With freedom comes anxiety: Kyle Chandler on 'Friday Night Lights'
At one point in the third season of "Friday Night Lights," Kyle Chandler's coach, Eric Taylor, gets kicked out of a football game, forcing his character to watch the remainder of the contest in a bar. But when Chandler rants at a referee, odds are he's not screaming at another actor.
"Friday Night Lights," which will wrap its 13-episode run on DirecTV on Jan. 14 -- two days before it debuts on NBC -- puts an emphasis on realism. When the series premiered in 2006, it featured a cameo from University of Texas coach Mack Brown, and as the series has progressed, it has continued to employ real high school and college football referees as it has filmed in Austin, Texas.
Chandler relies on them. "It’s nice," he says. "If I’m in a scene, I can go up to these guys. I can say, 'Here’s the situation, but in your experience, how does this really happen? What are some of the things, sir, that high school coaches have yelled at you that made you kick them off the field?’ I can steal that stuff and use it."
But advising how to chew out a ref is easy. Most of the tests Chandler's Taylor faces in Season 3 aren't as simple. In the season premiere, Taylor is still adjusting to his wife's new role as principal of Dillon High. But as the season progresses, he'll weigh buying a new house and fend off constant threats to his coaching job, having to live in a town where "for sale" signs suddenly appear on his lawn after a loss.
Speaking to Show Tracker prior to filming the final two episodes of the season -- and perhaps the series -- Chandler says the best way to prepare is to be surprised. He found out how the season concludes, but wishes he hadn't.
"It’s not usually something I want to know," Chandler says. "It’s nice to be surprised by what’s going to be going on with your character. If I know exactly what’s going to happen, I will aim what I want to do in a certain direction, and that might not benefit me."
Too much planning, Chandler seems to believe, distracts from the naturalism "Friday Night Lights" is striving for. He points to a moment, which was cut, from this season's 12th episode in which his Taylor was having a discussion with his wife, Tami, played by Connie Britton. To hear Chandler describe it, it was a seemingly simple instance -- a slice of exasperated improvisation -- but it was key to adding life to the couple's marriage, which has been the cornerstone and main constant in a series dealing with high school life.
During a pivotal football game that much of the season's 12th episode is devoted to, a delicate drama unfolds between the Taylor family and the new freshman quarterback at Dillon High. As the season progresses to its final episode, it's a situation that slowly -- and surprisingly -- evolves into one that can permanently alter the landscape of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas.
"It was at the very end of the scene," Chandler says. "I look at Connie, and she’s looking at me. I took maybe three or four seconds of just staring at her, and I said, ‘I’m tired.’ I think that moment alone -- that’s what makes our scenes really pop. There’s a bit of a relationship when two people are like that. Those moments right there are really spectacular. We’re allowed to create those, and we’re given the room to maneuver as actors to share those moments. Sometimes they get cut out. They don’t always work, but the very fact that we’re allowed to have them, they keep us much more in the moment, much more alive."
A VELVET REVOLUTION
If the characters of Eric and Tami don't get resurrected for a fourth season, Chandler says adjusting to life without "Friday Night Lights" will not be easy. There's a freeness to the way the series is shot, one that Chandler says is drastically different from any other project he's worked on.
If the series looks just a bit too clean to be a documentary, the inspiration is there. Cameras never really stop moving, following the characters as if everything is shot with handhelds. Often, cameras are looking in at the action through a window, letting the viewer feel as if he or she is floating through the town.
"Going from this style of work to another style is like going from theater to feature," Chandler says. "When I’ve gone from this onto a set where something is very stylized, where the camera angles have to be perfect and the lighting has to be perfect and the actors have to be on their marks, it’s painstaking. This is a velvet revolution we have going on down here. There’s just an intense amount of freedom and an intense amount of responsibility. The parameters aren’t there, so you have to keep yourself in check."
For Chandler, the challenge has been portraying a character who shifts from being a vulnerable father at home to a stern father figure at work. Season 3, in particular, has some awkward father-daughter moments between Eric and Julie, portrayed by Aimee Teegarden, and plenty of coach-to-the-rescue moments for his students.
Throughout the 13-episode third season, Chandler's Taylor is often having to take care of his current and former players off the field. Whether it's helping Gaius Charles' Brian "Smash" Williams gain the confidence to try out for college, or taking seriously the harebrained schemes of Scott Porter's Jason Street, Chandler's Taylor is an unsung hero, one who, depending on the outcome Friday night, might be the town's most hated figure.
"It’s not my job to be a father to the kids," Chandler says. "That’s one thing that I always think is a complete trap for myself as an actor in this. But I’m someone who can give them advice that perhaps a father would share. In the long run, the thing that saves me from that trap, is the approach this is someone else’s decision. They have to make these decisions on their own. I like doing scenes with Julie because I have more personal investment in that character than I do any other character on the show."
Speaking of Julie, Teegarden recently scored a gig in the CW's "90210." But it doesn't mean a fourth season of "Friday Night Lights" is doomed. Teegarden is slated to appear as a "guest star" in an upcoming two- or three-episode story arc of "90210," according to a spokeswoman for the CW series.
As for Chandler, who appeared in this winter's remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," he's plenty worried about the future of "Friday Night Lights." But that's no different from the last two seasons.
"I miss it already," Chandler says. "As far as will the show go again next season, that’s always an anxiety. It’s always going to be there whatever the project. Of course, if you don’t like the project then you have the anxiety that it’s going to come back. If you really love the project you’re worried that it won’t come back. My anxiety that this won’t come back is definitely there.
"I can’t call it one way or another," he said. "I know this is a good TV show, and we’re proud of what we’re doing."
Photo: Kyle Chandler as Eric Taylor. Credit: DirecTV/NBC