It is odd, but not so surprising these days, that Australian actor Clare Bowen convincingly plays, in the TV series Nashville, a one-time-waif from Natchez, Mississippi, who becomes a highly successful country singer and songwriter. Hell, if you don’t find an Australian convincingly playing a regional American character on a modern TV show – hello Ryan Kwanten in True Blood – you start to question their casting choices.
It’s odder, if you grew up with shows and movies full of miming “musicians”, that when playing Natchez girl Scarlett O’Connor, Bowen, like the rest of the cast, is actually singing and playing the songs. Though as Bowen says, “I don’t know any different. I came from classical and musical theatre and if you can’t sing, you don’t get the job.”
It may be more mind-turning for some traditionalists that having been an actor who sings (having trained in opera initially then later film and TV), Bowen, who turns 32 this month, is now touring and playing the songs her character sings – usually with her on-screen musician boyfriend – along with a few more originals co-written with her real-life musician boyfriend, Brandon Young.
But what must really be weird if you think it all fantasy, is how much the Natchez girl has in common with the actor who is often referred to as coming from Wollongong but really grew up all over the place, and in no place.
Let’s start with what Bowen calls Scarlett’s “self-esteem issues and being frightened of people”. This was someone who – “from the backwoods of Mississippi, content to be a housewife” – had no belief in her abilities. Across the Pacific, Bowen remembers that she “got told for a long time that I couldn’t sing anyway. So when I got this job it was even more of a surprise”.
Was she told when she was training in opera that she may not have a long-term future with her voice?
“No, it wasn’t as constructive as that,” she laughs. “I think being young and being in a big group of people who were all really … [she pauses] … people get told that if you destroy your opponent then you’ll be just fine and it’s completely wrong.
“So being picked up for a show like this was like an awakening. I had been conditioned so much to think that I wasn’t very good that it was still a shock, even after playing Wendla [in the original Australian production of the musical Spring Awakening for the Sydney Theatre Company].”
Then there’s the way cancer stalks her character: not directly as it did Bowen when she was four years old and diagnosed with end-stage nephroblastoma affecting her kidneys, but via Scarlett’s uncle and tangentially her mother, while she dates an oncologist.
As well as her own long and tough treatment and recovery before she’d even turned 8, Bowen’s younger brother Timothy, a promising singer and songwriter whose girlfriend is studying medicine, is also in remission from a more recent cancer.
“I don’t know why this is happening to my family twice but I do know that he will come out of it on the other side the person that he is meant to be. Because that’s what it did to me,” says Bowen, who adds that Chip Esten, who plays Scarlett’s uncle, is recording one of Timothy’s co-written songs, From Here On Out, which appears in a pivotal moment of the fourth season.
Art imitates life imitates art imitates …
“I’ve been into the writers’ room a couple of times, they’ve been really collaborative with me,” says Bowen. “At the beginning I was asked to write a back story, so I did that, and the writers took it, put their own mark on it, but stayed really true to what I had written.”
A lot of it was Bowen discovering herself inadvertently.
“Scarlett was this very introverted person [and] I didn’t know I was one when I came to Nashville. People thought I was a bit strange because I was quiet: I felt good on stage and I felt good around animals but around people I always feel a little bit awkward.
“So without knowing, I was writing this character who was very much related to myself, except her struggle came from a really rough childhood with a mother who didn’t know how to treat her with love; mine was that I wasn’t raised around too many people my own age [because of the hospitalisations and recovery]. There were parts that were really scary and sad but it made me who I am.” – Source