Zach Gilford looked more like a college student meeting for a study session than a TV actor meeting for an interview over brunch Thursday at West Town Bakery & Diner. The Evanston native and Northwestern alum, best known for his role as Matt Saracen on NBC’s football drama, “Friday Night Lights,” sat in a booth with his Mountain Hardwear backpack at his side and his bicycle locked up outside the Ukrainian Village restaurant.
He wore mesh Nike shorts and an Obama t-shirt given to him by the writers of “Lost” and later admitted “I didn’t know there would be a photographer” – not that it would have made a big difference. Gilford, 30, isn’t much into fashion. Sure, he likes the John Varvatos clothing he’s wearing on the Chicago set of Fox’s “The Mob Doctor,” in which he plays a doctor whose girlfriend, also a doctor, is secretly doing medical favors for the mob, but he doesn’t like the expensive clothes enough to pay for them.
Gilford is staying in the West Loop while filming “Mob Doctor,” which premieres Monday, but calls Los Angeles home. Here, he talks about why he prefers playing a supporting role on the show, why he’s never watched the last season of “Friday Night Lights” and why he cried during the series finale of “Lost.”
[The following is an edited version of a longer conversation]
Luis: You’re early.
Zach: I’m compulsively on time. It drives me insane when people are late. My Dad is chronically late. And he knows I hate it but still can’t seem to get himself anywhere on time.
[Zach looks over the menu]
Zach: This place is dope. It’s hard to find good breakfast spots -- especially one that has any organic things on the menu. Because I’m in L.A., I’m so used to it. It’s everywhere you go.
Waitress: You guys just hanging out today?
Zach: We’re just hanging out here all day.
Waitress: That sounds really stressful...
Zach: You know what is stressful? I have to work at 5 pm. I had the day off and now they changed it. Now I have to go to work right in the middle of the Bears game. … Can I have the fish tacos? Thank you.
Luis: What have you been doing during your free time in Chicago?
Zach: Eating. Me and my fiancee Kiele [Sanchez] are total foodies.
Luis: I remember her from “Lost.” Were you a “Lost” fan?
Zach: Oh, I loved it. That was the last show that I watched every week for years. Everything now I do on DVD or I buy it on iTunes. It’s this weird thing. I was bawling during the finale. I checked in with these people every week for six years. It was really odd: “Why am I so emotional?” I guess it was because it was six years of my life coming to an end.
Luis: People say the same thing about “Friday Night Lights.”
Zach: Even with that – the time [slot] always got switched around. The majority of people who come up to me say “I just watched three seasons last month.” I don’t run into a lot of people who are like “I watched it from the beginning all the way through.”
Luis: I don’t have DirecTV, so I didn’t see the last season of “Friday Night Lights” until it aired later on NBC.
Zach: I still haven’t seen the last season. I think it’s a couple things. A: I’m kind of putting it off. I don’t want it to be done. B: Kiele didn’t watch it and she doesn’t really want to watch it because she feels like a pedophile [Zach plays a teenager on the show]. She watched one episode and said “I can’t do it. Sorry.” Am I going to make a point to carve out time to watch the show by myself? It feels vain. Maybe sometime I will be on location in Iceland and have nothing to watch.
Luis: Are you someone who has a hard time watching yourself?
Zach: I usually watch once and I’m done with it, just to see what it was. I don’t necessarily like it. I haven’t seen the first episode of “Mob Doctor.” The first scene I saw was a few days ago: “Oh God, I suck. What am I doing? Why did I say it like that? What the [expletive] are you doing, Zach? You’re so lame and boring.” I have a big complex about being vain. I don’t tell anyone what I’m doing. Even family will say “I heard you did this. Why wouldn’t you tell us?” “I feel like I’m bragging.” They’re like “We’re your parents. We want to know.” “Yeah, but you have Google alert on me. You’ll figure it out.”
Luis: What made you want to do “The Mob Doctor”?
Zach: I thought it was a cool idea. I knew Michael Dinner directed it and I’d just started watching “Justified” and liked it. He’s such a cool director. I was like “Alright, I need to see who they’re casting as the girl.” I found out it was Jordana [Spiro] and looked at her stuff a little. And it shot in Chicago. Kiele tells me she doesn’t want my agent to tell me when something shoots in Chicago because I’ll automatically say “This is the greatest script I’ve ever read.”
[Zach met Kiele on an elevator in Chicago’s City Hall when they filmed the pilot for “The Matadors.” The show was never picked up, but Zach began dating Kiele months later and proposed to her in front of those same elevators in November. Gilford claimed a City Hall security guard saw the proposal and asked them to take it elsewhere, but did say congratulations.]
Zach: Honestly, the aspect of not being the main guy in every scene, every day was very appealing. You see Christopher Meloni on “[Law & Order: SVU].” Great show, tons of people watch it, he’s amazing on it, but at some point, he’s doing the same thing every single day for years and years. I’m engaged and am getting married soon. I’ll probably start a family soon. I want to be able to see them, as opposed to being at work all day.
[The food arrives.]
Luis: Do you run into a lot of people you went to school with now that you’re home?
Zach: Definitely. I’ll see someone and know their face, but it’s been like 12 years: “I totally know you, but I don’t know what your name is.” I felt awful after I misintroduced someone to Keile weeks ago. I said his name was Sam. His name is Shawn. I realized this afterward. I felt like a [jerk].
Luis: What nationality is Kiele?
Zach: Her Mom’s side of the family is French. Her dad is Puerto Rican. He’s one of 13 kids.
Luis: I have 19 aunts and uncles total. My parents are Colombian.
Zach: I visited Kiele when she was filming in Bogota. It’s a cool country.
Luis: I’ve gone three times. I was supposed to visit in high school but my Dad didn’t let me go because I got my ear pierced behind my parents’ back.
Zach: Yeah, I did the same thing but I didn’t get punished like that. I wore a stocking hat to cover it up for like two days. My Mom was like “Why are you wearing a hat in the summer?” “This is the style, Mom. Leave me alone, gosh.” I did the same thing when my friend and I tattooed each other when I was 13. I tattooed my leg. I wore a sweat band around it for a few weeks whenever I was with family. “Why are you wearing that?” “It’s the style.”
Luis: Can I see it?
[Zach stands up and raises his leg up onto the booth. The tattoo says “Pip 33” in honor of the Bulls’ Scottie Pippen and looks like, well, a 13-year-old did it.]
Zach: I’d just seen “Fear” where he tattoos [“Nicole 4 Eva”] on his chest. “Oh, it’s that easy to give yourself a tattoo?” We were just dumb. I gave my friend a Nike swoosh on his arm. His went away after a few months. Mine has been here 17 years. No more tattoos for me. ... I’ve learned not to jump into fads. I think another one of my complexes is that I think some people know what they want to be and try to be that. I think I know what I don’t want to be and fight so hard not to be that. Really, I just don’t know who I am.
Luis: Are you not going to eat the tortillas on your tacos?
Zach: I ate most of them. There are like three tortillas for each taco.
[The waitress clears the table.]
Luis: Where have you been eating in Chicago?
Zach: Girl and the Goat, Blackbird, De Cero, Maude’s. I keep trying to get tickets to Next. I go on their Facebook page and when they say “Who wants a ticket?” I’m like “I’d like one.” Maybe I should be a [jerk] and have my publicist call.