Jennifer Nettles Talks Film Debut in 'Harriet' and That 'Righteous Gemstones' Bee Scene (Exclusive)

Jennifer Nettles Harriet
Focus Features

The Sugarland singer opens up about her back-to-back roles and working with Joe Alywn.

As lead singer of the country music duo Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles has enjoyed the spotlight ever since the group released its debut album in 2004. Now, 15 years into a successful music career, Nettles is making her feature film debut in Harriet, the new biopic starring Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, which opened to an impressive $12 million at the box office and an A+ CinemaScore in its first weekend. Janelle Monae, Joe Alwyn and Leslie Odom Jr. round out the cast, with Nettles playing Eliza Brodess, the mother to slave owner Gideon (Alwyn). 

Despite being far from a sympathetic character, Nettles was “thrilled to be able to play such a role,” she tells ET. She saw Eliza as an opportunity to be the darkest shadow to Erivo’s bright light. There’s very little known about the woman aside from her being on the wrong side of history. But that didn’t stop Nettles from working with director Kasi Lemmons to dive into what it must have been like for a woman at the time -- especially stripped of any agency -- in order to find “at kind of humanity in the character,” she says.

Aside from sharing a few scenes with Erivo, Nettles is mostly seen opposite Alwyn, who she says “is so very talented and definitely one to watch.” A rising star in Hollywood, the 28-year-old English actor has recently made a splash on- and off-screen thanks to his relationship with Nettles’ friend and collaborator, Taylor Swift. (Swift co-wrote and sang on Sugarland’s hit 2018 single “Babe.” “I’m so proud for her and all of her successes and so grateful that she offered us this song,” she previously told ET about working them together.)

Having that connection helped created “an automatic familiarity and a much more of an open door there,” she says of developing a mother-son dynamic with Alwyn, whom she also praises for his command of a Southern accent. “I was proud of him for the authenticity that he brought there.”

While not new to acting -- she made her screen debut in the 2015 TV movie Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors and its follow-up, Christmas of Many Colors -- 2019 marks a major turn for Nettles, who also has a supporting role in Danny McBride’s acclaimed HBO comedy, The Righteous Gemstones, about famous, dysfunctional family of televangelists. The series, which has already been renewed for season two, saw her playing Aimee-Leigh Gemstone, the dead wife of Dr. Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) and mother to Jesse (McBride), Kelvin (Adam DeVine) and Judy (Edi Patterson).

Weeks before Harriet hit theaters, Righteous Gemstones concluded its first season. The finale opens with a hilarious -- yet very unexpected -- scene, as the Gemstone family gathers around the hospital bed where Aimee-Leigh has just died. It’s meant to be a pivotal moment for the family. Instead, while they’re all grieving, a bee flies into the room causing total chaos as they all try to kill it.

When Nettles read the script, she recalls thinking to herself, “The most acting I have ever done will be to have to lie here, dead and motionless and expressionless while these fools are carrying on the way they did.” And true to the script, Nettles was forced to contain herself while Goodman, McBride, DeVine and Patterson went about destroying the room.

Admittedly -- at least on a few takes -- Nettles wasn’t able to hold it all in. “You see the camera looking down on me and I have this look on my face and we all just howled at that because it was obvious I was not dead at that point,” she says. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”  

Looking back on getting to work on Righteous Gemstones and Harriet, Nettles is blown away. “The different ends of the spectrum between Aimee-Leigh and Eliza -- as an actress, this is what you want to do,” she says. “You want to be able to have such diversity. As a storyteller, that’s what it’s all about.” 

When it comes to the next acting project, Nettles hopes she’ll “be able to tell fantastic stories about women,” she says, adding: “I like to think that our voices are continuing to become more and more heard.” No matter what, “I’m feeling pretty excited about what’s to come,” Nettles concludes.