Zach Gilford is best known for playing QB1 Matt Saracen on NBC/DirectTV's Friday Night Lights, adapted for the small screen by the feature film's director Peter Berg. Though he's soon to exit that series as a regular, Gilford has been carving out a big-screen career, first in the intriguing indie The Last Winter, and now in three 2009 releases: Dare, Post-Grad, and The River Why. In Dare, Gilford plays Johnny Drake, a high school student on a journey of vocational and sexual discovery. In San Francisco for Dare's Bay Area premiere at the Frameline festival, Gilford sat down with me at the Galleria Park Hotel to chat about the new directions in his career.
Groucho: This movie deals with acting on the stage—and now you’re established in TV and movies—is that something you’d still like to do?
Zach Gilford: Yeah. If I could find a project or a play that I really loved, and would be excited about doing, day after day after day after day for several months, I’d be totally interested. I wouldn’t want to do any piece a disservice by doing it for two weeks and then kind of being bored with it and just going through the motions—so I’m always a little—you know, it’s not like people are knocking on my door asking me to do plays, but whenever I go out and have one that I can audition for, I really think about "Would I want to do this for a long time?"
ZG: And so there’s definitely some plays that I know of that—a lot of ones I did in college that I would love to do again and I would totally be willing to do—
G: You were looking into maybe doing Class Enemy, is that right, at one point?
ZG: Yeah, definitely. I love that play. I saw it when I was in high school and I fell in love with it. And I saw it two days before it closed, and I went back closing night and saw it again. And it’s such a cool play—you know, I saw it at this small theatre in Chicago, and I remember not seeing it being done anywhere else. So yeah, we have explored the idea of trying to do that. But it’s just hard. You know, again, with my schedule and everything.
ZG: Hopefully someday I’ll find a way to make that happen. But I’m getting older and older.
G: Do you remember when you first kind of realized "Hey, this acting thing is cool. This would be fun"?
ZG: Yeah. I mean, when I was just a little kid, me and my friends would watch action movies and then we’d go pretend to relive them. Like I remember pretending to do Die Hard in the backyard. And so, it was always just something that was fun. It was never something where I felt I was put on the earth to act and it was what made me tick. But it just seemed like something that would be fun to do, so I tried and I got lucky and I was able to do it, and fortunately I’ve been able to keep doing it.
G: In Dare, you sort of play Stanley Kowalski, but you really play Johnny Drake playing Stanley Kowalski. So how would you describe the kind of actor Johnny is?
ZG: I think Johnny is an actor who’s just – I mean, he’s just in drama class. It’s like it's not even something that he really chose to do. And so at first he’s just going through the motions. He’s just doing it 'cause it’s his homework. And then I think—you know, Alan Cumming says something to him and tells him he’s good. He’s like "Oh—well maybe this is where I can excel in life." Because he’s really—there’s nothing in his life where he feels fulfilled or whatever—and so someone gives him a little encouragement, and he takes it wholeheartedly because he’s so starved for it.
G: Yeah. It seemed to me that—Alan Cumming has the scene where he sort of explains what acting is all about—it seems like what he sees in Johnny is this raw talent that’s really coming from his hurt as a person. And to me the key line was "It just felt nice not to feel alone." So could you talk a little bit about that discovery that he makes about how these people who come into his life fill that void for him?
ZG: Yeah, I mean, he just—he’s pretty literal. He’s alone all the time. His Dad is who-knows-where to the point where he doesn’t even know why this woman married him. And his stepmom is gone all the time—who knows where his mother is? And so, you know, as soon as someone shows some interest in him, you know, Grant Mattson (Alan Cumming) says you’re good, and he takes it—he takes that to heart. Or when Alexa or Ben seems like they actually care about him, he goes in. You know, he’s all in—and makes himself completely vulnerable because he is just so in need of having someone care about him. And he wants to care about other people too.
G: Yeah. As an actor, you need to know where he’s coming from and, in the movie it’s ambiguous whether he’s gay, straight, bisexual, or possibly asexual because it’s almost not about the sex. So what was your decision as an actor?
ZG: Well, I think I was—I think me and Adam [Salky] both kind of felt he was totally a straight kid; it was just—so I think Adam and I, the director, were both on the same page that he really was straight and the sexual acts that he goes through, performs—I don’t know, are really just—you know, with Ben, he’s just doing it because he cares about Ben, and he feels that’s what he needs. And to him it’s just like—it’s the same as giving him a pat on the back. You know, in a really twisted way, but that’s the point he’s gotten to where he’s willing to do these things because he feels that's what people need, and he so desperately wants to be connected to people that he’s convinced that that’s normal.
G: And he’s naïve about what effect it’s having on them.
ZG: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah, he doesn’t really quite understand the profound effect it’s having on these other people as well—or lack of effect in some cases.
G: Yeah. Your acting credo, that you say you keep with you from your studies is "Just Be There."
ZG: (Chuckles.) Yeah.
G: In other words, you have to remain spontaneous and organic and be ready to go with any happy accidents. Do you remember any specific happy accidents that have been caught on film that would exemplify that credo?
ZG: Oh, well, I mean, it’s kind of funny. I mean, the show I work on, Friday Night Lights, is—the majority of it is, in a way, improv-ed where, you know, we get to kind of create the dialogue as long as we stick to the story. And so, it’s all the time that stuff’s happening on the show. You don’t know exactly what the person you’re working with is going to say or where they’re going to move—we don’t block things; we just go with it. And so, it’s all kind of like happy accidents. You know, I could just come up with countless, countless, countless examples on the show—just funny things that’ve happened, and they just turned it into, like, amazing things. I remember one of the first episodes, where the coach comes over to my house, and Grandma tries to give him a piece of pie and ends up putting the piece of pie just straight into his hand.
G: (Chuckles.) Right.
ZG: And it became, like, this hilarious thing. I’ll never forget that scene, especially since it was one of the first episodes, and it was like "Wow, this is what we’re going to be doing for a couple of years"—where we just get to, like, see what happens. And it’s really fun.
G: Yeah. So it’s a bit of a culture shock when you step into a Hollywood studio now, isn’t it?
ZG: Yeah. No, totally. I mean, I remember I did an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and there was just like—I was in this hospital all day, but the hospital is totally faked, but it looks so real. Until you looked up and saw all the scaffolding and the lights, and then you do a scene where you’re in an examining room and you shoot it one way, and then you come back and shoot it another way, and all of a sudden one of the walls is missing, and there’s a new wall that wasn’t there before, so it’s kind of—definitely a different situation.
G: Of course, Dare was shot on a low budget, kind of on the fly, and so you had circumstances where you might be taking direction from the director—in one interview I read, it sounded like he was maybe doing his business in the stall and giving you direction from the stall.
ZG: Well, you know, in the morning, and I’ll never forget—I loved what he said. I told him when that happened—I was like "You know, Adam, I’m so glad you’re comfortable enough with me to like be in here while I’m shaving, and do your thing." He said, "Zack, the one thing I’ve learned on this movie is, when you’re directing, you have ten minutes in the morning where you can take care of whatever you need to take care of, and so I’m not going to hide it because I need to get it done."
G: Right. And that’s a good point. Is there anything about Matt on Friday Night Lights that’s in the show "Bible" or that is from your own character work that you’ve worked out but that has never made it to the screen?
ZG: I mean, there’s tons of stuff. On TV, so much stuff gets edited out just for time constraints—especially on a show like ours where there’s so many characters. You know, there’s been one or two times—I mean, it’s happened to everyone on the show—where you’ll film a whole storyline for an episode, and then it never—it just—it’s not in the episode because it kind of doesn’t further any of the characters significantly or there’s other stuff going on. So that, and I think there’s a lot of—a lot of the comedy gets taken out because it’s just—I mean, unfortunately, it’s just comedy. It doesn’t necessarily always propel the storylines, but when I’m working with Jesse Plemons, who plays Landry, we definitely goof around a lot and come up with some really funny stuff but sometimes it’s just—there's not time in the episode for it.
G: Right. If only it were a Richard Linklater movie, you’d put all that together, right?
G: Obviously your character on that show is going through a transition and the show sort of is too. Do you have a sort of—if you had your druthers, is there a certain direction you’d like to see the character go? I know you, as cast members, share ideas with the executive producer.
ZG: I just—I would like to see it just stay authentic—the way it’s been, you know? I don’t want to see anything jump the shark or just get too crazy to be exciting. And, you know—so Matt just finished high school. It looks like he’s going to stay around in Dillon for a little while, and I’d like to see how that affects him, you know? He’s a kid who just didn’t have any intention of staying in Dillon for the rest of his life. So I think it’s going to—it would wear on him a little bit. And I think it will be interesting to see how that happens—like, how long he can endure it or not and how that affects all the people in his life.
G: Something you said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that I thought might be interesting—this is in 2006—you said, "That’s got to be hard, to go from high school superstar to where no one cares any more—you’re getting used to that pressure and sort of celebrity, then it’s gone." It seems like something maybe your character and Tim Riggins might bond over in a coming season.
ZG: No, totally. It’s actually something I suggested to [show runner Jason] Katims. But again, you know, there’s so many characters and stuff—it’s like, as interesting as that may be, I don’t know if they’re going to do it. I haven’t seen any scripts, but it’s like "Who knows?" Maybe it’s just not going to fit in. Maybe it will. You know, I always thought Riggins was an interesting character because he’s that guy we all knew in high school who, once he graduated high school, probably spent more time around high school than he did when he was there.
ZG: So, uh—and Matt’s quite the opposite. So it might be interesting to see how the two of them can lean on each other or connect in some way.
G: Can you tell me a little bit about the other two films you have in the can: The River Why and Post Grad?
ZG: Yeah. You know, Post Grad—it’s a good romantic comedy. We’ve got some legends in it: Carol Burnett, Michael Keaton is amazing, Jane Lynch, who I think is one of the funniest actresses around right now. And then obviously Alexis [Bledel] headlines the movie, and she’s great, as everyone knows from Gilmore Girls. And then—it’s a romantic comedy. It follows a storyline that is normal in that genre, but I think the characters in it—like the family, especially those actors I just mentioned—bring a lot of life and make it unique because they are just such characters. And it’s really—like that whole—they’re all her family, and I think any scene that they’re in is pretty hysterical. And then The River Why is kind of—you know, it’s kind of—I don’t want to label it as a coming-of-age story so much, but it’s this kid who has grown up fishing—thinks fishing is life—and it’s all about just plucking these fish out of the river. And then being out there kind of solo for awhile, he comes to respect the world and the earth and where he’s taking these fish from and such, and I think that opens his eyes to his life in a lot of ways, where he can appreciate the other people in his life as well.
G: Yeah. It seems like the ideal project for you, really, with your outdoor background.
ZG: Yeah, I know. It’s great. I was kind of bummed last summer I didn’t get to lead a trip, because I lead high school trips—or trips for high-school kids in the outdoors and I didn’t get to do one, but that was because I was out on a river fishing for a month. So it kind of—it was a good way to miss out on a trip.
G: Right. We talked earlier—you’re in the phase of your career where you still can play high-schoolers. I know you probably get asked this a lot, but what were you like in high school?
ZG: I was, um—I had a good time in high school. I thought it was a lot of fun. I went to a really big high school, so there was no, like, kid that everyone looked up to who was just like the ultimate superstar—which I think was good. It kind of prepared people for real life, because no one is going to be the ultimate—unless you’re Michael Jordan. So I had a good group of friends who are still mostly my best friends, and I was in a lot of different circles. Like a lot of my good friends were jocks who played varsity sports all four years. Some were—a lot of them were musicians—were really into music. I just kind of was all over the board.
G: In researching, the other thing that kind of came up that was interesting was there seem to be these little clues that you might be interested in stepping behind the camera at some point.
ZG: No, I’d love to. Especially, I think—like, working on a TV show for a few years, you get to a point where you go "I know this show so well," and you start to form an opinion to where "I can do that better than that guy did." Or "Wow, I’ve been doing this this long, and I’ve never seen someone do that." So I think it’d be fun—I’m definitely—I won’t say a control freak, but I have strong opinions and stuff. I think it would be fun to direct something and kind of explore what I actually could do—how much I actually do know about this stuff. And maybe it’ll be eye-opening for me, or maybe it will be eye-opening for other people.
G: Is that something you think might happen on the show in the next twenty-six episodes that they have?
ZG: We’re pushing for it. I know it’s not going to happen in the first thirteen. But we’ll see. I think it would be a great place to do it for the first time—because I’d kind of be setting myself up for success. I know the crew would be behind me, and I just know it so well that I would be comfortable and I think I would be confident. But we’ll see—hopefully.
G: Well, Dare is an excellent film. I hope it finds its audience.
ZG: Thank you so much. We had a great time doing it, and all the audiences have been an awesome experience: it’s been received very well.
G: Yeah. Thanks a lot.
ZG: Yeah, no, it’s my pleasure.