Last week, ABC’s television drama Nashville entered its second season. Things are not going well for its cast of characters: from Connie Britton’s established country star Rayna James to Hayden Panettiere’s cocky, Britney Spears-esque singer Juliette Barnes and Eric Close’s semi-corrupt politician Teddy Conrad. Struggling musician Gunnar Scott, however, is perhaps in the darkest place of all.
“Someone tweeted, ‘Why is Gunnar always so miserable?’ ” Gunnar’s real-life counterpart, British actor Sam Palladio, tells us. “And it’s like, come on! He’s lost his brother, he screwed up on getting a record deal, he lost his duet partner and she turned down a marriage proposal, his really close friend tried to make out with him…”
Before flying to Tennessee to film the Nashville pilot, Palladio had never been to the U.S. “I think I had this preconceived idea that it was a bit more hillbilly—a bit more hay bales and Dolly Parton tits,” he explains of his move to the capital of country music. “But the city has this influx of different cultures—it’s just a melting pot of creativity,” he continues, citing Johnny Depp and Jack White as fans of the city. As a part-time musician himself, the move suits Palladio. “I could easily make Nashville a permanent home,” he says. “There’s not much I miss, apart from my family, about the UK.”
This week, the actor will also appear in the gambling film Runner Runner alongside Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck. His part is a small, but fun, one: he plays a British business owner who gets blackmailed into cooperating with Affleck’s corrupt online gambling company. In between filming Nashville episodes (he just received the script for Episode Eight) and appearing in Matt LeBlanc’s series Episodes, Palladio is voicing a character in a new, animated Disney film Primrose, which also features Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, and Maya Rudolph. “It’s set in this bottom-of-the-garden, mystical fairyland that has this real darkness and grit to it,” he gleefully shares. “Probably the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything is being in a booth, getting to improvise.”
As for the future, Palladio’s ultimate goal is “to be in one of the new Star Wars movies—even if I’ve just got a Stormtrooper helmet on at the back of the scene.”
We spoke with Palladio last week at Nespresso in SoHo.
EMMA BROWN: I saw Runner Runner. You have quite a good little part.
SAM PALLADIO: Yeah, exactly. It’s my first movie. It was very surreal. Being flown from London to Nashville for a month, shooting the pilot of Nashville and then heading to L.A. for the first time. I was only going to be there, like, a week and a half, and it turned into two and a half months with getting Runner Runner and reading for that with the director. It was crazy. Then I found myself in Puerto Rico opposite Justin in that little beach hut. But yeah, a great little part to sort of get me out of the tracks.
BROWN: Did you get to talk to many of the other actors on set?
PALLADIO: Most of my stuff was just with Justin, but it was cool being at the read-through and meeting Ben and everybody. I don’t think they’d cast Gemma [Arterton] at that point—there was one of the girls from Glee who was reading the part. I was like, “Oh, it’s the blonde girl from Glee!” They put me on the table opposite Ben and next to Justin. At the read-through they asked if I could read all the other little bit parts, so I think I read seven parts that day and tried to do some different accents. I think I managed to impress a couple of people.
BROWN: Were you like, “I sing, too”?
PALLADIO: [laughs] Yeah, just bring out the guitar in the middle of the room. Stand on the table: “Sorry guys, a little musical interlude coming up.” [looking around] I should get one of these Nespresso machines. They’re supposed to be good. Might be a bit cumbersome to carry around this morning.
BROWN: It could be a talking point for the rest of your interviews.
PALLADIO: “Why are you carrying around a coffee machine?” I pick a couple things at each interview and end up with a whole crate full of things.
BROWN: Like show and tell. Did you do show and tell as a child?
PALLADIO: I did, yeah. I grew up in the Southwest of the U.K., on the coast in Cornwall. I used to keep a marine fish tank outside the house, where we would go down to the tide pools and catch fish and crabs. I think I caught a cuttlefish once. I remember bringing in a load of live sea creatures to show and tell once. So not your usual, “Here’s a painting I did with my mum.” It was like, “Here’s a few crabs I caught three weeks ago, and here’s a pipefish and a starfish.”
I think I used to bring a guitar in to show and tell. I actually found an old home video—because I don’t read music, I wish I did, but I totally don’t—but I did find an old home video of me playing in a little guitar quartet reading music. I was probably 10. I was like, “I used to read music when I was young? Wow.” It was all of us in a line, doing a little classical guitar piece. It was very funny. Good memory of it.
BROWN: Did you have professional lessons when you were younger?
PALLADIO: Not really. I had a few when I was really young at school, but never as a teenager. I just listened to some Chili Peppers and tried to copy what John Frusciante was doing. You know, play along with some indie American bands and learn it by ear. My dad played guitar, and so there were always guitars kicking around the house that I was never allowed to touch. My cousin gave me a twin-neck electric guitar for one of my birthdays. It was amazing. Even though it was mine, I was never allowed to pick it up.
BROWN: So your family is quite musical?
PALLADIO: Yeah, artistic. My dad is a sculptor and a painter and mum runs an art gallery, which sells beautiful jewelry and ceramics and paintings—local and international. Then my little brother is in London, training as an illustrator. I used to do a little bit of painting, but I went more of the performing arts route.
BROWN: Were they very encouraging?
PALLADIO: Yeah, completely, which is good because a lot of parents, when you say, “I’m going to drama school to become an actor,” they go, “No, you need to get a real job.” I have so many friends who wanted to do that, but their dads were lawyers or doctors or something and they’re a bit more rational. We didn’t have any money, so it wasn’t like, “You need to go and be a lawyer like your dad and earn top dollar.” It was, “Do what you’re good at and what makes you happy.” [My dad] always said that it would take him until he was 60 to make a name for himself, and it has been that way. But it’s a really fulfilling life if you can make your job what you love doing.
BROWN: What was your first ever paid acting job?
PALLADIO: I did a Barry Manilow jukebox musical called Can’t Smile Without You, which was my first job out of drama school. It was a musical like Jersey Boys, where they cast actor-musicians, so all the actors play the score. The story was about a band that was trying to make it in America and all the tunes would be Barry Manilow tunes. It wasn’t about Barry, but it was suggested, [and] it had lots of in-jokes. I actually know a vast amount of Barry Manilow, which is actually amazing because he’s incredible. I would love to see him in concert because I’d be able to sing along and sing the harmonies. I was the understudy for three parts, which included the bass player, the drummer, and the lead guitar. So I had to learn all the stage business and all the action and all the lines and everything and then learn the whole score.
BROWN: Is Barry Manilow your go-to karaoke artist?
PALLADIO: You know, it probably would be. I should try that sometime. I try to stay clear of karaoke because it normally involves an excess amount of drinking. I hate those people that get up and they’re amazing. I think you just have to be kind of wasted to go and do it.
BROWN: How long between Can’t Smile Without You and getting cast in Nashville?
PALLADIO: That was 2008—summer 2008—and then Nashville came January 2012, so a little bit of time, but I was really lucky to keep working. I came close to having to get a sales job. The most depressing was actually ending up in Abercrombie & Fitch and being like, “Oh, God. I’m going to work behind the tills here, and this place smells really funny.” Thankfully, just as I was about to have to go to the real world, I got this big hair commercial that saved my life.
BROWN: I like Lena Dunham’s tweets about Nashville.
PALLADIO: I know, isn’t that crazy? It blows my mind how many people tuned into it. I’ve become good friends with Ronnie Vannucci from The Killers. I met him in London a few months ago—I just saw him in a café. I play drums, so I’m tuned into some of those drummers and I think he’s amazing. I said [to myself], “Oh god, that’s Ronnie from The Killers, that’s awesome!” About an hour later, he came over and said, “I’m really sorry, but I just gotta say, I love Nashville. Me and my wife watch it all the time. I’m obsessed with it. I think you’re great.” I was like, “Man, I think you’re great. I love your band.” He said, “Come and have a drink,” and we became really good buddies. I went down to see them play in Georgia recently with the idea of going and opening for them at some point—it opens up this whole world for me musically.
BROWN: Where is your band based?
PALLADIO: I had a band in the U.K., Salt Water Thief, and I guess that’s something that couldn’t really go anywhere since I moved here. If I do any shows, I do it under Sam Palladio, and pull in these great musicians from town. I play with a fiddle player and an upright bass player and a dobro player, and it’s very much an organic: “This week I want to bring in this incredible harmonica player, Jelly Roll Johnson—”
BROWN: That’s a great name.
PALLADIO: It’s an amazing name, isn’t it? He’s the most soulful harmonica player you’ve ever seen. He just gets into it, closes his eyes and his hands go crazy. He’s the nicest guy, and I think he’s played on 50 gold records. He’s one of those session guys that everybody uses. At the moment, there’s a couple people who are in the core band, but I think the Salt Water Thief thing will come back into the mix somehow. Whether that becomes the name of an album, which I think it might be, because I’m working on an EP album at the moment. I always liked that name. It was attached to a Shakespeare quote from Twelfth Night. I played Orsino in the U.K. tour of that Shakespeare play. He’s having this battle with Antonio, this nemesis sea captain.
BROWN: Do people around Nashville try to give you their demo tapes?
PALLADIO: I’ve had a couple, yeah—not that I can do much with it. People are always like, “Hey man, I’ve got this great song that you should sing on the show. How do I get that on the show?” I’m like, I don’t know how that works. It was just really funny to think there’s all these people in town that are thinking about my character in the show and trying to write material that would be suitable. Well, I’m doing the same thing. I’m going, “Oh, Gunnar could play this.” There’s a couple songs I wrote last week, one with Will Hoge, that could totally be a Gunnar and Scarlet song. I’m going to try my best to get some of my music in the show as well. I think that would be great.
RUNNER RUNNER IS OUT THIS FRIDAY, OCTOBER 4. NASHVILLE AIRS WEDNESDAY NIGHTS ON ABC. EPISODES WILL RETURN IN 2014.