Admit it, Zach Gilford's portrayal of the quiet and conflicted Matt Saracen on NBC's Friday Night Lights made you cry more than once. But just as Saracen has moved on from Dillon, Texas (save for a guest appearance will happen later this season), Gilford has moved on to a new role—as one of the hunky doctors on ABC's new show Off the Map. (Note: the series premiere is airing again tonight due to scheduling changes prompted by President Obama's speech last night.)
The series, which is executive-produced by Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, throws a coconut at the medical genre by dropping sexy, young doctors into the South American jungle, where they work for a remote clinic. Gilford plays Dr. Tommy Fuller, a brash plastic surgeon who initially sees the opportunity as a chance to work on his tan. We chatted with the affable Gilford this morning about the new series and his upcoming return to Friday Night Lights.
TV.com: Happy almost-birthday. It's tomorrow, right?
Zach Gilford: It IS tomorrow. Thank you!
[Laughs] Nah, I can do it again if you want.
Let's hear it!
The similarities are it's a group of doctors and their relationships with each other. But it's in a totally different setting, and the tone is totally different. It's more of an action-adventure, slightly over-the-top at times, fun, escapist show. We're all MacGyver, ever since I was a kid I used that term saying I MacGyver things. [Off the Map] is kind of like MacGyver medicine, which is cool, you know? Even when we're in our clinic or hospital we don't have the same tools that they do on every other medical drama on TV. We're either doing it the old school way—we don't have an X-ray machine, but you can do sort of X-rays with an ultrasound, so we do that. A lot of times we're doing stuff out in the field, and you have to improvise. You have a backpack-sized first aid kit, and all of a sudden some dude's abdomen is gashed open and you have to figure out how to fix that and there's no ambulance that's going to rush in. It's the same in that it's a doctor show and [the doctors'] lives are intermingled and everyone is probably going to start sleeping with each other, but the medicine is totally different.
People tuning in to see Matt Saracen in the jungle won't find what they were looking for. Did you purposefully look for a role that was different?
Yeah, we definitely made an effort to find something different. I love Matt Saracen, and I would have been excited about playing him for a while, but I wanted the next project to not be Matt Saracen with a different name and different world. I feel so fortunate that Jenna [Bans, creator] and Shonda [Rhimes, executive producer] and everyone at ABC was willing to give me a shot to do something different that I haven't been able to prove I could do yet.
The premiere episode largely stuck with the medical side of the show, but there's got to be a relationship in store for Tommy. And it looked like writers were pairing you up with Mina. Is that the case?
No, not exactly. That's one of my favorite relationships... it develops into an unlikely friendship. That scene in the first episode where Tommy is joking [to Mina], "You would never sleep with me? Really? Even if we're the only people on Earth?" And she's like, "No." But we're in this extreme environment where we know no one and everything's so crazy, we start to have this connection. In almost every episode we have this scene where we bitch to each other. We're kind of each other's confidantes. I actually start this relationship with a local girl, and I don't speak Spanish and she doesn't speak English. Comedy ensues.
What are the best and worst parts about shooting in paradise (Hawaii)?
It really is paradise. The perks are all the obvious ones, we're in this amazing beautiful place. The people are so nice. The Hawaiian culture is so old and rich. You don't feel like you're in the United States. You're actually in the middle of the ocean. And that's the only drawback. I had to pick up and move my life, and it's hard. I couldn't get my dog out there for the first season. We thought we'd be there for three months, it ended up being six, which is great, but we went in there with [the three-month] mentality. So we got a furnished apartment, we never really had a chance to make our living space our home.
What can you tell us about your return to Friday Night Lights?
I was really excited about it. In my last real season on Friday Night Lights, Saracen was losing his way and getting distraughtwell I guess he was always distraughtyou know, making bad decisions. He was putting everyone ahead of himself and pigeonholing himself in Dillon. I don't think he or anyone thought he was going to stay, whether it be the people in his life or the audience. And that was the connection between him and Julie, they were the two young people who got it. Football is not life, and I gotta get out of this town. He kind of lost track of that because Julie was so important to him, his grandmother, yada yada yada, and she kind of righted him and helped him get out of there for his own mental well-being. This season, she goes off to college and she goes through a lot of the same stuff, and Saracen steps in and gets to play the role for Julie that she played for him.
Off the Map airs Wednesday nights at 10pm on ABC, and an encore of the series premiere airs tonight. Make sure you wish Zach a Happy Birthday in the comments!