When Hayden Panettiere gets her Nashville scripts, she reads them first as a fan, and then as an actor. “I don’t connect myself with the character immediately. Initially, it’s ‘Oh, my gosh, Juliette, you idiot! Are you kidding me?’”
And yet after a season where her country diva became an industry pariah by very publicly breaking up a radio titan’s marriage (and appearing to have denounced God’s existence in a viral video), then wound up betraying her soulmate Avery by drunkenly hooking up with the record exec who’d booted her from his label, “the brilliance of the writing” has made fans “very forgiving of Juliette,” says the actress. “They’ve actually managed to find empathy for someone who just makes mistake after mistake after mistake.”
Of course, Panettiere’s nuanced performance — full of humor, heartache and oodles of diva brass — wins over audiences, too, and made her one of TVLine’s Dream Emmy Nominees as Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.
So, while Panettiere admits she was especially nervous about how Nashville fans would feel about Juliette’s aforementioned indiscretion with Jeff Fordham — “especially since they love Avery, and they love her and Avery together” — from a purely creative point of view, “the more fuel you put in my fire, the happier I’m going to be.”
TVLine caught up with the actress to talk about her epic season-finale monologue, her funniest one-liner and the way wardrobe helps delineate between Juliette’s public and private personas.
TVLINE | Let’s jump right in and talk about the Season 2 finale, your last scene with Avery (Jonathan Jackson) to be specific: After he asks her why she cheated on him, Juliette has that monologue about her difficult childhood, about her experiences with her mom’s “older guy” friends, about feeling like she’s just “trailer trash covered in rhinestones.” Tell me about coming to that point in Juliette’s character development, about making her that vulnerable.
You know, one of the things that has been such a blessing about playing this character is that, as forward as Juliette has been and as many times as she’s fallen on her face, there’s always something else to learn about her, to understand about her. For me, that scene was a big point of realization about my own character, about her and her past and where she comes from. Because I can come up with things in my head and speculate as to what’s gotten her to this place and why she is the way she is, but it’s not until you have monologues like that, that things really become clear.
[Juliette] really broke down. She really trusts Avery — and that’s the difference between him and all of the other relationships that she’s been in. She was on her knees going, “I am admitting to you something that I would never admit to anyone — nor have I ever really admitted to myself.” She’s that kind of person who puts a wall up in her head, and all that pain goes behind a door and it gets filtered and forgotten. But in that moment, she knew that she was going to lose the most important relationship she had ever had in her life. I’d say it was definitely one of my favorite scenes.
TVLINE | How many takes did it require to bring those emotions to the surface?
I love when they use as many cameras as they can — especially when you’re doing monologues like that. You want to be able to think about what you’re saying and come up with it in the moment. I knew the lines, but it wasn’t so set in my head that it just became repetitive to me. So, sometimes with emotional scenes, I’ll ask them to do the close-ups first, because the fresher I am with it, the better I feel. [In that scene], Juliette was speaking out of realization. She was going through it in that moment. This wasn’t something she had planned to say. She was almost speaking to herself, as much as to Avery. She was finally saying all this stuff out loud and coming to the realization about herself in that very moment.
TVLINE | The funny thing is, Avery wasn’t a terribly likeable character throughout Season 1 — or a good chunk of Season 2. Somehow he and Juliette bring out the best in each other — and their relationship has shown us her softer side, too. Was it fun this season to play that — to be able to leave her brattiness and hardness behind for a minute?
Absolutely. To play the “villain,” if you will, it’s only interesting when there’s a balance. If a character is constantly sweet you’re going to have a problem with it. If a character is constantly monstrous and evil, you’re going to have a problem with it. It’s the balance that makes it relatable and human — and that’s what we want to see. You forgive [Juliette] and you understand her and you love her, because the person that she is outside of the industry is a good person, a sweet girl. But she’s been through a lot. A lot of people will say “What a bitch,” but you know what? A lot of the time, while I don’t fully agree with the way she goes about things, most of the time I agree with her opinion about the situation. I genuinely do.
TVLINE | Speaking of balancing acts, the episode after Juliette has sex with Jeff is the one where the main characters go to the military base and perform. I thought that was an amazing episode for you because there wasn’t a single second where we couldn’t see that mistake haunting Juliette, see the panic and the sickness on her face. How did you achieve that?
It was probably as fresh and new to me as it was to Juliette, because I think that was the first time that she had ever cared enough to regret her actions. There have been very few things that this girl has allowed herself to feel guilty about in her life, and very few people, if any, that she’s genuinely hurt without going, “Well, take it, or leave it. This is life. I’ve been hurt too, and you’re not going to get sympathy from me.” So the guilt she’s feeling [over betraying Avery], it’s absolutely sickening, and you question your mind, “Even if I can guarantee a hundred percent that no one will ever find out, can I live with that? Can I live knowing that I did something that gives me nightmares?” Those scenes were really tough, because I was dealing with that hanging over my head, and also dealing with the fact that it was the first time that we realize that Juliette’s stepdad, who was her rock, and for all intents and purposes was her father, was a Blackhawk pilot and had died in a [training] accident. When people have been emotionally through a lot of trauma in the past, you almost become numb in a certain way where your brain shuts down. You tend to go into system overload — where things aren’t even in focus to you anymore. It’s such an intense emotional state that there are no words to describe it.
TVLINE | Watching the show, it’s almost like there are two Juliettes: Public Juliette, who’s always dressed to the nines with full hair and makeup, and Private Juliette, who in these moments of vulnerability at home is in sweats with her hair pulled back. Is that juxtaposition something you’ve worked on in developing the character?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I really, really wanted to make a huge differentiation — emotionally, mentally, verbally and physically. Physical acting is not something to be overlooked. It’s a huge part of feeling like the character and being in that emotional state. So, I wanted people to both physically and emotionally see the massive change in between those two people — and that is a choice that she’s made, exactly what you said. It is that suit of armor that she puts on. It’s like a lot of these amazing singers nowadays, these performers go up on stage and they’ve got their suits of armor on and they sometimes call themselves different names. They step into this character that they’ve created.
That is a huge wall that Juliette has put up, a boundary, and it is a major part of protecting herself. So, when you do get to see her with Avery and at home, she is as raw as humanly possible. She is not concerned with what she looks like, she’s not being anything but the little girl from Alabama who has gone through the ringer, and she is finally revealing herself to somebody, her true self, that vulnerability.
TVLINE | I also think that Juliette is one of the funniest characters on TV. Every episode, it seems like she has a classic zinger. Like when she tries to be nice to Layla in the elevator — to let her know she has her back if that radio programmer gets too sexually forward — and Layla shuts the conversation down. Juliette takes a moment, then says, “I guess nice just ain’t my color.”
I love that line. That was absolutely one of my favorites: When I saw it, I was like, “Thank you Lord. That is amazing!” The key to those moments is they’re believable and they’re real. She was a having a moment with that girl in the elevator, with Aubrey [Peebles]‘ character, and she was being genuine. There was a sense of, “All right. I don’t like this girl, but I know what she’s going through. I’ve been there. I’ve done that.” So she let down her wall for a second. And then when she gets rejected, it’s like, “Yep. That’s exactly why I don’t do this, and I just learned my lesson again.”
I mean, I’ve done the same exact thing where you go, “Okay. I’m going to be super nice to this person who’s not being great to me. I’m just going to kill them with kindness and make lemonade out of lemons.” And then, they bring you back, and you say, “That’s exactly why I needed to keep my guard up. That’s exactly why people behave the way they behave in this business — because it’s survival of the fittest. You’ve got to protect yourself.” It’s real emotion.
The writers for our show are also amazing at writing to their actors, not just me, all of the actors. They know who can pull off saying what and when — and even though some people may call it a soap opera, they know what they’re doing. There’s a cleverness behind their writing that I think is kind of rare.
TVLINE | Your show also really delves into what artists go through to succeed. As you straddle that dual role of actress and singer, how accurately does Nashvile get the politics of the music business? And what is it like seeing the chart performance of songs and soundtracks from the show?
One of the biggest compliments that we’ve gotten, I think I can speak for all of us, is how much Nashville as a city has accepted us and how much the country music industry has accepted us. And I don’t think they would if we weren’t hitting the nail pretty closely on the head. The show has revealed a lot about [the busines] without being disrespectful. But you have to realize to that we’ve got [executive producer] Callie Khouri, who’s married to T Bone Burnett, and they know this industry. They know what they’re writing about, they’ve seen it firsthand. We’ve been so lucky in that way — and we’ve had amazing producers and songwriters who love the show, too, and are here for us. And you’ve got people like [executive music producer] Buddy Miller, people that are so highly respected in the country music industry, right at the top of the pyramid. [Shooting] in [the city of] Nashville has kept it grounded, too.
TVLINE | Tell me a little bit about the Juliette/Rayna relationship. We’ve seen it go from adversarial to sort of a sisterhood. I loved that scene in the finale where Juliette is throwing up and Rayna’s holding her hair back. It’s a long way from where they started. How do you and Connie Britton approach these scenes now, where there’s this understanding, albeit with a little eye-rolling, between two women who are both a little larger than life?
There is a respect there that you have to keep in mind, because they’re two incredibly strong women that have overcome all obstacles in a way. In one sense, they’re from opposite sides of the fence, but in another sense they have a lot in common. They both have family issues. One might be in a mansion and one in a trailer park, but they both understand the pain of loss, and that becomes a connection.Also, Rayna is smart enough to understand that Juliette doesn’t mean 90 percent of what she says — not the way that she says it. She knows that it’s lashing out, so she can roll her eyes and walk away.
Sometimes, those treacherous relationships become the people that you actually care about the most — and that you become the most afraid to lose. That’s why I really wanted to make a thing out of [the start of Season 2], when Rayna was in a coma. On one hand, Juliette was pretending like she didn’t really care, but on the other hand she was not allowing herself to show that she cared because she cared so deeply. That’s why I loved the shot when they panned out from looking at a picture of Juliette’s [late] mom: The candles are lit and I’m in mourning for her, and then I put Rayna’s CD — an old CD of hers — next to it. I wanted [the CD] to be old, because I wanted it to show that she has been a fan of Rayna’s for years, and that there’s something more to it then just hating her. You don’t just hate somebody and give that negative energy to somebody without there being a good reason — some sort of sensitivity, some sort of vulnerability. I tried to equate it to [Juliette's] mom, maybe something that Rayna triggered in me, and that Rayna was almost as much a part of my past as my family. So, yeah, they do have a very, very tight bond — even though you see them constantly at odds and rubbing each other the wrong way. People don’t make you that angry unless you care what they think.