Emmy Contender: Zach Gilford

'Friday Night Lights'

Like the accidental quarterback he plays on “Friday Night Lights,” Zach Gilford probably shouldn’t be where he is today.

The 25-year-old thesp was beyond unknown before the series began. His pre-“Lights” resume includes an episode of “Law & Order: SVU,” small roles in a couple indie pics … and that’s it.

“I auditioned in New York in 2005, and then went in to audition in L.A. six or seven times,” Gilford says. “After I got the role, (creator) Peter Berg said, ‘Dude, I didn’t even know who you were.’ He said they had this one person they really wanted, and I was just ‘that kid’ they kept around.”

It helped that the casting director for the pilot went to Northwestern, the same school Gilford attended. Berg and NBC execs ultimately warmed to Gilford and decided to offer him the role of Matt Saracen, the shy teen who ends up playing QB for the Dillon Panthers after the team’s star is paralyzed.

“Lights” ended its first season this spring as among the most critically praised new series. Even as part of a stellar cast, Gilford stood out by injecting Saracen with a sort of realism seldom seen on the small screen. Whether fighting with his soldier father or finding the courage to ask the coach’s daughter out on a date, Gilford brilliantly channeled the angst and awkwardness that is adolesence.

Gilford says viewers identify with Saracen because he’s an underdog.

“But I really want him to not be this martyr,” Gilford says. “He’s been dealt a crappy hand, but it’s the only hand he knows and he’s pushing through the best he can.”

Unfortunately, that realism could one day cost Gilford his job.

His character will graduate in two seasons and, possibly, move out of Dillon.

Whatever happens, Gilford says he’s just trying to appreciate every day he gets on “Lights.”

“Kyle Chandler always tells me, ‘Enjoy this now, because you’re never gonna have another job like it.’ It really is a lottery job.”

Favorite scene: “When Connie confronts Aimee about having sex.” 

Where you’d like to see your character go next season: “I just want to see a gradual maturation that culminates in Matt being a less reluctant leader.” 

TV guilty pleasure: “America’s Next Top Model.”

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