With Emmy buzz swirling around him like mosquitoes on a Texas football field, Zach Gilford has inked a deal to return to Friday Night Lights for a sizeable arc during the show’s fifth and likely final season. The news comes as the actor is enjoying the best reviews of his career for an episode in which his character, Matt, mourned the death of his father. The tear-jerking hour first drew attention last fall when it aired on DirectTV, but it was an encore telecast on NBC earlier this month that lit up Twitter and led fans to start a Facebook campaign aimed at getting him a much-deserved Emmy nod (in the guest actor category.) What does Gilford think of all the attention? And what brings Matt back to Dillon? The actor rang me with the 411 as he was about to hop a plane to Austin to film his first of four FNL episodes.
You’re the hottest thing to hit Facebook since Betty White! What do you think of all the attention?
ZACH GILFORD: I found out about it from my mom. It’s nice to draw this kind of attention to the show. We’ve got a lot of street cred, but we’ve never really gotten the industry recognition. It’s nice that people are so excited and determined to get us [some Emmy love].
I imagine you had to go to some dark places for that episode.
GILFORD: I’m not really that kind of an actor. I’m not the kind of person who draws on past life experience in my acting. I just kind of rely on the script. One of the things I love about TV and film is that it’s easier to cheat. [Laughs]. In theater you have to be a much better actor. In TV and film, if you’re shooting a funeral scene you’re most likely at a funeral. It’s not like I’m on a stage with a fake set and crowd of people watching you. I guess I’m just good at playing make believe. I just let myself be at that funeral. And between the actors and the crew, everyone was so nice and respectful.
What was your reaction when you first read the script for the episode?
GILFORD: One of my best friends is an assistant director on the show. When I first got down to Austin last summer, he had all of the outlines for the episodes. And we went out to get a beer and he was like, “So Zach, you have some heavy stuff coming up…And I’ll tell you, I think you’re a very good actor, but I don’t know what you’re going to do in episode 5.’” [Laughs] So there was this ominous vibe around this episode. And then I read the script and, in my opinion, it’s the best script we’ve ever had. Rolin Jones wrote it and it was his first year on our staff. He just did a phenomenal job. We have a lot of freedom to improv on our show and stray from the dialogue. We’re given the story and then we come up with the words. But with this one, we stuck pretty close to the script. It helped a lot to not have to be worrying about, “How can I adjust the dialogue to make it seem more real or less cheesy.
You’re about to shoot the first of four episodes of FNL. Will they air consecutively?
GILFORD: No. Two will air in the middle of the season and then two at the end.
What brings Matt back to town?
GILFORD: I think it’s his relationship with Julie. They don’t tell us anything. I just found out last week that I was coming back for sure.
Rumor has it more of your costars will be returning later this season.
GILFORD: I hope so. When Scott Porter and Gaius Charles left the show in season 3 it was so sad. We were such a family and then people started going away to college, literally and figuratively. And then last year me, Adrianne Palicki, Minka Kelly, and Taylor Kitsch all left, and it was just this crazy vibe of the show changing. It’ll be fun to have as many people back as possible and do one last episode and be in Austin together again.
Is it your understanding that the season 5 finale will be a series finale?
GILFORD: That’s basically the deal. To my knowledge, it’s pretty much done and they’re writing an ending to the show. I know a lot of people were not satisfied with the Lost finale — I personally loved it — but I think it’s nice when they can write towards a [series finale]. If you have a finite amount of episodes then you can come up with a satisfying ending.