When “Friday Night Lights” debuted in 2006 on NBC, it sported an ensemble of young actors with light resumes.
Scott Porter, Minka Kelly, Aimee Teegarden, Taylor Kitsch, Jesse Plemons and company were virtual unknowns, but in developing the show from his 2004 hit movie, creator Peter Berg demanded casting autonomy. And he got it.
“It was just so crazy,” recalls Porter, who played paralyzed former quarterback Jason Street in the skein’s first three seasons. “Peter took a chance on eight kids. But being an actor himself, he knew what he was looking for, and here we are today — all still working and doing pretty well in our careers.”
As “Friday Night Lights” ends its five-season run Wednesday on DirecTV, it will be remembered both for its consistent high quality (earning a Humanitas Prize and Peabody Award) and its eye for casting (winning an Emmy among several noms in the category). Like “Freaks and Geeks” and “My So-Called Life,” two other beloved TV shows set in high school, Berg’s series — cast by three-time Emmy winner Linda Lowy (“Grey’s Anatomy”) — has been a showcase and launching pad for its actors.
“It’s definitely been a good calling card for these guys, and it’s been exciting to watch them continue on in their careers,” says “FNL” exec producer Jason Katims, who has used a few members of his “FNL” acting troupe for “Parenthood,” in which he’s showrunner and exec producer.
Most prominent might be Kelly, who has gone from playing a Christian cheerleader on “FNL” to an Asperger’s aid on “Parenthood.” Also making the “FNL”-“Parenthood” connection is Michael B. Jordan, who joined the family drama this season as a recurring character.
“Loyalty is something I’ve built my life around,” says Jordan, who came aboard “FNL” in its fourth season as quarterback Vince Howard. “It’s great to be back with Jason because ‘Friday Night Lights’ opened so many doors for me, especially in terms of respect from peers and casting directors who appreciate the work.”
Jordan is one of several “FNL” players who have made the leap to feature films, having starred in the George Lucas-produced Tuskegee Airmen tale “Red Tails.” Kitsch has the title role in the sci-fi epic “John Carter of Mars,” the first live-action film from Pixar vet Andrew Stanton. Teegarden stars in Disney’s upcoming teen comedy “Prom,” and Kelly has the title role in the just-released pic “The Roommate.”
“FNL” cast members uniformly credit the show’s producers and writers as a reason for their career success. Berg’s mandate, when the show began, was to establish a relaxed atmosphere on the set and a loose structure for the finished product. Actors were expected to know their characters, memorize their lines and then throw all that preparation away once filming began.
“The way it’s shot demands an actor’s whole self,” says Matt Lauria, who joined the “FNL” cast for its last two seasons. “It provides a tremendous workout creatively because it puts such an emphasis on the moment you’re in. There’s no rehearsal, no marks to hit. It spoils you to a certain degree, having that level of trust and responsibility.”
Adds Porter: “It creates a strong sense of ownership with your character that you don’t get on other shows. Peter always told us, ‘Remember that you know your characters better than anyone. Flesh them out. We trust you to know what to do.’ They asked a lot of you, but never too much. The framework was always there.”
Katims, the architect of much of that framework, says watching “FNL’s” young cast members at work was akin to having a conversation — one the writing staff would begin and the actors would finish.
“We’d give them material and watch what they’d do and respond to that,” Katims says. “It was a learning experience for me because I’d see what they’d bring to the role and feel like, ‘Oh, that’s a direction I could take that character or that story.’ You definitely have ideas about where the characters and stories are heading, but we’d always leave that room to respond to what the actors brought.”
Katims hopes he can continue that conversation with more “FNL” alums as “Parenthood” finishes up its second season. In addition to Jordan and Kelly, Katims has already placed three other “FNL” alums on the show — Angela Rawna and Jeff Rosick in guest spots and series regular Sam Jaeger, who appeared in one episode of “Friday Night Lights.”
“The sad part of this business is you do a show with somebody and then you can easily not get a chance to work with them again for years, if you ever do,” Katims says. “It’s really nice to be able to do something with these actors again, and I’m hoping we might find some meaty roles for others as we move forward, because I wouldn’t go to these guys with just any role.”