Zach Gilford is known to a devoted cult of “Friday Night Lights” viewers as Matt Scaracen, the artistic, mature beyond his years quarterback who managed to escape Dillon, Texas. Now he is hitting the mainstream as one of the doctors who leaves their problems by accepting a job at a remote medical clinic in South America in Shonda Rhimes’ new drama, “Off the Map.” Gilford revealed why he wanted to trade his cleats for scrubs, why FNL fans will be happy with the series finale, and why his character of Tom is nicer than he appears.
What interested you about “Off The Map”?
I knew about the [concept] and was really excited about who was developing it and producing it. Also, it was so different from what I’d been doing, which was really attractive to me… People really loved “Friday Night Lights,” but there is this danger that it’s hard to be thought of as anything but that for a while. This was a real departure.
Tom seems like the polar opposite of Matt Scaracen. How is his character going to develop over the next few episodes?
You’re going to see a more driven side to him and that he’s actually a better guy than he lets on. I don’t think he really realizes he’s a better guy than he portrays himself to be. He starts to realize how he can use medicine to actually help people in a big way and that has a big effect on him.
Tom seems like a contradictory character. He is a slacker, yet he managed to land a plastic surgery residency, which from what I understand, is one of the toughest specialties, reserved for the top students.
I always thought of Tommy as the guy who was super smart and tried to skate through everything. He’s one of those people that only has to read something once, practice something once, and he’s got it down. So he’s always been able to be the fun, party guy. I think he feels comfortable playing that role. He’s a much more heartfelt guy than comes across. It’s all his insecurities. We see those come out and it’s a realization that he cares about helping people, not just by saving their lives but through plastic surgery. The next episode he fixes a scar on a young girl’s face. The community thinks that demons can get into that scar. He changes her life by making that scar disappear.
This is the second show you’ve been on that tapes outside of Los Angeles. Do you enjoy being away from the Hollywood scene? Does it make the cast closer?
It really accelerates the rate that the cast gets to know each other because you go to this place where no one knows anyone except each other and things get pretty tight pretty quick. I do like working [outside] of L.A.. I was in New York after college and then I moved to Austin. For a couple years I’ve been in and out of L.A.. It’s slowly started to become a home base. I’ve never lived there for a long stretch of time. It’s nice on a TV show to be removed because in L.A. you’re always going to some big event or the cool club, or whatever. It keeps you more grounded because when you’re not working you can have a normal life where you just go to a local bar to watch the football game or go to a restaurant and nobody really cares that you’re on the show.
All of the doctors on “Off The Map” knew they were moving to a Spanish speaking country. How come none of them studied Spanish in advance?
That’s kind of a funny little oversight. It’s one of those things you have to chalk up to being entertainment. We all pick up a little more Spanish as we go along. With me, it’s a story point that I don’t speak Spanish. I start this relationship with a local girl who doesn’t speak English. I don’t speak Spanish and the point of it is, it leads to Tommy realizing that having a connection that’s not physical and respecting women more. I think it’s a story point how fast people learn Spanish. It’s supposed to be a drama with a lot of comic relief.
What’s the craziest thing that has happened while you are shooting one of the outdoor scenes?
We shoot in the mud a lot. I’ve done a lot of camping so I’m not usually scared of dirt and mud and dirty water. Sometimes our First Aid guys will make it seem like if you go in that mud and you don’t shower right afterward, you’re going to die. I’m like, “Then why are we going in that water? Can’t we find some safer water?”
You and Taylor Kitsch, and all of the other actors who have moved on to other roles always came back to “Friday Night Lights” when the plot called for it. Why is everyone so loyal to the show?
I think it’s that it was awesome. We were all so proud of the product that we were putting out. It’s so much fun going down there. It was my first real job and it’s like a family where we really care about each other. When someone gets a job or someone’s going through a break up we all care. It just really became a family down there. Going back to the show before it ended kind of felt like going home. It never changed from season one to season five. Seventy five percent of the same crew has been there the whole time. It’s just so familiar and comforting.
Will “Friday Night Lights” end with Matt and Julie living happily ever after?
I think it’s going to be happy in the sense of people will be satisfied. I think it’s really cool the way the show ends. It’s not like we wrap everything possible up. We end a lot of chapters in different people’s lives. I think people will feel a lot of closure. It’s like real life, which is what that show was. You can’t just end everything and not have questions about what’s next. It gives you a lot of foresight into where these people are going.
What was it like wrapping what was arguably the greatest show of all time, but never got the Emmy recognition that it deserved?
It was bittersweet. I was lucky. There were four episodes where it felt like it was my last episode. And then I’d go back. It was like bonus time every time I went down. We were always happy, especially having so many people there at the end of it. It was me, Aimee [Teagarden], Taylor [Kitsch], and Adrianne [Palicki] at a bar hanging out and goofing around. It was really fun. It felt like old times. It was like when you go home and you see people you haven’t seen in a while and you pick up where you left off.