Zach Gilford is sitting in the shadow of Austin fast-food joint Whataburger, watching his co-stars Taylor Kitsch and Derek Phillips shoot a scene of Friday Night Lights. Gilford, who plays Matt Saracen, the unlikely quarterback of the high-school football team of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, is in his street clothes instead of Matt’s No. 7 jersey because he recently filmed his final full episode, wrapping up three and a half years as the show’s sweet, halting underdog. Everyone is happy to see him but also a little sad. Before leaving, he gives hugs and high fives, imploring anyone and everyone to come to his farewell-Austin bar crawl, for which he’s made “beer-colored” T-shirts, an intricate map with over ten bars, plus directions to the nearest hospital.
The first episode of the fourth season of Friday Night Lights, which premiered two weeks ago on DirecTV (the show won’t return to NBC until late spring at the earliest), could pass as a spinoff. The adult actors are intact, including Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor and Connie Britton as his wife, Tami, but the younger generation is full of newbies. With the exception of a misguided murder arc in season two, the show favors reality: Most of the students hightail it out of town after graduation. “It’s about Texas high-school football, and once I’m no longer playing high-school football, it’s like, well, what do I do?” says Gilford, who stuck around longer than other actors he started with: Scott Porter and Gaius Charles left last season; Minka Kelly and Adrianne Palicki will be back only briefly. “[Creator] Peter Berg told us in the very beginning that Friday Night Lights was going to be a revolving door of kids.” Gilford can comfort himself with a particularly juicy good-bye arc. “As an actor, you’re jealous of the scenes Zach’s getting this season,” says Kitsch, who is leaving soon too. “It’s so emotional and great.”
Unlike Matt, who is painfully, endearingly inarticulate, Gilford is a stone-cold extrovert; the smile his character rarely flashes works overtime off-camera. At breakfast in an Austin café, the 27-year-old tells me about growing up outside Chicago and majoring in theater at Northwestern. After living in New York for a year after college, he landed an audition for Friday Night Lights. “It was down to me and another kid,” says Gilford, “but his manager had double-booked him on a made-for-TV Disney movie. Legend has it Peter Berg said, ‘Good, I don’t want that kid anymore, I want that Zach kid.’ Peter’s crazy,” he adds. “In a good way.”
Berg has a certain genius for divining talent; he’s launched a few careers already. But in Gilford he found an actor who could consistently break hearts. In the Dillon universe of macho athletes, Matt was the sensitive, artistic exception. Gilford plays another tormented jock in the upcoming film Dare (out November 13), a darker look at high school co-starring Emmy Rossum. He got the role after the original actor dropped out. But, says director Adam Salky, “Zach quickly made the first guy irrelevant. His character is supposed to be good-looking and charismatic—the coolest guy in school. But the whole point of Dare is taking these archetypes of high-school movies and showing them in a three-dimensional way, and the jock is often given the short shift. Zach is incredibly good-looking, but he’s relatable. His exterior is charismatic and approachable, but there’s complexity behind his eyes. His range of sensitivity is going to surprise people.”
I point out a melancholy streak running through both his Dare and Friday Night Lights performances, which Gilford deflects with a joke: “I need to be loved! Love me, please!” He doesn’t really see a connection, besides the fact that once again he almost didn’t get the part, which he laughs off. “I like to have a chip on my shoulder,” he says, “to feel like I have something to prove.”
Gilford’s been living in Austin for the last four years; in some ways it’s the perfect town for him: boisterous and arty. He rents a little house near the main set, a deserted high school about fifteen minutes from the capitol building. Kyle Chandler, who’s like a fun uncle to the younger cast members, has jokingly suggested that to know Gilford is to party with him. “Go out with Zach on a Saturday night. You’ll figure out what he’s all about.” Coincidentally, Gilford invites me to tag along with him and his closest friend on the show, Jesse Plemons, who plays Matt’s best friend, Landry Clarke. Matt is often the butt of Landry’s jokes; in reality, it’s Gilford who ribs the quieter Plemons. “I was at this liquor store,” says Gilford at one point. “The guy behind the counter goes, ‘Oh, Jesse comes in here all the time!’ And I’m like, ‘What? How do you know Jesse’s name? He just turned 21.’ ” Gilford is gesturing so wildly he nearly whacks a lady behind us. Plemons, who did just turn 21, looks embarrassed. “That place is good,” he says, softly.
We start the evening at a screening of Paranormal Activity at the Alamo Drafthouse, a cinema that serves food and beer. I’m embarrassed to find that Gilford is one of those people who talks at the screen. When a character is annoying to her boyfriend, he yells, “You suck!” The audience howls, which delights him. Afterward, Plemons wants to see a band at the Continental Club. Wherever we go, Gilford invites people to his good-bye pub crawl.
In a night I could title Friday Night Lights: The College Years, we actually do end up in a dorm room at the University of Texas (where Gilford’s cousin is visiting friends) doing Jell-O shots. At one point, he gets serious about leaving the show, and for a surreal minute, it’s hard to figure out who I’m talking to: Matt, the kid in Dare, or the actor. “When you’re in high school, everything is the biggest thing in the world, life or death,” says Gilford. “But then afterward, it’s like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t the end of my life when I broke up with my two-month girlfriend.’ You sort of move on, and you come to the point where none of this is the end of the world. I’m still alive. I can still make shit happen.”