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Interview: Zach Gilford, once scared, is returning the favor

Luis Gomez

About Last Night

7:11 AM CST, January 13, 2014

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Zach Gilford had a hard time listening to “Thriller,” Michael Jackson’s classic song about things that go bump in the night, when he was a child growing up in Evanston. And the “Friday Night Lights” actor said it had nothing to do with the menacing werewolf or dancing zombies featured in the music video.

“I would listen to music before I went to sleep on my yellow Sony Walkman when I was 7 and put on the Michael Jackson tape,” Gilford said last week over the phone from Los Angeles. “When the guy came on at the end of ‘Thriller’ talking about (‘Darkness falls across the land, the midnight hour is close at hand,’) I was like ‘What is that?’ I thought the devil was coming through my headphones. I couldn’t listen to ‘Thriller’ forever. Honestly, it was the thing that scared me the most as a kid.”

Now 31, Gilford will have a hand in scaring others, the way Vincent Price’s voice scared him, when he appears in two horror films this year: “Devil’s Due” and “The Purge 2.” Gilford plays one half of an expectant couple in “Devil’s Due,” a found-footage film that opens Friday. It’s being called a contemporary “Rosemary’s Baby” because of its satanic pregnancy theme.

He said he was drawn to the script because it was a love story gone awry in which you actually like and cheer for the couple, unlike in some horror movies where the protagonists are so irritating you cheer against them.

“It’s not your typical horror movie where things jump out at you,” Gilford said. “It felt like we were always fighting against the genre. We really focused on making the movie logical with, obviously, an unreal idea of a devil baby. If this happened in the real world, how would it happen?”

He also clicked with Radio Silence productions, the quartet behind “Devil’s Due” and the last short film featured in 2012’s “V/H/S.” And that’s become very important to Gilford, who said he looks for roles that he will enjoy filming and tries to avoid the ones in which “I want to shoot myself in the face the whole time,” even if they might sound like better projects. “You have to enjoy what you do,” he added.

In recent years, Gilford has been part of two short-lived medical dramas: ABC’s “Off the Map” and Fox’s “The Mob Doctor.” He took pains not to be critical of the latter series, which filmed in Chicago, but he admitted its title was “more on the nose than it needed to be,” and he would have liked to have seen the show not rely so heavily on the mob aspect every episode. Gilford felt “Mob Doctor” began to come into its own by the end, but by that point its fate had been sealed.

Hollywood doesn’t seem to be holding the shows against him. “Devil’s Due” and “The Purge 2” are two of Gilford’s biggest film roles to date. But don’t expect Gilford to stress about their significance. He believes there are too many factors involved in a film’s success to put added pressure on himself. Gilford is more focused on enjoying the ride. Like “Devil’s Due,” Gilford feels “The Purge 2,” which began filming last week and is expected to hit theaters June 20, will make for a fun shooting experience.

“Blumhouse is a cool production company,” he said of the “The Purge 2” creators. “They keep egos in check; there are no trailers. Everyone is there because they think it’s a cool movie that could do well. At times it feels like we’re making a college film. Everybody is there because they want to be, not because they’re getting paid a ton of money.”

It also helps that Gilford gets to work with his wife and Glenbard North High School alum Kiele Sanchez, who plays his wife in the film.

“That was a huge part of it,” Gilford said. “We made the decision at the same time. She went out for a role, but for whatever reason they thought she didn’t look old enough, so they offered her another role that happens to be my wife. It’s superweird to be in scenes together. It took a while to get used to.”

It’s difficult, however, to tell if he’s more excited about working with his wife or co-star Michael Kenneth Williams, who played the iconic Omar Little on HBO’s “The Wire.”

“He only works one or two days, but I’m pumped to meet him,” said Gilford, a fan of “The Wire” and Williams’ other HBO show, “Boardwalk Empire.” “I don’t know what to do. It’s always weird to meet an actor you really like when you’re an actor. You don’t want to be a nerd, but I also want to let him know how much admiration I have for him. I’m going to try to play it cool.”

lgomez@tribune.com | Twitter @TribLuis

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