It wasn’t until Esten saw Sylvester Stallone’s iconic Rocky that he felt the true spark that inspired him to move towards this career path. He attributes the instant bolt of interest to “lights flickering on a screen” and the carefully crafted script paired with powerful acting. With this combination of elements, a seed was planted and ‘sort of stayed in there and turned into the thought that maybe [he] would like to do something like this, make people feel something.’ He took the leap to Hollywood with zero experience, prior validation or hiring promises. Talk about a leap of faith! He was young, not in a rush, and knew it was something he wanted to try. “I wanted to work in acting and music. Ultimately the two came full circle.” These elements were significant in roles he’s played including Buddy Holly on London’s West End or stealing our hearts in his starring role as Deacon Clayborne on the show Nashville. He was also a favorite for HBO’s Big Love fans as a Mormon district attorney and in his stint of appearances on The Office among other acting projects. Most recently he’s gained acclaim as character Ward Cameron in the Netflix phenomenon, Outer Banks. Whether he’s tackling one of these roles or playing on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, Chip is known to take on each project in stride—making an impact on and off the screen.
TNE: Was there a moment in your career where you felt legitimized in a difficult or peak time in your life?
Charles Esten: One of the earliest jobs I had, I auditioned for in Los Angeles, but it took me to London, England. It was the leading role in the musical, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. I had very little professional acting experience up to that point. I had some musical performance background. I played the guitar and I’d sung in front of audiences, but I knew that this was going to be a very tough round of auditions. They saw a whole lot of people. But eventually, some producers from Britain said that they were going to hire me and fly me over there to one day, eventually take over the title role of Buddy himself. I can vividly remember coming out of the subway station and ascending some stairs. I came out right across the street from the Victoria Palace Theatre and it was just like a movie scene. It was in the fog from a really rainy evening. The clouds were low and the lights from the neon, of the theater itself, from the big BUDDY sign, made the place just glow. I remember looking at that, and just thinking how much it meant that they had seen something in me that led them to think I could drive that very impressive vehicle. And, well, if they thought so then I thought, ‘Yeah, maybe I can.’
TNE: Advice to your 20-year-old-self?
CE: You will never, ever regret being kind.
TNE: Many of your Nashville fans have noted the stark differences in Deacon’s character to your Outer Banks character, Ward. What has it been like playing what some would call the “bad guy”?
CE: I would say the answer is I don’t play a ‘bad guy,’ I play a guy that has been forced into extreme situations and has done bad things. That was the thing I liked so much about Deacon, especially early on, Deacon did do bad things. Ward doesn’t have less of a heart. You know? For Deacon, there is a whole lot of ‘There, but for the grace of God go, I,’ in terms of challenges he faced, and what he went through. With Ward, I like to think he’s got levels to his character, as opposed to the typical ‘bad guy’ role found in sitcoms. I don’t just want to be the crazy guy that goes after the kids. I want to confuse people and make them feel for Ward sometimes. He doesn’t encompass evil. Very few people do something without thinking. In their mind, they have a very good reason for doing it. A lot of it is moral confusion that then gets you into a situation where you’re either going to give up and let your whole world blow up, which is, I guess, you know, repentance and turning back and, you know, working for forgiveness. Or, you’re just going to keep plowing on and decide you’re not going back and not going that way. And that’s, that’s the Ward way (laughing).
TNE: What was the casting process like for landing Outer Banks, which is now a Netflix sensation?
CE: I actually—you wait your whole career for this—I didn’t even audition for it. The three creators, Jonas Pate, Josh Pate, and Shannon Burke just called me up and asked me if I wanted to play this guy. They gave me the script and asked me if I’d like to be Ward Cameron. I’m trying to think back; I think I might’ve had another offer before, but never for anything quite this big, so that was great, especially for me. I’m such a big fan of television. I’ve watched it growing up my whole life.
TNE: Local charities closest to your heart?
CE: For me, it’s the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society because of my daughter, Addie, who was diagnosed with leukemia when she was two and a half. It’s because of them she’s with us now, and she just turned 21. We are unbelievably grateful to everybody in the medical staff that was there for our daughter, and for all those scientists and researchers and fundraisers that came before. We thank God for them all every single day. And this is just us doing our bit to give back to that organization. Cancer is my least favorite word in the world, and blood cancer especially, there’s something so elemental about it. Not only does that make it so scary, but it also makes its cures so useful in other realms of cancer. We just really love the people at LLS and think they’re doing a fantastic job.
Musicians on Call is also a fantastic organization. If Nashville is about anything, it’s about the power of music to lift people up, to save spirits, and to be there when they need it most. I’m not saying it could ever replace medicine, only a fool would think that, but every medical person I know will tell you that music makes a difference. Just being in a cold sterile hospital room, and having somebody in there playing the guitar, singing a song, maybe even with the patient, it’s a bit of a transporter/time machine. For that moment, they don’t have to be where they are or sick. Musicians on Call does fantastic work, placing musicians and artists into the places where I think they’re needed the most—hospital rooms, hospice centers and similar environments. I participate and help with many things in the area when asked, but these are the two that are especially close to my heart.
TNE: Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings?
CE: Oh, that was actually a question for Deacon. I forget what Deacon’s answer was. For me, (and this is not me comparing them, this is me telling you who was more a part of my life growing up) this comes from my dad, but it’s got to be Waylon. Including his relationship with Buddy Holly! He was meant to be on the plane that crashed that cost Buddy his life. I think he flipped a coin with someone for a seat. In any event, I admire him because of the work he did with Willie Nelson. I’m also a huge Merle Haggard fan, but you asked to pick one…
TNE: Favorite takeout restaurant in Music City?
CE: Hmm. Well, first of all, it’s been a while. Second, I always feel bad. Like so-and-so’s going to see this in here. You know what, when I really get a hankering (he pulls out his phone to pull up the menu), I get the #2 combo at Sonic Drive-In. It’s a double cheeseburger with jalapeños and a side of onion rings with a diet coke.
TNE: What do you do that is still analog?
CE: I’m still a very analog musician. I mean, I’ll record it on my phone eventually, but even when writing songs, most of the time I just take a pen and scratch it on a piece of paper.
TNE: Apart from more time, what would make the biggest difference in your life?
CE: Less virus. (laughing) I don’t want to confuse people and think that I have it or anything. I want to think, and was answering that semi-seriously, that hopefully, moving forward this pandemic experience will have made a difference to everybody. I’m a very grateful guy. I’d like to think that I don’t take anything for granted, but you look back and you go, well, we all took things for granted. Things we thought that just was and always would be. So, I like to think that when this is gone, we’ve hung on to considering how special everything is, whether it’s a concert or a movie or a restaurant or having a photoshoot like we are doing now for EDIT.
TNE: Your most prized possession?
CE: I lost my father a little over 10 years ago and he was a great influence on me in every way. He led a life where he taught me by owning his own mistakes, facing the things that he had done wrong, and ways he wanted to do better. His faith was a huge part of that. Uh, so he left me his Bible and it is dog-eared and tattered and duct-taped like it was a life vest that somebody was clinging to. I know he was, and for me, it’s incredibly special. I say I read in the morning, and the Bible is one of the books because I can go back and see where he has underlined certain things and highlighted others and written in the margins. In some ways, it’s like I’m still having a conversation with him. He’s saying, ‘Hey, look at this.’ ‘This meant a lot to me.’ ‘I wish I had known this.’ We talked about things you would tell your younger self, but he’s telling me these things still through the pages. I have a lot of really wonderful guitars and things like that, but in the end, as gorgeous as they are, they’re just things, and this is the real stuff.