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‘Nashville’ Boss Details “New Blood” and the Post-Rayna Era

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Nashville is finally ready to spill the tea on its new blood.  

Following the death of leading Rayna James (Connie Britton), the country music drama will welcome not one but two familiar faces in Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) and Kaitlin Doubleday (Empire) in the second half of season five. While both their castings were announced in March on the day of the midseason finale, details about their recurring roles were kept under tight wraps.

Until now.

THR can reveal that Bilson will play Alyssa Greene, a Silicon Valley marketing expert who is brought in to take Highway 65 to the next level. She isn’t a country music fan, which she’s not afraid to admit because the product doesn’t matter to her. It’s all about breaking through the old models and winning through disruption. Driven and brilliant, she’ll do anything to avoid showing vulnerability in business and relationships.

Doubleday will portray Jessie Caine, a singer/songwriter who left Nashville a few years ago under a cloud of scandal, but has returned to reclaim her career and the son that was taken from her. 

Doubleday’s first episode will be the 100th episode, set to air June 15, with Bilson’s debut set to follow a few episodes later. (A first look at both their Nashville roles can be seen in the photos above and in the new promo below.)

Now that the details are out of the bag, The Hollywood Reporter jumped on the phone with co-showrunner Marshall Herskovitz to discuss the “new blood” coming to the show, behind-the-scenes “anxieties” about the loss of Britton and the show’s long-term future.

How did you and Ed [Zwick] go about figuring out what you needed to add to the show in terms of these new characters in the post-Rayna era?

We felt there was room for new characters on the show regardless of what happened with Rayna. It wasn’t connected to her death. We felt that as part of, again, bringing more diversity into the show, more diversity of music, just shaking up the cast a little bit would be something that would bring more light to the show. So it was something we always wanted to do. So we have these two great characters that are joining us. One is a singer-songwriter who has kind of a creative, traumatic history with an ex-husband and a child and she’s sort of fighting her way back to a life that she recognizes as her own – that’s the Jessie Caine character. And Alyssa Greene is part of the shakeup of Highway 65 that happens partly because Zach Welles comes onboard and partly because Rayna dies, and so all of the dynamics at the company are different now. Alyssa represents what that difference is going to be.

In the wake of the loss of a name actress like Connie, how much pressure did you feel from the studio and the network to land names actresses to fill that void?

Honestly, it was never really a conversation like that. That’s just now how we work. In any casting situation, we are always trying to find the best people and you’re always mindful of what someone’s stature is and very often, I would say most of the time, if someone has a name, there’s a reason why they have a name. They have something very special about them. It’s not like we didn’t care about finding a name, but I don’t want to give any impression that there was pressure from CMT to sort of fill this blank space that Connie Britton left because it was never like that. It was a much more nuanced and balanced conversation about who are these characters? Who are the best people to play these characters? Who’s available?

The truth is, in any casting situation, it’s always exceedingly complex. It’s never just one conversation. You’re dealing with who’s interested, who’s available, who’s right, who would fit the ensemble of the show better, who has a profile in the industry – all of those things come into play, but I wouldn’t say any one of them dominates other than who’s best for the part.

These characters are going to be introduced in different episodes so how did you decide how to bring them into the show? Why did you decide not to bring them both on in the same episode?

It was organic. It was the moment when that character should appear. The midseason premiere is very much about, I’d say, checking in on where our main characters are three months later and how they’re dealing with this loss and to what extent they’re moving on with their lives. There was no wish on our part to introduce a new character at the moment because it just felt more organic to just be with the people who had just gone through this trauma together. Then, as we begin to tell these stories and they begin in episodes 12, 13 and 14, you begin to see the unfolding of new conflicts, new dilemmas, new challenges, then inevitably that brings new people in because they are part of new stories we’re telling.

Jessie and Deacon (Charles Esten) both seem to have rough pasts they’re dealing with. What can you say about their dynamic going forward?

She’s a character with a past, what can I say? Something very terrible happened to her in her life. I don’t mean physically like an accident, I mean like an interpersonal trauma and it had to do with a husband and a child and there’s a lot of story to tell there. It has a continuing impact on her life right now. So she’s someone who is trying to overcome a challenge in her life, and I’m always attracted to characters like that, who may be flawed, who maybe bad things happen to them, but they don’t give up.

What was the thing that appealed to you most about the Alyssa character?

We were very intrigued of bringing somebody in who was not from the world of Nashville or country music – that just seemed like a lot of fun. She’s a little bit of a fish out of water, she’s someone who can look around and go, “What is this? Why are these people this way?” She doesn’t sort of get the culture of Nashville right off the bat.

There’s a scene when she’s getting to know Deacon and they sit down to have a drink to talk about Highway 65. He sits down and she’s ordered two martinis, and he’s starts to look at her and says, “Sorry, can’t drink it.” She goes, “Why not?” he says, “I don’t drink. … You really don’t know country music, do you?” It’s just a really funny, sweet moment of how somebody from a different part of the country may not know how everything works so I think that was a fun lens to see these people through.

How do you find the balance in the second half of the season between new stories while also paying proper respect to this character who is no longer with the show but has a huge impact on other characters?

The balancing act is to what extent do you see these people grieving? And to what extent do you see them moving on with their lives? That’s actually a very fluid and changing circumstance that’s different with each character. You’ll see moments with each of the people in the family where it gets to them. There might be one episode where Maddie’s doing well and then in the next episode, she falls apart because she’s still consumed with grief. The key for us was that the show can’t be a shrine to Rayna, the stories have to move on. They have to move on in a way that expresses the grief and acknowledges the grief but doesn’t wallow in the grief because life does move on. The way to do that is with fluidity. Sometimes they’re feeling bad and sometimes they’re feeling better – that’s how it happens in life.

What was the biggest difference you noticed in writing the post-Rayna era of Nashville?

Unfortunately, the best answer to that question is the dumbest answer. (Laughs) It sounds stupid but it’s actually significant. Rayna was in someway involved in everybody’s story so when she’s not there, that inevitably changes the dynamic, but what I was very happy to see was that each of these stories had a very strong beating heart to it even without Rayna. … There was plenty of story to tell and we found ourselves really engaged by these stories and really moved by them frankly. There were certain people, not me, who were worried would there be a show post-Rayna? I was never really worried about that, to be honest, because I feel these characters are so strong, you can tell stories without her, and that has certainly proven to be the case.

What did you have to do to re-assure these people who had concerns?

I don’t want to be too specific, but I’m saying people who are connected to the production, whether it be at the network, the studio or even in the cast or in the writers’ room – there were certainly people who had anxieties about would there be a show past Rayna? Would the audience accept the show post-Rayna and I think the only way to convince them was to actually do the stories. That’s just the truth. Once the stories started to unfold, everyone felt much better because they saw that it was a very much tapestry that we were weaving and there was no sense that something was left out. … When you watch the show, you don’t feel like something’s left out. You really feel the power of what we call the engine of each story, the thing that drives it, the passion in each character, what they need, what they fear, what they have to face – all of those things are so strong that the episodes are full and rich and extremely emotional.

You have the 100th episode coming up which is a big milestone for the show. do you have anything special planned? What can you say?

The 100th episode fell very early in the second half of the season and it did not seem like a time to do anything that was retrospective. The stories had a life of their own and the stories needed to continue. It wasn’t a time to start looking backwards.

Looking at season six, you have a shorted episode order as compared to season five. In the past, you’ve mentioned spreading characters out more and not having everyone appear in every episode. how concerned are you about juggling those characters and storylines with fewer episodes?

We actually feel very lucky because to be on a cable network and get 13 episodes is really quite extraordinary because usually it’s 10 or 12. It’s really part of our job as storytellers to look at the canvas for the whole year and say, “How big is the canvas?” Had the canvas been 12 episodes, we would know how many stories to tell. If it’s 22, that’s a different number of stories. It does not change configuration or template of each episode, it just means we know that we have to tell this arc in this many stories instead of that many stories.

How are you feeling about the long-term future of the show now that you’ve gotten this renewal and now having wrapped the first chunk of post-Rayna episodes?

First of all, we were so excited to get the renewal for season six. I’m just really proud of everybody working on the show. I think it’s not easy in the fifth year of a show to bring new life to it and new possibilities and get an audience to look at it a different way and I feel really good about that and I feel that that’s something that we can continue. There are so many stories to tell about the music world, the country music world, about Nashville, about these characters – I would love for the show to go on. There is still plenty of dramatic potential in this group of people.

Nashville returns with new episodes June 1 at 9 p.m. on CMT. Watch the first footage of Bilson and Doubleday’s debuts in the promo below.

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