Matt Lauria talks playing a veteran on 'Parenthood': 'This feels like the most important thing I've ever done'

parenthood-mae-whitman-matt.jpgWhen we spoke with "Friday Night Lights" star Matt Lauria after the series finale, he had mixed feelings about his character -- a high school football star with dreams of playing in college -- enlisting in the army after graduation.

"It blindsided me at first, but then I thought, yeah, this is true," he says. "This is honest. These are his options, and these are the options that a lot of young men, in more rural areas or inner-city areas, have. I loved it."

When "FNL" executive producer Jason Katims asked Lauria if he'd be interested in a guest-starring arc on "Parenthood," Lauria was excited and flattered to have the opportunity to explore another side of a military man: the coming home. Lauria plays Ryan, a veteran recently returned from Afghanistan, who is having trouble adjusting to everyday life now that he's home.

"It was perfect on so many levels; personally, artistically, everything," Lauria told us when we visited the set last month. "Jason said, 'I don't know if you're available, or if you're interested. Of course I was available, of course I was interested. I would leap at any opportunity to try and convey Jason's words. I was extremely flattered just to be asked."

Obviously, there's a certain gravitas to playing a young veteran on a show like "Parenthood," which prides itself on realism while simultaneously presenting a very comforting, hopeful story about the strength of love and family. There's no shortage of war stories on television, but Ryan's "Parenthood" arc begins where a lot of those stories end, giving Lauria the chance to offer a unique perspective. He's done considerable research and spoken to veterans in order to honor their experience as much as he can, though it's important to him to tell the story of one man. Ryan is a young veteran, and isn't meant to be representative of the young veteran.

"I'd like to think that I was always respectful of people who were serving our country, but I don't know that I ever gave them the attention deserved or required, and hopefully in watching this, average folks like myself can get some perspective on the experience that they didn't have before," he says. "Hopefully veterans can watch and feel like 'Parenthood' in some way, brought their story to light. This is an isolated story about one guy, but I do understand that what my character represents is a little broader. He's not going to be most veterans who come back, but hopefully some veterans can see themselves in him, and hopefully they can feel like we are in some way honoring them. That's my priority."

Last week, we saw Ryan having trouble sleeping, and taking medication to treat what he shrugged off as a side-effect of two tours in Afghanistan. He's still putting up a brave face, but we can assume that he's a little more emotionally fragile than he's willing to let on. In this week's episode, Ryan is shaken by the unexpected death of an army comrade. We'll meet some of his fellow soldiers when he and Amber go on a road trip to attend the funeral, and we'll see how their coming home experiences have varied.

matt-lauria-parenthood-funeral.jpgLauria gives a performance that manages to be unnerving and heartbreaking while still being an absolute joy to watch. Over the span of one episode, we'll see Ryan go from unsettled to happy to violently irate. We'll see him devastated and we'll see him full of hope. Still, as always, it never feels like "Parenthood" is manipulating the audience's emotions for shock value or to generate buzz; just to tell an honest story.

One person who won't be watching the episode is Lauria himself, who has avoided seeing his performance not because he isn't immensely invested in it, but because his own uncertainty (and occasional insecurity) fuels Ryan's.

"When I worked with Jason Clarke, I said 'I just want to be a really, really good actor,' and he said 'There's no good. You can't be good. You can work hard and have fun, and that's it.' You just have to throw yourself into it 100%. There's no place in this to sit back and judge it or watch it as it happens," Lauria explains. "My guy is scrambling just to get by, and I feel like I'm doing the same thing on this, just scrambling to try and rise to the occasion, and that's what Ryan is doing too. We have the same challenge that way. I don't want to know how I'm doing. That type of self-consciousness or introspection isn't where he's at. He's living in the moment, taking it as it comes, and doing his best to stay afloat."

Focusing on his work as it comes instead of judging what he's already done has afforded Lauria the opportunity to really relish working with series stars Craig T. Nelson and Mae Whitman. "Working with wonderful actors who have the kind of experience and the skill that Craig has makes me better at my craft. I'm learning on the job. Mae is just a wonderful, wonderful actress, and she brings out the best in me," he says. "I'm new in this game compared to people like Craig, and even Mae, and I stand to gain a lot from working with them, and I don't take that for granted."

Where the romance between Ryan and Amber (Whitman) was sweet and new last week, this week's episode brings the first true test of the relationship as Amber sees a side of Ryan she hadn't quite bargained for. He's been focusing every bit of his energy on being strong and solid and even-keeled, and in the wake of tonight's tragedy, he drops the ball on that and loses his cool.

"When these guys come back, everybody's expecting PTSD, because everybody's been educated and heard about it in the media, so they're kind of looking for the cracks in the foundation. A couple of the guys who I've talked to have mentioned that when you come back, you're trying harder to not come off like you have PTSD, because you know everybody's looking for it. Your family is watching you," Lauria explains. "So you're walking on eggshells, trying to overcompensate, trying to overly act normal so that people don't think you're a weirdo. Not everybody suffers from PTSD, of course, it's just that you're aware of the stigma. You're trying really hard to act normal. That's where my guy is at, and here's this girl who is so chill and comfortable in her own skin and so disarming. There's admiration and, in sort of an interesting way, a bit of hero worship on his side. She's what he wants to be. There's a true connection there."

In speaking with Lauria, it becomes very clear as to why he was Katims' first choice for this powerful role. He's not only dedicated to his character, but acutely aware of the fact that art doesn't exist in a vacuum, and that what begins as a little story on "Parenthood" is both a reflection of and an influence on its audience.

"It seems like boilerplate stuff - 'I feel privileged and honored,' - but it's genuine," Lauria tells us. "It is a true, true privilege to work with Jason and to be working on something that's so important. This feels like the most important thing I've ever done. Not to discredit anything else I've ever done, but doing this right now, in this time period and where we are as a culture, socially, with all the suicides that are going on, and the tough things that veterans are facing when they get back, this feels important. So yes, there's pressure. But it's a blessing."

"Parenthood" airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. EST on NBC.
Photo/Video credit: NBC
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