There’s an episode in the new season of Friday Night Lights in which Tim Riggins, the bad boy with a goldenish heart, visits New York with his wheelchair-bound friend Jason Street. The odd couple roams midtown in search of a decent suit for a job interview. Riggins is supposed to look like a Texas fish out of water—the local football star from the depressed fictional town of Dillon cut down to size by the big, slick city. And yet as he ambles through Times Square, surrounded by pedestrian extras, ridiculously hot even in his Hicksville plaid shirt, he just can’t help looking like a star.
When the actor who plays him walks into the lobby of the Tribeca Grand Hotel, it’s even more apparent. Knit cap pulled down low over his eyes, jeans professionally ripped just so, Taylor Kitsch is the picture of nonchalant New York chic. He jokes that he just got out of hair and makeup: “Some people would say I’m vain.” For a split second, there’s Riggins, the smart-ass, deadly charming underachiever of Dillon High School. But it’s a quick whiff; there’s not much Riggins in Kitsch—or at least no obvious signs of alcoholism or selfishness, and certainly no reticence. He talks about his role within the cast. “I’m the guy who throws curveball,” he says. “I like to break people.” I ask what that means. “You know how Riggins has sex with a lot of gals? So I’ll come up to Kyle [Chandler, who plays Coach Taylor] while we’re filming a game scene with some sexual itch as a joke and try to break him—make him laugh,” says Kitsch. And then he giggles, which, if you’re familiar with the brooding Riggins, is a little unnerving.
TV’s long tradition of the soulful, misunderstood loner is nothing new, but the ability to launch a career from such a role is rare: Johnny Depp (21 Jump Street) and James Franco (Freaks and Geeks) are notable exceptions. Peter Berg, who created Friday Night Lights, thinks Kitsch has the goods. “He’s a ridiculous, unreal mix of acting talent and outrageous good looks.” Or as one of my friends put it, “Riggins is sex.”
Kitsch is surprised (or does a good job of feigning it) when I refer to his legion of female fans. “Women want to save Riggins,” is his explanation for his popularity. “A child psychologist wrote and said she uses my character in therapy—the troubled kids can relate to him. It’s the most flattering fan mail I’ve ever gotten,” he says.
Very nice, but that’s not what got him a starring role alongside Hugh Jackman in 2009’s sure-to-be blockbuster X-Men Origins: Wolverine (in theaters May 1). “It was a fucking battle,” he says of landing ladies’ man–mutant Gambit. He flubbed his first reading because he was tired. “But I got my managers to get me back in because I knew I could crush the role.”
Kitsch, who is 27 to his character’s 18, grew up playing hockey in British Columbia and dropped out of a local college to pursue modeling in New York. “IMG told me they had an apartment for me, and I was like, ‘Shit, sweet, New York.’ So I came, and there were nine other guys living in the two-bedroom apartment with me. I slept in the hallway.” To pay the bills, he worked as a personal trainer and nutritionist. “I was so poor that at one point I was sleeping on the subway,” he says. Kitsch eventually got a role in the horror flick The Covenant, which led to the Friday Night Lights audition.
“I don’t know if I can really get much more out of the show, but I love it and I’m there as long as they want me,” says Kitsch, who’s happy the new season is reverting to the tone of the first after some unsatisfying attempts to lure more viewers with soapier plotlines. “Season 2 was kind of written off for me,” he says. “I’m reading it going, ‘Really, we’re going to put fucking shark in Jason’s spine and he thinks it’s going to work?’ ” Surely he’s also happy that his character will make football captain. Kitsch laughs. “Finally, he’s been on the team for, like, nine years!”
Friday Night Lights
NBC. Fridays at 9 p.m.
Premieres January 16.