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Extreme closeup: Zach Gilford
'Playing make-believe seemed like a good job'
Zach Gilford stars as Gus Orviston in "The River Why."

The final season of Friday Night Lights hasn’t finished airing, but the NBC drama’s young star, Zach Gilford, is knee–deep in his next show. Off the Map, a new medical drama from Grey’s Anatomy creator Shondra Rhimes, has been filming – in Hawaii – for several months. It premieres in January.

For the 28–year–old Gilford, shooting on the Hawaiian Islands is nirvana. Gilford is from the suburbs of Chicago, and it combines his two passions – acting and the outdoors.

Before his success with Friday Night Lights, he was a YMCA Camp Leader, and a licensed guide for the teen group Adventures Cross Country.

Screening Nov. 5 at the Savannah Film Festival – with the actor in attendance – is The River Why, s a big–screen adaptation of David James Duncan’s beloved novel about a young man who leaves his family for a solitary life in the great outdoors.

Gus Orviston’s parents are both fishermen – his mother, a hook–and–line master, and his father a snobby fly fisherman who’s written several popular books on the subject.

Gus (Gilford) is determined to find himself, beyond their considerable shadows. He is himself a fly fisherman of considerable acumen, and although his methods are unconventional he gets the job done, and before too long he’s the talk of the small Oregon river town where he’s planted himself.

With supporting turns from William Hurt, Amber Heard and Kathleen Quinlan, The River Why is a coming–of–age story with more than one unusual twist. Lushly photographed, it’s an independent film with two big–name stars: Zach Gilford and Mother Nature. The two get equal screen time.

I know you’re an outdoors guy, but had you gone fly fishing before?

Zach Gilford: Before this, I’d never actually done any fly fishing before. So they sent me up to this place in Idaho called Three Rivers Ranch. I spent a week there, learning how to fly fish and stuff. It was really fun because there was this fly fishing guy, Ron Heck, he’s been around for a while, and he has a 15–year–old son who’s been fly fishing since he was a baby. I would go around with the two of them; Ron’s teaching me the right way to fly fish, and his son’s giving me pointers.

He’s just hopping around on these rocks, and he can just pick off fish. And I’m watching, and Ron’s going “He’s got his own way of doing things. He definitely does not do it by the book, but that kid can catch fish.”

And it struck a chord with me for when I went to go shoot. Because with this story – it made me not stress out as much about having perfect form or something like that. As long as it looked like I knew what I was doing, and had kind of gotten my own swagger, it made perfect sense. Because really, at the end of the day, all you’re trying to do is catch fish.

So you learned how to do it – could you go on a river and catch a fish today?

Zach Gilford: Yeah, I’ve gone a couple times since, and it’s fun. But it’s one of those things where you definitely need practice, and you get rusty ... so much of it is reading the water, and knowing what fly to use, and with that I still need a lot of help. It always takes me a while to get back into it. A couple months ago I got to go on a big fishing trip down in Belize, for bonefish and tarpon, which is big saltwater fly fishing. Those are much bigger rods, and much heavier line, and I hadn’t fished in over a year, so it took a definite adjustment to get used to it again. Especially because those are hard rods to use.

You grew up in Evanston, Illinois ... where did your love of the outdoors come from?

Zach Gilford: I went to summer camp growing up, and they had a tripping program at that camp, and as soon as I was old enough I started trying to do those trips. Got really into it.

My family had done a couple of park camping trips when I was younger, like the Badlands of South Dakota and a couple other places. When I was 18, me and a couple friends, we started every summer. We’d go for a month camping, everywhere from the Wind Rivers in Wyoming, Glacier National Park in Montana, the Olympics and Cascades in Washington, California, Colorado. We’d just go backpack for weeks on end.

Then I got some training with NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, and by the time I was 21 I started leading trips for a company, and take kids out doing it.

What was the transition into acting?

Zach Gilford: It was just something else that I was doing. It always seemed fun; playing make–believe seemed like a good job. So those are kinda the two things that I did. It just kinda worked out. I loved English, and I loved math, but they weren’t anything I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. I really enjoyed the subjects, but I wasn’t gonna write a book, and I wasn’t gonna write essays about books for a living. I wasn’t gonna be a mathematician. But these were things I also enjoyed and could see myself doing.

I would imagine that there’s not a lot of money, for lack of a better phrase, in being an outdoorsman.

Zach Gilford: There’s not. But there’s also not a lot of overhead. A lot of my friends who have worked with me in that field, they kind of go from job to job. A lot of times they’re living out of their cars. Or in some temporary apartment.   

But it’s because you spend two weeks out, in a tent, and then you just gotta get to the next place that you’re going to go out in a tent again. A lot of times you’ll get a job where they provide room and board.

Are you to the point where you’ll put one ahead of the other? Say you’re on a backpacking trip, and your agent calls and says “You need to be in L.A. tomorrow.”

Zach Gilford: I think wherever you are takes precedence. I’m at a point where, sadly for me, I’m starting to give a little more precedent to the whole entertainment industry. Just because that’s where there’s going to be a little bit of longevity.

But at the same time, last summer I spent six weeks in Costa Rica leading a couple trips, and the team that I work with are really cool about it. They get that it’s something that’s important to me. I tell them “I’m going to be gone until this point ...” I’ll never be on a trip and like, leave in the middle of it to go on an audition or something like that.

What drew you to the story of The River Why?

Zach Gilford: It’s a great story. I’d read the book and I really liked it. I thought there was a lot of humor in it. It’s actually very cherished by the fly fishing community. And I love being outdoors, so it was really exciting to get to go and run around in rivers and fish, and be outside and make a movie.

Unless I’m going to do a remake of Touching the Void, or Alive or something like that, or something about Everest, this was a great way to combine the two things that I enjoy.

The River Why screens at 9:30 p.m. Nov. 5, Trustees Theater (with an appearance by Zach Gilford)