Emmys: Kyle Chandler looks back on 'Friday Night Lights'
As the final season of “Friday Night Lights” fades into memory, critics and colleagues are giving it a loving send-off. First, Emmy nominations were doled out for outstanding drama, writing, lead actor and actress. Then last week, the DirecTV/NBC show won “Program of the Year” from the Television Critics Assn. Sadly, not many viewers gave it a chance, thinking it was merely a show about a high school football team.
A lot of drama did unfold around the weekly games, but its main focus was the tightly knit community off the football field. At the center stood Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tami, played by nominees Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. Life in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, was a struggle. Too many dreams were pinned on a team of boys and their talents. When those boys stumbled, Coach Taylor was there.
When looking back on the show and his role on it, Chandler is as open and gregarious as Coach Taylor was reserved. He occasionally slips into the present tense; even a year later, it’s not easy letting “Lights” go.
How did you go about making Coach so taciturn?
Out there in West Texas people don’t open their mouths too much. It’s almost like their teeth stay together when they talk, and when they do talk they don’t say much. You can imagine a farmer on the plains out there, and it’s windy and hot, and the dust blows; you don’t want to have to open your mouth any more than you have to. I sort of ran with that with Coach Taylor.
Coaches aren’t very loquacious. They don’t say more than they have to. He gets out the words he has to say, and expects it to be followed.
On the field those words were law.
With the players, I was the leader of men. I was in charge of all that I surveyed.
Not at home though?
With a house full of women, Coach would have to talk his head off just to try to get his point across, and he’d be wrong in the long run anyhow. There’s a fun dichotomy between Coach at work and at home.
He was wrong a surprising amount of the time.
I love playing the fool with Coach Taylor. He’s completely human; he’s no different from anyone else. Some of my best moments on that damned show are when I can just make a complete ass of myself.
There was a scene where we were hosting a barbecue, and all the players came over, but I didn’t tell my wife until the last minute. She got really upset, so while the house is full of people, we were under the table having an argument. I think it was the first season, so it helped set the tone for Connie and me.
How would you describe that tone?
It would always come down to Coach being the idiot. I don’t think Tami was ever the idiot. Tami could be wrong, and Coach would press her on it, and then Coach would still be an idiot. But more often than not, her character was right, and Coach was wrong, although he’d fight it to the end. And that’s the best part too, where you have to say all right, you were right, I was wrong, I’m sorry.
Which is so realistic, because women are always right.
On the record: The hell you say. Off the record: You’re absolutely right.
You know that’s going on the record.
Well, all right.
In his oddly noble way, Coach made big mistakes with the kids as well. Not reporting that a player was using steroids, for example.
Those are nice moments. I wished that I had more moments like that, and I had to find more of them, where Coach knew he was doing wrong, where he had to bend the rules, where he didn’t know what to do. That was fun. Coach turned a blind eye to a few things. I don’t think that’s too far from reality right there.
As much as Coach loved his kids and his role leading them, this is still football; that player needs to be on the field. He’s not going to turn the kid in.
I think Coach was a very, very honest hypocrite.
The world around him, and the people in it, seemed to be changing a lot more quickly than he’d have liked.
I always felt, as Coach, that the rest of the story was like a cloud of gnats flying around, there’s all this whining and buzzing in my ear, and I’m just trying to get everything to sound right so I can move forward. Coach was a little grumpy, and he didn’t like things much. It’s more fun that you don’t show that you care for things so much, so when you do show it, it means something.
His development was pretty subtle through the entire series.
That’s the kind of character he was; he didn’t wear everything on his sleeve. When I started doing this, I knew Coach was going to have to deal with similar story lines, even with different characters, just because you’re dealing with high school football players. I wanted to make sure I always had somewhere to go. So I saved a lot of my bullets, even until the end of the series. There are certain things you’ll never see Coach do too much of. He doesn’t lose his cool too much on the sidelines, he doesn’t jump up and down with excitement too much. I knew I needed to spread that out.
You all had a lot of freedom to improvise.
We’d always shoot the scenes as written. But then we’d often break the scenes down, playing with the words. With three or four cameras at once, you’ve got a lot of different shots, angles and scenes. It was always fun to watch the show because you never knew what the editors had up their sleeves, due to the variety of different performances for each scene that we would be able to create.
To a T, I think every single one of the actors can say we learned more than we’ve learned on any other job. Not just acting, but also feeling like we all had a stake in what’s going on. With all that mixed together, it was an incredible experience.
Any other secrets to the on-set harmony?
I can tell you something that made the actors and everyone very happy on that show that probably no one’s told you. We had the best caterer I’ve ever had. That chef, Josh Morehead [of Locations Catering], was fantastic. I don’t think we ever had the same meal twice. They say an army runs on its stomach. That’s no bull. People don’t bring that stuff up, but I’ve been on sets where the food is no good, and it does cause discord. I kid you not, every day we went to lunch on that set, it was awesome.
Speaking of food, how did Coach end up cooking bacon in his office at school?
The bacon thing. That came from the Taylor household. It wasn’t a set, it was a real house. So every time we went there to shoot, I’d go in early and cook everyone bacon. Then we started inserting bacon in the scenes anytime we could. Usually, if you see me in the kitchen, I’m cooking bacon, but it’s not for the actors, it’s for the whole crew. The house always smelled like bacon.
That’s a happy house.
Dillon’s a great place to be, I wish I could go visit, spend some time there. It’s Brigadoon.
Photo: Kyle Chandler on "Friday Night Lights." Credit: Bill Records / NBC Universal Inc.