Laura Benanti is a Tony award-winning veteran of several Broadway shows, which means her transition to musical performer on the ABC drama Nashville wasn't that much of a stretch. Although she's extremely disciplined (thanks to a theatrical schedule of eight live shows a week), her introduction to viewers on the series this season hasn't been without its professional challenges. But as Sadie Stone, new BFF to country superstar Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), Benanti is making it look effortless.
"In some ways this is music boot camp," Benanti told Rolling Stone Country during a recent conversation in the lobby of a downtown Nashville hotel. "They'll send you a track and the vocal with the lyrics, but no music. I read music, so I usually rely on seeing the notes in front of me to help me learn. You just have to learn it from your ear. Then you get into a recording studio, do it really quickly, and sing along to it in the taping. If I did not have years of experience working really hard at something, I don't know if I'd be able to do this."
Tonight's Nashville mid-season finale promises to shed a little more light on Sadie and her troubled relationship with her ex-husband as she also makes her transition from behind-the-scenes songwriter to full-fledged artist. Although viewers have already seen her dodging the paparazzi with Rayna (à la Thelma and Louise) and winning a fictional CMA award as Best New Artist, Benanti says future episodes will reveal that she's also been running from something.
"In the second part of her career she's trying to be brave, and I really relate to that," Benanti says. "There comes a time when you've got to say, 'I'm going to stop trying to please other people and doing stuff for other people. I'm going to do it for myself.'"
Raised in New Jersey, Benanti was just 19 when she stepped into the lead role of Maria in The Sound of Music on Broadway. TV viewers saw Benanti (as the Baroness) alongside Carrie Underwood in NBC's 2013 live telecast of the musical. She's also appeared in the Broadway productions Into the Woods, Swing, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Gypsy. She received Tony nominations for each of those shows, winning the award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for Gypsy in 2008. In addition to previous acting roles on television, Benanti is a seasoned nightclub performer and songwriter who released the live LP In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention: Live at 54 BELOW in 2013. While country music wasn't necessarily part of her upbringing, apart from Johnny Cash, much of the music she was raised on isn't far removed from the genre.
"We listened to a lot of folk music," she recalls. "I listened to Harry Chapin obsessively as a child. He was my favorite artist. When I was around 20, 21, a friend of mine, Jennifer Blake, we lived together. She's from the South. I was like, 'Oh, I like this. It tells a story.' It felt almost theatrical."
Thanks in part to the show's musical director Buddy Miller, much of Nashville's music leans toward more rootsy Americana than mainstream country. Benanti says her character straddles that line and is transitioning from writing songs for others to being an artist herself, while at the same time the actress is making her own transition to become well-versed in the Nashville music scene, especially when it comes to other female artists. She singles out several, including Emmylou Harris and Jennifer Nettles, as favorites for both their songwriting and vocal talent.
"I've done a lot of research [especially on YouTube]," she explains. "I've watched a lot of Kacey Musgraves and other singer-songwriters talking about what their journey is like. I've always been a huge Patty Griffin fan. I just worship that woman. I've started listening to Miranda Lambert a lot more, she's incredible. And Mindy Smith, I really, really love her. She's from Long Island. I'm from New Jersey, so I don't ever want it to look on the show like I'm faking. Because I have an accent, I'm from Virginia on the show, and I don't want to feel like I'm putting something on. I feel inspired by the fact that Mindy is from Long Island but made a life for herself here."
Yet when it comes to women who have inspired and influenced her, it's probably tough to find one she admires and respects more than her co-star Connie Britton.
"She's my favorite actor, truly," Benanti says with a smile. "She's the reason I started watching the show. I just think she is such a skilled and fine and detailed actor that people don't realize she's acting. To me, that's the goal of being an actor."
Ahead of tonight's fall finale, Rolling Stone Country asked Benanti to name six things she has learned as a newbie on Nashville.
The Live Concerts Are Digital Wizardry
"For lot of the stage performances, I just assumed they went around to all these different stages in town and performed, but they're actually all in the studio. Most of the performances are in the studio with a green screen behind it. They have 100 to 150 background actors and they place them at different parts of the audience then they fill it in in post [-production], so it looks like this huge thing."
Don't Hate on Hudson
"Oliver Hudson (who plays Jeff Fordham) is truly hilarious! As a fan of the show, I hated him. He was the first person I met and he is the kindest, sweetest, funniest idiot you're ever going to want to meet. It breaks my heart that he has to play this mean character because it's so not him at all. I think they're going to try to humanize [Jeff] a little bit this season."
There's No Bathroom in the Bluebird
"The interior of the Bluebird Café set they had built is exactly the Bluebird — minus the bathroom. Colin Linden, a brilliant guitarist on the show who is teaching me guitar, said he once went to use the restroom because he thought he was really at the Bluebird, and it wasn't there!"
Sam Palladio Isn't From Mars
"For some reason, I didn't realize that Sam Palladio (who plays Gunnar Scott) was English. The first time I ever heard him speak, I was so unbelievably confused. I treated him like an alien."
Clare Bowen Accessorizes with Animals
"Clare (who plays Scarlett O'Connor) has a flying squirrel and some other animal that looks like a tiny baby kangaroo. Her little squirrel nestles in her hair and she'll just let it hang out there."
Broadway Buddies Are Truly BFFs
"Will Chase (who plays Luke Wheeler) and I are old friends from Broadway. We've known each other for over 10 years. He is a truly hilarious person. For a dramatic show that's kind of like a soap opera, there is constant laughter on the set. The cast and the crew are cutting up at all time."