Austin Dillon is accustomed to living a life at high speed. So when filming a guest-starring role last month on ABC's "Nashville" playing himself, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that there were some difficulties associated with staying in character.
"Slow down, Austin," came the order from director Bethany Rooney.
"I do everything fast," Dillon said.
"Well, you're a race car driver," Rooney acknowledged.
Once Dillon took some director cues, it was a wrap for last year's NASCAR Nationwide Series champion on Season 2, Episode 13 of "Nashville," which airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET. The episode, titled "It's All Wrong, but It's All Right," gives a NASCAR-themed spin to the country music drama with Dillon making an appearance with lead actress Connie Britton after a post-race concert. (See clip below.)
As Hollywood would have it, there was more to Dillon's 20 seconds of on-screen fame than merely reading lines off a script. NASCAR.com sat in for a behind-the-scenes look at Dillon's appearance, shot on location in a garage behind the Darrell Waltrip Honda dealership in the NASCAR Hall of Famer's hometown of Franklin, Tenn.
Dillon showed up on set for the Dec. 10 filming, one day before his landmark announcement that he would move up to the premier NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, driving the famed No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing. The long-rumored move hadn't been made official, but here was Dillon wearing a T-shirt with soon-to-be-announced sponsor Dow across the front.
A local television reporter interviewed Dillon in between takes, only on the condition that the news report air after the following day's announcement in order to keep the sponsorship under wraps. Embargo or not, Dillon was eager to explain the natural fit between NASCAR and the show.
"It's just getting more connected to the drivers that are in our sport," Dillon said. "You can see us on TV and say, 'I kind of want to know what racing's all about.' Nashville and the country music life, it's very connected to racing in real life. ... Just proud to be here and represent NASCAR."
Before he was ready for his close-up and his first meeting with Britton, a visit to the makeup trailer was in order to make the guest star "100 percent" in television parlance. Dillon joked with mock swagger, "Well, when you've got this to work with ..."
After his prep time, Dillon got his first glimpse of the world he was about to enter. Technicians with boom microphones, extras in racing gear pantomiming, high-end cameras and lighting -- all in a swirl of quiet chaos once the clapperboard snapped and the producer yelled "Action!"
Dillon had filmed TV commercials in the past, but nothing on the scale of an hour-long prime-time drama on a major network.
"There's a lot that goes into it when they move the cameras around and all the different angles, you don't think about all the time and effort that it takes to put into a show like that," Dillon said. "Definitely a new outlook on acting and TV shows."
A technician taped off Dillon's mark on the set with neon tape, signaling it was time for the Sprint Cup rookie to test out his acting chops. In the scene, Dillon engages with Britton's character, Rayna Jaymes, offering an autograph to her family and talking about the fictional race that had just taken place.
Dillon quipped afterward that even with the occasional improvisation, he'd remember the lines in his sleep. After more than a dozen takes to get the proper angles, inflection and interaction, it's no wonder.
"I think I was good for every two out of three when I could hit my lines, but then you just forget where you're at because it happens so many times that you go over and over and over it," Dillon said afterward. "You get in the middle of it, and it's like you're just talking to yourself at that point. But it's fun and different, and I enjoyed it."
Finding fun in the moment was key, said Rooney, a veteran with nearly 30 years' experience as a television director.
"As I told him, slow down and enjoy this. I actually told him to flirt with Connie and said it would go better," Rooney said. "Looked him in the eyes and told him to enjoy what he was doing, and he did. I think he did quite well, actually."
Once Dillon found the proper pace, the lines came easier even though the tally of takes grew, the production crew searching for the just-right shot. The repetition was mentally grueling for driver and stagehands alike.
Dillon's on-screen time was complete after a crew member shouted to applause, "Let's give it up for our series champion, Austin Dillon!" Then it was time for the flight back to North Carolina, where he was less than 24 hours from officially breaking into the big leagues full-time.
Dillon said he wouldn't trade the acting opportunity for anything, but he also admitted he wasn't ready to trade careers, either.
"Definitely think I like my day job better," Dillon said. "You've got to be very committed in our sport, but you've also got to be committed in what they do as actors, learning their lines and staying straightforward. I think it would almost make you want to pull your hair out if you were there all day. It's just different professions. People like doing different things, and it was definitely a fun experience."