'Those were the hardest scenes I've ever shot,' Esten tells EW
Spoiler alert: This post contains plot points from the Feb. 23 episode of Nashville.
After years of Deacon and Rayna being the will-they-won’t-they couple at the center of Nashville, the two of them were finally able to work through their issues long enough to tie the knot and start living the life they’d always dreamed about. In fact, much of Nashville‘s fifth season has been about how the two of them handle being in a relationship while also moving forward as artists and parents.
But this week’s episode changed everything when Rayna found herself in the hospital following a car accident. As the hour went on, it became clear that Rayna was never going to leave that hospital bed, and in what is the show’s biggest goodbye to date, Deacon and his daughters were left to say goodbye to Rayna Jaymes.
“Those were the hardest scenes I’ve ever shot by far,” Charles Esten tells EW. “But for different reasons. Some scenes are hard to shoot because you don’t know what to do with it. This is not that. Other things are so hard to shoot because you’re trying to tap into an emotion that you don’t authentically feel. This is not that either. This one’s very unusual in that it’s just a tough, hard place to go. You’re saying goodbye to this character who we authentically love. On top of that, we were saying goodbye to our friend Connie. It’s almost like college: You’ll still be friends with those people but you won’t see them every single day.”
Esten, who first learned of Britton’s departure from the show via rumors on the internet, says he felt nothing but gratitude for the time he spent playing opposite of Britton. “From the day I met her I’m on record as having honestly walked up to her and said, ‘There’s a million reasons I’m excited to do this show. You’re a couple hundred of them,'” Esten says. “My wife and I we’re huge Friday Nights Lights fans, so I started off a fan and I ended this run with her even more a fan. I’ll be as happy as anybody else when I see what her next thing is and she’ll be fantastic in that too and I’ll be watching.”
But that doesn’t mean that saying goodbye was easy. For Esten, Deacon was losing the love of his life, and channeling that emotion was an experience he calls “painful on every level.”
“Deacon doesn’t want to let her go and it’s killing him emotionally, but also he wants as peaceful and kind and as good a goodbye as you can give,” he says. “You want peace for them, even if you have no measure of it at all in your own heart in that moment.”
Then, when you tack on the fact that Rayna’s final farewell involved both her daughters, things only became more emotional. “The children made it harder,” Esten says. “They’re dealing with it at a younger age and so all of my instincts of protection kick in and Connie’s too. Anytime you bring kids into the mix, that makes it even more difficult.”
Together, Esten and co-stars Lennon and Maisy Stella sat at the end of Rayna’s hospital bed and sang one final song as a farewell. “Sometimes in acting, you can almost see an actor trying to cry,” Esten says. “You never want to get caught doing that. You always want to be trying to be okay. To be honest, that has never been more true than in these crucial, painful scenes. Literally we were all trying to hold it together enough to get lines out, enough to get that song out.”
In the end, Esten says they all came together to give both Connie and Rayna “as beautiful a send-off as we could muster,” and he’s well aware that some fans are going to be very affected. “As brutally sad as this is for so many people who love this character so much, I’ve always been raised to think that in the saddest and worst situations, there’s always blessings on the other side and things to be derived from it. I know way too many people myself that have lost the love of their love early, that have lost their parents early and have had to find a way to go on. It can be my only hope that some of those people, as much as this might hurt, might find some type of connection in seeing these characters go through it. That would be one small light to hang onto in this tough story line, for sure.”
Esten adds: “Let’s be clear here: I understand there are people facing real death, real loss every single day. This is not that. This is fictional. And yet, for some reasons, stories and characters — they move our hearts.”