Friday Night Lights is one of those rare TV shows that casts a spell on nearly everyone who watches it. It's a fine mix of excellent writing, believable acting, and a talented cast of folks who could all easily double as Abercrombie and Fitch models. I spoke with Zach Gilford, the FNL veteran who plays quarterback Matt Saracen, about his character's persistence, the show's appeal, and well, football.
Saracen is a sort of outsider who can't wait to escape the small football town of Dillon, Texas. How do you relate to that kind of experience?
I guess not that much. I grew up in Chicago. I don’t think I was really much of an outsider, but I wasn’t the super cool kid. I think everyone has aspects of their life where they say, 'this is not for me, I’ve got to find a way out.' And I think your description of Matt is really what anchors his relationship with Julie. I’ve always joked a lot about how I don’t understand why he likes her, it’s not like she’s that nice to him, but they’re really the two young people on the show who get it. They see a bigger world out there that is much more than football and that small town. And that’s what has always really created that really strong connection [between Matt and Julie], which has lasted throughout the entire series. I think this season plays into Matt's arc a lot, making it so hard for him to leave. He likes to think it’s because of his grandmother, but I think it's more because of his relationship with Julie. And then she has the maturity to say to him, 'go and experience life.' It’s a hard thing for a kid to say, but she’s very mature and grown up at the same time.
Why do you think viewers think you're one of the show's easiest characters to relate to?
I think one of the great things about the show is that all the characters are pretty relatable. They’re all really an every man. I’ve always seen Matt as sort of the most so. He’s just this kid and nothing ever seems to work out for him, but he still works hard and he never gives up. He’s a good kid and a hard worker. I think a lot of people feel that way about their lives. There’s so much outside of your control that will beat you down, but you’ve just got to do the best you can. I think that’s what we see Matt do all the time. Nothing has ever been handed to him. He’s had to work hard for everything, and it hasn’t always worked out. Senior year, he gets benched as quarterback cause someone better comes along. He’s worked as hard as he can, the best he can, but apparently he’s not good enough. And that happens to all of us. As much as we want to hear that if you put in the work and you do everything you can, you’re going to get everything you want, that’s not always the case. You see Matt and you see it doesn’t really wear him down too much. He just keeps going.
Why do you think Friday Night Lights has so many loyal fans who don't even know the first thing about football? Me, included.
I think it goes back to the characters being really relatable, and you grow to love them in spite of their flaws. I think that even though people aren’t sports fans you get attached to a team, you get invested in them, you grow a sense of ownership over it. I think people watching the show get drawn into this community and root for the Panthers. Maybe they’ve never watched a real football game in their life, but they care about Smash, or they care about Saracen, or Riggins, and they just want them to succeed and win.
It's been in the news recently that some of your fellow cast members will be returning in Season 5. Can we count on seeing you too?
Yeah, I’ll be back. I’m actually back in Austin right now and filmed yesterday. A few of us are coming back and it’s very exciting. I can’t wait until I get to work with all of them again, 'cause I’ve been gone for a few months, and a lot of people left years ago. So it’ll be exciting to get the old band back together.
And finally, do you know how to play football?
I do know how to play football. I grew up playing. I was never a quarterback and I was never a great player. Football and basketball are my two favorite sports, to watch and to play. I joke with a lot of my friends who were big athletes growing up, saying, "Well, I’m the one getting paid to play football. I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m the quarterback."
Friday Night Lights airs Fridays at 8pm on NBC.