The areas of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, just across the state line in Tennessee, are places of curious quiet magic. That’s also the home place of living legend Dolly Parton and her mesmerizing theme park Dollywood. I remember my first family vacation there as a boy in the 1980s — the many sights of pancake houses and retro motels, the zing of the arcades and the collective excitement out on the streets as happy families of all different backgrounds watched teenagers cruise by.
Parton’s career — spanning decades — has included music as well as sporadic performances in film. Her country roots made her who she is today, and she’s never forgotten where she came from. This month, more than 15 million estimated viewers tuned in to watch Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, cementing it as a holiday must-see alongside another of her gems, A Smoky Mountain Christmas. Because of that reception alongside positive reviews from critics, her new film is set for an encore presentation at 9 p.m. Christmas Day, on NBC.
Through that film, Parton made a dream come true for local actress Jennifer D. Taylor. Parton handpicked the actors for the film until she got the family portrait she felt best represented the characters from her childhood. Being chosen by Parton marks an auspicious start to anyone’s career, and Taylor, from Asheville, was selected to be part of Parton’s on-screen portrait.
Taylor’s agent sent her straight into an actor’s callback in Atlanta, bypassing others being considered for the part. “I ended up wearing a hand-me-down dress.” Taylor says. “I went in with that southern simplicity. I think a lot of people go in with preconceived notions of what you’re supposed to do in an audition and I just went in with my southern self and was just like, ‘Hey, ya’ll!’”
She credits winning the coveted supporting role of Aunt Dorothy Jo to a line given when Parton’s father, Robert Lee (played with beautiful angst by Ricky Schroder), who defies attending another Church service: “He ain’t runnin’ from the Lord, he’s runnin’ from Daddy.” One of the people sitting in the room during the audition was director Stephen Herek. Taylor’s spin on the line piqued his interest. “Everyone has tried to make that line really funny.” Taylor replied back, “If you are from the South. You know that ain’t funny.”
The film Coat of Many Colors takes its title from Parton’s autobiographical 1971 song of the same name. The film widens the story beyond Parton’s experience of wearing a homemade patchwork coat to school only to be bullied and laughed at. Allegedly the vivid coat worn in the film is not an exact replica of Parton’s jacket. Instead, Parton wanted it to symbolize what the coat looked like in her eyes as a young girl.
The film seems to turn the pages of a scrapbook. It shows grace through hardships as Parton’s parents cope with their disrupted relationship after losing a newborn son. There’s also a justifiable representation of salvation and Southern gospel boldly brought forth in a climatic altar-call scene.
Taylor recalls the moment on set. “It’s interesting because when we were in the church making the movie, it just felt like rejoicing and love, and it was beyond religion,” she says. “Dolly’s intention was that love can help bring different people together.”
Jennifer Nettles, vocalist of Sugarland, is outstanding as Dolly’s mother, Avie Lee Parton, and newcomer Alyvia Alyn Lind gives a spirited performance that mirrors a young Dolly. In one truly memorable scene, Lind shouts into the night skies regarding the loss of her brother, unveiling another side to Parton — one of growth from tragedy. At a rare Christmas concert at Dollywood in 2003, just days after her mother passed away, Parton sang “Coat of Many Colors,” bringing the intimate audience to tears.
For those struggling to make their own dreams come true, Taylor offers this advice: “It’s so cliché but never give up. Here I am, 44, and I just started actualizing this dream a year and a half ago.” On her journey, Taylor says, the whole Parton family has made her feel like one of their own. She paled around on set with Parton’s sister Stella, met Aunt Dorothy Jo’s son at the Dollywood premiere and, of course, she shared the red carpet with Parton herself in Los Angeles.
“She’s so loving when she hugs you,” Taylor says of the country music star. “It’s so real. … She is such a real person. It’s just her heart and her love. … You feel it when you hug Dolly Parton.”