ABOVE: CLARE BOWEN. IMAGE COURTESY OF BOB D’AMICO/ABC
The Grand Ole Opry hits primetime tonight with the premiere of ABC’s newest drama, Nashville. The show follows the clash between a veteran country superstar, played with determined charisma by Connie Britton, and her label’s new brash ingénue, played by Hayden Panettiere. With backstabbing, Southern accents, and plenty of hairspray, Nashville plays a bit like All About Eve—with a twang. Filmed on location, Nashville also showcases newcomer Clare Bowen, an Australian transplant. Bowen has a convincing Southern lilt in her role as songwriter Scarlett O’Conner, but it’s her singing voice that really turns heads. Her unassuming duet in the pilot ends up being the most memorable song of the episode. We caught up with Bowen to ask about singing for some of country music’s biggest legends and how she’s adjusting to life in Nashville.
GILLIAN MOHNEY: This is your first big American role; what about Scarlett drew you in?
CLARE BOWEN: I guess I identified with her the most, being in a strange place. She’s just moved to Nashville to be with her boyfriend. And I really had not been on a pilot in LA before, so [I got] that feeling of being displaced. And she’s such a beautiful creature. She’s so compassionate and so full of empathy. She’s a great appreciator of other people’s art. She looked like she’d be so much fun to play with, and they’ve given her to me to create that.
MOHNEY: You have a lovely scene at the end of the first episode where you’re doing a duet. It’s really the first time we realize the character can sing. Can you talk about how you’ve approached singing on the show, especially being from Australia and taking on country music?
BOWEN: My parents listened to music in our house all the time when we were growing up. It was everything from Dolly Parton to Paul Simon… We packed in everything. I always loved bluegrass, but there was so much I didn’t know about American country music in respect to the origins of this country. It was interesting to see the evolution of it. And that particular song… [My co-star] Sam Palladio and I had never met. We were at the hotel were staying at with the rest of the cast and we got a message saying, “Okay, you need to meet [country singer] Buddy Miller at nine o’clock in the lobby.” We went down there it was our first meeting like, “Oh hi, I’m Clare,” “I’m Sam.” He’s from London, and I’m from Australia, we were both totally blown away by where we were. We had never sung together before. We had never had a rehearsal, nothing. Then Buddy went, “All right, go on.” So we went, “Okay.” He played the instrument and I started, and it was weird—it just worked. I think it’s a testament to the casting team that they found two voices that go together so well.
MOHNEY: Since this show features singing, has it been a collaborative process where the writers and creators are able to see what you can do and write to that?
BOWEN: Absolutely, from the beginning we were encouraged that if we had music we had written to come forward and show people. It’s lovely, it’s a really an open forum. Obviously everything goes through [producer and songwriter] T-Bone Burnett, and that’s how we know we’re safe. Having people like [creator] Callie [Khouri] and T-Bone is just the biggest [help]. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else. We have a lot of creative license, which is lovely.
MOHNEY: What has it been like to shoot in Nashville, which is really the center for country music?
BOWEN: The shift has been huge. I turned up in Nashville at five o’clock in the morning not knowing where I was. I had no preconception of what Nashville as a place would be like. It all happened so fast, and Australia is a far cry from here. One minute I was in LA not knowing what was going to happen, the next I’m listening to a voicemail from Hayden Panettiere… After I sang the duet with [Sam Palladio] we walked out of the hotel shell-shocked, and he said, “Want to explore?” We jumped in a cab and went downtown and I opened the door and the music just fell into the cab. It was just this cacophony of awesome. Every single honky-tonk has a band in it.
MOHNEY: The show really orbits around these women and their personalities; how is that for you as an actress, rather than being on a more male-driven show?
BOWEN: It’s amazing. It’s really refreshing, and [creator] Callie Khouri writes the best roles for women. There’s three women who are all really, really different. Working with Hayden and Connie, they’re amazing. It’s lovely to be able to turn around and go “What’s happening?” And [they go] “It’s all right. It’s completely normal.” It’s kind of hard to describe, I don’t know how I managed to pull this off.
NASHVILLE PREMIERES TONIGHT AT 10PM EST ON ABC.