Charles “Chip” Esten is no stranger to the stage or the soundstage, performing in Hollywood comedy clubs, in London’s West End and on TV shows including Cheers, The Office, Party of Five and Whose Line is it Anyway? Today, he stars in Nashville as Deacon Claybourne, putting both his acting and musical chops to good use, and also advocates for research on lymphoma and leukemia, a disease that his daughter survived as a toddler. Raised in Alexandria, Esten returns home for Dec. 26-27 shows at the Birchmere.
Do you credit NoVA for getting your start?
I credit my mother, Cynthia, with making sure that even though she was raising us as a single mom, with the help of her parents and her family, we got access to piano lessons and guitar lessons. I was in the Grace Episcopal Church Choir, which was not only where I got a whole lot of my early singing, but also the youth group there did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. [And] the Alexandria school system. The trend at the time [was] to foster those creative impulses, and for me it worked. It meant that I got to write a whole lot of poetry. Eventually, that turns into lyric writing.
How’d you get involved in improv comedy and ultimately join Whose Line Is It Anyway?
When I finally ended up going to Los Angeles, you could get up on the very biggest and best stages in stand-up on an open-mic night, and I remember going to the Comedy Store. For the first time ever, I felt in over my head, and I froze. But I remember after that set, looking in the mirror and being absolutely furious with myself because I was just thinking, “You have this college education, you’re sort of turning your life upside-down to chase this dream of being a performer and an entertainer. And you’re going to let 200 slightly inebriated strangers you’ll never see again have that much power over you?” And I thought “never again.” So I went back a week later, and I wasn’t even a little nervous. Somebody took me along the way pretty soon after that to a show at the Groundlings Theatre, and I felt so in love with that place that I didn’t just start taking the classes, I became the house manager: I ran the spotlight, tore tickets and vacuumed.
How did you join the cast of Nashville?
I decided to join the cast at the moment I read that script. But I knew it was going to be a tough journey to land the role because it was such a bang-on leading man role of a guy that not only gets to be in it a lot but gets to do meaningful things, and suffer and love and hurt and fight his demons. I finally ended up getting the role and coming to Nashville, and nothing has been the same since, including the fact that I get to do things like hosting the CMTs or playing at the Grand Ole Opry. I’m doing two shows at the Birchmere. I’ve always been a songwriter, but there’s a part of me that might have given up the thought that I might get to ever go play my music, and I get to do that in one of the great country venues. I’m telling you, when I’m in Nashville, I’d meet a country artist—big names—and they’d say, “Where you from?” And I’d say, “Alexandria, Virginia.” And they’d point at me and they’d go, “Birchmere.”
What’s your all-time favorite Nashville song?
One of the things I get to do because of this role is meet some people who are in some tough situations, whether they just come up on the street just to share with me that they have a family member who’s battled addiction or cancer or whatever issues that my character’s been through. We sometimes get a chance to play in hospitals with some people who are in a tough spot and have been through a lot. “A Life That’s Good” is about how you don’t need a whole lot of things in life. When I’m sitting next to somebody who’s in a bad way or has been through tough times, it’s very meaningful to me to have a song that might speak to it in some way and might bring a little bit of a magic into the room. [It’s] a benediction and a prayer for those that we’re playing for: “I wish you a life that’s good.” I am blessed with all that; I do have a life that’s good and I’m grateful for it.