Charles Esten on 'Outer Banks' Season 2 and 10th Anniversary of 'Nashville' (Exclusive)
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Charles Esten was completely shocked by his character's journey in season 2 of Outer Banks. ET's Katie Krause spoke to the 55-year-old actor about the Netflix series' sophomore season, including his character, Ward Cameron's, decision to fake his own death in front of his daughter, Sarah (Madelyn Cline), a move that left Esten "blown away."
"When I saw that, it's just epic and operatic, as I would hope for it to be, and want for it to be," he told ET. "... You can't go halfway on it. You got to go all the way to give this character his final goodbye, or else nobody's going to buy it. They did that and more. They just went all the way... I think that's what makes it such a surprise later. They did it justice and then some."
The fact that Ward's death was not real was something Esten knew "early on," and became a ruse he was dedicated to making the fans believe.
"That's what I sort of love so much about it. It's necessary that we bring in these other villains, these other bad guys, because the show couldn't do without a villain," he said. "So I think if you're watching, you go, 'Wait, they do have these new villains, and Ward is cornered. Maybe that's what happens.'"
"Then they take just long enough, it doesn't happen the next episode or even the next... where you almost start to go, 'I guess he's gone,'" Ward continued. "And then the door opens. It's like, 'Wow.'"
Aside from his faked death, Ward was at the center of the drama when he seemed to choose his son, Rafe (Drew Starkey) over his daughter, Sarah, despite "absolutely" knowing the former has problems.
"We knew that in the first season," Esten told ET of Rafe's troubles. "You can see this whole situation with the treasure and the chasing of it, and the Pogues getting it, and the trying to cover up the death of Big John, that accident. But I didn't handle that right, for sure. All of those things, that would be hard enough if we had a good family dynamic at home, but Rafe has always had these issues, and he has his drug problem."
"So Ward, throughout all of this, is still a dad. He's still a father trying to keep the connection with Sarah, trying to keep Rafe," he continued. "First, trying to give him the tough love and then bringing him back in. And I'm certain, he's got reasons to worry about."
When it comes to Sarah, though, Esten thinks that the teen "is too bright for Ward's good."
"In any event, it was always Sarah. The one that he put all his hopes, all his dreams for. It's not so much, in some ways, that Ward chose Rafe. It's that Sarah made it very, very clear that she was not choosing Ward or the family," Esten explained. "So at a certain point, Ward had to come around to that and go, 'All right.' I mean, there's all those levels of grieving. There was denial. There was anger. Now there's acceptance."
That acceptance may not be what it appeared, though, with Esten pointing out that he liked the "nebulous nature of the ending where Ward's not saying what he's feeling."
"You're just seeing on his face, and you're reading what you will... That bond, as messed up as it is -- and let's be clear, it's very messed up -- there's something there," he said. "She probably represents to him what he was and the best side of himself that he could have been before all of this. He doesn't like where it's all gone."
It's all of those doubts and questions that make Ward a dream character to play for Esten.
"What I love so much about getting to play this guy is, is he a bad guy? I don't know. You tell me," he said. "But so much of it is not just a mustache-twirling, 'I'm a bad guy,' but a guy that just got in a situation and went through a maybe wrong direction and then had the cover for that, and it just keeps pushing his chips in. He should have stopped a long time ago, but he's not going to."
Should there be a third season of Outer Banks, Esten hopes his character will become even more complicated.
"As an actor, I like the facets, I like the many sides. I like these characters to collect facets. Like, 'Oh, that's another facet about him that makes sense but I didn't get to see before,'" he said. "... All of us have these many, many sides, and you're different in different moments and around different people... I could totally see that he decides now to help them, or he decides now that everybody's going down. That's the great part about Ward. Who knows?"
While Esten looks ahead on the future of Outer Banks, he's also looking back on a past project, the TV series Nashville, which will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its premiere in October. For Esten, two moments, one at the beginning of its six season run and one at the end, stand out as the most memorable from the music-filled show.
"Being on stage with Connie at the Grand Ole Opry was a moment where I went, 'Wow, we're really doing this,'" he recalled of his co-star, Connie Britton. "A day or two later, she and I were walking on that bridge during the daytime. Here's our two characters talking about this past that is, of course, not only completely fictional, but Connie and I barely have a past... We've just met. There was no idea at that point if there's any chemistry."
"I can remember doing that scene... and to be on that bridge with that whole Nashville skyline behind us. We're like, 'Yeah, we're doing a show called Nashville,'" he continued. "I had been a fan of [Connie's] for a long time, including, especially I think, Friday Night Lights. I'd always want to do that kind of acting with that caliber of actor."
Then, in 2018, came the show's final scene on the stage of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, during which Esten's Deacon Claybourne played the song "A Life That's Good."
"Slowly all the characters from the show come out on stage, even ones that haven't been there in years. Then here comes Connie. And then our crew all gathers around. And I love that, because Nashville was this giant, beautiful concert. What happens at the end of a giant concert? Everybody comes out on the stage," he said. "... Those two things were just beautiful bookends to a beautiful experience."
As for if he'd ever return to the role or the show, Esten didn't rule out the possibility.
"How can you imagine that you know the future and that you can be certain that it will never happen? I can't imagine. I don't know the future," he said. "... Shows have a bank account, I believe... I wouldn't want to do anything that was just withdrawing from that bank account. I would only want to do something that I thought was making further deposits into the legend, into the end of the story of it all."
"I can't figure out how they would do it," Esten continued. "But again, I didn't know how they were going to do season two of Outer Banks, and they've killed it. So I have no idea."
While Nashville may be totally behind him, Esten is thrilled that fans of that show and others are so taken with Outer Banks, a project he hopes to continue working on.
"It's amazing the range of people that fell for this thing. I think it was so needed. Right at the time, during lockdown, you get to go on this incredible adventure, chasing this gold," Esten said. "... The true treasure in Outer Banks for most people that watch it, is to have a group like those Pogues. To be in that VW bus with these people. Yeah, you argue, but, man, you love each other next level. They have your back. You have theirs. That's the real gold."