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Chandler Shines in NBC's New `Lights'

Thursday, October 05, 2006

NEW YORK —  Panther head coach Eric Taylor is visiting his star quarterback, Jason Street, who is hospitalized with a crippling injury received during the season's first game.

Coach Taylor looks upon this fine young man and exemplary athlete, maybe paralyzed forever. They exchange a few brave pleasantries. Then heavily fall silent.

"Damn, son,"Taylor manages to say, his second word a scarce whisper.

It's a scene from the next episode of"Friday Night Lights,"NBC's new family drama about a football-crazy town that (airing at 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday) has won critics'raves for its heart and authenticity.

One reason why? The actors are immersed in the truth of what they're bringing to life.

For instance, Kyle Chandler, who stars as Coach Taylor, wasn't parroting"damn, son,"from a page of his script.

"It came from somewhere else,"he says, remembering the sight of his young co-star, Scott Porter, impounded in that bed in traction."It was a real moment. I could feel it."

Chandler, whose earnest, all-American authority made him the perfect guy to be entrusted with tomorrow's news on the long-running drama"Early Edition,"likewise brought his non-flashy cred to the short-lived lawyer drama,"The Lyon's Den,"and Joan Cusack sitcom"All About Joan."He also had a supporting role in the feature film,"King Kong."

(Story continues below)

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But he may have been born to play Coach Taylor, a soft-spoken man who doesn't let on everything he's feeling and yet, thanks to Chandler, never leaves the viewer in doubt. Taylor has a huge challenge as the incoming head coach: to maintain the winning ways of the nation's top-ranked high-school football squad in a rural Texas community that doesn't have much else to cheer about. And in the process, to stay mindful that"clear eyes, full hearts can't lose"_ but winning isn't everything.

A lot of pressurefor Coach Taylor. But Chandler is having a ball.

"Everything is just working so nicely,"he reports during a recent visit to Manhattan from Austin, Texas, where the series is shot."It's all coming together."

A strapping fellow clad in white dress shirt, Levi's and boots, Chandler doesn't seem too far afield from his character. He has a robust Southern accent, a product of his rearing in Loganville, Ga.

He even played high school football for two seasons,"but I was no good,"he says."The first year, I was a fat, chubby kid, and I got the hell beat out of me on the football field. The second year, I was tall and lanky. I got the hell beat out of me again."

Anther difference: Unlike Coach Taylor, who tends to be a man of just a few, well-chosen words, Chandler is easygoing, personable, a storyteller _ as when he recounts a meeting early on with Peter Berg, the series'executive producer (and the director and co-writer of the 2004 film version).

He recalls Berg asking what he had done the night before.

"I said, `Well, last night was my friend's birthday. I had too much to drink, smoked too many cigarettes and I'm very tired right now. Why?'

"He said, `I like that look. I want you to look old and tired. This coach is stressed out. That's my rule: You need to drink a lot of scotch and smoke a lot of cigarettes. That's how you prepare.'

"So,"says Chandler, grinning,"the first thing when I wake up, I drink a tumbler of scotch. And since I don't smoke anymore, I just light'em and leave'em laying around the house."

More likely, his transformation from a boyish-looking 41 years old can be explained by acting chops, assisted by the harshening effect of no makeup being applied for the cameras.

Maybe shooting totally on location, liberated from any sound stage, also helps him (and the show overall) get into character.

Making itself at home,"Friday Night Lights"adopted the mascot and school colors (blue, yellow and white) of Austin's nearby Pflugerville Panthers for its fictitious Dillon High, and gave a needed fix-up to an abandoned playing field for the football scenes. The Taylor family's modest residence is a local house the show has leased. Where Jason Street is being"treated"is an actual, functioning hospital.

The realism of the settings is carried over to the production style, Chandler explains.

"We work fast,"he says, calling off the steps as if football plays."You come in with your dialogue. You know it. You say good morning to everyone. Get your mikes on and everything. You start _ three to four cameras, hand-held, 16mm _ and, organically, you just do the scene.

"No rehearsals. It's the first time the actors have done it. Everything is completely fresh. You have to find a way to communicate with the actor across from you. Which is like life.

"And then, quite often, we won't cut. We'll go right back and shoot the whole scene again.

"But usually,"he notes,"it happens on the first take."

After hours, he heads for the apartment he has taken downtown. Across the street is a coffee place he loves. Right next door, a great music place. The Capitol's in sight.

"Austin is a great place to live and to raise a family,"says Chandler, whose wife and two daughters (ages 5 and 10) are coming in from Los Angeles one week each month, until the show's fate is clearer.

True, the first week's audience was disappointing. But Chandler isn't the type to be discouraged any quicker than the coach he plays so well. He's got winning in mind.

"Peter Berg said to me, `You've always been under the radar. You've been an actor all this time and no one knows who you are. But that could be over soon.'

"Hopefully, this show will last a long time,"says Chandler with a smile."Then I'll go back to being unknown."

___

On the Net:

http://www.nbc.com

___

EDITOR'S NOTE _ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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