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Gaius Charles on Friday Night Lights, Othello, and His Shakespearean Name

To fans of Friday Night Lights, Gaius Charles will forever be known and loved as cocky running back Brian “Smash” Williams, who left the show midway through last season as a graduated senior with a football scholarship. Though he’s off FNL (for the moment), Charles is keeping busy — tomorrow he begins previews for the Public Theater’s new production of Othello (starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz, and running in a limited engagement through October 4), in which he plays the dual roles of the Duke and Lodovico. He took a break from rehearsal to talk to Vulture about the play, his theater background, and his continuing legacy as Smash.

How did you end up getting involved with this production?
I’ve always been a fan of the Public Theater’s work — obviously it’s just one of these hallmarks of New York theater. I went in and read for a role, and I had a bunch of different friends going in for it. I didn’t really know who [director Peter Sellars] was before this, and I was talking to people like, “I gotta go meet Peter Sellars — what is this guy about?” And it was so overwhelming with positive responses, I was just like, who is this unique individual? And I went in and met him and was just overwhelmed with love and creativity like, “Oh, what is this?”

This is a very contemporary production, right?
I would say the world of the play and the world of current-event politics are mutually exclusive, but we’re definitely informed by what’s going on. The play is set in the United States, in today’s world, where we have a first African-American President, but also we spent a lot of time talking about Bush-era politics, the corruption that that administration brought, and also looking at this new administration and how maybe it’s not as much of a fairy tale as we’d like to believe. It’s really about the struggle of a country going to war, of trying to make function out of dysfunction, interpersonal politics on a micro and macro level. I’ve told other people, this is not the textbook Othello. This is not guys in puffy pants with perfect iambic pentameter.

You play two different characters. Is it odd to switch roles?
You know, it was a challenge, to be honest. We’ve been taught for so long that Shakespeare is done like this. So for someone to come in and say, we’re not doing verse there, we’re doing prose, or we’re cutting this line, or we’re actually giving this character that line — to do it with eight players versus twelve or thirteen is a challenge. Some characters are combined, like mine, to form this one full character. I think people will be blown away. By combining characters, I really think you see Shakespeare as an ensemble in a way you wouldn’t see in a classic interpretation. There’s no actor that’s just furniture, or just spitting out exposition.

You were a drama guy before being on TV. Do you prefer theater to film?
It’s funny, because I love theater, it’s obviously so communal and certain shows just blow you away — and I’ve realized theater is theater anywhere you go. A great show doesn’t have to be on Broadway. But I prefer working on film and TV most of the time, only because you can take your craft, do your research, and get into character and live in that space by yourself, with the cast and crew. And then give it away, as opposed to trying to do your craft at the same time you’re trying to function and exist and live life and, oh, by the way, I have to be at the theater at seven o’clock.

You’ve been in Candide. Do you have a secret desire to sing and dance onstage?
Ahhhhhhh! You know what, I guess the PC musical-theater term would be, “I’m an actor who can sing.” That’s’ what they called us in conservatory. It’s not my strongest suit, necessarily, but I do enjoy singing. I can move a li’l bit, you know? A little somethin’ somethin’. I ain’t doin’ no backflip, but I can move a little bit.

You have a pretty Shakespearean-sounding name. It sounds like something out of Julius Caesar. Is there a story behind that?
It kind of is out of Julius Caesar, in that Julius Caesar’s first name is Gaius! The story I’ve been told the most is that it’s a name that’s one of the early disciples of the Church, Gaius John in Third John. But it’s pretty cool that it’s Julius Caesar’s first name. It’s been a blessing to have a name that’s a part of why people remember you. People ask if it’s my stage name.

On to Friday Night Lights — will we be seeing Smash come back in the next season at all?
Well, you know, Sean Connery said, “Never say never.” We’ll see. I talked to Peter Berg last Monday, I think it was the first day of filming season four, just talking about plans for story lines, and you never know. I’m thankful if the story has ended, but I’d be open to coming back.

Did you like the way Smash was sent off last season?
I remember the day that script was delivered and opening it, like, “This is IT.” I remember reading it page by page, reading every word, taking in every word. I didn’t say, “Well, I want to exit like this,” but I think the writers knew me so well and they knew my feelings about the character. I couldn’t have asked for them to tell the story any better.

Do people constantly call you Smash on the street?
They do! I was just eating lunch on the corner on NYU’s campus and someone was like, “Smash!” I’m eating my turkey club and I hear, “Smash! I’m on season two, episode six!” I honestly forget that people see me as that. I’m like, “Oh, Smash, that’s me, okay!”

Gaius Charles on Friday Night Lights, Othello, and His Shakespearean Name