Executive producer of The Orville explains how Dolly Parton’s season 3, episode 8 cameo happened. The Orville is a comedy sci-fi series created by and starring Seth MacFarlane in the role of Captain Mercer. The episodic series is heavily influenced by the original Star Trek and The Next Generation. Parton, aside from being a country music legend, also plays herself in several movies and TV shows including Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous, The Simpsons, and Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings.
Parton’s influence on The Orville has been baked into the series since season 1, featuring several of her songs throughout the series. Heveena (played by Rena Owen) is also a huge fan of Parton in the show, with her love for Parton running so deep that Captain Mercer even used the iconic song, “9 to 5,” as a way to convince Heveena to testify on behalf of a young Moclan girl named Topa. In season 3, episode 8, Parton makes a cameo as a 1990s version of herself, and meets Heveena while Heveena is in a simulator. Aside from sharing a heartfelt connection with Heveena, Parton also performs the song “Try” from her album, Blue Smoke, in the episode fittingly titled “Midnight Blue.”
In an exclusive interview with the executive producer of The Orville, Jon Cassar, Screen Rant learns that Parton’s cameo was a feat of logistical challenges. MacFarlane was set on having Parton cameo in season 3, but Parton had several requirements that needed to be met in order to make the shoot as COVID safe as possible before she agreed to appear on the show. Parton insisted that her scene be shot in her studio in Nashville, Tennessee with her crew and that the skeleton crew of 4 people from The Orville, including Cassar and Owen, be taken by private jet and COVID tested upon landing in Nashville. A full quote from Cassar regarding the process to make sure that Parton’s scene still looked aesthetically identical to the scenes shot in Los Angeles, as well as how Parton and Owen bonded on set can be read below:
“Well, it was great. We saw it in the script and because our production schedules stretched out so long, it was almost like the weekly question, ‘Do we have Dolly yet? Are we shooting Dolly? Is that a new scene? Is that going to be something different?’ So that went on for months, actually, because again, we weren’t shooting in any kind of order, it just kept getting pushed back and pushed back and pushed back. Seth was virtually a dog with a bone on this one, there was no way he was giving up on Dolly, no way at all. Finally, he got her to say yes and she was excited about doing it. There was lots of restrictions. You’ve heard the way we did it, we virtually had to shoot half of it in Nashville and half of it in LA, because she didn’t want to get on a plane. We don’t blame her, no one wanted to get on a plane back then and then she didn’t want a whole bunch of crew members coming from LA to her little Nashville world, so that became a compromise of, ‘Okay, I’ll do it. You have to do it here. You have to do it in my studio, you can’t bring any of your people.’ So we had all these restrictions and I remember Seth going, ‘What are we gonna do?’ Most directors have experience shooting one way on one set and two weeks later the other way on another set, and no one knowing it’s what we do all the time. [Chuckles] So we virtually built the cabin in LA, cut it in half and sent half of it by truck. We had it all lit and planned out, we knew what the lights were, where the cameras are going to be, the heights of the cameras, the lenses of the cameras. Because, again, part of the visual style is our people, our creative people, our director of photography, Jeff Mygatt, all his people, his camera operators, his lighting guy, we wanted it to look the same. We didn’t want to go there and do a version that didn’t look like it belonged on our show, so that was our solution to doing it is that we would do all that creative work for them and then we just have to put it together and then point the cameras. I was there to oversee it, so that’s the way we did it, only four of us went, we were on a private plane, we left at night, we got there at night, we were tested. In the morning, at eight o’clock, we were shooting Dolly Parton, by noon we were on a plane and we were back in LA less than 24 hours later, like it was that fast. She was so good, we got it done in no time, she knew her dialogue inside and out, she loved the storytelling, she just loved the whole script. Then having Rena there was great, because they connected right away. I heard them talking in between takes and Rena grew up in the mountains, just like Dolly did, so they became two mountain girls that were just chatting away. So that was great to see also and then she really knew her stuff and she just came through. She couldn’t be nicer about the whole thing and now she’s tweeting about it too, which is great, so it was a win-win all around it and I think it’s a win for the viewers.”
Parton’s position on taking COVID safety seriously makes sense given how she helped donate funding to researchers working on the COVID-19 vaccine. Although Parton’s strict COVID policies made The Orville crew have to come up with some creative ways to film the scene, including transporting half of a cabin by truck from Los Angeles to Nashville, the payoff was ultimately worth it as people on set were able to maintain their health, and the resulting cameo has been a huge hit for both fans of The Orville and of Parton. Hearing of Parton’s professionalism on set and how she was so prepared for the role by the time the crew arrived in Nashville is another testament to how she gives her all to every project that she takes on.
Parton’s cameo in season 3, episode 8 makes it so that not only is the audience starstruck by her presence, but so is Heveena. Knowing that Parton filmed the scene in her own studio in Nashville makes her performance of “Try” feel all the more authentic, and knowing that The Orville team put in extra time and effort to accommodate Parton’s COVID requirements makes her cameo in the series all the more special. Viewers will have to continue following whether The Orville gets renewed for season 4, and if so, what Parton songs can be expected in season 4.