FNL's Zach Gilford Ventures Off The Map: No More Mr. Really Nice Guy?

Filming in Hawaii is a plus. And yes, being on a series exec-produced by Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes comes with undeniable cachet. But for Zach Gilford, a big draw of going Off The Map in ABC’s new drama series was the chance to bid adieu to Mr. Really Nice Guy.

“A lot of people responded to what they saw me do on Friday Night Lights [as QB Matt Saracen], ” he acknowledges, “so I was excited about this show because while he’s not exactly the bad boy, I get to be a little less of the good guy at times.”

Created by Grey’s EP Jenna Bans, Off The Map presents Gilford as Tommy Fuller, a wannabe McSteamy (read: plastic surgery specialist) who is one of three new doctors selected to help staff a clinic in the South American jungle. Martin Henderson and Jason George (Grey’s) play Tommy’s fellow fellas, while Caroline Dhavernas (Wonderfalls), Mamie Gummer (The Good Wife), Valerie Cruz and Rachelle Lefevre (Twilight) flesh out the female ranks.

With Off The Map set to launch its 13-episode freshman run this Wednesday at 10/9c, TVLine spoke with Gilford about why he welcomed this chance to go (slightly) bad, and how it feels to see the clock run out on FNL.

TVLINE | How has Hawaii been treating you?
I can’t complain. I just went for a run along the ocean and it was very pretty.

TVLINE | Was it somewhat by design that you wound up playing a cocksure guy, on Off The Map?
Yeah, it was a chance to do something else. And the cool thing about TV is that over the course of a season you get to develop a character. A few episodes in, you get to hit your stride, like, “Oh, this is what this guy does, this is how he acts.” You find a lot more stuff to make it seem real.

TVLINE | At first blush, Tommy seems to be there more for the surf than the surgery. What will we be learning about him along the way?
You get to see that he actually is a doctor and not just a goofy frat boy. In the first couple episodes, most of my stuff is with kids or [involves] some sort of language barrier, but eventually I start getting to work with my peers. That’s when I get to figure out the balance of goofy and serious. It’s not like he’s always a superserious doctor and everything is life-and-death, but at times he’s like, “All right, now we have to be for real.”

TVLINE | What was he thinking, being in plastics and taking a job in this third world-ish environment?
He had stuff going on with his family — they were ashamed of him in a way for choosing to do boob jobs all the time — and eventually he got to a point where he had to leave [the States]. I think part of him realized he had wasted some of his potential, but thus far he’s been able to disguise that. That keeps the show grounded in reality amid the action-adventure, big anaconda and zipline stories….

TVLINE | If anything sets Off The Map apart from other medical dramas, it’s the exotic setting and MacGyver-like medicine. For example, in the pilot a drained coconut serves as an IV. Is that something we’ll see a lot of?
It’s not every episode where there’s some huge catastrophe — it could be a fly bite that causes a crazy swelling, or I get to do stuff with this local medicine man, and we touch on other cultures. But about the coconut water: I’ve been drinking that for a couple years and when we did that [scene] I looked at the can and it does say, “Coconut water has actually been used as an IV in the tropics, when standard solutions are not available.” [Laughs]

TVLINE | Will Tommy promptly be pointed at any of the female leads?
There’s a character that comes on for a while, played by Aimee Garcia (Trauma), and she and I have this cross-culture romance. Most of my other stuff has been with Mamie Gummer, who I went to college with, and Jonathan [Castellanos], who plays Charlie, the kid.

TVLINE | Friday Night Lights airs its series finale February 9 [on DirecTV]. What do you miss most about shooting in Texas?
Well, I’m not going to say the heat, because it’s hot here [in Hawaii]! I miss the Alamo Drafthouse ,which is a movie theater they serve you food and drinks during the movie. Also the Wheatsville Co-op, which is a natural co-op grocery store that has the most awesome food and makes the best falafel sandwiches.

TVLINE | Are you happy with how they leave things with Matt and Julie (played by Aimee Teegarden)?
Yeah. I think it ends up good. In the fourth season, Matt kind of lost track of himself and she put him back on the right path; in Season 5, he got to play that role for her. These are two people that throughout the series always leaned on each other because it seemed to them they were the only people who “got it” that this was just a small town and they had to get out. It was a fun relationship to play, and I was glad they asked me to come back and do these [final] episodes.

TVLINE | Any stories to share from the FNL wrap party?
We rented out this huge line-dancing bar, so it was our whole crew and cast – and even a few people who weren’t in the last couple episodes flew in to be there. It was really fun… and really sad. It was just a late night of people being silly and line dancing!