Back in the Same Room: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and “Nashville” Star Connie Britton

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When Parnassus Books started publicizing this Saturday’s big event with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Connie Britton, we got some quizzical looks from customers. A few people pointed to the poster and said, “But… why… together?” We should explain: These two phenoms were college roommates back in their Dartmouth days.

Since then, they’ve taken different paths. Gillibrand has risen to great influence in politics, taking over Hilary Rodham Clinton’s New York Senate seat in 2009, then being elected to keep the position by the greatest margin in the state’s history in 2012. Britton, perhaps best known for her television roles as Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights and Rayna James on Nashville, hits the big screen this month as part of the star-studded ensemble cast of This Is Where I Leave You, the film adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s hilarious and touching novel.

Still, there’s a lot they have in common. Take, for example, this excerpt from Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World — Gillibrand’s gutsy, candid new memoir and a playbook for women who want to make a difference in a life, a community, or the world.

kirstengillibrand_1315532438_57I’ve been lucky enough to form friendships with some truly extraordinary women who have lived public lives. One is the actor Connie Britton. She and I went to college together, and the summer after my sophomore year we traveled to China. From the moment we stepped off the plane in Beijing, the experience was so overwhelming . . . The coal dust in the air burned our eyes and left a film of soot on our skin by the end of each day. Our dorms were cement boxes with straw mats to sleep on, a hole in the floor for a toilet, and cold-water showers. The first night, at a ceremonial dinner, our hosts served a crispy whole fish, his big eyes staring up at us from the table like no Chinese food any of us had ever seen.

After college, Connie and I lost track of each other. Years later, when she was back at Dartmouth for a reunion, another friend asked if she wanted to come hear me give a talk. Connie’s reaction was, “Kirsten Gillibrand? Who the hell is that?” (She’d only ever known me as Tina Rutnik.) But we reconnected and have stayed in loose touch since.

Obviously, Connie’s work is very different from mine (hers is far more glamorous). But it’s been interesting to talk to her about the characters she’s created, and there’s a synergy in what we’re both trying to do: make women’s voices heard. In the movie version of Friday Night Lights, Connie played Tami Taylor, the football coach’s wife. It was just an ornamental part, not exactly fulfilling, so when the executive producer, Peter Berg, asked Connie to play Tami Taylor again for the TV show, she hesitated. She’d grown tired of playing women who rarely spoke. After much begging on Peter’s part, she agreed to the role — but with a serious caveat: Tami Taylor would have the strong voice of a strong woman. Connie would make sure of it.

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Sen. Gillibrand gets serious — and a bit funny, too — on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

We asked Connie Britton what she remembers about that trip when she and Gillibrand first bonded, and she told this tale:

Here’s a story from our time in China that I remember fairly well. All the students from Dartmouth had bought bicycles when we landed in Beijing, as that was the primary mode of transportation there. (It seemed like cars were almost nonexistent.) For us, it wasn’t a great expense — about $80, as I recall. But for the Chinese at the time, that expense amounted to about a year’s wage. It was a big deal.

So there we were one afternoon, riding around exploring Beijing on our bikes. Suddenly the skies turned grey, and within minutes we were caught in a monsoon. And I must say, the crowded and chaotic hubbub of Beijing streets compounded by blinding rain was pretty terrifying. This is where Kirsten, who at that time went by photo from NASHVILLE on ABCTina, took charge, as she so often did.  We were deep in the heart of nowhere we recognized in Beijing, and we could barely see a thing; but Tina started singing and laughing. It set the tone, and we began to laugh and sing on our bikes as she navigated us through the unknown streets, attempting to find our way back to the dorms. I don’t know what we sang . . . probably Madonna. We were drenched.

Can you can imagine what this looked like to the Chinese — this group of four American girls, being led by the smallest and blondest, soaked to the bone, on bikes, singing? Glad we were doing our part to fit in! Tina led us back to the dorms, and we were soaked with rain and mirth. It was a happy day of adventure.

(Speaking of adventure, the young leaders-in-training also drank toad venom and threw up off the back of a bike. Ahh, youth.)

Join us to hear more this Saturday, September 20, at 1:30 p.m., when we’ll welcome Gillibrand and Britton for a conversation at Belmont University. (And for more about Off the Sidelines, check out this fantastic review by our friends at Chapter 16.)

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Special Edition! Salon@615, Women for Tennessee’s Future, and Belmont University present Kirsten Gillibrand & Connie Britton

BONUS: Adorable photo evidence

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