During his tenure as a theater major at Northwestern, actor Zach Gilford was turned off by the school's football program.
"I met a bunch of players and they were just jerks," he said. "I didn't go to any games. It wasn't like they were winning championships or even games. You got to be a lot more humble."
Gilford, who was born and raised a Wildcats fan in Evanston, Ill., claims he waited until three or four years after he graduated in 2004 to root for Northwestern again. At that point, all the "jerks" he met, had graduated.
Of course, Gilford went on to portray Matt Saracen, high school quarterback for the Dillon Panthers in the TV series Friday Night Lights. Perhaps, not by accident, Saracen proved to be a humble character, who took care of his ill grandmother and dated the head coach's daughter.
Approximately three years after the program's final episode (and a shorter lapse of time since the series became a cult hit), Gilford has entered a new chapter of his career. He is the star of Devil's Due, which hit theaters Jan. 17.
Devil's Due is supernatural horror film directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet (writers for V/H/S). Fellow stars include Allison Miller, Sam Anderson, Aimee Carrero and Vanessa Ray.
"Getting to know the directors, they were really cool guys and good directors," Gilford said about choosing to take on the part. "They had great ideas. That gave me some confidence."
Friday Night Lights fans, especially Saracen fans, will notice Gilford does not quite play a high school student anymore. Now 32, he cannot pass for a student taking the SATs.
"It's pretty simple for me because I actually am a married man," Gilford says. "Even though I played a high school student, I'm over 30 years old. It's more like playing myself. It's much more of a stretch to play a high school student. I haven't played a high school student in like three or four years now."
Gilford plays Zach McCall, a newlywed with a pregnant wife, Samantha (Miller). As one may judge from the title, the couple's baby is not your everyday infant. Gilford refers to his character as an "All-American boy, who is just trying to protect his wife and family."
Part of Gilford's excitement for Devil's Due can be attributed to the fact that portraying a father in a horror film is a long way from being a high school student chewed out by Kyle Chandler.
However, when scripts come Gilford's way, he cannot help but realize many are reminiscent of his most famous character.
"There are times when scripts seem like I'm just a nice, earnest kid," Gilford says. "Obviously Matt Saresan was more complex, but they're all like we know you can do that. If it's a great project and really cool and interesting, maybe you do that role again, but if it's not something you're super excited about, maybe you look for something different."
As for the legacy of Friday Night Lights, Gilford recognizes the shows cult-following after-the-fact, but does not forget the original die-hards. The Netflix Era has given way to a second wave of followers, although Gilford did not need these individuals to legitimize the show. The early followers gave him validation.
"It hasn't been different than while we were shooting it," he says of Friday Night Lights' late success. "Back in season one, people were jumping up and loving it as much as they do now. It kind of prolongs the process a little bit. It's something that people are still watching, but the experience of it hasn't changed."
Outside of show business, Gilford is an avid Chicago sports fan. Although it may change the minds of Friday Night Lights fans in the city of Green Bay, Matt Saracen is indeed a Chicago Bears fan. He is still mourning the Bears' late-season meltdown as he celebrates Devil's Due.
"They never should have fired Lovie Smith," Gilford says. "We should have brought in [Marc] Trestman as his offensive coordinator. Our defense is trash now. When was the last time you heard anyone say the Bears have a bad defense?"
And yes, the Matt Saracen has views on the Bears' new deal for Jay Cutler that goes through the year 2020. Although Gilford is tempted to throw his support behind Josh McCown, he does not hate re-signing Cutler.
"I didn't want to rely on people in the draft," he says. "I think his consistency will be very good on offense. He'll settle down and stop making stupid throws."
That is an interesting point from a guy who took over for an injured Jason Street.
Along with the Bears, Gilford endured a letdown season from his Northwestern Wildcats. Northwestern started the season 4-0 and was a few plays away from defeating Ohio State before going 1-7 in Big Ten play.
"This year was very pathetic," he says. "The first few games, we thought we were going to go to the Rose Bowl to play Stanford. Then the wheels just fell off. I don't know what happened."
As for future projects, Gilford is currently filming The Purge 2, which has a June 20 release date. The film, directed by James DeMonaco and produced by a team including Michael Bay and Bradley Fuller, is the sequel to The Purge (2013), which starred Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey. The cast of The Purge 2 includes Frank Grillo, Michael K. Williams, Carmen Ejogo and Gilford's wife, Kiele Sanchez.
"We're shooting in LA. We just commute to work together and take turns driving," he says of the convenience for Sanchez and him.
Devil's Due could give Gilford a breakthrough performance on his résumé. It can also put some distance between him at the Matt Saracen character that has defined his acting career.
In taking on his next film, Gilford says he looks for something that cannot just be financially lucrative, but that he will also enjoy filming. Now a cinema veteran, Gilford knows an enjoyable work experience from a dull one.
"I've worked on projects that at the end of the day, they were a quality piece, but it was just not fun making it," he says. "I've worked on things that no one ever saw, the films just came and went, but I had an amazing time."
Gilford will look for that balance. Devil's Due is the current step. His career can go any which way.
Clear eyes, full heart, can't lose.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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