Connie Britton is taking on a new project—on a much bigger screen.
The actress, closely identified with her character on Friday Night Lights and also known for American Horror Story and Nashville, appears in the new film American Ultra. She dispenses with her trademark warmth; her character, Victoria Lasseter, is a CIA agent dealing with a secret project (in the form of an activated supersoldier played by Jesse Eisenberg) that’s gone badly awry.
It’s a loopy plot, hinging on Jesse Eisenberg’s stoner character suddenly discovering his ability with weapons and hand-to-hand combat, but Britton’s above the fray. Indeed, her character’s seriousness helps provide ballast to the outlandishness of the plot’s twists and turns. “When you play reality in a heightened situation,” says Britton, “is when you get the most comedy out of it anyway.”
She spoke to TIME about her quick decision to take the role, how she’s overcome getting identified with Tami Taylor, and what being a Chinese major at Dartmouth taught her.
TIME: Was taking on a more broadly comic project a departure for you, or are there any common threads here with your work on TV?
Particularly on series television, and the things that I’ve done in series television, that kind of naturalism is something that has worked for these characters and helped sustain the characters for a long time. It’s a little bit tougher to do something broad with these characters for a long period of time. But it’s really fun to be able to move away from that in film, because it’s just a completely different color. In American Ultra, I wanted to go even broader with it, but the circumstances were so heightened and broad in the movie, that Nima [Nourizadeh], the director, really wanted to keep it as real as possible. He kept trying to bring it back to as much reality as we could create. When you play reality in a heightened situation is when you get the most comedy out of it anyway. It’s kind of a tricky balance. It’s the circumstances that are unbelievable, and everybody in the movie hits the tones so well. A lot of my scenes are with Jesse Eisenberg, who’s a master of it; he’s playing this stoner who realizes he has these incredible skills he didn’t know about. He never had a false moment. He never goes over the top, and it’s always grounded in something that resembles reality.
In order to produce this grounded feeling, did you do any research at all?
I literally got hired to do this movie and started work the next day, so I didn’t really have time for research, but I talked a lot about it with the director and Max Landis, the writer. We kind of came to the conclusion that the character I was playing was not brought up as a CIA agent; her background is medical. She came into the CIA as a researcher to do this secret project. In a way, that helped a lot, because she’s a fish out of water in that world. Her background is medical research, and she’s applying that in the CIA world. When we see her reluctantly having to do crazy CIA things and gunplay and the rest of it, that is definitely not her comfort zone. That made it easier for me, because I wasn’t playing somebody who was supposed to have CIA ability.
If your coming onboard happened so quickly, what were the elements in the script that made you pull the trigger? It seems fairly risky.
The script was so beautifully written—the tone was so unique and I loved the diversity of the characters. For me, it was about the character I was going to play. It did feel like something I hadn’t been able to do before, and a cool role for a woman. Those roles don’t come along every day. Even though I had just wrapped Nashville and was real tired, I thought it’d be a great opportunity. Every project is a risk with how it’s going to come out, but this felt like a risk worth taking.
Had you ever done a role as physically demanding as this one?
I haven’t really done anything that’s had those elements before. The closest would probably be American Horror Story, which wasn’t gunplay, but there were physical elements to that and levels of violence that were different than what’s in American Ultra. As an actor, I’m always looking for new territory.
When actors are lucky enough to be in a really beloved project like Friday Night Lights, they tend to get closely identified with their characters. Does being seen so widely as the understanding, kind Tami Taylor help you in taking on new projects, or does it make your work harder?
It’s depends on the perspective of how I’m looking at it. No question that to be able to play a character who really impacts people in a deep way is only amazing. For me, that is an incredible thing, and always a goal. I want to create a character who is so accessible and relatable to people that it really makes an impact. But as an actor, I certainly struggled after Friday Night Lights to think about what would be a good next move. It’s difficult to walk away from something that I love so much and know that as an actor, I need to do something that is a real departure. It’s walking away from a true love, and to stretch myself, I have to go far, far away from it. It’s always a challenge, but it’s an important and essential one.
It’s not really about proving you’re hirable, entirely, it’d seem; isn’t part of the need to challenge yourself about personal fulfillment?
Exactly. One of the reasons people used to not want to work in television was because you could get pigeonholed into whatever role you played. People see you as that character year after year. That’s a danger for sure. I don’t worry as much about that, but as an actor, I want to feel I’m stretching. Otherwise, there’s no joy.
Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, your costars in this movie, have been in the public eye from a very young age. You, by contrast, went to college and had a whole life before fame. What contrast do you see between your experience and theirs?
In everything I’ve ever worked on, inevitably, I’ve ended up working with younger actors who are getting into their careers at a very young age. Jesse and Kristen are remarkable because not only did they get into their careers at a very young age but they also reached enormous success at a very young age—and very well-deserved success at a very young age. They’re extraordinary to me; I kind of gawk at them because their talent is so well-honed, and to have that level of talent at such a young age and to be able to access it and parlay that into a career is something I will never be able to understand because that was not my experience. My experience has been a different one, and may be interesting to some, because some people always ask me, “You reached more success as you got older, and usually they say you can’t do that as a woman, blah blah blah”—to me, it’s really interesting to see young people be able to be so self-possessed in the ways they are.
Has your college experience informed your career at all?
It’s the only way I can imagine it. For me, it was the way that I was raised, and education was always the most prized possession that my parents could ever imagine giving me. I feel like my experience being able to go to college and study all the things that I studied—not being a drama major, being a Chinese major—absolutely has contributed to the rest of my life. It’s easy to laugh at that and say, “What does that have to do with being an actor?” For me personally, though, it’s shaped the person that I am, and that’s something that I needed. I needed all that to feel like I had access to a stronger voice. It’s taken me all the years and all the experience to create the voice that I have as an actor.
This film depicts a boundlessly powerful state pursuing Eisenberg’s character mercilessly. Is there a political dimension here?
I actually didn’t really think that way when we were shooting it because it all seemed like another world entirely, and so not something that I could really imagine. But, then again, I hadn’t seen Citizenfour yet. Now that I’ve seen Citizenfour, all bets are off!
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