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Zach Gilford says goodbye to 'Friday Night Lights' -- for now

December 9, 2009 |  8:20 am

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A few weeks ago, Zach Gilford was in Los Angeles watching "Friday Night Lights" with his girlfriend. No longer with the cast and crew of the series in Austin, Texas, Gilford reacted to a powerful final moment in the show. After a speech from Kyle Chandler's Coach Eric Taylor, Gilford swore.

Recalls Gilford, "I literally said to my girlfriend: ‘This is such a good show. I’m [angry] to be leaving.’ It makes sense for my character, but it’s so quality, and it’s so fun to work on."

Gilford's Matt Saracen, the everyman hero of "Friday Night Lights," will make his exit from the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, on tonight's episode of the series. But those who go through withdrawal won't have to wait too long, as Saracen makes a brief appearance in two more episodes this season, which is airing Wednesday nights on DirecTV's 101 Network and will debut in 2010 on NBC. 

Since making the jump to DirecTV last year, "Friday Night Lights" has said goodbye to a number of favorites. Characters such as Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) and Jason Street (Scott Porter) earned grand farewells in Season 3, and Saracen has received a pair of showcase episodes this year. In a heart-wrenching episode last week, Saracen came to grips with the death of his father, who traded family for the military, and returned to Dillon as a brutally mauled corpse. 

It presented some acting challenges, discussed below, for Gilford, who's Saracen has stood out in the depressed, football-obsessed town for his sheer ordinariness -- a hard-working good guy who isn't so sure about spending his life in the same town. Gilford's character is also one who's learned to repress his emotions, and Saracen has a breakthrough tonight, realizing that putting college on hold may not have been the brightest of ideas. He bolts Austin without a proper on-screen goodbye to his best friend, Jesse Plemons' Landry.

Before heading back to Texas to film this season's finale, Gilford spoke to Show Tracker, and taught us what it means to "'FNL' it."  

Any sense of whether or not Matt will make an appearance in Season 5?

You know, I have no idea. We don’t get scripts until the last minute. I had three or four episodes off, and then I flew down [to Austin]. By the time I got there, I still hadn’t seen the script. I was supposed to work the next day, and I was like, "Does anyone mind e-mailing me?" I don’t even have any idea what I’m doing when I go down next week. 

Let's talk about last week's episode. One of the scenes that had all the fans talking was the moment you took a peek into your father's casket. There's no dialogue, but there's a painful, horrific expression on your face that get the message across. What kind of instructions were you given for that?

Allison Liddi-Brown directed that episode, and she’s directed five or six episodes. She always gets my big episodes, going back to Season 1. Her and I have had a good relationship, and our first assistant director was amazing too. He called me as soon as he got the script. He had a preliminary script and we hadn’t seen them yet. He said, "Look, this is going to be heavy for you."

We shot that scene in a real funeral home. Alison said, "Just remember, when you walk in here, it smells like death. There are dead bodies in that refrigerator." You’re in that place where you’re gung-ho to go see it, and then you get there and it’s a little more than you bargained for. They asked me if I wanted someone to lay in the casket. I said no to any fake, silly stuff. I just wanted to do my own thing and see what happened. I was happy with it. We did two, maybe three takes. 

When you're doing an extended scene like that without any words, and the facial expressions of everyone in the room have to carry the moment, what's going through your mind? Do you become more self-conscious as an actor?

I think this was the best script, on paper, we’ve had almost ever. We’re pretty loose on set, and we get to be kind of free with the lines. Sometimes it feels as if the writers know we’re not really going to say the words. They give us more of an idea rather than the exact. This script, almost every line, the majority of it we said pretty closely. The scene was written great. It said, "Matt went in there, opens it up, and from the look on everyone’s face you know what’s in the casket." I remember that, and that worked for me.

Matt’s typically a relatively reserved character.

My problem is sometimes underdoing things. I wasn’t really worried about looking goofy or overdoing it. After four years of doing the same character, you kind of know what you’re doing. That’s not saying you’re a great actor or anything, but you know when you’re doing something stupid, or doing something real. But I think we all have confidence we can go into any scene and make it real and not do anything where people will be like, "Really?"

At what point did you think you had a handle on Matt?

I remember, I think it was Episode 4. It was also with Alison. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but she was kind of like, "Do you think you can cry here?" I said no, crying is a bitch move. Anyone can cry. It’s more interesting to see someone not cry. This is a kid who has gone through a lot. He’s always rolled with the punches and played with the hand he was dealt. The few times we’ve seen him be overwhelmed with what’s going on have been few and far between – once per season. I’ve been fortunate that Matt was given a very realistic arc of maturation. There was never a drastic move where he was suddenly a grown-up man. He was always growing a little bit. 

What did you respect most about the character?

He’s always been the guy who put everyone ahead of himself, and this season he did it again. That’s why he was still in Dillon. His arc this year is figuring out that it’s time for him to put himself ahead of everyone else, and realize that it’s not going to be the end of the world if he does that. 

He always played a bad hand well. He’s kind of the everyman on the show, and that’s a little weird because everyone is the everyman, in a way. There’s nothing spectacular about him except his character. But it’s not perfect. It’s realistic. Someone once said to me that he’s the person that everyone wished they dated in high school, but of course no one would have dated that guy. They would have wanted to date Tim Riggins. 

Matt's also been given some of the more melodramatic storylines. His grandmother has dementia, he fell in love with her caretaker and last season, Kim Dickens joined the cast to play Matt's estranged mother. Played the wrong way, some of these plots could have been overly emotional. 

Kim hit the tone of it perfect. She didn’t play it as, "Oh, my long lost son!" She played it real. Everyone was kind of worried. When I first heard about that storyline I was a little skeptical. I was worried it would get written very cheesy, very TV, which we don’t usually do. We have this expression on the show, where we say, "We’ll ‘FNL’ it." We take stories that have the potential to be very cheesy and melodramatic and we play them not that way. That’s a testament to way the stories are written, to the filmmakers, to the actors. It’s just the way we’ve been doing the show.

Going into the series, you knew your character had a ceiling, being a high school student. Did you feel nervous year to year, with uncertainty as to how you may return, and to what extent?

I was pretty much the only character who was very clear what year in school they were. We all thought Lyla and Riggins were seniors the first year. Then we were like, "Oh, I guess they’re seniors now." Then we were like, "Oh, I guess it’s now that they’re seniors." We thought Julie and Landry were my age, but whatever. I always knew how "old" I was, so I knew I’d at least be on the first three seasons. Once I saw the exits of Smash and Street, I assumed I’d be around for a bit, and then make my exit.

Did you see Matt as someone who belonged in Dillon?

I always jokingly said, "I don’t know why Matt likes Julie." In the first season, she wasn’t nice to him in any way, so why is he so in love with her? Really, the reason why is because they’re the only two kids in Dillon who have always gotten it. They’ve always gotten that there’s a bigger world outside of Dillon. I think for Matt, that’s what attracted him to her -- that kind of intellectual stimulation. There’s a lot of stuff that could keep Matt in Dillon. We’ve seen that, but he’s not a person who is meant to be there. 

What do you see as the future for Matt?

He heads up to Chicago, and he’s figuring stuff out, I guess you can say. It’s all a little vague. But Jesse and I are waiting to see what happens to his character. If he leaves, him and I are going to try and make a spinoff. 

--Todd Martens

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Photo: Zach Gilford's Matt Saracen. Credit: Bill Records / DirecTV / NBC
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