Although he’s had smaller roles in films like RISE: BLOOD HUNTER and James Gunn’s SUPER, actor Zach Gilford got truly recognized played quarterback Matt Saracen on the highly acclaimed series “Friday Night Lights.” Since the show went off the air in 2011, he’s popped up here and there in film roles like THE LAST STAND, opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger and earlier this year as the tortured husband of a possessed pregnant woman in DEVIL’S DUE, as well as the short-lived (and terribly titled) Fox series “The Mob Doctor.”
But this weekend, Gilford plays one of a small group of folks trying not be killed after being stuck outside during America’s annual 12-hour Purge night in THE PURGE: ANARCHY, in which he plays Shane, estranged husband to Liz (Kiele Sanchez, who just happens to be Gilford’s real-life wife). The film captures a lot of the spirit and social commentary of certain B-movies of the 1980s, many of which were directed by the likes of John Carpenter and Walter Hill, to name a couple of the best. ANARCHY was written and directed by James DeMonaco, who also made the original THE PURGE, and he does have a gift for building suspense both before and during the event, in which all crimes are legal.
Gilford has a promising career ahead of him, and he does solid work in THE PURGE: ANARCHY, especially since his character must try to act manly in the presence of Frank Grillo, as the well-armed stranger who attempts to save the group for reasons unknown. Please enjoy my interview with Zach Gilford…
Capone: Hi, Zach.
Zach Gilford: How’s it going? Good to meet you too.
Capone: You’re a fellow Northwestern alumni, right?
ZG: Yeah. Class of ’04. Were you at Medill?
Capone: Yeah, exactly. Is it even possible to be a part of a film like this and not have the idea go through your head every day “How the hell would I get through this?” Not the character, but how would you get through this, and how badly would you get killed?
ZG: Completely. I’d like to believe I’d be okay. I do the same thing when I see WORLD WAR Z or“The Walking Dead.” I’d make it. Well actually, crazy meth zombies would be hard, but “Walking Dead” slow zombies, I’d be fine.
Capone: What makes you think that?
ZG: Well the meth zombies are like “Argh.”
Capone: What are your unique set of skills, other than maybe hiding really well.
ZG: [laughs] I’m a really good hider. I’ve always been an outdoors guy. I used to lead camping trips, so I’m very comfortable without comforts. I feel like I’m good at puzzles. I think I’m very logical, and I’m also calm under pressure. I don’t get frazzled, so I think I’d be like, “This is the best plan.” As opposed to like, “What are we going to do?!”
Capone: That’s very different than your character Shane, who seems frazzled for a large part of this film. The character’s interesting because of all of them he’s the only one who starts out one way…for example, I thought for sure he was going to be the weak link, and he was going to get everybody else killed. But as the film goes on, he gets more and more competent and confident.
ZG: Well, that’s one of the reasons why I was cool to do it. I wanted to do it, and I talked to the director about it, because we met and talked about the movie before I came on,. The other thing was I don’t like those tropes, and I was like, I think this is a cool thing, it’s a cool script, it’s a cool concept. The way it’s written, other actors could have played it very much the opposite way I did.
The other thing I didn’t want to do was have it be like a pissing contest between me and Frank [Grillo]. It’s all in like how you present it, but there’s a difference between “Who the FUCK is this guy?” And being like, “Who the fuck IS this guy?” You know what I mean? So we were always conscious, the three of us—me, Frank, and James the director—of making sure it was more like we’re not trying to like compete for alpha dog; we’re just trying to like get through this. When he’s going to take off, I’m like, “If he doesn’t want to help, fuck him. Fine. We need to deal with us.” It’s not like, “Well, I got us. Don’t worry.” So that’s what I liked in the character.
Capone: There’s no posturing, you’re right.
ZG: Exactly. Because it’s such an extreme situation, it’s exactly what you said, if you start posturing then Shane’s going to get killed, or he’s going to screw them over. It’s just not that interesting. I think that’s why this movie is actually better than people would expect it to be.
Capone: That’s certainly true from my point of view. I enjoyed that claustrophobic home invasion thing in the original, but this is the exact opposite of that. It’s out in the open, yet you still feel very trapped.
ZG: I think it retroactively makes the first even better, too. I think it’s such a cool way to build a franchise, where it’s based on a concept instead of a character. And so Purge Night, now let’s see what happens in this place on Purge Night or to these people on Purge Night.
Capone: It’s only supposed a year later, right?
ZG: Yeah, it is the next year. I don’t know if you noticed, but one of the guys who’s with Carmelo’s army is the homeless guy from the first one.
Capone: Really? I missed that, I was looking for a crossover moment.
ZG: That was the only one.
Capone: I thought for sure at the end when they go into that house that that was somehow going to cross with the first one. I didn’t even notice that guy.
ZG: You’re okay just ruining the end for me?
Capone: I especially felt bad for you, because Michael K. Williams is such a great actor. And you literally miss being in a scene with him by a few seconds.
ZG: I got one scene, and I got to do this [pretends to be out cold].
Capone: That’s right. That must have been thrilling for both of you.
ZG: I think he thought I was a really giving actor [laughs].
Capone: He really grew from the experience.
ZG: I didn’t try and pull away form him. I was like, “I’m just going to lay here.”
Capone: At least your wife gets to be in like a great moment with him. I don’t think that James would mind that people have attached a lot of political meaning and societal commentary to this story. It’s certainly of the times, even though it’s supposed to be nine years in the future.
ZG: Well it’s weird, when I went to the screening, I didn’t know what year it was. I just new it was in the not-too-distant future, and it said 2023, and I was like, “2023? Wow, that’s like forever. Oh god, that’s only nine years from now.”
Capone: I kept thinking, why isn’t the technology more advanced? Then you realize, it’s only a few years from now.
ZG: Well yeah. The funniest thing we would always make fun of are the phones that we have. We’re like “We have these big egg phones?” Because they’re like egg shaped. It’s just so weird. That’s really the only thing that’s truly different technology. I think the cool thing is, the movie just becomes a little more timeless even as we surpass 2023. We don’t highlight the technology of what’s going on, so aside from a phone that you could date, and be like that’s dated or that’s futuristic. If you watch this in 2030, cars will look a little older or whatever. It’s so funny now how like an iPhone can specifically say, “This is when this movie took place.” So I think we tried to stay away from that stuff.
Capone: But in terms of the political messages, did James DeMonaco talk about that with you guys?
ZG: I think it something that was not his initial intent, but a result that we definitely all talked about. He’s so funny. I love him. He’d be like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me and how I came up with this. This is fucked up.” When you think about it, yeah, it’s pretty political, more with the first one and the whole concept. And then I started getting into it and thinking about how it could make this comment, and it is not a bad allegory for the times.
Capone: Well, it seems with the current ideas about gun culture right now and people that believe it’s getting out of control, this would be one way to stop it, just have the guns one day a year. But that’s swinging completely in the other direction of this problem, but it’s great that someone has taken it to that extreme instead of just taking everyone’s guns away. It’s like, “Okay, everyone can keep their guns, but you can’t use them except for this one day.”
ZG: It almost could be great if this could actually…because in the movie they claim that once they’ve done this, crime goes down the rest of the year. It’s really just purging that violent urge, and once you get that out, crime’s down 99 percent, etc. But I don’t think it would work. Honestly, it’s like, “Because you got to do it one night a year, you’re not going to any other time?”
Capone: It doesn't even seem the least bit a stretch that the government would do what we’re saying that they’re doing in this film, that they would basically use it as a way to pare down certain populations. Maybe not the way they show it here, but who knows?
ZG: Totally. It’s kind of what they’re doing with so many laws. Just the way we make it so hard for anyone of lower income to actually move up in the world. It just gets harder and harder, and it’s a different form of beating them down. It’s like taking that and making it literal and physical and showing this is kind of what the government is doing to people.
Capone: I read somewhere that you and your wife auditioned separately, and that the filmmakers didn’t know you were married until you had both been cast, but at what point did you two have to say, “Are we really going to do this?” And how did the filmmakers and casting people respond when you finally told them?
ZG: Well, they found out before we were cast. I was actually in a meeting with James talking about the movie, and I said something about my wife, and he was just like, “Oh, what does your wife do? Is she in the business?” And I was like, “Yeah, she’s an actress. Her name’s Kiele Sanchez.” And he was like, “I love Kiele; she’s who I want to play the part.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know you guys met.” He was like, “I don’t know how we didn’t know that was your wife.” I was like, “I don’t know either.” Some of the crew, it took them two weeks to be like, “Wait, you guys are married?.” They just thought we were like actors with an on-set romance, so it was funny.
Capone: Is it weird that you’re playing a couple who’s marriage is falling apart. Was that kind of stressful?
ZG: It was easy because really it’s just playing around, and we have similar styles and approaches, so it was just easy to work with each other and fun. I think a lot of people are like, “Oh god, I couldn't. Me and my wife would kill each other. There’s no way we could work together.” I’m like, “Really? I don’t get it.”
Capone: I didn’t realize until I was doing some research the other day about her role on “Lost.” The characters of Nikki and Paolo were weirdly iconic, in that she and this other guy became like two of the most hated characters on television. But they got a great exit.
ZG: Well, it’s funny because I’ll say, “She was on ‘Lost’ for a little while.” “Who was she?” “Nikki.” They’re like, “Who’s Nikki?” “She was the one...” “Oh. Yeah. I loved that episode. They got a great send off.” It’s funny, because I even said to her, because I watched “Lost,” and this was before we even knew each other, when her character showed up, I was like, “Really?” I haven’t noticed this super hot chick on the island the whole time?” Because it’s literally like the main characters are like having a little pow wow, and she shows up like, “So what are we going to do?”
Capone: I was explaining to someone last night, “There are always people in the background, but then these two people came out of nowhere, and you’re like, where did these people come from?”
ZG: They’re way too attractive.
Capone: One of those guys would have found her and hit on her.
ZG: Yeah, and it’s like you’re clearly are not like a Other. I give her shit a lot about that.
Capone: I was on a set visit many years ago that Frank Grillo was on, and if anyone has ever made me feel like less of a man, it was Frank. He’s funny. He’s intense. And he’s very manly.
ZG: He is. He and my wife are doing a TV show together.
ZG: Yeah, it’s called “Kingdom” for Direct TV. It comes out in October. But it’s so funny because it’s so true. Everyone going in was like, “Have you met Frank yet? He’s so intense.” But he’s so funny, he’s actually so sensitive and insecure in a completely endearing way, and he and I clicked and really became true friends. So all this tough-guy stuff, I’m like, “Come on, you big pussy.” I know he does fighting, and I would never fight him, but he also like,“Oh, I tweaked my knee.” But he’s great, so don’t feel like less of a man, but he’d be happy to hear that you said that.
Capone: I know this was a fairly short shoot. Did that help? This is all supposed to take place in 12 hours, so did that help that it was all about go, go, go? If it had been a two-month shoot, maybe the immediacy would be lost somehow.
ZG: Yeah, I never even actually thought about that aspect of it. It probably did help a bit. Because I’ve done a lot of TV, any movie feels like it’s so slow. You’re like, “Oh Jesus, how many times are we going to shoot this shot?” But I bet it did, so you weren’t spending all day on one scene. It’s a good point. Good insight.
Capone: Speaking of feeling like less of a man, you made a movie with Arnold, so…
ZG: Yeah, exactly. But I did it post governorship, so he was a little older. But he’s so nice. A super nice guy. It was really cool.
Capone: I can’t imagine someone your age being in a movie with him and being able not to geek out a bit.
ZG: Oh my god, it was amazing. It was like a childhood dream come true.
Capone: Do you know what you’re doing next?
ZG: I don’t right now. So hopefully I will soon, but I’m waiting to make sure it’s something good.