Newcomer Zach Gilford says he was "more confident than usual" after auditioning for the new NBC drama Friday Night Lights, but he knew that nailing the audition was no guarantee of anything beyond the satisfaction of a job well done. "I got what I wanted out of that audition, and they were totally encouraging," recalls the 24-year-old Evanston, Ill., native. "Peter Berg, the director, gave me a big hug. But I did not walk away thinking I had the role. There are so many factors that go into these decisions, and you just never know. In the end, at the final audition for the network—after a studio test and six other auditions in New York and Los Angeles—there was one other actor left and myself. And we were so different physically. We both got to that point because they liked our acting."
But after all was said and done, Gilford scored—a starring role in the new television program about the troubled lives of high school football players and their friends and families in Dillon, Texas, based on the 2004 film of the same name (co-written and directed by Berg, who also wrote and directed the pilot). Gilford plays Matt, the backup quarterback who becomes, in a twist of fate, a football hero. Still, all is not well for Matt. "He is a 16-year-old kid whose father is in Iraq, and his mother is not around either," explains Gilford. "He lives with his grandmother, who is suffering with the beginnings of dementia, and he is responsible for everything. He is the man of the house, who pays the bills. He is under a lot of pressure at home and on the football field. What I love about the role is that he's an Everyman. Everyone can relate to him. He's not the glorified person we all want to be but rather the person we all are.
"The challenge is keeping it honest," Gilford continues. "But of course that's true in every acting job. The difference is, when you play the same character over a period of time, especially on a series, it can turn into a phoned-in performance. I don't want that to happen."
Judging from his track record, the odds are it won't. Two years ago Gilford graduated from Northwestern University, with an agent and a manager in tow, Allison Levy of Innovative Artists and Charles Mastropietro of Widescreen Management, who saw Gilford perform in the school's senior showcase and were sufficiently impressed to want to represent him. Shortly thereafter, Gilford appeared on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He will make his feature-film debut in Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter and will appear in the upcoming film Rise, starring Lucy Liu.
From the outset, Gilford knew he wanted to act and had little doubt that he could. "I'm not arrogant, but I always had confidence that I didn't suck," he says. "And I was willing to take chances and do characters that were stretches. When I was in high school, I put up a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and cast myself in the role of George. There I was, at the age of 18, playing the role of George." He laughs. "Actually, it was very well received."
And Gilford was fortunate in his training at Northwestern, where he got to perform scenes from Equus and The Laramie Project. "There was no one method," he says. "Each professor had his own approach to acting and said, 'This is my way, but it may not work for you. Just try it out. If it works for you, fine; if not, don't use it.' I don't know what my method is. I never made a conscious decision about it. I just go with what feels right." He adds, "The best acting advice I got—and it's the one consistent thing I stick with—is, 'Just be there.' In other words, if something happens on the set that shouldn't have, don't pretend it didn't. Respond to it. The idea of just being there is especially helpful on [Friday Night Lights]. The script is very loose, and we very rarely stick with the words exactly as written. We often substitute our own words—we're encouraged to—and that gives us ownership of what we're saying and doing."
Gilford is thrilled to be on a series but recognizes the danger of being typecast. "You become identified with one kind of character, and then it becomes that much more difficult to get cast in another kind of role," he says. "I've had this conversation with my agent and manager, and we're all agreed that I should make every effort during the show's hiatus to do something very different. I'd love to appear in a production of Nigel Williams' Class Enemy. We're talking about pulling that together somehow and then bringing it to an Off-Broadway theatre." To date, Gilford has not performed in professional theatre, though he'd like to, and it's clearly on his agenda.
Still, short of Class Enemy, there are no theatre projects Gilford is dying to do, he says. As for films, a major draw to any production "is the chance to travel," he notes. "I'll jump at a part that takes me to a place I've never been. When we were shooting Last Winter, an environmental thriller, I spent two months in Iceland."
Indeed, Gilford spends his free time leading backpacking, ice-climbing, and diving expeditions in Alaska, New Zealand, and Australia. Every bit the outdoorsman, he is also a football fan, an interest that will serve him well now. "Football is my favorite sport to watch and to play," he remarks. "I did play in high school, but I broke my leg and never played again. Not too long ago, however, I said to my manager, 'Someday I want to be in a film or television program about football players.' Not that this show is only about football. It's more about the characters who make up the team." He pauses to acknowledge his good fortune. "In every way, being in this show is like winning the lottery."