When Jamie Lynn Spears stepped onto the set of Sweet Magnolias, she was equipped with an important tool – compassion.
The actress and country singer is returning to the small screen as Noreen Fitzgibbons on the new Netflix series, Sweet Magnolias. Spears rose to fame on television shows including All That and as Zoey Brooks in the beloved teen show, Zoey 101, which aired on Nickelodeon from 2005-2008. She later turned her attention to country music, releasing her debut EP The Journey in 2014, in addition to co-writing Jana Kramer’s top 10 single, “I Got the Boy.”
Spears was in a meeting with Netflix officials about a different project when they pitched her the idea of auditioning for Sweet Magnolias, based on the book series of the same name by author Sherryl Woods. The plot follows Maddie Townsend, Dana Sue Sullivan and Helen Decatur, three women who have been best friends since high school and refer to themselves as the “Sweet Magnolias,” navigating the trials and tribulations of life in the fictional town of Serenity, South Carolina. The idea of being part of a show set in her southern comfort zone compelled the Kentwood, LA native to submit an audition tape for the role of Fitzgibbons. “I fell in love with it,” Spears tells Sounds Like Nashville about the show’s premise that made her feel “right at home.” “It was the perfect fit.”
In the 10-episode series, Spears portrays a nurse and assistant to Maddie’s husband Dr. Bill Townsend, leading to an affair with Bill in which Noreen becomes pregnant. Like her Serenity counterpart, Spears knows what it’s like to go through a life-changing experience in front of an audience. Spears made headlines when she announced her pregnancy at the age of 16 to eldest daughter Maddie in 2007 and has been open about her story as a young mother. The actress notes that Fitzgibbons is aware of the mistakes she’s made and is learning how to deal with the consequences, one of the many ways she identifies with her character. “She is a young girl who has put herself in some questionable situations and maybe not made all of the right choices. But she’s owning them and she’s trying to push through them while the community is watching and judging,” Spears defends. Through her portrayal, the actress aims to bring dimension to the part in hopes that viewers see Fitzgibbons as more than a stereotypical mistress. In spite of her struggles, Spears sees the strength and resilience in Fitzgibbons, two distinct qualities they share. “My favorite part was I got to take this character and really give heart to her and have the world see her in a different light than just ‘the other woman,’” she continues. “I had compassion for what she was going through at that time and I think that’s what really drew out my heart for her.”
Sweet Magnolias marks Spears’ first major acting role in 12 years, presenting her with a series of opportunity for growth, one of which being the ability to convey vulnerability on-screen. The 29-year-old describes herself as an “independent” person who at times found it difficult to let her guard down and tap into the emotional side of her character. “I’ve always wanted to be my own person, sometimes to my own detriment. It was hard to play a girl who was trying so hard to make this work with a man who wasn’t fully in it, and that sometimes was hard for me to push past that emotion,” she explains. “It was really hard for me to open up and be soft because that’s so hard for me in real life, so do it as a character was a challenge.”
After spending three months filming in the charming make-believe town, Spears believes that Serenity represents the foundation that small towns provide for those who call them home, creating a built-in support system that enables one to be their best self. “At the end of the day, we pull each other together and we support each other, and that’s what gets us through. That’s the human connection that we were put on this earth to do,” she observes, adding that the show offers a timely message of unity. “Right now, I think us as a whole world pulling together is what’s getting us through this and I think that this show is about family, it’s about faith and it’s about community and not taking that for granted.”
While the show stands as a symbol of community, Spears also sees the universal theme of empathy, hoping that fans apply it to their own lives. “I think we should have compassion for people and not be so quick to tear them down or judge them. We don’t know their full story and I think that’s what really important and I hope people take away from this is watch the story, get to know her before you judge her, and that carries over into real life,” Spears professes. “I think it’s important to lead with compassion in every area of our life.”
Sweet Magnolias is streaming on Netflix now.