‘Nashville’ Star Charles Esten Talks What’s Next for Deacon -- and That Rachel Bilson Kiss! (Exclusive)

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Charles Esten at AOL Build
Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

It’s never too early to start talking about Nashville!

The cast of the CMT drama went back to work in late September, gearing up for season six of the hit show, which found itself not only on a new network and with a new showrunner last season, but halfway through, also down its star, Connie Britton (Rayna Jaymes).

ET spoke with Charles Esten just a couple of days before he hit the set, and he admitted that he and his co-stars still aren’t completely over their friend’s departure.

“Sometimes it happens that you're in a similar place [as your characters], and in a weird way, this was that to a T. We the actors who play Deacon and Daphne and Maddie were going through the same goodbye, so there's a part of that that we didn't have to search for,” he explained. “While we're on that hospital bed saying goodbye to Rayna as my wife and their mom, we're also on that hospital bed saying goodbye to Connie who's our dear, dear friend, who we've been with for four-and-a-half years and through so much together, laughed and cried all these scenes together.”

Photo: CMT

“We know that we'll see her and we'll be in touch, but we also know that it won't be in the same way, almost like when you graduate from college: you see your friends again, but it won't be the same,” he continued.

It’s pretty rare for a show to continue on at such a high level after their main character has left, but the writers, cast and crew of Nashville certainly proved they were up for the task. “That there's any continuity at all is a testament to all the work these people do,” Esten admitted.

One of the most powerful moments of the back half of season five came in May, when Maddie performed Rayna's song, “Sanctuary,” to honor her mom, tearing up while flanked by both Deacon and Daphne. The goodbye to Rayna encapsulated what Nashville is best at -- delivering powerful, heart-wrenching moments that ring true.

“Picture Lennon up there playing Maddie, singing, and all those incredible images of Rayna/Connie are all around her. Yeah, it hit all of us,” Esten recalled. “It's interesting -- what do I feel like when I'm around those girls, and they're hurting from something like that? I feel protective. And then, of course, that's what my character is feeling as well. We're very, very fortunate. There's a lot of great shows that can take a scene as far as it goes, but there's something about music that can just take it to another level, and we're lucky to get to do that.”

Photo: CMT

Season six will be the first full season without Rayna, which will force Deacon to truly see if he can grow on his own -- not that he hasn't had enough challenges in his past, which both alcoholism and cancer storylines, as well as the death of his sister. Esten says the cathartic moment in episode 21, where Deacon took a walk in the woods, was the beginning of the character reaching some semblance of acceptance, but there’s still more work to be done.

“What I'm really proud of is that you see the connection between Deacon season five and Deacon season one or two. That's the same guy, but it's not the same guy. It's a guy who's changed in so many ways, so I'm interested to find out [where he goes next],” he mused. “For me, it still maintains what I said last year: Deacon became a stronger person because of Rayna and her love. The question is did she make him strong enough to survive without her? Is he that strong a person?”

The 52-year-old actor has dug into his own past struggles to build on Deacon’s coping mechanisms, namely how to take on day-to-day tasks in the face of tragedy. About 15 years ago, Esten’s now 17-year-old daughter Addie was diagnosed with leukemia, and the strength he and his wife, Patty Hanson, needed to get through their little girl’s battle has reframed nearly everything in his life."

“This was very helpful to us when we were with Addie -- we had something to pour ourselves into. Not just taking care of Addie, but these two other children [daughter Taylor and son Chase] who needed us every day for the mundane things, for the permission slips and making sure they had the costume for the Halloween party at school, all those things. It's similar with Deacon,” he explained. “He's going to be finding some alone time as Maddie is much older and Daphne is in high school now. We're learning who he is without Rayna, but who is he that's more than just a father now? Because he's thrown into that whole hog, and I actually don't know the answer."

“You realize he had let go of music, and that was a mistake, because in some sense, music is Deacon, but it's also healing,” he added. “It's the place where he gets to let this stuff process. So, in some way, he wasn't processing. That's why he wasn't really making that music in the way he had before until he was on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. Being an adult, being a human being, is learning to process pain correctly. That's Deacon's journey. And now he's finally got more pain than he ever imagined he'd have to deal with in his life, and it's been very hard to process, and the music is going to help, and his friends and family are going to help.”

The other important question will be is if we’ll see a new love interest for Deacon. And while that’s hush-hush as of now, there is one kiss Nashville fans still can’t stop talking about -- that surprising smooch between Deacon and Alyssa Greene (guest star Rachel Bilson).

“I won't speak for her, but I don't think it surprised either of us, that [fan] reaction, because that was not expected. I don't think either she or I expected it," he said of Bilson, who he also called "fantastic." “I wasn’t even sure if we were going to use it. We shot that both ways, where she did and where she didn't. Even the writers knew this is a tricky thing to pull off and make this look organic and like something that makes sense, and that's just what a great actor she is."

Alyssa and Deacon - Nashville
Photo: CMT

As if wrapping his head around more Nashville drama wasn’t enough, Esten was wrapped up a personal journey this summer, completing a challenge he gave himself to record one new song a week “until it's stupid” to keep going. That ended up being 54 tunes over the course of just over one year, which he admits meant he “probably plowed right through that deadline."

A big reason he was able to produce so much so quickly is that shooting Nashville keeps him in one place for long stints, whereas many of his country music friends are on the road frequently.

“I'm a guy that's wanted to do this my whole life. I finally get here and I get to do it... It's one of these things where putting the music out was the goal, so in that sense, mission accomplished,” he said. “What happens to my music, that's the future and is some sense all gravy. As it stands now, I get to know that my music is out there and a whole bunch of people bought it and they stream it and they listen to it in their headphones, in their homes. The fact that I can say songs I've written and produced and sang have become some small part of people's lives, I couldn't even tell you what that means to me.”

While many people would want to separate their TV character from their real life, Esten noted that Deacon actually helped his songwriting.

“He has inspired many, many songs. Because a lot of the times when you're writing a song, you're playing a character anyway -- not just me, but every songwriter in Nashville,” he explained. “I've been fortunate. Addie's healing itself is part of the many blessings I have, which includes this amazing wife, these wonderful kids, this life here. So, you can write songs from that happy-things-are-good place, but it sure does not hurt to walk around in the boots of a guy like Deacon every day in terms of inspiring other song."

Charles Esten on stage

Charles Esten performs on stage for his #OneSingleYear Celebration Concert in Nashville, Tennessee, in July 2017.

Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Charles Esten

There will definitely be even more inspiration now that he’s back on set with his co-stars, who’ve become some of his closest friends.

“We want this season to be done and people go, ‘That was the best season yet. How could that be the best season? But it was,” Esten hopes. “That's what your goal is whenever you’re starting. You want to aim that high!”

Season six of Nashville will premiere on CMT in January 2018.