Zach Gilford (a.k.a. Matt Saracen) talks growing up a Northwestern sports fan in Evanston, Illinois (1:50), why he's running in the Los Angeles Marathon for Planned Parenthood (6:03), how he trained for his role as Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights (6:59), his new YouTube Red series, Lifeline (11:38) and the artifact he took from the Friday Night Lights set (14:12).
Zach Gilford became America's favorite innocent football player in 2006 as Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights. When the show premiered, Gilford was 24 but playing the part of a sophomore high school quarterback.
Gilford is 35 and well past his graduation from Dillon High School. But his real-life high school graduation is now relevant. Gilford went to Evanston Township High School in Illinois, and he received his diploma in Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, which recently hosted its final basketball game before a renovation. He also graduated from Northwestern, and although the school has lots of famous alumni -- Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seth Meyers and Mike Greenberg to name a few -- celebrating the team's first trip to the NCAA tournament (nothing official yet, of course), Gilford is a rare Wildcats lifer.
Appearing on ThePostGame Podcast, Gilford talked about Northwestern, what he learned working with Kyle Chandler, the one artifact he took from the Friday Night Lights set, his new YouTube Red series -- Lifeline -- and running the Los Angeles Marathon for Planned Parenthood.
ThePostGame: You were born and raised in Evanston, went to Evanston Township High School and went to Northwestern, which means for everyone talking about Northwestern finally making it the NCAA tournament. That's 35 years of being a Northwestern fan. That's a long time.
ZACH GILFORD: Yeah, it is, man. The football team, I remember when they went to the Rose Bowl in 95-96. I remember where I was. I was on Christmas vacation with my family. It was terribly freezing in Colorado. This is a big deal. One of five [original] teams who've never been to the tournament. Now, we are off that infamous list.
TPG: When I was a student, people would always ask, will students show up? And I would say, really the students don't make up most of the fans at a Northwestern sporting event. So, when you were a little kid, did you go to basketball games?
GILFORD: I did. I went to basketball games, I went to football games. Welsh-Ryan Arena. It was so cool to have a college team there. I remember when they went to the NIT one time when I was a kid. You know, that was super exciting to go to one of those tournament games. I know that arena well. My high school graduation was in. I know they're not playing games there, but yeah, I definitely was a fan growing up.
TPG: I don't think people get it. They might find it sad that it was such a highlight for you as a kid, Northwestern going to the NIT. Do you remember any specific players or any specific games?
GILFORD: That's kind of a blur. I remember the NIT game. I also remember as a kid, I got to be alone with my buddy at basketball games, so we were definitely running around, getting into whatever shenanigans we could. We were totally focused on the game.
— zach gilford (@zachgilford713) March 10, 2017
TPG: Did you follow the team this year?
GILFORD: Yeah, I definitely kept tabs on them. I kind of always do and then I'm always a little bummed. There's been several years where I think it might be the year. And then it doesn't pan out. So this has been a pretty exciting year.
TPG: Northwestern's a bit of a fixture in the theater community and the acting community. Are there other Northwestern graduates you've befriended in the career world?
GILFORD: You know there's a lot of Northwestern people around. I got to say the ones in this industry aren't always the biggest sports fans. But every now and there, you come across one, and you have a little bonding over it. But for the most part, it's sticking up for my team against people ... Michigan fans, or Nebraska fans or Purdue or Notre Dame. It's kind of fun being the sole person fighting for your team at a sports bar.
TPG: Actually Warren Beatty is a famous Northwestern grad. I don't know if he's been in the most positive light in the last week, but that's a piece of Hollywood there. Assuming Northwestern is in the tournament, and nothing is definite, where will you be watching the first NCAA tournament game?
GILFORD: Probably at home. Or on my phone. I might be at work. I've gotten to the point where I like the comfort of my own home and my remote control.
TPG: Do your parents care?
GILFORD: I doubt they know. Actually, my dad probably does.
TPG: Do they live in Evanston?
GILFORD: They do still live there. Maybe they do know. I haven't talked to them about it.
TPG: In terms of the sports world for you, you're running in the Los Angeles Marathon coming up. What's your history with long-distance running?
GILFORD: This is definitely going to be my longest.
TPG: That means no marathon before this.
GILFORD: Yeah, there's been several years where I was gonna do one. I started training, then a job would come up. It'd be like, I'm not going to be able to run this marathon, I'm going to stop this training. I've run upwards of 20 miles before, so the distance is super daunting to me and now, I'm raising money for Planned Parenthood and the amount of people who've donated small and large amounts, it's going to give me an extra bit of fuel because it's just so amazing people wanted to support me as opposed to me just saying I'm going to go for a four-hour run today, I'm doing it for a reason.
TPG: When you first got the role for Friday Night Lights and you knew you were going to play a football player, what was your process for getting in shape to look like a football player, not that you're not naturally an athlete? And that was 2006, so that was 11 years ago.
GILFORD: It wasn't much. I was an athlete. Luckily, it's supposed to be a young high school kid, so I didn't bulk up. The character wasn't supposed to be the big super athlete. I kind of actually tried to stay a little slim. Actually mostly what I did was running.
TPG: So you've been preparing for this for a long time?
GILFORD: Exactly. Friday Night Lights helped me prepare for this marathon.
TPG: Now, you've got me thinking. Jason Street was a pretty husky guy. He was a bigger dude.
GILFORD: Yeah, he was. All those guys were bigger than me. I have the build that I have. I had to come up with an excuse not to go on HGH or anything and it was like oh, Matt Saracen, he was just a skinny sophomore.
TPG: Yeah, there was a Smash Williams steroid storyline in the first season. Glad to know you didn't partake in that.
GILFORD: Yeah, exactly.
TPG: In terms of this Los Angeles Marathon, you are running with Planned Parenthood, why did you make that decision?
GILFORD: I just think it's such an important organization and unfortunately, certain people, that I'm not a fan of, in legislation, have decided to make it a target and try and defund it. All it does is help provide women's healthcare. So many people like to try to vilify it and just say it's all about abortions and that's a small faction of the things they do and some people need access to that. But they also need access to birth control and just general doctor's appointments and I don't think it's the government's right to restrict how a woman can find healthcare. I think they should try to make it easier for them.
— zach gilford (@zachgilford713) March 6, 2017
TPG: Are you running with any friends and family?
GILFORD: No, I'm just running on my own. I wanted to run for Planned Parenthood and I waited because I didn't know if something would come up where I couldn't run the marathon, so I kind of waited until I knew for sure I could, like two weeks ago. So I posted it and had no idea how much money I'd be able to raise and I've been so humbled because I've already raised like over $6,000.
TPG: See, Matt Saracen should be running with Smash Williams and Tim Riggins and the whole crew. I'm just imagine you guys on mile 26 pounding away.
GILFORD: I should've made it a huge thing.
TPG: Another guy, Kyle Chandler, he really has blown up since Friday Night Lights. What was he like on the set and do you guys still stay in touch?
GILFORD: We text every now and then. He lives in Texas with his family and he's all over. As a guy, he really, I don't want to say he was like Coach Taylor, but in a lot of ways, he was. He did a lot of acting and brought a lot. It wasn't just playing himself. But he did have that presence around us. I think we all kind of looked up to him and he kind of deserved it because he's a great guy.
TPG: So he wasn't giving you advice off to the side, giving you life lessons?
GILFORD: (Laughs) No, it wouldn't be that much. But he's a little bit older than us, so you kind of learn by example the way to handle yourself on a set. You saw him as this great family man. He's very open and would just tell stories and just talk to, just like anyone does. But when it's coming from the guy you kind of look up to, you're like cool, I'll used that as life advice even though he's giving me a fun anecdote.
TPG: Who else was exciting on the set? I know it's been a while, but who had quite a personality off the set?
GILFORD: I think you kinda could tell all our personalities there. Taylor was like a goofy fun guy. We all got along great. There was no one that was crazy or weird, sadly.
TPG: Now, you're in a new series, Lifeline. The Rock is the executive producer for this show on YouTube Red. How'd you become a part of it and what excites you about being on a streaming series?
GILFORD: I think a streaming series is kind of the future. YouTube, them trying to get into the Netflix/Amazon world, they couldn't have a bigger built-in audience already. They approached me and they were able to show me half of the first season and I was able to see who the directors were and look at their stuff on YouTube, actually. And it kind of all made sense. It was quality material. And it seemed like quality people working on it. When you have The Rock as one of the producers, I was really excited. We start shooting on Monday and all the prep stuff's been going really cool. And I think it's going to be a really cool, fun show.
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) March 2, 2017
TPG: Have you met The Rock at this point?
GILFORD: I haven't met him yet. I'm thinking he's going to come by at some point. We've got to shoot some promos with him or something.
TPG: Now, he works out. He lifts.
GILFORD: Yes, he does lift. Definitely more than me.
TPG: He doesn't just run. Maybe you need to challenge him to a race if he's going to challenge you to a lift-off or something.
TPG: In terms of the show, you play a life insurance agent, I believe. Am I correct about that?
GILFORD: Well, no. It's basically a company that poses as an insurance company and they put these devices in people that will alert the company 33 days before they die and then we have the ability to jump 33 days into the future and save their lives. So I'm one of the guys who saves lives, so it's kind of like an action hero part.
TPG: That sounds like an important person in the community: the guy who saves lives.
GILFORD: It is.
TPG: How futuristic does it feel? How realistic does it feel?
GILFORD: Well, realistic not at all because we can't jump in time.
TPG: Well, that's what's you think.
GILFORD: (Laughs) It's going to be shot more in the style of it's 2017, it's just a world where we have this ability and only this company does and it's kind of a secret. Nobody really knows how they protect your life. It slowly starts coming out and it's a scandal and ethical questions. It's going to be a cool show.
TPG: And Sydney Park is your co-star?
GILFORD: Yeah, she's great. I just met her for the first time at the beginning of this week. She's really cool and fun and I think she's a great actor, so I'm really excited to have her.
TPG: Before I let you know, do you have any Friday Night Lights mementos in your house. Like do you have a Matt Saracen jersey that hangs in your basement? A signed Matt Saracen jersey?
GILFORD: No. I have a helmet. I held on to a helmet.
TPG: A Dillon Panthers helmet?
GILFORED: Yeah, I just figured f*** it, why not? It's kind of on a shelf down in our screening room.
TPG: You said you hung on to it. Was that given to you or did you just walked off the set one day with it?
GILFORD: I think I kind of just walked off with it. I was like, well, they're not going to use this anymore.