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Zach Gilford on Returning to Friday Night Lights and Making Us All Cry

When we last caught up with Zach Gilford, who plays Matt Saracen on Friday Night Lights, he was just finishing filming his season-four arc and experiencing a graduation-like combo of excitement and sadness about moving on. We’d not yet seen his episodes, and didn’t know he’d be giving such an outstanding performance as a son grieving for his absentee father, killed in combat. We had hints, though: “As an actor, you’re jealous of the scenes Zach’s getting this season,” Taylor Kitsch told us when we were down in Austin. “It’s so emotional and great.” And it was, both emotional and great, to see Gilford end Matt Saracen’s run on the show in such a heartbreaking way, which only seemed a fitting good-bye for a character we’d grown to adore and root for. Poor Matt! We spoke to Gilford again the other day — he’s back down in Austin shooting a four-episode cameo for season five, which will be Friday Night Lights’ last.

So you’re back in Austin. What’s that like?
I’ve been back for a weekend to visit, but this is my first time back on set, and it’s sort of weird. I know most of the people, but there are a lot of new people — it’s like I graduated and now I’m back. I just got in last night, and me and Jesse Plemons and Taylor Kitsch and one of the assistant directors, we went out and grabbed some beers, and we were talking about the pilot and everything — we’ve been here for so long! A lot of shows don’t go that long, and especially this one, where it was always like, “Are we coming back? Are we not?”

Did you always know you were coming back for the final season?
I had no idea; I just found out last week. I got on the phone with [showrunner] Jason Katims, and he told me what the story was, and it sounded good. I didn’t want to do it if it was just, like, “Oh, and Saracen’s here for some reason!” But it seems like good stuff, and it will be fun to be involved in the end of the show. And a lot of us are coming back; Taylor’s here, and I know Scott Porter [Jason Street] is coming back, too, and maybe Adrianne Palicki [Tyra Collette]. But there are lots of rumors, and so you don’t really know until you actually see someone on set if it’s even going to happen.

Are you down there for long?
No, the only bummer is that all my stuff for these two episodes, they’re shooting it all today. And it’s like, “I just have to fly in and do it and then I have to leave?” I’d like to hang out a little bit. And last night we started planning the next pub crawl — it’s going to be huge! [Ed. note: He’d been planning his good-bye pub crawl when I was there writing this piece.] It’ll be in July. We’re going to try to get a website under construction this time; it’s going to be a big deal. A lot of the crew lives here year-round, so we’re going to try to make it a yearly thing.

How did you think season four turned out?
I got some really great stuff to do, but I also think the season as a whole really turned out cool, with the new school stuff, and I think Michael Jordan is fantastic. I’m here filming halfway through season five, and I haven’t seen any scripts, and I’m kind of excited to watch them when they start airing, it’s like, “What’s going with all these characters?”

I was worried that taking the story to a different school would hurt the show, but it really hasn’t.
I think it’s the same idea as the first season. We were all pissed that we won the state championship, like, that’s not dramatic enough, and Katims said, “If you guys lose, it puts the story back in the same place in the beginning of season one, but now we can explore how they defend a title, now that they’re the favorite.” And I think for this season, it’s the same thing — they had to change things up to have a different story and new characters.

That turnaround with West Dillon becoming the bad guys did seem a little sudden …
At the end of the day, it is TV.

So how do you feel about the Facebook campaign to get you an Emmy nomination?
I haven’t been on it, but people have told me. It’s super nice; I’m glad people responded so much to an episode. But I think the best part is that it’s bringing a lot of attention back to the show again. Our first season, we were critical darlings or whatever, people wrote about us all the time, but we didn’t really get much mainstream award-show love. And then it just became, like, the show that the critics love, but we were under the radar. You had to keep up with it if you wanted anything to do with it. And now it’s cool that something has sparked people to write actively about the show again, and make people aware that it’s still on TV and you should tune in.

And that’s all because of your character’s exit arc.
I think one of the reasons that people relate to the show and love it, is that almost every character is an everyman. But I think Matt is the most so, if that makes any sense — he just has so much shit working against him, but was always like, “This is my life and I’m going to go with it.” He’s a good person working to do the best he could, and I think everything with his grandmother — I feel like there were a lot of times when you really saw his heart. He had a very open heart and people were able to connect with that. So then with everything he’s been through, and then there’s this big blow to him, maybe that’s why it resonated so much.

How did you feel when you found out about it?

When I first read the script, I was blown away, and I was excited and scared. To be honest, I think I’m a good actor — but I’m a good actor, I can do my thing, and whatever, sometimes I do a little better than others. But I read this and I was like, “I don’t want to fuck this up.” Everything I’ve been doing on these years on the show, I was like, “This is my chance to make it or break it.” I didn’t want to phone it in, and I wanted it to be as good as the script was. And everyone around me — from Kyle [Chandler] to Amy [Teegarden] to Connie [Britton] to Taylor to Jesse — they all helped while we were shooting, and the production staff was amazing. The first day they talked the schedule through with me, to make sure we were shooting it in an order that would help me go through the stages. So it wasn’t like, seeing my dead father, to having the funeral, to the beginning of the episode. We did it in a way that helped build to where I needed it to be. We’ve been doing the show for four seasons, and it could sometimes feel like we’re just doing what we need to do to get through an episode, and that was a script that a lot of people got excited about again, and it was like, “This is what it used to be like!”

So what are you up to now?
Nothing really. Just back in L.A., having lots of meetings about stuff, trying to figure out what my next project is. Oh, the coolest thing is that I’m going to Belize for a couple weeks in a few days to shoot this thing with the Outdoor Network about fishing. It’s me, Yvon Chouinard who started Patagonia, Tom Brokaw, and Michael Keaton. These guys are all huge fishermen and I did a fly-fishing movie — I think that’s how I got in. The crazy thing is that I worked for Patagonia when I was just out of college, and then I did a movie with Michael Keaton, and then Tom Brokaw was our commencement speaker at Northwestern, so I have all these random connections with these guys. So obviously, now my life is complete.

Zach Gilford on Returning to Friday Night Lights and Making Us All Cry