‘Midnight Mass’ Star Zach Gilford on Those Shocking Twists and 15 Years of ‘Friday Night Lights’
Matt Saracen has us weeping again. Gilford dishes on those devastating “Midnight Mass” scenes, his own spirituality, and 15 years of clear eyes and full hearts. [Spoiler alert!]
Considering all the, well, everything that happens to Zach Gilford’s character in Midnight Mass, it’s astounding to find out how much he actually knew—or, more importantly, didn’t know—about where things were headed when he signed on to star in Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix drama series.
There are elements of the show that make it, in hindsight, quite obvious why Gilford, who’s best known for playing the stoic, emotionally bruised quarterback Matt Saracen for five seasons on Friday Night Lights, seemed perfect for the role of Riley Flynn in the series. A prodigal son returning to his small hometown after serving time for a fatal drunk-driving accident, at an existential crossroads, but with a good-hearted desire to find meaning in his life and relationships again: You can almost imagine Riley as a version of Matt Saracen had his life taken a different path.
But then there’s the Mike Flanagan of it all, as in the writer-director behind Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor as well as the Stephen King adaptations Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep.
The auteur, known for his horror work, gets spiritual with Midnight Mass, a series that is as much about faith, desperation, and redemption as it is about things that go bump in the night. And when those frights arrive, they don’t just shock and scare. They burrow deep under your skin, forcing you to ponder your own beliefs, what you put out into the world, and how you might feel about everything from the afterlife to miracles.
Right before the show was supposed to start shooting on March 16 of last year—suffice it to say, the production was delayed—the cast gathered for a table read of all seven episodes. “Everybody at the end was just in tears,” Gilford tells The Daily Beast. “I was like, this is weird. Isn’t this a horror show?”
Gilford is speaking from Vancouver, where he’s been the last 13 months with his family. Midnight Mass shot there, as did The Midnight Club, the next project from Flanagan that the director cast Gilford in as well. “We’re basically Canadian now,” he says happily, recounting the reassuring pleasures of being asked for a vaccine passport during lunch with his wife the day before, or being able to spend the winter there when the pandemic was reaching its worst levels in the U.S.
“There’s the life aspect, during the middle of a pandemic to be able to work,” he adds. “And then to work on something that I was excited about, and in the product that I’ve seen, be proud of.”
He’s not the only one who’s been impressed. Like Flanagan’s other Netflix series, Midnight Mass has hovered near the top of the streamer’s Top 10 since its release last week. It has a 94 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.
“Combining horror with profound questions about spirituality, Midnight Mass is one of the best shows of the year,” critic Miles Surrey wrote in The Ringer. After social media was flooded with reactions from viewers who were moved and heartbroken by a pivotal moment involving Gilford’s character in the show’s fifth episode, BuzzFeed declared it “one of the best TV episodes of 2021.”
The series takes place on Crockett Island, an old fishing town 30 miles off the coast of New England. The population has dwindled steadily over the years as the once-lucrative fishing business has dried up, leaving Crockett with just a few dozen stalwarts, families who have been there for generations and either found comfort in the island’s isolation, or figured they had no better options.
The center of the community is its Catholic church. When their monsignor makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he develops symptoms of dementia that delays his return. That, at least, is what they’re told by Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), the priest who arrives in his stead and brings the news. He also brings strange occurrences to the island. A litter of cats wash up dead. But good things happen too, like one of the young congregants, who had been paralyzed from the waist down, suddenly being able to walk.
“The possibility of a divine power working through Father Paul reinvigorates the island’s faith: It doesn’t take long before most of Crockett’s residents are attending his sermons, hoping for a miracle of their own,” Surrey writes in his The Ringer review. It also doesn’t take long for darkness to overshadow the light, whether it’s fanaticism and a deep desire for salvation to start clouding some of the congregation’s judgement, or something far more tangibly supernatural—and absolutely terrifying.
Gilford himself was surprised by the directions the show went, in terms of both the emotional layers it delicately exposes and just how gruesome and devastating things get for Riley. When he auditioned for the show, he’d only read two scenes. Everything else was being kept under wraps.
“All I knew was the logline: a young priest shows up to an island town and things get weird,” he says. “And part of me was like, why aren’t I the young priest? My character’s not even in the logline!”
Especially if you’ve seen the explosive fourth and fifth episodes of the seven-episode season, you know that Gilford didn’t have to worry about not getting juicy, memorable material. (More on that later.) But he also wasn’t prepared for how deeply he would connect to the material.
He was a fan of Flanagan’s work, but never imagined that life-long reckonings he had about the role of religion in his life would be so provocatively stirred. Or that, 15 years after his career-launching role on Friday Night Lights, it would mark such a meaningful new chapter in his work—a twentysomething naive ingenue then, now on the cusp of turning 40—and who he wants to be as a father and a husband.
“This whole thing, it was just so weird for me because I didn’t really know what the show was,” he says. “And then I got the part and when I read even more of it, I was like, oh my God, I feel like I get this guy.”
(Warning: Spoilers ahead for Midnight Mass.)
When Gilford negotiated his contract, he knew that he would appear in six of the seven episodes.
Before they were both cast in Midnight Mass, he was good friends with Hamish Linklater, who plays Father Paul. While Gilford was still making his way through the early episodes, he got a text from Linklater saying, “Oh my God! You just died in episode four.” Gilford was intrigued and confused. “I knew I died, but I thought I’d live longer than that…”
But then Linklater fired off another text: “I just started episode five, and you’re alive again!” A little after that: “Oh, never mind. You’re dead.”
Through a series of texts, Gilford went through the same visceral journey of shock, disbelief, and sadness that viewers who have seen Midnight Mass did over the last few days.
The audition scene he had read before signing on is the one where Riley is struggling to talk about what he had been up to all these years when he was off the island in New York. No one mentioned angel demons. Or vampires. Or dying… twice. And certainly nothing about spontaneous combustion.
While there is an eerie undercurrent that makes Midnight Mass unsettling from the start, the creature-feature aspect arrives by jump-scare surprise at the end of episode four. The grotesque angel-demon monster is first glimpsed and then, in true horror fashion, we see Riley walk up to the room where he’s lurking, his grisly fate inevitable.
The attack scene ranks as one of the strangest—and grossest—Gilford says he’s filmed in his career. But he also laughs at the absurdity of it. The actor playing the creature worked in a local comic-book shop. Behind the scenes, he would be in full costume and prosthetics talking with Linklater, who was wearing his character’s priest collar, about first editions he recently secured. “Like what is this world that I live, talking to this angel demon and a priest about comic books?”
Episode five is the big hour that viewers are still working to emotionally recover from. Having been turned into a vampire of sorts, Riley asks his high-school sweetheart and confidante Erin (Kate Siegel) to go rowing with him under the moonlight. He explains every unbelievable thing that’s happened to him, and that is at risk of happening to everyone on the island if nothing is done. They have a devastating, frank conversation about faith, the afterlife, and what might come next, and they tell each other that they’ve always loved each other.
Then the sun comes out and, as Erin watches in horror, Riley bursts into flames, her screams playing over the closing credits.
“I thought it was so haunting,” Gilford says. “And it made it feel so much more real, too. None of us are ever going to see another person just spontaneously combust. But if we do, this is what it’s going to sound like. There’s gonna be no soundtrack. There’s gonna be no music or sound effects. I think that just makes it so much more eerie.”
The entire episode, but specifically that closing sequence, epitomized all the early promise Gilford felt during that first tearful table read. First, this long, uninterrupted scene of dialogue rooted in such humanity, touching on tragedy, pain, regret, and glimmers of hope. Then, that outrageous, catastrophic conclusion.
Both Riley and Erin are working through their feelings about faith and love that were informed by growing up in this isolated, small town. While Midnight Mass doesn’t necessarily judge the people of Crockett for being so eager to believe in miracles when Father John arrives, working on the show illuminated for Gilford how people become reliant on ways of thinking about the world that they learn at a young age.
Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, his father was Jewish and his mother was Lutheran and he and his siblings went to both church and temple. “At a very young age, I remember being at one of them and being like, this doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not buying it,” he says. While that set off his own personal trajectory, his sisters are both still Jewish.
Just how personal and different those trajectories can be even within one family is something he’s been thinking about a lot as a father. He and his wife, actress Kiele Sanchez, “have kind of different religious views,” he says, and were faced with what to say to their daughter when their dog, Pippin, died a few months ago.
“We decided to tell her that Pippin went to the great beyond. ‘She died, she’s in the great beyond, and she’s always in our heart.’ And she’s like, well, what’s a great beyond? ‘I don’t know. It means one thing to your mother. It means another thing to your father. Who knows?’ I’m on a super tangent here, but we’re leaving room for her to figure out what death is. Because I don’t know, and anyone who tells you they know is lying.”
It’s not a tangent, though. It’s a remarkable echo of the conversation that Riley and Erin have in the rowboat. It’s one of any number of ways Gilford was able to relate to the character and the show’s themes.
Even the idea of small-town life resonates. Riley and Erin are both people who ran away from Crockett, only to be called back. Plenty of the island’s residents never left.
Growing up in Evanston, Gilford decided he wanted to study acting. All anyone would tell him is that he had to go to Northwestern University because it had the best acting program around, even though it was in the same town where he grew up. But Gilford also studied education there. When he was graduating, he was faced with a decision: head out to New York or Los Angeles and make a go at the whole acting thing, or accept the offer he had to teach at the same high school he had attended. It’s his parents who encouraged him to take the leap instead of settling for the sure thing.
“I was so close to being like, ‘I’ll just teach high school. I’ll just stay here in the town I grew up in, and just play it safe,’” he says. “So for all those people in Crockett, I totally get it. It’s scary.”
About a year after college, he booked his role on Friday Night Lights. When he first moved to New York, he worked at the Patagonia store in SoHo while he auditioned. Even after filming the Friday Night Lights pilot, he went back to working there. But when it was picked up to series, he moved to Texas and the rest is history.
It’s been 15 years since then. There are a few anniversary events and remembrances happening, so Gilford’s actually had time to reflect on that milestone and who he is now versus then. He has kids. He’s married. When he was shooting The Midnight Club over the last few months, he looked at the cast of actors who were mostly in their early twenties, just as he was when he was on Friday Night Lights, and marveled at how mature and confident they are.
“I was a dumb-dumb,” he says, remembering when he was their age. “I was waking up in ditches in Texas. I was like, ‘I’m on a show? Yes!’” When he booked the series, he convinced his best friend to move to Texas with him to hang out and party. “I was like, dude, it’ll be like Entourage!”
It doesn’t surprise him that people still have such a strong connection to the show. He’s especially heartened that families have discovered it as something they can watch together and enjoy. But 15 years is wild to think about. He met his wife during the final season, so she wasn’t part of that chapter of his life. It was its own contained, formative time that he’s processing now that he gets to revisit it.
“It feels like a lifetime ago,” he says. “I definitely was a different person. If I had gotten married or had children then, I would have been a shitty father and a shitty husband.” But then he smiles and chuckles, maybe a little Midnight Mass enlightenment when it comes to the power of fate and faith. “But you know what? It all worked out.”