Will Chase, the actor who plays Luke Wheeler on ABC’s ‘Nashville,” will be singing the National Anthem at the Oral-B USA 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday.
He will also meet with fans and promote the TV show, which certainly has its share of fans who may happen to like NASCAR, too.
His character Wheeler is a fictional equivalent of Tim McGraw in the country world. Last season, he wooed and ultimately won over fellow country superstar Rayna Jaymes (the incomparable Connie Britton), proposing to her on stage in the season finale.
Chase himself is a Kentucky native but wasn’t steeped in the country music world when he got the role last fall.
“I love bluegrass,” he said in a phone interview from Nashville earlier this week. “That’s how I fell into country.”
Chase is a classically trained singer who has a long run of Broadway hits (e.g. “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Miss Saigon,” “Oklahoma”) and co-starred in NBC’s short-lived “Smash” opposite his current beau Debra Messing. In his cowboy hat and scruff, he is almost unrecognizable if you knew him on “Smash.”
“I try to bring my Uncle Wayne and my kinfolk into Luke,” Chase said. “My portrayal of him is a reflection of my upbringing in Kentucky. I bring a little cheekiness and charm.”
And though his character is a nice guy and well worthy of Rayna, bad boy Deacon lurks in the background. “He’s so flawed yet you root for him,” Chase said. He acknowledges that many fans are Team Deacon, not Team Luke. “As my character is written, I’ve done nothing to warrant” the hate, he said, “Deacon has split with Rayna numerous times and almost killed her. Luke has done nothing like that.”
But the show will bring a bit of darkness into Luke’s corner season three, he said, without providing specifics.
After Chase joined the show, he quickly learned the ways of the country music business. “I go to the Bluebird Cafe, walk in there on a Wednesday and Thursday and just watch these amazing musicians. Many of the writers play there. One guy said he wrote a song for Blake Shelton and it was his third number one. It’s a cool dichotomy. Superstars often don’t write their own songs here.”
He enjoys the authenticity the show brings, that Nashville itself is a character of sorts. “Our extras are musicians. They’re real. I have band members who played with Tim McGraw. They push us as artists. It’s a world class city with a small-town feel.”
And how lucky is Chase to get to work with Britton? “I’ve been a fan for a long time,” he said. “She is such a versatile actress. She’s really great on set. We don’t necessarily stick to what’s on the page. She’s a technique actress. She’s so open and free. She’s funny as well.”
Compared to the set of “Smash,” he said the whole feel on “Nashville” is far looser. “We have a lot of fun,” he said, “which makes it easy to shoot scenes.”
Plus, the show itself had to play a tightrope since the characters broke into song like “Glee.” On “Nashville,” they sing on stage like real life.
He took classes with Robert Spano, long-time music director for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra when he was younger. “I studied under him at Oberlin,” he said. “He shaped the way I approach music. He’s a genius conductor and educator.”
Chase said he has only spent time in Atlanta once for any period of time, shooting a Hallmark movie he admits few will remember.
Messing, his girlfriend, will be back on NBC this fall as a sharp, witty detective in “Mysteries of Laura.”
“I’ve seen the pilot,” Chase said. “It’s really funny. That show is tough to do. It’s a procedural but it can’t be too wacky.”