Jamie Lynn Spears has officially returned to television. After more than a decade away from the small screen since her Nickelodeon series Zoey 101 wrapped in 2008, Spears has taken a special guest role in Netflix’s Sweet Magnolias. The romantic drama, based on Sherryl Woods’ novels by the same title, takes place in a sleepy Southern town called Serenity, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. And Spears plays the subject of the town’s nastiest gossip.
Spears says that thanks to happy coincidences involving timing and location, joining the show “was one of those things where it was like the universe decided for me.” But if you learn one thing from speaking with Spears, even for just a few minutes by phone, it’s that she doesn’t need any help charting her path. Now a 29-year-old mother of two, Spears knows what she wants—and she’s making deliberate choices to get herself there.
Sweet Magnolias, which premiered Tuesday, follows three lifelong friends as they juggle career struggles, messy divorces, and the joys (and “joys”) of parenting teenagers. JoAnna Garcia Swisher, who played Reba McEntire’s daughter on the singer’s self-titled comedy series, plays our lead Magnolia, Maddie. Drop Dead Diva star Brooke Elliott and Broadway legend Heather Headley, meanwhile, play Maddie’s best friends Dana Sue and Helen.
Where does that leave Spears, you ask? She’s playing Noreen—the woman Maddie’s husband cheated with. And got pregnant. And left Maddie for.
“The thing that I connected to was that she was a young girl who made some mistakes but was trying to do her best to make them right or make the situation better,” Spears said of her role. “She’s learning how to be a young woman and be held accountable for her mistakes.”
It wasn’t too hard for Spears to imagine how it might feel to be judged by an entire town for one’s choices. After all, her hiatus from television came after she announced in 2007 that she was pregnant at the age of 16. After that, Spears retreated to Mississippi to regain some privacy as she learned how to be a mother—but early on, at least, the paparazzi and the gossip remained relentless.
“I totally connect to the fact of, you know, being judged for my choices,” Spears said. While navigating her own pregnancy, she said, “I was never trying to claim that I was doing the right thing or the wrong thing. I was just saying, Look, I’m a young girl trying to learn from this, trying to grow from this. And then the whole world is judging. And I feel like in Noreen—to her, the town of Serenity is the whole world, right? ... And every time she tries to make it better, I think she just makes it a little bit worse.”
Spears felt she could bring compassion to the role of Noreen, who desperately tries to establish warm relationships with her stepchildren—even though at first they do not exactly reciprocate. Producers advised Spears against reading the original novels, which she was told are “not necessarily flattering to Bill and Noreen.” And even as Noreen says all the wrong things, it’s clear from the start that she’s trying to make things right.
“All of us as women just trying to navigate our way through this world,” Spears said. “And instead of having compassion for each other, we’re so quick to judge each other.”
Spears’ Nickelodeon show did not end because she was pregnant—although the timing did prove confusing for some, especially her young fans outside the industry. The final season of Zoey 101 had already wrapped by the time Spears found out she was expecting, and when it came time to speak with her team and the network brass, she said, the network was surprisingly supportive.
“Honestly, it blew me away how nice they were to me,” Spears said. “If there was any backlash, then I guess they kept that away from me because they literally were very supportive in a time where they didn’t have to be... It was very refreshing, especially in this industry.”
Spears and her older sister, Britney, have obviously faced their share of media gossip over the years. When asked what it’s been like to navigate the industry and see the stories told about herself and her family, Spears noted that more than anything, social media has been a game-changer.
“Watching for my sister, I was able to learn so much from her and how she would take it all in stride and really just kind of still be herself, good or bad,” she said. “And I think that that was always important to see her strength in owning her decisions. But I think the biggest difference is probably that even let’s say 10 years ago, I feel like if the tabloids wrote it, it’s what the whole world believes... [Even if the story was outrageous], people actually would come up to me and ask me about it.” The ability to connect with fans directly via social media, Spears said, has been a godsend. Whereas before all one could do was call a network and schedule an interview—which still required ceding some control of the narrative—“You do have a way to speak for yourself more now.”
Post-Zoey, Spears has largely stayed away from acting, save for a small, one-episode role here and there. In 2013 she released her first country single, “How Could I Want More,” and in 2014 she released her debut album, The Journey. As a longtime Reba fan, Spears was excited to join Swisher in Sweet Magnolias—but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t anxious.
When asked if being on set is like riding a bike, Spears said, “Oh my gosh, I was very, very nervous. I was very nervous, very anxious because you just don’t know—Am I good at this anymore? Was I ever good at this? You just don't know.”
“But I think being so excited and happy and grateful to be there totally outweighed my nerves,” she added. “I was so hungry to be there, happy to be there... It was like, well, guess what? What’s the other option? Not doing it. No way.”
As she looks toward the future, Spears is keeping her options as open as possible. She’s hoping to make some real progress negotiating a reboot for Zoey 101 and also self-taping auditions for new roles while quarantined. Working on Sweet Magnolias reminded Spears how much she loves working on a set—and how much she’s missed it.
“I’m just ready to get back out there,” Spears said. “Put myself out there and be able to express myself in whatever creative way makes sense. Whatever opportunities that I get to explore.”
More than anything, being away from the spotlight appears to have given Spears the space she needed to figure out who she is. “I think that there’s a blessing in the fact that I’ve had time to grow up... and honestly just figure out who I am as a young woman before I start trying to tell the world who I am,” Spears said. “I think that’s what’s tricky. When I was younger, I wanted to be what everyone wanted me to be and I wasn't sure who I was yet.”
Now that she’s done the work, Spears said, “I am settled in who I am—good and bad. Because I’m not perfect. And I’m honest about it.”