Jamie Lynn Spears Talks Britney, the Tabloids, and Returning to TV in Netflix’s ‘Sweet Magnolias’

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.

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