TV Guide Magazine caught up with 28-year-old Zach Gilford, whose football player-turned art student Matt Saracen has become the heart of the Pulitzer-Prize winning series Friday Night Lights. With his character having made a life-altering change in this week's episode we asked him to reveal his feelings about the show and what's next in his career.
TV Guide Magazine: You inhabit the small-town Texan so completely that it's hard to believe you're from the Chicago area.
Gilford: Yeah, I grew up on the North Side of Chicago in Evanston, and I went to college there.
TV Guide Magazine: How did you get inside the small town character? What's the key to Matt?
Gilford: They wrote a lot of great stuff for him. And for the most part — they had a couple hiccups here and there — they kept it very real and true to life. I look at the scripts and I see what the story is and then we have the freedom on the show to act it and reword it in a way that that character would really do it. Once you've done a character for that long, the writers write situations that the characters would find themselves in and as an actor, you know that person so well that you know how they would navigate through that situation.
TV Guide Magazine: How would you describe Matt Saracen?
Gilford: He's kind of an everyman. But so many of the characters on the show are. And that's why the show works so well. Everyone is so relatable. Matt has been dealt a bad hand and he just navigates through his life as best as he can. His heart is always in the right place — but he's a kid. In Season 2 when he was so upset with Smash hogging all the spotlight on the team, he started a fight with him. When you're that age with so much on your shoulders, at some point it's gonna crush you. But Matt just gets back up and shakes it off and starts over again.
TV Guide Magazine: Don't you think he's maturing this season? Especially in this week's episode.
Gilford: Yeah. What I love is how natural the maturation process is that he goes through. And this season, you see him coming to the realization that he made the wrong decision by staying in Texas. It was obvious that he wouldn't leave Dillon because of his grandmother and because of Julie. But then he decides to live his life, which I think is very realistic. It's like "Wow, I need to put myself before everyone else for once." That's kind of what leads to his exodus from Dillon.
TV Guide Magazine: It's good for him, but so sad for Julie and the viewers! Will we see Matt again?
Gilford: He pops back up in two more episodes. He'll get some closure.
TV Guide Magazine: Is there a future for Matt and Julie?
Gilford: You'll find out at the end of the season what happens. I don't want to give it away. At the end of episode six, he just sort of drives away. It's cool because even though I'm not physically in the new few episodes, he's still a character. He's still part of those people's lives. When he shows up again, it makes sense. It's not like "Oh, yeah, I forgot about him." It's not out of the blue. It's much more clear what's going on at the end of the season.
TV Guide Magazine: Matt's dad's funeral and the opening of the casket was such a powerful episode and a nice way to start closing out your storyline. How tough was that to film?
Gilford: It was and it wasn't. Having been on that set for four years and knowing everyone is really comfortable. Everybody was really respectful. It was a little more subdued than our set normally is, because the gravity of everything we were doing was pretty high. It's so funny, the scene when I go to the see my father's casket and open it, there was nothing in there. They asked, "Do you want us to have someone lay in it? Do you want us to put some raw piece of meat in there?" And I was like, "Just leave it empty and I'll come up with something." We were in a real funeral home. There were actual dead bodies around. So you just let yourself be there and let yourself pretend that Taylor Kitsch is actually Tim Riggins, your buddy of many years, and Jesse Plemons is actually Landry, your best friend from since you were little. You find a way to make yourself make believe like a little kid.
TV Guide Magazine: Matt has a great connection with Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) that really shines after the funeral. It's a nice relationship between a father and the kid who's sleeping with his daughter, don't you think?
Gilford: Throughout the show, Coach Taylor is like a father figure to him. Someone that Matt trusted. That's why getting benched hurt so much, the one person he thought had his back, kind of let him down. There's never been a dialogue about how much the two of them mean to each other, it was just something that always was there. To the coach, Matt is someone who is sleeping with his daughter. And as hard as that is for him, he trusts Matt. He knows he's a good person and if anyone is going to sleeping with his daughter, I think he wants it to be Matt. I think almost any father would want it to be Matt. [Laughs]
TV Guide Magazine: Matt also has great relationship, the kind you don't see much on TV, with his best friend, Landry.
Gilford: Yeah, he's amazing. Jesse's one of my best friend in real life. He just made it so fun whenever we had scenes. We were always lobbying the writers. Give us more scenes together! More.
TV Guide Magazine: With all that love, was it hard leaving the show and your friends?
Gilford: It was really hard leaving. I love the show, and I love the people. It was sad to leave but it made sense. That character needed to get out and move on.
TV Guide Magazine: Did you leave because you wanted to do other things, or was it character driven?
Gilford: It was completely character driven. We all knew going in that's the way the show was going to work. It would be this revolving door of high school. It was a little bit shocking in Season 3 when Scott Porter and Gaius Charles went. We were all like, OK, our days are numbered. Once we graduate, we're going to be gone.
TV Guide Magazine: Did you do much before you broke out in Friday Night Lights?
Gilford: I didn't. I did two independent movies and an episode of Law & Order. So this was definitely my big thing. It's done so much for me. I couldn't ask for a better thing to work on.
TV Guide Magazine: What has it done for you?
Gilford: It not only got me out there, but being on a TV show that's respected has been helpful. Nothing against them, but there's a lot of shows you kind of end up on which are kind of like high school melodramas. They're great entertainment, but it's cool to have been on a show where you're really making something that's special and not just entertainment.
TV Guide Magazine: Because you inhabited Matt Saracen so beautifully, are you fighting typecasting? Does everyone want you as a sweet, awkward kind of guy?
Gilford: Some people just think of you in that way. They want you to play that. At the same time for other stuff, you go in and they say, "We love Zach, we think he's great, but this isn't like the nice guy." And I say, "Yes, but I can do different things." It's hard for them to imagine me as something else, and sometimes they won't even see me. But I got to do a couple of things. Dare, which was at Sundance a couple of years ago, in which I played someone completely different. That was cool. But you don't want to do something just cause it's different. Even if it's a smaller role, it has to have some kind of meat to it.
TV Guide Magazine: What's this Answer to Nothing, a movie you're in that has a really interesting cast like Elizabeth Mitchell and Julie Benz?
Gilford: It's sort of like Magnolia, where there's a bunch of small stories going on and everybody's interconnected. It's a pretty dark movie but I get to be in one of the lighter, more romantic comedy parts. I got to work with this girl called Kali Hawk. She was so fun and great to work with.
TV Guide Magazine: What current show would you like to guest on? How about Glee, since you worked with Jane Lynch in a movie.
Gilford: I love Jane, but I would never want to do that show ever. I'm not a musical fan. I would like to have been on Lost or 24.
TV Guide Magazine: Anything still on?
Gilford: Well, Mad Men would be cool, or Dexter. Being a serial killer would be great. I would love to be on Modern Family, which is the funniest show on TV.
TV Guide Magazine: Any semi final words about Friday Night Lights?
Gilford: It's such a great show. I'm so thankful for being able to work on it. I'm certainly sad to be leaving.