEO accused of rampant sexual harassment, in Bombshell, while in The People vs OJ Simpson, she dragged on a cigarette as she sold her murdered friend’s story.

“These are all women who are doing their best but are very, very limited because of the cultural constraints that they’ve grown up in,” says Britton. “And I’m fascinated by that right now. Who are the hundreds of thousands of women who voted for Trump? I want to understand them better. I want to pull them in and say, ‘Let’s not be afraid to know that you actually could think of yourself differently, and value yourself differently, and be more empowered.’ But in order to do that, we have to look at them very honestly.”

Which brings us to The White Lotus. Written and directed by Mike White, it is set on a luxurious Hawaiian resort over the course of a single week. Its guests, almost all of them white, are various shades of repulsive. They want their cocktails cold, their entertainment culturally reductive, and their staff obedient. “You have to treat these people like sensitive children,” hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) warns a new trainee. “They want to be the only child. The special chosen baby child of the hotel.” Britton is holiday-maker Nicole Mossbacher, CFO of a search engine, whose #girlboss outlook doesn’t extend much beyond rich white women. “Is that the trendy thing they’re teaching now? To hate on Hillary Clinton?” she asks her daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney). Her son, meanwhile, “is a straight white young man and nobody has any sympathy for them right now… In a way, they’re the underdogs now”.

The Boston-born actor won hearts in her ‘Friday Night Lights’ role as the morally steadfast Tami Taylor (NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

“Somehow these characters are allowed to say the thing that we can’t believe people are thinking, but they are thinking it,” says Britton. “Nicole has worked really hard, and now what she’s getting around her is a lot of contempt. Probably as a young girl, climbing the ladder and doing what she had to do to transcend this patriarchal infrastructure, she envisioned that when she got there, it was all going to be great, and that she would be celebrated. What we realise, and why she clings to these ridiculous ideas that she has, is that the culture is not yet fully prepared for women to have that kind of power. Even people in our own family don’t know how to deal with us. If the wife is more successful than the husband, we don’t have great role models. We haven’t been brought up yet to let that be OK.” It’s why she relished playing this role. “It’s fascinating as a woman in the world in 2021 to take a very good, hard look at the hazards of success.”

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Even more squirm-inducing than its messed-up gender dynamics is the show’s exploration of race and privilege. The Mossbachers know they have benefited from the colour of their skin, but they refuse to acknowledge it. Or if they do, it is with extreme defensiveness. “Nobody cedes their privilege, that’s absurd” says Nicole’s husband Mark (Steve Zahn). “It goes against human nature.”

“Many of us have been in a serious state of denial,” says Britton when I mention privilege, “because sometimes that’s where you go when you’re trying to protect the thing that gives you… all the things.” She laughs. “People who’ve taken advantage of patriarchal, corporate structures are living very solidly in those places of denial. I think that at some point, if we’re really going to be substantive in how we’re addressing these very major cultural, racial, ethnic disparities, the first thing we have to do is acknowledge that people have made mistakes.”

Britton is fiercely articulate, but her warm Southern manner never falters. Though she doesn’t quite have the “hey y’all” drawl of Tami Taylor, her voice is just as soft and lilting, its tone somewhere between fun brunch friend and kindly school teacher. She is the kind of person, I imagine, who would be good in a crisis. This is the longest she’s ever been away from her son Eyob (who she calls Yoby) – he’s too young to have been vaccinated, so couldn’t come on the three-week shoot she’s just completed for a film called Luckiest Girl Alive. They’re to be reunited later today, and she talks with such elation at the prospect that I almost want to hang up so she can get a move on. Naturally, she is perfectly put-together. She wore a dark-brown wig for the shoot – her normal hair is so famous that the Daily Mail ran paparazzi pictures calling her “UNRECOGNISABLE” – but today it’s back to its strawberry-blonde, well-coiffed self. Her nails are French tipped; there’s a chunky gold ring on her finger.

Britton stars in ‘The White Lotus’ as the CFO of a search engine, whose #girlboss outlook doesn’t extend much beyond rich white women (HBO / Sky Atlantic)

She’s been thinking a lot, she says, about her own responsibilities when it comes to privilege – particularly white privilege. A decade ago, she visited Ethiopia to make a documentary about the country’s orphans. “I really bumped up against that idea of the white saviour,” she says. “And in fact I couldn’t really get past that. Even though I spent time in Ethiopia and shot a lot of footage and had a story to tell, I didn’t know how I could find the way in that felt truly authentic.”

The documentary never saw the light of day – but Britton did end up adopting her son from Ethiopia. She is his sole parent; though she still uses her married name as her stage name, she’s been divorced from her investment banker ex-husband since 1995. And she knew that being the white mother of a black child came with responsibilities.

“I think to myself: ‘I genuinely don’t carry any of this racism’,” she says, “and yet if I can’t look at my own privilege, and as a white person make sure that I’m raising my black son in America in a way that is going to benefit and serve him… If I can’t do that, then I’m living in my own version of denial. We just all really have to wake up. Even if you think you’re the one white person who can do no wrong, you’re not!”

Eyob is 10 now. Has it become easier as he’s grown older? She shakes her head. “It’s more complicated, for sure. I always had this feeling like, ‘Oh I’ll be able to protect him.’ And now I realise I will absolutely not be able to protect him.” She seems on the verge of tears. “And he’s going to be out in the world and all my love and nurturing is only going to go so far for him. So I need to be as educated as I can be about how to relay to him what that world is. And it’s challenging, but also, I’m so grateful for that. This is absolutely, without question, the life I chose. At the end of the day, I just want him to be a fulfilled, empowered, strong man in the world.”

Tami Taylor wanted the same for the often meat-headed boys of East Dillon High. “It’s part of my job to make sure you don’t grow up stupid,” she told bad boy Tim Riggins. “It’s bad for the world.” Is it something she thinks about – how to raise a man in a world where masculinity can be so toxic? “When I hear you say that, what comes up for me is just respect,” she says. “If you can raise a man into the world who is going to have respect and empathy for the people around him, particularly women, then that is a great movement forward, in terms of the overall cultural, patriarchal system in place.” There’s a pause. Then she throws up her hands. “I don’t know how to do that! This is a whole other human being who is built in the way that they’re built. All you can do is speak to him about it, surround him with people who also value those things.” She does an exaggerated shrug. “I don’t know.”

‘Promising Young Woman’ was a gear shift for Britton, who played the college dean that dismissed a rape victim’s accusations (YouTube)

Spare a thought for the Mossbachers’ son in The White Lotus. His parents take a different approach. “Being a young man in this time can’t be easy,” his dad tells him. “Why? Because you can’t harass girls any more?” “No. Well, yeah.” It reminds me of some of the responses to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements – the men of Hollywood who’ve somehow made themselves the victims. “The biggest one that I’ve heard, that really drives me crazy,” says Britton, “is guys who are like, ‘Well I’m just never hiring another woman again. Too risky. Just not going to do it. That’s what you get if you’re going to be like this. Because I could just get sued.’ I’ve heard that multiple times.” The scariest thing, she says, is that it came from people who seemed like “perfectly reasonable guys”. No devil horns in sight. “I would’ve thought, ‘They’re fine, they’re good.’ No. That sense of what they believe is theirs is real powerful, and real dangerous. They feel like their very existence is being threatened, you know? And that just puts people into survival mode. When people feel that pushed up against a wall, they’ll do anything.”

Luckily, the same is true for the people fighting for change. Even if that change is simply demanding that the women in a high-school football show are as three-dimensional as the men. “That was my own little version of how you can fight through your own struggles, you know?” says Britton. “It’s really one of those things, as I look back at my life, that is a real benchmark for me of how we can instil change. Even when we think we’re defeated.”

‘The White Lotus’ begins on Sky Atlantic on Monday at 9pm

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