The Verge: Zach Gilford

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The new Alexis Bledel comedy Post Grad explores that tricky period when a young person is on the precipice of major change, and it couldn't be a more timely subject matter for Bledel's costar, Zach Gilford. He'll soon be heading to Austin to shoot his final season of Friday Night Lights, after which he hopes to graduate to a big-screen career. Post Grad's release this Friday represents the opening salvo of Gilford's senior year, but he'll also be seen in the upcoming Dare, where he plays a confused jock pulled into the sexual orbit of a drama student (Emmy Rossum) and her male best friend (Ashley Springer).

Movieline talked to the 27-year-old about his upcoming projects, the novel experience of shooting Post-Grad during the writer's strike, and his burning to desire to substitute teach.

I've heard that the Friday Night Lights producers have added a few more episodes to your farewell arc this season. Do you know what they've got planned for your character?

I have no idea. I don't even know what they've extended it to. They don't really tell me very much. [Laughs]

I feel like that might be important information to have, Zach.

All I know is that I have to be there in three weeks, and I'll be there until they tell me to go home.

And how will you be spending your free time up til then?

I'm in LA right now doing promotion for the film, which is always fun. I've actually been in Costa Rica for the past six weeks; I was doing a service program with a bunch of high school kids. I've been working with this company called Adventures Cross-Country since college, really. It's kind of the same idea as Outward Bound: it's a lot of outdoor, nature-based traveling and backpacking.

Do you work with kids who now know you from TV?

It'd kind of funny. This was my first trip where there were a couple of kids who knew, but they got the vibe that it wasn't something I was dying to talk about and just left it alone. Halfway through the trip, the kids get to call home, and a couple of my kids were like, "Yeah, one of my leaders is this guy named Zach Gilford," and their parents were like, "Wait, from Friday Night Lights?" Their parents kind of outed me.

On my second trip, in the airport waiting to go, one of the girls recognized me right away. I tried to deny it and deny it and she finally pulled out an iPhone, pulled up a picture of me and was like, "Yes it is! Don't lie. If you just admit it, we won't bring it up for the rest of the trip." And they didn't, which was cool -- it sort of has the possibility to monopolize the rest of the trip, and it's so much about group dynamics and bringing the kids out of their shell. Once the kids get to know me, it's like, "Oh, it's just Zach. Who cares what he does when he's not here?"

On those trips, you're corralling a bunch of people, but when you're on set, you're one of the people being corralled. Are you OK with giving up that power?

On set, you might show up and you're not in charge, but you have to be able to read the situation pretty quickly. Like, "On this show, people go and do their lines and they go back to their trailer," or "On this show, people do their lines, they hang out on set, they talk about the director, and if you go back to your trailer then you're the guy who seems like he's too good for everyone." You've just got to feel that out.

So what kind of set was Post Grad?

Post Grad was great, man. We had a ton of fun, and I didn't spend a lot of time in my trailer. Our whole crew had a good vibe, and it was during the [WGA] strike, so everybody was happy to be working.

I know you get to improvise a lot on Friday Night Lights, but on Post Grad, were you more beholden to what was on the page since you were shooting during the writers' strike?

No, I mean...well, we would kind of talk it out with the director or producers. Technically, the writers were producers and could do rewrites. I was kind of in my mode from Friday Night Lights where I'd change the lines according to however I'd want to say them, and sometimes they'd be like, "Zach, that's great, do whatever you want," and then all of a sudden they'd say, "No, we need you to stay on page." Like, which do you want from me? [Laughs] But nah, it wasn't that bad. The weirdest thing was that there were a couple days when there were [WGA] protestors around, which was a little frustrating because we were a sanctioned production. It wasn't like we were going behind the strike's back -- we were on their side.

If Post Grad is a new spin on Reality Bites, would that make your character the Ethan Hawke?

You know, I haven't seen that movie since I was so little. Which character was Ben Stiller's? Wasn't he the one who got shafted?

He was the responsible one with a job, which is always the type of guy that gets the shaft in these movies.

I'd be more him, then. Yeah, Rodrigo Santoro is kind of the hot cool guy. I'm the one who gets shafted and taken for granted.

What did you do right after college? Did you wait tables and work odd jobs while trying to get acting gigs?

I went and led a trip in the Grand Canyon for a couple months, I think, then I went to New York and started auditioning. And while I was out there I worked for an after-school program for a junior high.

Jesus Christ, Zach. Your extracurricular resume is almost saintly.

[Laughs] I hate sitting around doing nothing, I get frustrated with myself. Right now, I'm trying to find stuff to do in LA. Actually, one of the girls I worked with this summer -- and I'd never thought of this before -- but during my long period of time off, she suggested substitute teaching. I think it'd be fun! I was coaching basketball this past winter, but the hard thing when I work with kids is that I don't want to let them down or bail on them, you know? I'm so scared of getting pretty involved with some kid or group of kids and then suddenly realizing, "Oh wait, I've got a movie. I've gotta go work. Bye." I guess with subbing, though, it's totally on a daily basis, so I think I might look into that.

Talk to me about Dare, which I enjoyed at Sundance. It's interesting how your character Johnny is seen from everyone else's perspective as this very standard jock type, and then when the movie is told from his perspective for the final third, that's subverted very quickly.

That's the thing I love about the script: It starts out very bubble-gum and cookie cutter, and then it just gets grittier and gritter, and by the end it's this pretty real movie that a lot of people are going to be able to relate to. One of my favorite things at Sundance was that a couple of kids came up to us after the movie and they were like, "I'm in high school, I'm a second-semester senior, and this is the most realistic high school movie I've ever seen." I'm not saying I can relate to everything Johnny went through, but it just seems more real than most high school movies or stuff you see on TV.

He's a very ambiguous character in a lot of ways, including his sexuality.

He's this kid who doesn't feel like he has any kind of support system or anyone that's got his back, so whenever anybody did [extend a hand], he just kind of grabbed that -- whether that's Alexa [played by Rossum], who he thinks is a real girlfriend who really loves him, or Ben [played by Springer], who he thinks is his best friend who cares about him, to the point where Johnny's willing to do anything for him, even if it might go against his sexuality. It's like, "Well, this is what Ben needs. I'll do this for him because he's got my back." It's a hard thing to explain, because other people are like, "Well, he's hooking up with dudes. Doesn't that mean he's gay?" But when I talked to Adam [Salky, the director] and David [Brind, the writer] both, it seemed like he wasn't even questioning his sexuality. It was just like, "I'll just do this because it's what Ben needs and that's what friends are for."

It's interesting that in Dare and Friday Night Lights, you're cast as this troubled character seeking a support system, and yet here you are in real life, trying to provide that support to kids.

That's funny. I guess that's true! I've never thought about it like that. ♦



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