‘Nashville’ Actor Charles Esten Remembers His Start in Music

Charles Esten Big Break in Entertainment
illustration: helen green; reference: Debby Wong/REX/Shutterstock

For Charles Esten, creativity has been a constant battle among the muses of music, acting and comedy. He’s exercised his acting muscle in movies like “The Postman” and “Swing Vote” as well as TV series like HBO’s “Big Love” and Disney Channel’s “Jessie.” Comedy improv show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” with co-star Wayne Brady, let him use all three talents at once, and since 2012, he’s played lead guitarist Deacon Claybourne on “Nashville.” Last year, Esten racked up lots of attention with his music project “Every Single Friday,” for which he released a new song each week for more than a year. And in June he served as host of the CMT Music Awards. But his initial break in the biz came on the small screen, in Fox’s 1995 sitcom “The Crew,” which led to his first mention in Variety in the Aug. 30, 1995, issue.

What do you remember about “The Crew”?

That was the first show I was a cast member, and I was one of the stars of the show. That was a huge amount of time, for me, on camera, compared to anything I had done before. It was a lot of fun playing opposite my old friend David [Burke]; we made some very funny episodes together. [The writers] were open to trying new things. But the key was working on the joke they had written and finding it in your own comic timing.

What came first: music or acting?

I was a musician long before I was an actor. As a kid, I was practicing on the piano or on the guitar, trying to come up with songs of my own, trying to learn other ones and trying to show off as much as I could to girls. Then when I went to college, I was in a band and continued to write music. I decided at that point — after the band — I knew I wanted to be an actor too. I’d always been a singer-songwriter on my own, but I knew I wanted to do this little thing called acting. I decided to go to Los Angeles.

Were you able to continue down the path of singing and acting?

I always kept writing. Somehow I thought I could do both music and acting at the same time. Early on, I was able to do that when I played Buddy Holly in the musical “Buddy” in London.

How early did you know what your focus would be?

I don’t know that I knew where I was heading. There are different levels of knowing: Sometimes you have to peel away layers to get to the thing that you always knew. My whole life, I always loved singing, songwriting and doing sketches in talent shows. I started off in stand-up when I went out to L.A. because that was the only place you could just get up and do something. You could just go do it and be seen. My dad used to tell this story when I was really young: He would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said I wanted to be a clown. He would ask why, and I would say I want to make people laugh.

Did you have any early mentors?

Kevin Costner. He could not have been any kinder, and I really got some invaluable time, sort of as a fly on a wall, to watch him negotiating what it was like to be a star, actor and director. I got to run lines with him and see what his process was. I respected him a whole lot and I still do.

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