When it premiered on NBC in 2006, Friday Night Lights seemed like a Hail Mary pass. A drama about a high-school football team in suburban Texas, it was hard to imagine who would tune in—other than high school football players in suburban Texas. Sure enough, despite winning an Emmy in its first season, the show has been haunted by the Arrested Development curse of tremendous critical acclaim combined with low ratings. After a near-death experience following the Hollywood writers’ strike, the show was revived by a cost-sharing deal between DirecTV and NBC. It began airing on DirecTV last October, and is now rerunning on NBC.
"And Carol Burnett’s just so goofy and funny, telling these anecdotes about crashing weddings! Because no one would question her, they’d be like, “Oh, that’s Carol Burnett!'”
Zach Gilford, a genuine football fan from Chicago, plays Matt Saracen, the Dillon Panthers’ once-star-now-benched quarterback and resident sensitive guy. After majoring in theater and education at Northwestern, Gilford flirted with a job as a schoolteacher before moving to New York to pursue acting. As Matt, the 27-year-old Gilford has become one of prime-time’s heartthrobs who can actually act—a rarity—and has roles in three movies scheduled for release in 2009. He spoke to The Daily Beast about playing hoops with Terrell Owens, Carol Burnett’s wedding crashing, and his show’s death-defying existence.
Entertainment Weekly just reported Friday Night Lights is close to scoring a two-season pick-up, courtesy of DirecTV and NBC. You must be pumped.
Yeah. Randomly, I talked to one of the executives at DirecTV today. The call was non-work related, then I was like, "Alright dude, you got to tell me, what's going on?" He said the discussions are getting much more realistic. Especially in an economy like this, it really has to make sense for both networks. I think DirecTV loves it, they feel like we were great for them. But right now, everyone thinks of it as an NBC show—no one thinks of it in association with DirecTV at all. So I think they feel if they knew they had two more seasons of it, they could really make a huge effort to make it clear it is a DirecTV show. Have a lot more ownership of it.
Choosing to air the show on DirecTV this fall stirred some controversy among fans—most people don’t even have DirecTV. Do you think the deal was good for the show?
Yeah, it's been great for the show. It kept it alive, there is that. Because we wouldn't have been on at all if DirecTV hadn't signed on the way they did this year. I don't know the specific numbers, but they put out a huge ad campaign for us when we first aired on their station. So even people who didn't have DirecTV, they put it in their consciousness again—it kept them aware so that when it came back on air on NBC, people knew it. I had so many people in the fall who were like, "When is it going to run on NBC? I know it's on DirecTV, I want to see it so bad." Our fans are very rabid about it. I met several people who actually were like, "I switched to DirecTV just to watch it." I thought, "Sweet, that's exactly what they wanted you to do."
Next up for you is The Post Grad Survival Guide with Gilmore Girls alum Alexis Bledel. What was it like working with her?
She’s so cool and normal and down to earth. I was so fortunate. We’ve remained pretty good friends. My family, they’re all huge Gilmore Girls fans, so they were freaking out when they found out I was working with her. And I had never even seen an episode. And I was like, “She’s cool, she’s normal.” She’s like the sweetest, nicest person ever.
Different than other actresses you’ve worked with?
Yeah, I mean—you look at someone in her position, she was, what, 18 when she got cast on Gilmore Girls? She’d been on that TV show for seven years. And personally, having been on a TV show for a few years, and just knowing the culture and everything, and how you’re waited on, it’s easy to be like, “I’m important, and you’re not.” She doesn’t take part in the club scene at all, and just keeps her head about her. “My life is my life, and my work is my work,” and she keeps them separate in a professional way. I really respect it, because a lot of young actors are not that fun to work with.
Michael Keaton and Carol Burnett also have leading roles in Post Grad. How intimidating was that?
Batman was, like, my movie as a kid. All the movies that came out, I was like, Michael Keaton is the best. And every time I worked with him, we’d just hang out and we’d just talk about camping, fishing, books, and in the back of my head I’d be like, “I’m talking to Batman!”
And Carol Burnett’s just so goofy and funny, telling these anecdotes about crashing weddings! Because no one would question her, they’d be like, “Oh, that’s Carol Burnett! That's so exciting that Carol Burnett is here." Then they'd get a free drink, and take pictures. Then just leave. She did it for year or something, she and her friend, a few years back. She'd be like, "Oh, you know, I'm a friend of a distant aunt on the husband's side." Hilarious. It got to the point where a photographer friend of hers would come and take pictures of the wedding just to make it seem more official. She's just such a goof who loves to do things because it’s fun and ridiculous.
Tell me about your last movie, Dare, which premiered at Sundance this year.
That was a lot of fun, really cool, to get to have a movie there, have that experience. That movie was about high-school kids too, second-semester seniors. The best feedback was that there were high-school kids that came up to me several times after the movie or around Park City to say, "Hey, I saw your movie, that's the most real high-school movie I've ever seen." So that's cool. With our show, it's really cool when people come up to us and say, "I'm from Texas, I grew up there and that is exactly what it was like where I grew up." When you're portraying a certain type of people you want to make sure you're doing it with a certain respect and make sure you're doing it right. Having the person you're portraying confirm it is flattering.
Speaking of which, I heard a rumor you dated the principal’s daughter of your high school, kind of like your character, Sarecen, dates the coach’s daughter on FNL.
( Laughs.) We went out like twice. I wouldn't say we dated. She went to a different school, it wasn't quite...it was awkward. But it was so long ago. I think I was a sophomore in high school. Luckily I didn't see the principal that often.
Only the Coach and Mrs. Taylor, and incoming senior Landry are locked in for next season, if there is one. Saracen is about to graduate. Does that make you nervous?
I would really hate to see Saracen go. ( Laughs.) No, anybody would be bittersweet. It's tough. But it makes sense. Going in we knew we had a lifespan on the show if it really succeeded. It's about high school football. It's not 90210, where, in theory, it's about the kids so you can follow them once they're out of high-school. Keep the show about what it's supposed to be about. We're going to have to take off and leave. You could see storylines to keep some of the characters around that are perfectly legitimate, but you can also see ones that would have to have them going away…
Anything else you have in the works right now?
Right now I really want to make this documentary about wilderness therapy—taking kids in the wilderness for drug-addiction problems or behavioral disabilities. My little sister does it. She works for a company in Utah. So right now I'm in the process of figuring out legalities and seeing if there is a company that would give me plans to film, and get releases from the parents and the kids—trying to figure out how possible it actually it is. I want it to be more in the vein of that movie American Teen. You let the kids kind of become the story. It won't be voiceover, or me in front of the camera interviewing people. It would be very real life.
I do a lot of work with kids—I majored in theater and education. I've led backpacking trips for high-school kids. I've worked everywhere from Alaska, Australia, New Zealand, the Grand Canyon. When I was in college, I taught for a year and a half at an alternative school with behavioral-disability kids. Now, I'm an assistant coach for a junior high school basketball team up in the Valley. It's fun. They're fun to play around with.
Last question—I have to ask, because I’m a huge (semi-bitter) Philadelphia Eagles fan. What was it like playing in the NBA All-Star Game with Terrell Owens?
Ha! I’m a huge [Chicago] Bears fan. And I like [Eagles quarterback Donovan] McNabb, he’s a Chicago boy.
I thought T.O. was nice. He wasn't my best friend, but he wasn't aloof or anything like that. When I had a good play he'd say, “Hey, nice job.” But I think it's because I kept passing him the ball. There were several times where I would rebound and look down court and see T.O. I think the quarterback in me said, "Just throw it up and T.O. will catch it and so that's what I did and he put it in. I think he liked me because I was getting him the ball and helping him score. I can't believe he went to Buffalo. We need a wide receiver!
Miriam Datskovsky is an associate editor at The Daily Beast. She has written for Conde Nast Portfolio, New York magazine, and nymag.com.