Jamie Lynn Spears on Acting for the First Time Since 'Zoey 101' in Netflix's 'Sweet Magnolias' (Exclusive)

'I felt like I was playing myself -- a mom trying to do the right thing,' Spears tells ET of her first role in 12 years.

Jamie Lynn Spears returns to acting for the first time in 12 years with Netflix's Southern family drama, Sweet Magnolias. It's her first major role since playing the eponymous heroine in Nickelodeon's teen sitcom, Zoey 101, from 2005 to 2008.

"It feels great. Why haven't I been doing this constantly?" Spears joked to ET's Rachel Smith over Zoom about being back in front of the camera. "I think life has a way of putting itself at the right place at the right time and this was it. This was the right place at the right time."

Based on a series of popular Sherryl Woods novels, Sweet Magnolias follows lifelong best friends Maddie Townsend (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), Helen Decatur (Heather Headley) and Dana Sue Sullivan (Brooke Elliott) as they navigate relationships, family and careers in the South Carolina town of Serenity. Spears plays Noreen Fitzgibbons, a young nurse who becomes pregnant with Maddie's estranged husband, Bill Townsend's (Chris Klein), baby after they have an affair. 

"I was so thankful to be a part of the show. I want to do it as much as I can," Spears, 29, said of acting. "Any way I can have my creative outlet is where I want to do it. I missed acting and I am just happy to be back and happy to see what is next and happy for everyone to get to meet Noreen because I love her. It's really special. I love it and I hope everyone else will too."

As Spears recalls, Sweet Magnolias came as a happy accident. The singer-actress met with Netflix about something "completely different," when they broached the idea of teeing up her return to series television. "I was like, 'Uh, yes!,'" she shared. "First off, any job where I get to act and play pretend, of course I want to." A breakfast meeting with executive producers Daniel Paulson, Norman Buckley and showrunner Sheryl J. Anderson sealed the deal. 

"It was one of those things where I fell in love with the character. I felt like I had been her in many ways and I had compassion for the character," Spears said of Noreen. "I loved the people who were working on it. They took a chance on me... It really was a big blessing in disguise."

Mother to two daughters, 11-year-old Maddie and 2-year-old Ivey, Spears felt a kinship with her character, who, on paper, could be someone who is difficult to root for -- at least in the beginning.

"Shes a young girl. She's probably not making all the right decisions, but who has?" Spears asked. "When someone says, 'Oh my gosh, the other woman,' like, you want to hate her! You want to be like, 'Oh my gosh, who does she think she is? This young nurse coming up in here thinking she can take someone else's husband.'"

"That's what's really great about the show is that it doesn't just show one side. It shows all the characters' sides. Therefore, you get to know the background behind each story and I think that's what's important," she noted. "Growing up, I guess I wouldn't say I had the most typical childhood. I think that's why I connect with this character. She's misunderstood in a lot of ways, but once you see her, you just love her. And I fell in love with her."


That's not to say there were decisions Noreen makes that Spears had a hard time reconciling with. "There were cringe-worthy moments," she acknowledged, "where I would have to do scenes and I'd be like, 'Ugh, Noreen, please stop. Don't do this.'" But ultimately, she believes Sweet Magnolias captures the messiness of life and the surprises that come with it. "It's a complicated situation but everyone has their story. Everyone has their reasons and that's what's important right now is all of us having compassion for each other's stories before we're quick to judge. The show does a really good job of capturing that."

Spears' co-stars were quick to praise her return to acting. Swisher, who shares many scenes with Spears and plays Bill's estranged wife, Maddie, whose marriage Noreen breaks up, called her a "total pro." "I absolutely adore her," the Reba actress told ET. "So beautiful and sweet and loving and such a good mom -- and just real. She's just lovely. That character can be easy to hate and she played it with this sense of earnestness and vulnerability, and you can really see that she has a journey on the show. There is a line where I say to her, 'We are not going to be friends but we don't have to be enemies.' I want more Noreen and Maddie scenes next year because this stuff happens in real life."

Klein echoed Swisher's comments, saying it "was terrific" getting to go on this journey on Sweet Magnolias with Spears. "Any time you get a chance to be on a set, which is so intense and so many hours, with somebody that's going through a similar life experience as you and you can share a bit of personal, that's really groovy," he told ET. "She's such a wonderful human being and a wonderful talent. It's wonderful to have her back on set and for us to be the first ones to steal her." 

Filming took place in Covington, Georgia, last summer. The close proximity to Spears' home base in Louisiana allowed her youngest daughter, Ivey, then just a year old, and her mother, Lynne, to be by her side throughout the entirety of filming. Her husband, Jamie Watson, and daughter Maddie, visited set often. 

To play Noreen, Spears put on a prosthetic pregnancy belly, a first for the actress, who joked she "had just lost the belly" after giving birth to Ivey a year before. 

"I had never played anyone pregnant on TV, but having to be conscious of that and aware of that and me as a mom and having a little baby, I think that added more compassion for her," she said of her character. "Not only is [Noreen] walking around feeling the shame of the whole situation, but there's literally no hiding it -- in a small town especially. It added a little bit more to the character and I kind of miss the belly now!"

"It really wasn't uncomfortable, I have to say," said Spears, who credited the wardrobe department for making sure the prosthetic belly was realistic enough where she felt like she was really pregnant, though the experience didn't make her miss "the real deal" at all. "I'd almost forget sometimes that I had my other sidekick, which was the belly. As the show went on, there were different sizes to the belly so the first two episodes, you're in one size and then the next two [episodes] I was in a bigger size. I really was growing... I felt completely pregnant."

While Noreen is perfectly imperfect, Spears' motherly instincts "100 percent" played a role in her performance. "I think you have to," she expressed, adding that motherhood has dramatically shifted her perspective and approach on life. 

"You almost have sympathy for the character because as moms, we relate to each other in a way of like, 'I've been there.' Seeing a girl who's struggling to make a family out of a broken family and just wants what's best for her baby, I have compassion for her and I'm tapping into my two children 100 percent," Spears said. "It makes me look at things differently. How you react in each scene is different than how you'd react if you didn't have that motherly instinct kicking in."

"That's what was so great about the role is, at the time, I felt like I was playing myself -- a mom trying to do the right thing -- and I think that that's the fun part about acting," she said. "You get to pull from your own life. Being a mom is a big part of mine, so I love playing Noreen."

Sweet Magnolias is streaming now on Netflix.

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