INTERVIEW Alicia Witt talks Nashville, her music, and The Walking Dead

Alicia Witt Interview Nashville Autumn Chase

We at Starcasm are massive Walking Dead fans. We’re also a bunch of country music nerds. So when we heard Alicia Witt, one of the hardest-working women in show biz, was recently cast not only in AMC’s The Walking Dead but ABC’s Nashville, we knew we had to talk to her – if only to find out which is harder: chasing country music chart hits or running away from zombies!

Alicia’s got a phone book-sized list of acting credits to testify to her acting range: Discovered as a child by David Lynch and cast as the creepily iconic Alia Atreides in Dune (“He is the Kwisatz Haderach!”, one of her timeless lines my nerd friends and I would repeat in middle school), as an adult she scored starring roles on the long-running sitcom Cybill, the high school gridiron drama Friday Night Lights (with Nashville co-star Connie Britton) and recent spots on cable hits House of Lies and Justified.

Less known about Alicia is she’s got a singing range to match: Her third album, the Ben Folds-produced Revisionary History, was released last year, and the singer/songwriter/pianist keeps a steady schedule of live shows between her acting gigs. In her songwriting, Alicia marries a confessional attitude with a pop sensibility that gives her many moods a diverse range of expression. And in her luminous full-band live shows, she engages the audience with a (pardon the pun) witty persona that often verges on the saucy. She’s a musician that takes her message seriously – but doesn’t take herself too seriously.

Nashville fans will get a healthy dose of this side of her artistry and more as she develops into the character of Autumn Chase in the current season of the show. But first in our Starcasm interview with Alicia, there’s zombies to talk about…

Alicia Witt The Walking Dead

Okay, you’re on The Walking Dead. So we have to start out this interview with the obvious question: TELL US EVERYTHING!!! (Okay, that’s not a question.)

I am not allowed to say one single solitary word other than that I’m SO EXCITED and thrilled to be able to say that I’m part of the show! The Walking Dead is one of the very few shows I’ve watched for years, and it amazes and inspires and surprises me with every episode. The way the characters have grown and changed and developed, and the very believable world of survival and the human experience pitted against a seeming apocalypse – there’s nothing like it that’s ever been made as far as I’m concerned. It’s a marvel. If I could have named five shows I’d most want to be on, this would be one of them. If not the top one!

So how about coming back sometime after your debut and we can be a little bit more open about things?

You have yourself a deal, sir!

UPDATE – Here area couple screen shots of Alicia’s dramatic appearance as she holds Maggie and Carol hostage in the preview for The Walking Dead Episode 13 shown on Sunday night’s Talking Dead:

Alicia Witt Walking Dead

The Walking Dead Alicia Witt Saviors

While we await your Walking Dead debut there’s still plenty to talk about, especially Nashville! Having followed your career for a long time, I can’t think of any more perfect casting than you taking your place in the Nashville ensemble. What do you think about the show, now heading into its fifth season, and what you will be able to bring to the table?

It’s funny you should ask, Rhett! Nashville would be another of those five shows I’ve most wanted to be on. I’ve watched it since the very first episode and haven’t missed a single one. Thank you for saying you think I fit in – they really are an incredible cast and I have to say I feel extremely, ridiculously at home on set. It’s a delight to be joining a show that I’m such a huge fan of, and at the same time I think it hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I actually am part of it, if that makes sense. That’s how at home I feel. It’ll sink in on April 6 when I see my first episode – I’ll be like “Oh crap! That’s me! On one of my favorite shows! How’d that happen?”

As a musician and a music-lover, I know I can bring that genuine joy of music and the process of music making to the table. But I share that with each and every cast member. That’s one of the things that makes the show – and the set – so special.

Alicia Witt Nashville quote

Can you tell us a little bit about your character, Autumn Chase, and the ways in which you think she compares with you in real life? Having read her character description, I see a few similarities there! But have you picked up on any differences as well?

Obviously she is a songwriter and a singer, like me. She loves telling stories through music, and she absolutely loves connecting with her audience more than anything. Those are all similarities. The big difference of course is that she’s been a world-famous, arena-filling recording artist for 20 years! My dream. There’s a comfort and an ease with taking the stage that she’s got as a result of those years of experience, which I am admittedly still working on. Sometimes I play for audiences and I feel it; other times I still have to struggle with old butterflies that rise up out of nowhere. I have to put ’em back in their box and get on with it!

Take us inside your preparation for this role. You’re already a seasoned singer, player and performer. You’re constantly writing songs and performing dates all around the country when your schedule permits. I’m guessing that has allowed you to more easily slide into your Nashville experience.

I think that’s definitely made it much easier. I know what it feels like to be on stage and to perform your own songs, and to write – and the schedule involved. But she’s a character for sure. Her mannerisms and the things that make her tick are different than mine.

Alicia Witt as Autumn Chase on Nashville ABC

A show like Nashville must be taxing for a performer. What’s the breakdown on how much goes into preparing for your dramatic scenes and also your musical contributions?

It hasn’t been that taxing for me yet, to be honest. My longest day was the day of performing my first song on the show, which is a duet with Connie. But it was so much fun! I didn’t want it to end. The song was written by Miranda Lambert, Kasey Musgraves and Natalie Hemby – it’s still stuck in my head!

We pre-record everything in the studio, so on the day of “performing” you’re actually lip-syncing to a kickass recording – so the pressure is off. No need to ace the vocals over and over again.

Can’t wait to hear it!

I love that on the show everything gets released on iTunes in its entirety as well – you won’t see the whole song on the show, of course, but you can buy and listen afterwards. Then it can be stuck in your head, too!

Alicia Witt’s “Consolation Prize” from her album Revisionary History:

How did you land this role on Nashville?

I auditioned for the pilot back when it was casting four years ago. I was between ages for the roles that were being cast and we all knew that, but because of my musical background they wanted to see me. I read three scenes and sang one of my songs a cappella for Callie Khouri, the show’s creator, and it was a magical meeting. At the time, she said they’d “keep me in mind” for the future – but I was truly surprised and overjoyed that all this time later, she really did keep me in mind and here I am. My “audition” for this role was simply my agent sending my newest album, Revisionary History. That was it! The offer came in a few days later.

Country has always been a musical idiom where the song comes first, and the city of Nashville has long been a songwriter’s paradise. Lately, though, there’s been a tremendous focus on flashy genre-bending that has caused quite a discussion about how to even define country music anymore. What are your thoughts on this, and is it something your character will be dealing with as the show unfolds?

I couldn’t agree more. Country music is at the heart of so many genres, and I truly don’t know how to define it. I just know that many of my favorite songs ever written are classified as “country” or somewhere in that wheelhouse. Certainly folk. My character, Autumn, is more folk/rock country; think Sheryl Crow or Bonnie Raitt. Autumn doesn’t have a southern accent; so many artists who live in Nashville don’t have one and are from somewhere else entirely, anyway.

One of the fun things for fans who have long followed your career is getting to see you connect back up with your former Friday Night Lights cast mate, Connie Britton. Your characters didn’t overlap in FNL, but I assume they will in Nashville.

You’re right! We didn’t have any scenes together on FNL but we did meet. I’m thrilled to finally get to work with her here, and to get to know her a bit more. She’s a sweetheart, not to mention one of the most vibrant, present, inspiring actors. I’ve loved watching where she’s taken Rayna all these years.

Can you detail a little about how Autumn and Rayna will match up?

In the show, since we’ve both been in the biz for so long, we go way back. In the first episode my character appears in, she’s invited me to Highway 65 to see her artist, Layla, perform. Rayna hopes that I’ll bring her out with me on the road as my opening act. There’s obviously history there but it hasn’t yet been defined as to how much history, or what our exact backstory might be.

Connie’s fabulous hair on Nashville has become meme-worthy, but you’ve got serious game in that area, too. Are you and Connie destined to have a hair-off?

In fact, because Connie is also a redhead, they decided to make Autumn a brunette on the show! So I’ve got a cool, different look. We’ve come up with something that’s kind of “part-wig/part-my-natural-hair”, and I am excited to see how it turns out! Having different hair definitely helps me to feel like I’m someone else when I’m playing her, though. Funny how that works.

You’re not exactly coming into your role on Nashville with a deficit of experience in music performance or the music business. You were a childhood music prodigy and your acumen as a piano player and singer has shown up at various times in your acting career, not to mention the multiple album releases in your solo music career. Can we assume you’d shrivel up and die without your ability to express yourself musically?

I would. I’m sure of it. There’s so much I know how to express with music that I can’t seem to figure out how to express otherwise.

Alicia Witt music quote

So on a personal level, what does being on the show mean for you and your musical career?

That remains to be seen! I’m hoping that what it will mean is people who didn’t already know I’m a singer-songwriter will find themselves checking out my music and that some of them will want to hear more, will come check out a show, etc. But who knows? I feel all I can do is keep putting it out there and being truthful and it will find its way to the people who it resonates with. I’d be making these songs and creating lyrics and tunes even if no one was listening. It’s just something I can’t help but do. It’s so much beyond an honor that now I’m able to play shows and people turn up and know the words to some of them, or say that something I’ve written perfectly describes something they’re experiencing. That’s a form of connection I don’t think has any comparison.

You released your most recent album, Revisionary History, last May, produced by Ben Folds (himself a Nashville resident). I can only assume your mind is bubbling over with new songs and new approaches to songcraft. Have you thought about your next step in your music career and will your experiences in Nashville (the city and the show) influence them in any way?

I’m still sorting that out. I already have way more new songs than I need for a new release – I just have to find time to record it.

Alicia Witt and Ben Folds’ “Cold Turkey:”

You’ve relocated much of your life to Nashville. What do you think of the town?

I’ve spent a lot of time here in Nashville over the years anyway; it’s one of my favorite cities. (Revisionary History was recorded here; I’ve come here many times over the years for writing sessions, etc.) My most recent time visiting the Ryman Auditorium was a few weeks ago. I saw Chip Esten (who plays Deacon Claybourne on the show) play with his band as part of the Ryman’s “Live at the Opry”, which I understand they do every winter before it relocates back to the Grand Ole Opry itself. He rocks! His obvious love for music and joy that he gets to do this in earnest now – as a direct result of being on the show – is an absolute thrill to watch. I think he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Well, Alicia Witt is pretty nice as well. So nice, in fact, she’s agreed to chat with Starcasm after her role on The Walking Dead kicks off – so be sure to check back for that. In the meantime, Alicia’s boot scootin’ debut on Nashville comes April 6th!

UPDATE – Click here for part two of our interview with Alicia in which she spills the beans about her pivotal role as Paula on The Walking Dead: part Negan operative, part mirror image of Carol, all badass tragic figure!

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