The original Lifetime movie Patsy & Loretta explores the real-life friendship between country music icons Patsy Cline (Megan Hilty) and Loretta Lynn (Jessie Mueller), the differences between the two women, and how they bonded over their love of country music. While Patsy was already one of the biggest stars in country music when they met, she never saw Loretta as competition and instead took her under her wing to help her make it in Nashville. The close friends were soon touring together, bonding over husband troubles, and learning how to navigate the male-dominated music business, as they paved the way for the next generation of country music singers that followed.
During this phone interview with Collider, co-stars Megan Hilty and Jessie Mueller talked about how they ended up playing these iconic women, what most impressed them about Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, the importance of the friendship between the singers, what it meant to have each other to go through this with, the experience of recording the music, and what get them each excited about a project. Hilty also talked about the lasting impression the TV series Smash made on its fans, and just how often people stop her to talk about it.
Collider: I’m a big music fan, so anytime I can dig into music history, I get very excited about it. How did this project come your way?
MEGAN HILTY: (Producer) Neil Meron (who was a producer on Smash) was the one that came to me about it. He and (director) Callie [Khouri] called me last fall and talked to me about it. I adore Neil, and I’m a huge fan of Callie, so right off the bat, I was incredibly interested. I’m also a huge Patsy Cline fan. To be very honest, I was a fan of her music, but I did not really know anything about her personal life. I was a fan of her music and her voice, and now I’m just a super fan.
JESSIE MUELLER: I actually think I was one of the last people to come onto the project. My agent got a call from (director) Callie [Khouri] and Neil Meron, one of our producers, asking if I’d be interested in doing it, and I ended up having a call with the two of them because I was blindsided by the whole thing. I was just so surprised by it. I was like, “You want me to do what? You want me to play who?” I was extremely flattered, but I didn’t understand why they thought of me, so we had a couple of interesting conversations about it. I wanted to work with both of them, I just wasn’t sure that I was the right person for the job. They were trying to convince me, and I was scared. I was just so intimidated, by the whole thing.
Jessie, what was it that finally did convince you?
MUELLER: I think it was them. I had to come up with an answer pretty quickly, so I started to dive into Loretta’s music, which I didn’t really know that well. I learned a little bit about her, and I felt like Neil and Callie were so positive and so supportive, and they said, “We really think you can do this, and we’d love you to do it.” So, I just took a leap of faith and said, “I’m gonna try this. It’ll be a great learning experience.” And it was. I was just really scared. Anytime you’re dealing with precious subject matter, you do have concerns because you’re dealing with real people and their real lives. There were real people who were loved and respected, and certainly in this case, extremely revered for their careers and their talents. It was something that we definitely approached with a great deal of humility and feeling like we wanted to have a proper reverence for the work and the pioneering that these women did, both for women in country music and for country music, in general.
Megan, when you take on something like this, is there also an immediate sense of, “Oh, my god, I don’t know if I want to take on a role like that!”?
HILTY: Absolutely, but you could make that case for any of the things that I’ve ever done. Every single thing has either been a real person, or somebody else had made it iconic before I did. So, luckily, I have a history of doing incredibly daunting roles, and I’ve figured out how to just come to terms with the fact that I’m not going to please everybody, and be okay with what I bring to the table.
What were you most excited about, in getting to play Patsy Cline, and what most scared you about taking her on?
HILTY: First of all, it’s always scary to play someone who is or was a real person. Even though I’m done with the project, I’m still nervous about not doing right by her legacy. I don’t think I’ll ever be like, “Oh, yeah, I nailed it!” That’s just not possible. But at the same time, it was something I really wanted to do because she was such a powerhouse of a person and the story’s amazing. Just a story about two female friends that aren’t fighting or in competition with each other was very attractive to me. And the fact that it’s a true story, and these women who you would’ve thought would be in competition were the exact opposite, and completely supported one another, I just really wanted to be a part of this project.
Patsy Cline was somebody who started in music at a very early age, and she was very driven and competitive, when it came to her career and succeeding at it. Do you feel like it was ever a path that she chose for herself?
HILTY: She was a force of nature, in every aspect that you could imagine, from what I’ve gathered. I think there was a driving force in her, to do exactly what she was going to do, from the beginning. I don’t think it was a matter of, if she was going to become a singer. It was just a matter of when and how. She was such a powerhouse of a person that I don’t think anybody could have gotten in her way.
Loretta starts out not really knowing anything about the music business and not really having a tremendous amount of drive, as far as wanting a successful career. Do you think that she eventually would have figured things out, on her own, or do you think it really was thanks to Patsy showing her the ropes and helping her understand how to make all of that work in her favor?
MUELLER: I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s a way any of us could know. I personally think things happen for a reason. Her husband was extremely instrumental in that, as well, in believing in her and encouraging her to follow this gift that she had. Certainly, Patsy was extremely instrumental. The fact that Patsy is the one she met, and she met her when she met her, I think it was meant to be. You hope and pray that she would have found her way, if it hadn’t have been for Patsy, but thank God the two of them did get together. On a personal front, it was this amazing alchemy. The ways in which they could be there for each other and support each other, seemingly did so much for them on a personal level, but I think it affected their art, as well. The two things are definitely intertwined.
I love how we get to see the contrast between Patsy and Loretta, in the sense that Patsy really seems like she knew she was a star, whereas Loretta has to be convinced of that fact.
HILTY: Absolutely! She was out there telling the world, “Hey, I’m a singer. Take me seriously.” And Loretta was the opposite. She was like, “Well, I don’t know why anybody would pay to hear me.” They were total opposites, which is possibly why they worked so well together.
The friendship between these two women really allowed them to find their own worth and demand certain things for themselves because they deserved it, which is really remarkable.
MUELLER: That happens in life. Sometimes you need to realize that someone else is going through what you’re going through and you’re not alone in it. That gives the stuff to move forward. It gives you a certain confidence to know that you’re not in something alone, and I think those two women did that a lot for each other.
They were also so revolutionary, being female country singers in what was really largely a boys’ club. As singers yourselves, and after all the research that you did into these women, what do you most admire about what they were able to accomplish?
HILTY: Gosh, there’s so much that I’m not quite sure where to start. What I admire, specifically about Patsy, is the fact that she really didn’t take no for an answer. The fact that she was a female, she just wouldn’t accept anything less because she was a woman. She wasn’t even quite aware of the time that she was living in. She was just like, “No, this is what I deserve because I’m doing just as good a job as anybody else.” She was way ahead of her time, in a time where women were just told that they weren’t equal, they deserved less, and they weren’t supposed to work, at all. She just didn’t accept that, at all. And at the same time, she took other women – and not just Loretta, but many other female singers – under her wing and, and sternly, but lovingly, told them how to take care of themselves, how to get paid, what to wear, how to talk to people, and so forth. I just admire that, so much. Not only was she doing it for herself, but she was doing it for every other woman, without even thinking about it. That’s just what she did.
MUELLER: One of the first things that stuck out to me was the insistence that both of them had about the kind of stuff they wanted to do. Patsy was really insistent about what kind of material she wanted to do, and she has strong opinions about it. And Loretta did, too. She was like, “I don’t know if anybody else is gonna like this, but this is what’s going on in my life, so this is what I’m writing about ‘cause this is what I care about.” We’ve learned, time and time again, that’s the kind of thing that translates. If it matters to the artist and it’s truthful to the artist, that truth will resonate with an audience. That’s one of the things that happened with these women, in their artistry. They believed in what they were doing and were extremely connected to it, and audiences were drawn to that.
What was it like to go into the studio and record these songs, and deal with the pressure of that?
HILTY: It was extremely daunting. It could be like too daunting, if you let it be and if you think about it too much. A couple of great things, our music producer, Tim Lauer, was amazing. He’s just one of the best, and he created a very relaxed atmosphere that was almost too relaxed. Jessie [Mueller] and I would do a couple of takes and he’d be like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” And we were like, “No, it’s not, and fine is not okay. We have to be great, in order to be okay. You can’t just say that this is fine.” We did one session of “Crazy,” and I kept listening back to it and was like, “This isn’t right,” so we did a second session. Luckily, it’s a different arrangement and it’s in a different scenario than anything that Patsy ever recorded, so it’s not supposed to sound like any of her recording. It’s supposed to sound like she’s singing it live, at one of her friend’s memorial services, with just a piano, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a recording of hers, doing that, specifically in that situation. Luckily, we had some lee-way with one of the most iconic songs ever. Otherwise, I think we would have been doomed, from the beginning. First of all, I’ll never sound exactly like her because I’m not her, and I’m not a sound-alike or a mimic. I can sound like her, but in order to make it real and emotional, at all, it has to be me, too. So, it has to be a combination of the two, instead of just being a robot and sounding exactly like somebody else. Also, Patsy Cline is one of the greatest all-time vocalists, ever, so if I did sound exactly like her, I would be making a lot more money than I do. There is no other. She’s a singular talent. So, it was incredibly daunting, but at the same time, we also had some wiggle room.
MUELLER: It ended up being so joyful. Our music producer, Tim Lauer, was one of the first people I met when I got to Nashville, and recording the music was one of the first things that we did. We went into the studio pretty early. Megan and I did a lot of the work ourselves, by ourselves, and then brought it into the studio and asked if it was aligning with what they were thinking. Because it happened quickly, a lot of people were doing their pre-production in their specific camps, and then, when we came together, we started to lay things down, but there had been a lot of work that happened, prior to that. When we went in there, we were singing to track, so all of the instrumental tracks had been recorded already, and then they continued to layer things in and produce it, from there. That was really informative. It was all really in line with authenticity of what it was, but not necessarily a carbon copy. We all wanted to capture the essence of how exciting that music was, at the time, and how vibrant it was, and we really wanted to hear the sounds of the instrumentation. We didn’t want it to be overproduced. They did such a beautiful job with that.
Jessie, did it ever feel overwhelmingly scary and daunting, to take all of that on?
MUELLER: It was. When I first started to listen, I was listening with really technical ears for awhile, trying to pick up on certain phrasing things, or how she resonates, and really technical singer stuff. At one point, I realized that wasn’t very helpful and I was doing it too quickly. I jumped the gun. And so, I stepped back for awhile and just listened. I just had the records on, all the time, and was just listening as much as I could, and was listening to music that she would’ve been listening to, growing up, on the radio. It was after doing that for awhile that I could go back and really look at it with a microscope, just to find some technical things that I wanted to incorporate and use. Part of the beauty of how quickly the project came together was that there wasn’t much time to worry because there was so much to get done. So, I definitely felt the pressure when we first approached things, but then when we got into the work, we just had to do it, which was a blessing in disguise. And also, everybody involved was so wonderful. One of the coolest things, as we were working on the project, was that kept getting these stories from people on the crew or people who are on the production side of things, that were their personal connections to the story, whether their uncle played in Patsy’s band in Vegas, or their grandpa worked on the Opry. Because we were shot the whole thing in Nashville, there was just this attachment to the project and pride in the project that imbued the whole thing with this lovely, warm, energetic feeling. Everybody wanted to do the best we could with this. Everybody wanted to do this justice, and that was just across the board. We were talking about the music, but from the guitars they had on set, to the way they had the specific microphones that they would have had at the Opry, to the props and the costumes, it all affected it and it all came together.
Megan, had you ever sung or performed any of her songs before, even if it was just in the shower or car, or was this the first time you had to do it?
HILTY: Yeah, this was very first time. Now that I’ve studied her catalogue, I’ll be covering some of her songs. They’re so amazing. Every single one of her songs are so lyric driven. I wouldn’t say that they’re easy to sing, but they’re delightful to sing. They’re not super simple, but there’s room for interpretation, on all of them.
This is such a fascinating film because it’s not just about these women and their lives and careers, which are fascinating, in and of themselves, but it’s also about their friendship and who they were to each other. What was it like to get to explore that dynamic with each other?
HILTY: I didn’t know Jessie before this. We have two very close mutual friends that I’d heard many wonderful stories about Jessie through, so I knew that she was a wonderful person ad that it wasn’t just rumors. I actually asked her out on a date, when we first got to Nashville, ‘cause I thought it was important that we get to know each other, and from the get-go, she was just the easiest, nicest, most like down-to-earth and wonderful person that you could ever imagine being around. So, to get to work with her, every day, on set was just a joy. On top of that, everybody in the cast and crew was wonderful. This was, by far, the most pleasant working experience I’ve ever had, from beginning to end. We were all very sad when it ended, and now me and Jessie are dreaming up things that we can do together ‘cause it feels strange that it’s over.
MUELLER: Oh, my gosh, Megan is just a gem. She and I actually didn’t really know each other before this. We’d met a couple times. I think the first time we met was actually at a friend’s baby shower, but we’d never actually worked together. We have a bunch of mutual friends. When we first re-met in Nashville, before we started shooting, she got into town and said, “Hey, you wanna go grab some dinner or something,” so we had a date, and it just clicked. I’m just so grateful for her. Every day that she walked on the set, she’s the kind of person that you want on set. When she wasn’t there, I noticed. She’s just a really positive person. She has an energy about her. She’s so ridiculously talented, and she’s also extremely hardworking. She’s gracious to everyone and gets the job done. She was the perfect person to watch on set. I felt like it was a little Patsy to Loretta. I really felt like I was learning from her, every day.
At this point in life and career, what do you look for in a project and character? What gets you excited about a role?
HILTY: I’m always excited by characters that show that you can’t judge a book by its cover and that you can’t ever assume anything about a person, just because of how they look. There’s always a depth and another side to what you’re perceiving, and the same was true for Patsy. Although, with Patsy, what you saw is what you got ‘cause she didn’t beat around the bush with anything. What I find the most interesting is characters that are multi-dimensional and are always going to surprise you.
MUELLER: Now, more so than ever, I really have to get behind the point of [the project]. Why do we want to tell this story? Does this story need to be told? Do I feel like I’ve got anything to add to it? Do I feel like being a part of this is gonna be a positive experience? Do I wanna work with these people? I just wanna work with nice, talented people. I’m so grateful that was the experience on [Patsy & Loretta]. It was one of the best working experiences that I’ve ever had, to be honest, and so much of that was because of the people involved, but also the story. I just was drawn to the fact that it was a story about a friendship between two women who really needed each other and really leaned on each other to just live their lives. Life is hard. We need people. We need people to lean on and to live our lives with. I just feel that, more and more. We’re definitely in a moment, right now, where I hope and pray that the world is getting a little sick of this, “Me, me, me” attitude, and that we’re hopefully learning to embrace one another and realize that we need each other to get through this. We really need each other. So, those are the kind of things that I look for. I get delighted by a project, if I feel like I wanna get behind the message, and if I feel like there’s something about the character that I feel like I get or I relate to. I have to see the way that I can get into it, and that doesn’t always happen right away. Sometimes that happens late in the process, but there’s always gotta be something that sticks with me, and then I know that it’s reaching out to me. When I can’t quite get it out of my mind, I know that I’m supposed to do it.
Is there a type of role that you’d love to do, or another real-life character, or something from some sort of source material that you’d like the opportunity to do?
HILTY: I don’t know. In musical theater, there is. I’ve always wanted to do Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. But as far as something else, I don’t know. I’m not quite sure. I didn’t even know that I wanted to do Patsy Cline, before it showed last fall and fell into my lap. I’m excited to see what’s next, though.
MUELLER: Gosh, I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been so fortunate, in the women that I’ve gotten to play lately. A lot of them were not opportunities that I knew existed. It wasn’t something where I said to myself, “Oh, I wanna play a woman like this.” One of the things that intrigued me about [Patsy & Loretta] was that, aside from the true to life aspect of how intriguing and fascinating Loretta Lynn is, looking at it purely as a character, I found her very interesting and very complex. There were just a lot of layers there. Women are much more complicated than we like to give credence to sometimes. So, I look for characters like that. I don’t wanna play someone who’s in the story purely for the way she looks and the sexuality that she can provide. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I wanna play someone with a purpose and a brain and an intention, and someone who is an integral part of the story and is out there, helping to move the story along, as much as any other character.
Megan, are you surprised at the impact that Smash had on the fans of that show, and how much they wish that show had continued?
HILTY: It’s crazy that, we’ve been off the air six years now and people still, every day, stop me on the street or in the grocery store and ask me what the future of the show is. Everybody expects that we’re doing a reboot, or there’s going to be a Broadway show, or something. I’m not joking, they ask me, every single day. It makes me feel great that people are still invested in the characters and the stories, and those musical numbers. So, who knows what the future is. I hear stories that there is a future, but I don’t know exactly what it is.
Patsy & Loretta premieres on Lifetime Television on October 19th.