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Q+A: Friday Night Lights’ Zach Gilford

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If you’ve never watched the show “Friday Night Lights,” well, you’re sleeping. Developed by Peter Berg, the show followed a fictional high school football team in rural Texas during its five-season run, inspired by the 2004 movie of the same name. And while it never got the network ratings to match its critical acclaim, FNL developed a loyal audience that fell in love with its intense character development and of course, the refreshingly realistic football scenes. Front and center on Friday Night Lights was quarterback Matt Saracen, the quiet backup who was suddenly thrust into the starting job for the Dillon Panthers when star QB Jason Street was paralyzed on a big hit. Saracen, an undersized quarterback who relied on guts and smarts more than a rocket arm (at times, Johnny Football-ish), leads the Panthers to multiple Texas state championship appearances throughout the course of the show, while also pursuing a romantic relationship with the coach’s daughter and taking care of his elderly grandmother.

Of course, FNL has been off the air since 2011, its central characters have been put to bed, and its actors have moved on to other jobs. Like Zach Gilford, who played Saracen and is a huge sports fan. Gilford’s latest project is a horror movie that hits theaters Friday, called Devil’s Due. With that in mind, we took the opportunity to catch up with him about his time on FNL, his new flick, and his thoughts on the Bears and the NFL—Gilford, a 32-year-old Chicago native, likes the Broncos over the 49ers in the Super Bowl, because he’d like to see Peyton Manning win another ring, and because while he appreciate the 49ers knocking out the hated Packers, he’s not a big fan of Colin Kaepernick’s “weird ego.” Check out our conversation below, and for more on the movie, follow @DevilsDueMovie on Twitter.

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TDdaily: How often do people call you Matt Saracen or QB1 instead of your real name?

Zach Gilford: A lot. It’s a lot. It actually happens a lot too when I work on other sets. A lot of crew members, they’ve watched the show, so without thinking, they’ll just keep calling me Matt because they haven’t really met me or gotten to know me yet, but they feel like they know me by that name. I almost respond to that name now (laughs).

TD: Is there a moment from the show that people always ask you about?

ZG: Definitely everybody always talks about the episode where my dad died. I guess that really struck a chord with a lot of people. Usually people are just like, “Go Panthers!” or “QB1!” It’s kind of funny, people think TV is real life. Like, I’m a 30-year-old guy, I’m not a high school quarterback anymore (laughs).

TD: What was your favorite episode or scene from the show’s run?

ZG: I have a couple favorite scenes, and they all didn’t have anything to do with me. I think my favorite scene ever, or sequence of scenes, was when the coach found out that his wife had kissed that other teacher. And they’re in bed and he’s just like, “Who?! What?! Ugh, that’s gross.” Like he’s not mad, he doesn’t even care, he’s just like, “What?” And then when he confronts the guy, he’s just like, “Yeah I know this happened.” The teacher’s like, “Uh oh, what do you want me to say?” And Coach is like, “I’m just letting you know I know. And don’t kiss my wife again.” Because it just seems so real, like a married couple that’s really confident in their relationship. As opposed to making it some huge melodramatic thing that could shake their whole world. I think that’s why people like the show, is because it was honest in that way. We didn’t make moments out of things that weren’t moments.

TD: If Matt Saracen were an NFL quarterback, who would he be?

ZG: Colt McCoy. They’re both little guys who run around…and, Texas.

TD: Did you play football growing up?

ZG: Yeah, I played growing up. I played like one year of official, in-pads football. But I wasn’t really making an impact on the team, so I kind of went to other endeavors. But all of my friends were on the football team, and we’d always play pick-up games on the weekends. I’m an athletic guy, I’m just not big or exceptionally athletic.

TD: How much of the football scenes were really you? What was it like filming those scenes?

ZG: Oh my god, it was so fun. Because they’re all scripted plays. All our football players, they all played in college, a lot of them played in the NFL, or CFL, or the Arena League or something for a little while. But they’re scripted plays, so if you have a play where you tuck it in, and take off and dodge all these people, you have to actually do it, but all the guys who normally would be tackling you are intentionally just missing you. But it feels real, so you feel like you’re actually scoring this awesome touchdown (laughs). It was a blast. All of us, we all had doubles, for time efficiency, as well as our football-playing doubles were obviously better. We would do anything they’d let us. Even if it was just a hand-off play, I’d be like, “I’ll do it! I’ll do it! I’ll take the snap and hand it off…” We’d joke, because there were only a few times where there were big hits on me, or like a big throw, it doesn’t really matter if you make the throw or not, because it’s a close-up, or you’re only seeing one part of the play. So as long as it looks real and you don’t look like an idiot throwing the ball, the ball can go into the stands, it doesn’t matter if it lands in someone’s hands. And so, our doubles would get a lot of time off compared to the other football players, like the offensive line or the wide receiver who wasn’t an actual character, because all of us wanted to do as much as we could.

TD: Of the actors on the show, was anyone particularly good at football? Or really, really bad?

ZG: Jesse Plemons, who played Landry, was probably the best. He played all through high school. Everybody was pretty athletic. As far as who was the worst, I’m not going to out anyone (laughs).

TD: How did you initially get hooked up with the show? Did you expect it to be a big hit?

ZG: I think I auditioned seven times before I got the role. They actually wanted someone else, and he fell out at the last minute, and they were so strapped for time, they were just like, “Fuck it, just give it to Zach.” I’d seen the movie and I’d read the book. I’m a huge sports fan, so I loved the concept, I loved the movie, and it was Pete [Peter Berg] who had done the movie, so early on, we all knew it was going to be a really quality project. I think we actually all thought it was going to be a much bigger hit than it was. But it was just so fun to get to do it for four or five years, and every day for the most part do something different, and something people respond to. It’s cool that it’s stuck around, and people are still excited about, and finding and talking about.

TD: What’s it like seeing everyone from FNL branch out into other shows and movies? 

ZG: We keep in touch a little bit, some of us more than others. Jesse Plemons is one of my closest friends. I’m still buddies with Scott Porter [who played Jason Street] and everyone else. Every now and then, we’ll text each other—like if you see someone that’s got a new movie or if you see a movie that they did, or see a TV show they’re on, usually we’ll just send each other a note or an e-mail just to say “Nice job” or “Congratulations.” It’s fun, because it’s kind of like a family. We all kind of grew up together in this industry. So you’re happy for each other.

TD: There’s always rumors about a Friday Night Lights follow-up movie. What are your thoughts on that?

ZG: No, I mean I would, but I haven’t heard anything about it. I don’t think it even makes sense, I mean if you think about the logistics of it, everyone is in their early-to-late 30s now. And just to try to get everyone together at the same time would be kind of difficult. So I doubt it. I’d be surprised. I think we’d all be happy to, it’s just, we don’t think it’s going to happen.

TD: Who’s your NFL team, the Bears?

ZG: Yeah, I grew up in Chicago, so I’m a huge Chicago sports fan.

TD: Did you approve of the big contract they just gave Jay Cutler?

ZG: It’s funny, that’s what everybody is talking about right now. Monetarily, the figures of it, I have no idea. But I think it was the best move we could make, because it gives us consistency at the most important position in the game. He knows the offense, he knows Trestman. I think he has the physical skills, I think he just needs to develop his mental skills. I was talking to my dad, who’s not really a big sports guy, and I think he put it best is that when Josh McCown was playing so well, is the difference between McCown and Cutler is—McCown doesn’t have an ego anymore, he’s just happy to be playing. He knows what throws he can and can’t make, so he never tries to push it. He just plays it safe, and in Trestman’s offense, playing it safe will result in good things. Kind of like back when we had Kyle Orton. But I think Cutler just needs to settle down and mature a little more. I think it’s fair to blame a little bit on the inconsistency of offensive coordinators and offensive personnel, and forever not having an offensive line—I think it’s fair to blame a lot of that for why he hasn’t been as successful as we all hoped he would be. But who knows.

TD: Tell me about Devil’s Due, which comes out today. What can we expect?

ZG: The thing I keep telling people is that it’s kind of like a modern-day, found footage version of Rosemary’s Baby, which was a movie from 1968. I just saw it about a year ago, but it’s great. It’s this young couple, they go on their honeymoon, they come back and find out they’re pregnant, and there’s just a lot of creepy shit that starts happening with the pregnancy. The mother starts not acting like herself, and there’s a lot of creepy, weird stuff. Things in their life are awful, it seems like people are following them, it progresses and spirals out of control. It’s a pretty freaky, creepy take on a possession story—but a possessed fetus.

TD: What made you want to get involved with this film?

ZG: I’d actually just recently seen Rosemary’s Baby before I went in for this movie, and then the guys who were directing [Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett] it were really cool, and they were good to work with, even in the room just on audition stuff. And I could see the stuff that they’d done before which was all really quality. I liked the concept of the script, so it actually seemed like a fun, cool thing to do. And it was shot in New Orleans, which sounded like a lot of fun.

Abe Schwadron is the Online Editor of TDdaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad.