I arranged to meet Williams-Paisley one hot summer afternoon at the Wild Iris in Brentwood. Gracious and kind, she has the ability to make you feel that you’ve known her forever, like distant best friends catching up over a cup of coffee. And in some ways maybe I have. I remember watching her first movie, Father of the Bride, over and over with my own daughter. It is one of her favorites. We watched it again weeks before her marriage, and we laughed at how comically similar our own situation was.
Since then Williams-Paisley has continued a long career in television and stage acting. She made her way into America’s living rooms for seven years on the sitcom According to Jim from 2001 to 2008. She married singer Brad Paisley in 2003 and has since become a fixture of the country music and entertainment community. She resides in Nashville with her husband and two sons, William Huckleberry and Jasper Warren Paisley.
With her latest film, Amish Grace, behind her she is ready for new projects that will challenge her creative spirit. She’s currently working on a novel with her father and is in development in several independent film ideas that she hopes to produce in Nashville.
Let’s start with the early days. How did you get started in acting?
As far as I can remember acting was the only thing I wanted to do, besides writing. Growing up in New York, I spent my life going to the shows. The first show I ever saw was Peter Pan; I just loved being at the theatre.
And I loved pretending I was on stage in my parents’ living room. I’d even charge people five cents to come see the performance. And then when I got a little older, like 12 or 13, I told my parents I wanted to start pursuing acting further. They kind of humored me and helped me get some pictures taken, and I wound up booking my first audition ever. I think even they were shocked. I was shocked.
What is it about the theatre that so intrigued you as a young girl?
It was an event; it was so exciting! It was dark, and it was like going into another world with a bright story or event that was happening. I loved the sets too. It’s that other-world feel and excitement, and I was always drawn to that.
Dressing up and being somebody else?
Yes, there is a great freedom in that. It’s kind of like putting on a mask. I took a mask class once and loved it. It was freeing to put on a mask and just go and be somebody else for a while. You don’t see yourself; you see everybody else. Knowing that your face is covered, for me, is really freeing.
Actress Helen Mirren once said that going to audition is one of the most humbling and embarrassing things human beings can ever put themselves through.
Oh, it’s awful. It’s awful. I don’t audition very well either, so I’m lucky when I get the part. I’m floored! My really good work happens when I’m there and I already have the job, and I don’t have to prove myself. It’s really hard to be able to be honest and vulnerable and brave when you’re also trying to prove yourself and also trying to show that you want this part and you should have this part. They’re no fun at all.
You get the script; you read it—where do you go to find that character?
Usually I’m drawn to the story. But there also has to be some part of me that understands the character on a basic level. It’s hard for me if it’s somebody totally unlike me. I just did this movie called Amish Grace for Lifetime Movie Network. I’m certainly not Amish, but she was a mom, and she lost her children. I can relate to her as a mother. That’s how I came into that character and discovered who she was. I do my research, and I try to learn as much as I possibly can about who this person is.
How do you maintain that character every day for three months, or however long, and not lose that person?Sometimes it’s easier than other times. If it’s a comedy, it’s a whole other ballgame. It’s about getting the laugh, ultimately, it’s not really about delving into heavy drama. It’s more like a math formula. You have to figure out when to hit a joke on the head, and when to underplay it. But with Amish Grace it was really difficult to go back every day and revisit that world, that life, and that story and not feel totally drained inside. Some stories are heavier and harder to tell than others. For Amish Grace, I spent a lot of time imagining what it was like for this mom when she had her kids, what it was like when they first moved into their home, and really visualize all of it. What did it smell like? Was it warm, cold? All of that was really helpful when I got there on the day and had to go and do a big emotional scene. I had to go back to the simple things, really basic human things, and the beauty and delight in those things. Then it felt even more devastating when I imagined them being taken away. You know, what does a baby blanket smell like? Sometimes that’s enough to get me there.
You’ve just gone through what it’s like to be a woman who’s lost her child. How do you let that go when the film is over?
It’s hard. One thing I definitely don’t do is substitute my own children in my mind. I will not go there; I will not do that. That helps to let go of it. I don’t feel like I’m putting my life out there. But it did come out in other ways. Some days I didn’t feel like I could get out of bed. On my days off I just felt so drained. That lasted for about a week after I was done, but then I was able to just move on.
Was this the most challenging role for you so far?
Emotionally yes, that was the heaviest role I’ve ever played, and it was great because I didn’t have to audition for this movie. There were other movies with their own challenges, like the location or being in a bathing suit when it’s freezing cold. But there’s always something that I take away from it, even when it’s been a very challenging experience.
Father of the Bride was your first major movie. What were some of the challenges?
It was the long hours. Films can tend to be exhausting just in terms of the amount of time it takes to shoot. That’s kind of why I like guerrilla filmmaking. I love independent filmmaking where you’re lucky if you don’t lose the location before you’re done shooting. On very big-budget Hollywood movies, you’d be shocked at the amount of time spent on the shortest little things. It’s so hard to keep your energy up when you’ve got sixteen-hour days back to back to back. And that was the hardest thing then, because I got very sick at one point. They got a hotel room for me right next to the set, and whenever I had a break, I’d go fall asleep. I was really ill.
How did Father of the Bride come your way?
I was in college and had told my agent in New York that I just wanted to be in college; I didn’t want to act right now. And then she told me about this audition, and I thought well I don’t want to do this, but I’ll see if I can figure out the “EL” train and give it a shot. So I went in to audition, and once I was there I got excited about it. They flew me out to L.A. to read with Steve Martin, and this was in the middle of classes, so it was very inconvenient. And then I came back, having put everything on hold to fly out to L.A. and do it, and they said you didn’t get the part. And I said, OK, fine, good, you’ve made my decision for me. I’m leaving acting, and I’m going to go and become a journalist. I literally went to the journalism school at Northwestern and looked ahead at a stack of papers about internships I could do for the following summer and go work at some newspaper. And then my agent called back and said they want you to come back to L.A. and screen test. And I said, I’m busy! I’m a writer now. But they said, nah, you need to be in L.A.
According to Jim, you have a keen comedic sense. Where does that come from?In
I love to do physical comedy, and I was delighted when one day all the writers were around and Jim Belushi winked at me to try it out on them, and so I did a little pratfall thing, and they cracked up. I did this little bit and did a little improvised thing to show them what I could do. From then on, they wrote physical comedy for me, and it was so fun. I just love doing that. In college I had a teacher who said, “Comedy is like a smile on the back of your head,” and I understood that.
Now that you’re a mother, do you look at scripts differently than you did before?
Very much, yes. I’m more discerning now, and I definitely have to feel something for the role, whatever role it is. And if I don’t feel there’s a purpose to telling this story or a reason for me to play this character that’s bigger than myself, then I’m not going to do it. I’d rather be with my kids. That’s why I’ve been dragging my feet. It has to hit me hard that this is the right project before I pick up and leave.
Tell me about the programming you’re going to host on children’s health for NPT.
They came to me and said there’s a real problem in Tennessee, one of the worst infant mortality rates, and our public education system ranks among the worst in the country. The health of women before they get pregnant is abominable; child obesity is on the rise. And I’ve got two kids that are going to be in the schools here, so when they asked me to help, I said sure. I’ve watched the first of the series, and they’re really well done. I’ve agreed to do more with them.
You made an independent film, Shade.
I really had been wanting to create a movie. I was actually tired of acting. I was a little bored with it, and it was partly the job that I was in. I was starting to need more stimulation and creativity. My husband was the one who said go do it, make one. I thought and thought. Finally, one night I was watching this CNN news show about this disease called Xeroderma Pigmentosum, which is a severe reaction to the sun, very rare. Like one in a million in the country have it. That really hit me. Overnight I came up with the story, next morning wrote it all down, and then started cultivating my crew from my friends, and everybody jumped on board. People loved the script and loved the story. I wrote it; I directed it and starred in it. I’m really proud of it. A lot of people have seen it. It’s also raised a lot of money for the XP Society because it’s gotten the word out. And then I went on to direct a few episodes of According to Jim.
How was that experience?
I’ve been an actor for so long I really know how to talk to actors, and having been on a set so much I understand the inner workings. There is a lot of the technical stuff I can still learn, about lighting and cameras and all that. That’s where I need to grow. But the other stuff just really fell in place, and I loved it. I’m the oldest of three, so I think I’m naturally a leader, I was in my family, growing up. I just love the creative process.
What about live theatre? Does that appeal to you?
Definitely. I’ve done Broadway in New York and West End Theatre in London. Harold Pinter came to a show I did in London and sent me a really nice email afterwards. I have it framed; it was like a crowning moment for me. Live theatre can be intimidating.
I find the first performance to be terrifying, but once you get over the hard part the ride is so much fun. If you don’t go on roller coasters because you are afraid of that first hill, or of your stomach going into your throat, then you’d miss the ride.
Who would you like to direct?
There are so many talented actors out there. I love Ellen Page who was in Juno. She is wonderful. Meryl Streep is someone I’ve always wanted to work with. It doesn’t get any better than her. She never hits a false note; she always finds something. I think Nicole Kidman would be wonderful. I loved her in To Die For and thought she was brilliant in that movie, and then she can also do something like Moulin Rouge. She has an impressive range. Woody Allen is also somebody I’ve always admired.
Are there actors that you feel you can learn from?
Oh yeah. Robert Downey Jr.—every time I see him I marvel at what he can do. I think he’s brilliant. Johnny Depp is another one I learn from watching. I really admire people like that who are constantly taking risks and are kind of all over the place.
Is there one particular director you want to work with?
Diane Keaton—I got to act with her in a couple of movies, and I appreciate her directing. I would like to work with her as a director because I think she’s so artistic. I’d love to work with Clint Eastwood. I also like the way he runs his sets. He handpicks everybody. It’s run like a well-oiled machine. Everyone shows up, and they know what they’re doing. They get it done, and they go home.
And so it was for us too, time to go home. With that, Kimberly flashed that familiar smile, got in her car and drove off down Franklin Road . . . exit stage left of course.
by Paul Polycarpou | photography by Jerry Atnip
-Turquoise & wood necklace: original design by Trey Geary
-Hair & makeup by Robin Geary
-A special thanks to The Union Station Hotel for providing the wonderful setting
-A special thank you to Adrienne Scarbrough, our stylist for this shoot who had a beautiful vision for these clothes.