No Script Required

As a soccer mom and United Nations goodwill ambassador, actress Connie Britton ’89 lands her most fulfilling roles.

After playing the wife of a high school football coach for five seasons on Friday Night Lights, Connie (Womack) Britton would have been happy never standing on the sidelines again. Except now, every Saturday morning, her 6-year-old son, Yoby, hits the soccer field, and there’s Britton with a big smile on her face cheering him on. “Yep, now I’m a soccer mom,” she says. “And honestly that was always my dread. Like I’d literally get heart palpitations seeing how my friends’ weekends were consumed by their kids’ sports schedules. But now I’m starting to understand the whole thing. He loves it, and it’s fun seeing him improve.”

Britton, who turned 50 earlier this year, is on a quest to keep advancing her own game too—not only by continuing to portray strong women as she did for the past 10 years as FNL’s Tami Taylor and then country star Rayna James of Nashville, but by becoming a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help boost the status of women in poverty-stricken regions of the world. “My career is very important to me; it enlivens me, it’s the structure of my life, and I want to continue on that path,” says Britton. “But going forward I also want to be involved to a greater degree with humanitarian issues. I believe as citizens of the world and as citizens of the United States that we have a responsibility to take care of each other. If we can, we should.”

In a library outside Nashville (Britton’s home for five years before she moved back to Los Angeles this summer), the actress has just finished shooting a Mother’s Day video message for the UNDP. In it she asks viewers to make a pledge to help those in northern Africa who have lost their homes and are starving due to civil conflict and widespread drought. Although we eventually get to lighter topics such as the pitfalls of parenting, dating dilemmas and how she cares for that enviable mane of hair (#conniebrittonhair is even a popular Instagram hashtag), we first talk politics and poverty and her ties to Africa.

“Not to take away from the problems we have in our country, but when we’re talking about a famine impacting 20 million people about to starve to death right now and there are 50 million orphans around Africa, it’s staggering,” she says of her outreach efforts. “The numbers are not in the same realm.”

It’s why she chose to lend her voice to the UNDP, a nonprofit that provides literacy and vocational training programs worldwide, among other anti-poverty solutions. Britton travels to communities that the UNDP has helped in order to see the program’s impact first hand, as well as to find out what more can be done. Her focus is on empowering women and girls to become more economically secure.

“My career is very important to me, but I also want to be involved to a greater degree with humanitarian issues.”

On trips she takes with UNDP, “Connie sees how devastating the cycle of poverty is for women and girls but also how it can be broken,” says Ajla Grozdanic, the ambassador relations manager at the UNDP. “This has become very personal for her.”

Northeast Africa, in particular Ethiopia, is especially close to Britton’s heart, since her son was born there. She had visited the country a few times in the 1990s while working on a documentary about orphaned children there, and friends joked that she’d one day return home with a baby. She eventually decided to do just that after losing her parents and realizing she didn’t want to wait any longer to start a family of her own. (Her teacher mom died of breast cancer in 2005 and her physicist father died three years later of bone marrow disease.)

The adoption was an arduous, two-year process and in 2011 she was finally matched with Yoby, who stole her heart the minute she met him. As is protocol with most international adoptions, Britton had to return to the United States to wait for a final court date and more paperwork to be processed. With adoption restrictions growing tighter, and her son so far away, she worried she’d never be able to bring him home. She called an old friend, Sen. Kirsten (Rutnik) Gillibrand ’88 (D-N.Y.) to get help. “I went all mama bear to get things moving along, and I knew Kirsten was one of the three people in Congress who actually gives a shit about international orphans,” says Britton. “It was the only time in the whole process that I pulled some strings.”

Gillibrand says that her office often helps expedite adoptions for her New York constituents—Britton has had a home in Manhattan since she costarred on the 1990s sitcom Spin Cityfollowing her divorce from John Britton ’89—but it meant a great deal to make some calls for her pal, whom she first bonded with on a foreign study trip to Beijing when they were undergrads. “One of the reasons Connie adopted a child from Ethiopia is that she wanted to make a difference in the life of one child, which is so inspiring,” says Gillibrand. “She fights for what she believes in and she cares so deeply about the wellbeing of children across the world. That’s very much who she is and what’s in her heart.”

With similar political views and shared memories of Hanover and China, where they endured a terrible episode of food poisoning together (nothing like a night of violent vomiting from bad shellfish to cement a friendship), the two women grew close again and even hit the campaign trail together for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

November 9 was a difficult day for both. “So much grief. I cried for a really long time,” says Britton, who watched the election results come in the night before at the home of a close Nashville friend, singer Sheryl Crow. “It’s a very alarming time right now.”

It was partially Donald Trump’s inauguration and the direction of his administration that prompted her to step up her own activism. “We have to take care of each other, especially now,” she says. One step she took was commemorating her milestone birthday in March by asking fans and friends to donate money to the International Rescue Committee on crowdrise.org. With the ultimate goal to one day build a school or start a scholarship fund, Britton says the more than $50,000 she raised is earmarked for education for refugees in the United States as well as overseas.

Photo by Sam Jones / Trunk Archives
Britton with son Yoby after turning on lights at the Empire State Building in celebration of the Global Citizen Festival, September 25, 2015

 

Britton's love of acting began at her Lynchburg, Virginia, high school, where she played the lead in Hello, Dolly! She also performed in a few plays at Dartmouth, but chose to major in Asian studies, which opened her eyes to challenges in the rest of the world. “I remember learning about genocide in an international relations class and being cut to the quick,” she says. “I didn’t have much background in learning about international history so I was just this genuinely naive girl. I called my dad afterward to say, ‘What do we do? How can we help?’ ”

It was on an off-term internship as a production assistant on a Cleveland production of Born Yesterday that Britton realized she didn’t need to choose between acting and activism. “Ed Asner was one of the stars, and I watched him spend every spare second he had doing something charitable. Suddenly it all kind of clicked,” she says. “Like I can do this thing I really love, which is acting, and maybe one day I’ll be able to parlay it into this bigger thing the way he did.”

Now that she has, friends have encouraged her to take things a step further and enter politics. “I’ve brought up the idea for years with Connie that she should run for Congress or the Senate,” says Gillibrand. “She has such presence and such passion, she’d be very effective. And I’d definitely help her campaign!”

Don’t count on it, says Britton, laughing at the suggestion of a Gillibrand-Britton 2020 ticket. “I’m constantly thinking about how I can be most effective in the world, but I’ve always felt I’m less of a politician and more of a humanitarian. Ultimately I’d rather keep speaking out as a citizen. Besides, I’ve never seen anything more frustrating than the political system in this country.”

Following a “period of hibernation” when she spent some valuable time with Yoby, she’s now busy developing four projects and has two films in the works. (Professor Marston & the Wonder Women will be released in October.) This summer she costarred with Salma Hayek and John Lithgow in Beatriz at Dinner, a dark comedy about white privilege, and she also has completed an upcoming Netflix movie, The Land of Steady Habits. After the long hours she worked on Nashville, in which her character’s unexpected death last February blindsided fans of the country music drama, a more flexible, though still busy schedule is a welcome change.

Whatever professional commitment she makes next, Britton will keep portraying women who refuse to be wallflowers. At 50, with four Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe nod to her credit, she feels more self-assured and secure in her sexuality than ever. So it’s no surprise that Britton scoffs at the idea of going the nip-tuck or injectable route in an attempt to look younger. (On Nashville she even refused to pull her cheeks back to mime a facelift in the mirror for one scene, finding it insulting and unrealistic for her character to consider altering her face.)

“Sometimes I’ll get a facial or I’ll be at the dermatologist’s and they’ll say, ‘You know, we can do a little of this and a little of that,’ and I’ll say, ‘No, I’m good.’ And they look at me like I’m crazy,” she says. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to change Rome in a day, but to be one representation of a woman being incredibly viable and sexual while aging in a real way is important to me. If I try to make my face look younger, then what story am I telling? Does that mean I believe you can only be viable when you have a younger-looking face?”

“My son is such a great age right now. We’re just good pals and good partners.”

While she stays in great shape thanks to yoga and hikes and by rarely indulging in dessert, Britton, who has also practiced meditation for years, says she rarely looks as glam as she does on TV, going without makeup 90 percent of the time and often pinning up that famous mane of hers. “I don’t even know how to blow dry it myself,” she says. “And by the way, there are some old Dartmouth pictures that might make people question all this hair business.”

Her transformation from choppily cropped coed to sultry star isn’t what impressed her classmates most at her 25th reunion, says former Alumni Council president Russell Wolff ’89, who moderated a panel at which Britton memorably shared her longtime grudge against Dartmouth for not choosing her to help represent the College in an exclusive audition for agents and grad schools. “For us, it was just about catching up with an old friend,” he says. “It’s been fantastic to watch the success of her career and her desire to give back.”

While Britton happily posed for pictures with her classmates and their children in Hanover, she often turns down strangers who ask for photos when she’s with her own child. “I wish I could hold up a sign that says, ‘Please don’t be mad,’ ” she says. “I’m extremely grateful for fans, and they say the most lovely things about how something I’ve been a part of has impacted them. But for someone to just come up and say, ‘Can I get a picture with you?’ If I’m with my son, that’s my personal space. It’s not appropriate.”

Fame has made dating a bit awkward, too. With so much information about celebrities on the Internet, she finds that preconceived notions can get in the way when meeting new people. (Note to any single man who thinks he has a chance: It’s probably best to pretend you’ve never read this story.) “It’s so delightful to meet someone who hasn’t seen anything I’ve done,” says Britton. “In my lifetime I’ve seen things go from mystery being of value to exposure being of value, and I can’t jump on board with that. At the same time I want the work I do to be impactful, so it’s a tricky balance.”

Her private nature is also why you rarely see her son on her popular Instagram feed, which she mainly uses to promote her projects and causes. That, and lack of time. Between her career and parenthood and her charity work, social media is a low priority. She has given a lot of thought to adopting another child, perhaps a girl who’s a bit older, “but I have to realize my limitations,” she says. “And honestly, my son is such a great age right now. We’re just good pals and good partners,” even if she may need earplugs around him soon.

Yoby, who starts first grade this fall, has been asking for a trumpet for a year, and Britton has finally realized it’s time to give in to what’s sure to be a very loud hobby. “Christmas passed and his birthday passed, and I didn’t get him a trumpet because I figured he’d never even be able to make noise on that thing,” she says. “But yesterday in a friend’s music room he picked up a French horn and just started playing it. It wasn’t amazing music, but he had a sense of how it worked. I don’t know where that came from.”

Regardless of whether she one day adopts another child from Ethiopia, she is excited to take Yoby back to his birthplace when the time is right. “He’s very proud of being from Africa,” she says. “It’s among the first things that he’ll tell you about himself. So we’re hoping that that’s going to be an adventure for us soon.”

Any other things on her bucket list, since, you know, she’s getting up there in age? “Nuh uh,” she says. “I guess I could sit down and compose one. But I think any bucket list would limit me too much. I want to do it all.”                            

Jennifer Wulff has profiled Shonda Rhimes ’91 and Mindy Kaling ’01 for DAM. This is her 10th cover story for the magazine. (Photographs by Sam Jones/Trunk Archives)

 

Behind the scenes with Connie Britton

Day Job When She Was a Struggling Actress: Aerobics instructor

On Parenting: “Every day I feel like I screwed something up. Like I blew it. Parenting is definitely not easy, but it is rewarding.”

Breakthrough Role: Molly McMullen in The Brothers McMullen (1995)

Dream Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia)

Favorite TV Shows: Better Things (FX), Togetherness (HBO) and Girls (HBO)

On Social Media: “I recognize that social media is a valuable tool. I also recognize it as the end of civilization as we know it.”

Prized Possession: A 1972 Mustang convertible named Scarlett

Food Allergy: Eggplant

On Her Characters: “It’s important to me to play women who are empowered and who have a strong sense of self, but who are also connected to their sexuality,” she says. “I want to continue on that path.”

Hidden Talent: Hula hooping

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