The fan-favorite country music show was canceled last year, after running for four seasons on ABC, but partly due to a rabid following, the series was picked up by the Viacom-owned cabler, bringing the entire original cast back for the fifth season, including Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, and Charles Esten.
“‘Nashville’ was always so special to me, and Deacon is the role of a lifetime,” Esten tells Variety. “It’s probably even more special now knowing how close we came to it being completely over.”
Along with a new network is also a new set of showrunners, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who were on board for the fifth season, before the show was axed by ABC. Having new showrunners and writers on the show lends to it a new outlook, which changes the tone, says Esten, who stars as Deacon.
“That new perspective has made ‘Nashville’ more character-driven, instead of story-driven or ‘incident driven’ as I’ve heard Marshall say,” Esten says. “The happy coincidence is that just when we have this team of writers with new perspective, we happen to also be in a situation on a new network where perhaps it’s more doable. Like being on the interstate for a long time going 80 MPH, and then getting to exit and take the back road, that single lane country road allows us to have a more leisurely, lyrical pace – and I think those have always been some of the best parts of the show.”
Here, Esten talks to Variety about how “Nashville” has changed being on a new network, plus teases what’s to come in Season 5…
What was your reaction when ABC canceled the series? Did you think it was the end — or did you have hope?
I was disappointed, but I’ve been in the business a long time. My first emotion was gratitude for the four amazing years of “Nashville” that we had on ABC and all the people that made that happen. Were it not for ABC, there would be no “Nashville.” They gave a lot of love to a show that is different than almost anything they have on or anything that’s on in general. I can’t be anything but grateful. I also felt like there were a lot more stories to be told, and in our case, a lot more songs to be heard.
Even Lionsgate, the studio behind “Nashville,” credited the show’s fans — “Nashies” — for helping with the CMT pickup. Did you feel the response from the fanbase?
They made a whole lot of noise. We already knew how much they loved the show and how devoted they were, but that’s when we learned how vocal and how savvy they could be. They spoke loud and clear. In some ways, that fan reaction took the sting out of not being picked up…I’m confident they were a major factor for us finding a new home. Whatever we meant to them in the past couple of years, they mean everything to us.
Will this season feel different than the rest of the series, now that the show is on a new network?
Yes, there’s definitely a difference with the show moving from network to cable and what you get to do in terms of time and the pace of telling a story. CMT knows intimately the world we’re dealing with, and from the very beginning have been champions of this show. They have been part of this all along the way, so for us to end up there – it makes so much sense. It was a long, tricky way to get there, but it feels like we’re home.
Why does CMT feel like home?
Besides the fact that we get to make more episodes, there is a real family unit with the cast and crew — that includes the city of Nashville itself. By now we’re all pretty fond of each other. The show loves the city. The city seems to love the show. They didn’t want it to end either, so it’s been especially wonderful to get to keep making episodes. And finally that we’ve ended up in this very perfect place with this great new perspective of these great new writers, that makes us all feel even better about it. It feels like it might be a magical season.
How does having new showrunners change the show?
In the same way having a new home changes the tone of the show, when you change showrunners you get a different perspective or take on it. With Marshall and Ed, you know the level of quality writing you’re going to get…We’re about 10 episodes in and I’m thrilled to see them bringing all those talents to bear, along with their writing staff, to bring us their take on these characters. I also want to acknowledge the writers we’ve had from the very beginning who got us where we are today.
What can you tease about Rayna (Connie Britton) and Deacon’s relationship in Season 5?
We have more time within scenes. The more lyrical pace means there’s time for silence, for unspoken moments, meaningful glances, or a touch on the arm. Things like those that are not driving the story and the exposition of the story, but are really wordless ways of showing the deep connection that exists. Those have always been the best moments between Deacon and Rayna, I believe, from the very beginning. With this new pace, this new home, and these new writers, we’re able to explore that even more and in a way that’s different because there’s a safety between them now.
How will the plane crash impact Juliette? Will she be a different person, after going through that?
The plane crash has a major impact on Juliette in a way that Hayden [Panettiere] has already said is completely unexpected. It takes her in a different direction and a journey of her own. The great part is she’s still Juliette. That spark, that flash that is Juliette, it’s all right there. Even if she’s lost for a moment or finding herself in different ways, who she is shines through. And that’s because of Hayden of course.
What else can you tease that’s coming up in Season 5?
Without giving away too much, this season really focuses on the concept of what is the raw material of art, whether it’s songwriting and performing those songs and the sometimes-painful journey to get there. Sometimes people are in different stages of life, and that’s really where Deacon and Rayna are. There’s a bit of exploration around that, as they work to create new material, and how you turn those life experiences into something beautiful. That’s really a reflection of Nashville and the songwriting community and how you get to a place where you can share who you are within your music.