Friday Night Lights' Gaius Charles on Grounding Smash, Boarding Pan Am and That Pesky Rumor

Friday Night Lights MVP Gaius Charles wants to make one thing very clear: He has not given up acting for God. Although that’s the rumor that’s been making the rounds since the 28-year-old New York native hung up his helmet as Dillon Panthers’ star running back Smash Williams in 2008, he tells TVLine definitely, “That’s not the case.”

Nonetheless, save for a few indie films and some stage work, his decision to pursue a graduate degree in theology at New Jersey’s Drew University did force him to step away from the Hollywood spotlight the past three years. But, with a diploma in sight, he’s ripe for a big-time comeback. Step 1: a juicy guest spot on this Sunday’s Pan Am (10/9c on ABC).

In the following exclusive interview, Charles previews his new TV gig, reflects on his mini-showbiz sabbatical, reveals why he didn’t return for FNL‘s final season and talks about possibly playing Smash again on the big screen.

TVLINE | Where have you been?!
[Laughs] The last couple of years I’ve been busy, to say the least. After FNL, I did four films, two of which wound up at Sundance, The Messenger and Toe to Toe. I was in Takers. I was in Salt with Angelina Jolie. And then I did a national tour of Othello with Philip Seymour Hoffman. And along with that I went back to grad school to get my masters in theology — which for me is no different than what folks like Hil Harper and Natalie Portman and Emma Watson have done. The all took time to pursue passions that went beyond acting. It doesn’t mean I’m quitting acting, it just means I’m going to become a much more well-rounded actor and person.

TVLINE | Did you ever for a moment consider a career change?
Since I was a kid, the two things I’ve always been interested in have been acting and having a voice in the faith world. I’ve always been in all the school plays, but I’ve always been active with my church too. My dream has always been [to find a way to] use the platform acting gives me to speak to those social issues, those political issues, those spiritual, faith-based issues that so many of us wrestle with. And a lot of folks who are in the acting world struggle with, “How can I use [my influence] to make people’s lives better and go beyond the Hollywood routine?” That was my pursuit.

TVLINE | I understand you’re about to graduate?
I’m in my last semester right now.

TVLINE | I think the “He quit acting!” rumors got kicked up a notch when you were one of the only original FNL cast members not to return for the final season.
I think there was some miscommunication about when that would happen and how that would happen. Obviously, there were some scheduling concerns with me being in school and being really committed to being a student. [Also], I felt like Smash had one of the best sendoffs of the show in Season 3. I would’ve loved, loved, loved, loved to have gone back to make a final cameo or something. But I also made a commitment to finish school. But my not being there in the [final] season wasn’t because I didn’t want to be there. I celebrate all of the success of the show in its [final] seasons. I took a knee for Kyle [Chandler] and Jason [Katims] when they won their Emmys. [Laughs] I touch base with Pete [Berg] and Jason [Katims] and Taylor [Kitsch] and Scott [Porter]. There’s no disconnect.

TVLINE | How did Pan Am come about?
There have been [TV] things that have come past my desk [in the past couple of years] but nothing that said, ‘This is a project that you need to potentially jeopardize your academic career for!’ But Pan Am came up, and it was so good. It was so well written. I went in for it and got the part and found out later that the writers wrote the part with me in mind. I was like, ‘Why does this character feel so natural?’ [Laughs] I’m really thankful to the writing staff at Pan Am for thinking about me and for giving me the chance to make my way back to TV.

TVLINE | Tell me about your character. We know he’s a soldier who crosses paths with Laura (Margot Robbie).
My character’s name is Joe and he’s a Navy officer from Mississippi in 1963. He’s deployed internationally and he’s coming back to visit his family when he meets Laura on the plane. They have this little get-to-know-you thing and this sort of romantic interlude, but it being 1963 and with all the racial divides in the country, things get very complicated very quickly. It was great to play a character that dealt with real issues, real history.

TVLINE | Is there potential for you to recur?
Yes. It was left open-ended. There was a real connection there.

TVLINE | Before you go, I have to ask: What do you make of a possible FNL movie?
I’ve heard rumblings about that. Some people at the show say it’s a definite go. Other people don’t know. Seeing as how my availability is going to be wide open again, it would be a great time to see Smash again… I am so game.

TVLINE | We really need to see Smash again. And more importantly, we need to see Smash’s mom (played by Liz Mikel).
[Laughs] We need to see Smash’s mom tell Smash to get it together. People always say to me, “We love Smash… and we love his mom, too!”