Spending a day talking to television critics generally isn’t a TV actor’s idea of a good time — it tends to be a tough crowd. Unless, of course, you’re a “Friday Night Lights” alum, in which case, you’re guaranteed to be an instant favorite with a room full of otherwise cynical journalists.
Such is the case for Zach Gilford, former “Friday Night Lights” QB-1 Matt Saracen. We sat down with him after he finished a panel discussion about his new ABC show, “Off the Map,” in which he plays a very un-Saracen-like plastic surgeon who has taken an adventurous gig at a clinic in a fictional South American country. We couldn’t resist a little bit of “FNL” gushing before we kicked off the interview.
“‘Friday Night Lights’ was kind of an anomaly in that fans loved it, and critics loved it, but not a lot of people watched it,” Gilford says. “But, I mean, who doesn’t love hearing that you did good stuff? It’s better than hearing that people hated it, I’d imagine.”
Gilford was lauded by fans and critics alike for his heartbroken performance in last season’s “Friday Night Lights” episode “The Son,” in which his character struggles through his father’s funeral. He returns as a special guest star in the episode airing tonight (Weds. January 12) on DirecTV with considerably lighter fare.
“It was a little weird [to go back],” he admits. “There were all these new characters I’d never met, and it felt a little more like I was almost stepping on their territory, trying to come back and lay claim to something that I’d already passed on to all these new people. Not that anyone made me feel that way. It was fun, seeing most of the same crew, and I know that character so well, it’s so easy to step back into his shoes.”
His “Off the Map” character, Tommy Fuller, is a far cry from Matt Saracen. Fuller has a kind of cocky bravado that you’d be hard-pressed to spot in Saracen or Gilford, who is alternately easy-going and intensely focused as he discusses his newest endeavor. After wrapping “Friday Night Lights,” he says, he found himself in unfamiliar territory when it came to deciding on his next career move.
“Honestly, I wasn’t in the position to just do whatever I wanted,” he says, “but we were choosier. Before ‘Friday Night Lights,’ every script that my agent sent me, I’d go in. Now, every so often I’d read something that’s like ‘Uh, this isn’t good,’ and I wouldn’t go in. It’s cool to feel that way, to only try for things that I’d want to work on.”
This time, he wanted to work on a character who felt new and different. “I would’ve done Saracen on ‘Friday Night Lights’ forever,” he says, “because it was so fun and I loved that show. I would’ve happily spent my entire life there, you know? But I don’t want to do Saracen on any other show. Fuller is just his polar opposite. He’s more outspoken, more goofy, which is fun. It’s different for me. I’m slowly getting better at it; it’s been a learning experience for me. I’m hoping that, sticking with this character, it’ll become something that’s appealing to people, in a different way than Saracen was appealing.”
The move to Hawaii wasn’t necessarily an easy one for Gilford, who is from Chicago, filmed “Friday Night Lights” in Austin, and calls Los Angeles home now.
“Hawaii’s great, but the bad thing is that it’s so removed from our lives. Initially we thought we were going to be there like two and a half months, and then that got extended to six,” he says. “So we hadn’t really planned for a big life change. I wasn’t able to bring my dog, and some of the sort of comforts of home. That was the tough thing, you know? You’re doing all your work on set and you’re feeling good and then at the end of the day, it’s like, ‘I don’t even have my dog!’ If we go back, I’m bringing my dog. We’ll settle there a little bit.”
Living in paradise isn’t all bonfires on the beach – the authentic setting has its downfalls. “We’re all living all over the island, and it’s sort of like, getting anywhere on the island takes an hour. At the end of the day, if you live an hour that way and I live an hour this way, we’re probably not going to go grab a beer,” he laughs. “It’s hard to establish. In Austin it felt like a smaller town, so after work we’d all go watch the game, and we made a lot more connections outside of work, I think.”
Easing the transition a bit is Mamie Gummer, as Dr. Mina Minard opposite Gilford. Gummer — who is Meryl Streep‘s daughter but says that they don’t share acting tips much (“It’s not like we own a line of pizza joints and there’s like a secret ingredient in the sauce that stays with the family,” Gummer jokes) — and Gilford went to Northwestern University together and studied under the same acting teacher. “We did a show together. We partied a lot together,” Gummer says.
As for their acting teacher, we figure he must be pretty proud at this point. “We’re trying to find a role for him,” Gilford laughs.
Gilford tells us that his most emotional scenes are with Gummer, and that their history together helped to smooth the adjustment period that becomes inevitable when a cast is finding their footing together.
So is an on-screen romance on the horizon for Fuller and Minard? Gilford grins telllingly when we pose the question.
“At first it’s an unexpected friendship that forms,” he says. “Given who these characters are, he rubs her the wrong way at first, but then you put them in a place where they really have no one else and they start to find this sort of affection for each other.”
In the series’ third episode, Gilford had the chance to work with another familiar face: Walter Perez, who plays an expectant father involved in a car crash with his pregnant wife. “He was actually on ‘Friday Night Lights,’ he was Bobby Reyes,” Gilford says. “It was fun to have him around, kind of makes it easier to relate and form a connection.”
The episode, in which Fuller and Dr. Clark (Rachelle Lefevre) have to carry Perez’s character, Roberto, through ten miles of jungle while pumping his heart for him, embodies the fusion of adventure and medicine that producers Shonda Rhimes and Jenna Bans hope distinguishes “Off the Map” from “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.”
Whether the show can reinvigorate the medical drama genre remains to be seen, as an early eleven-minute preview has generated buzz. For now, Gilford is happy to be recognized for his “Friday Night Lights” role… once people manage to make the connection.
“In LA I get recognized the most, but I think people are on the lookout. They’re drinking their coffee looking around the room to see who comes in the door,” he says. “In small towns, and in Hawaii, people just think they know you. I was in the middle of Idaho once and someone came up to me and was like ‘Did you go to so-and-so high school?’ They kept asking, for like a half an hour, and you don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, I’m on TV.’ They just kept trying to find out how they knew me. I’m like, ‘I don’t know anyo
ne! I’ve never been in this bar before!’
“Once, I was out running, and I was actually wearing an East Dillon t-shirt,” he recalls. “I’m that guy. And someone ran by and was like ‘I know you! What’s your name?’ And I’m just thinking, ‘Here we go.’ I’m wearing a ‘Friday Night Lights’ shirt, and again, she’s like ‘Where’d you go to high school? Did you and so-and-so used to date?'”
After tonight’s episode, in which Saracen hosts high school sweetheart Julie (Aimee Teegarden) in Chicago, we can expect to see him return one more time for the finale. “I’ll be back in Dillon one last time,” he says, looking almost as wistful as we feel. “A lot of the old cast comes back, and we got to have a big wrap party, sort of send it off right.”
If, like us, you’re already mourning the loss of television’s most underrated drama, you’re not alone. “It’s sad,” Gilford says. “It’s really sad. It was just this really amazing thing to be a part of, and we’re all sad to see it go.”
“Friday Night Lights” is currently airing on DirecTV on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST. After that, flip your channel to ABC for the Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST premiere of “Off the Map” — which you can preview below.