Drama King

Actor Kyle Chandler muses on turning his beloved Coach Taylor persona upside down and his latest dramatic role in the indie film Manchester by the Sea  

WORDS Cathy Whitlock
May 2017
It's a rare moment when fate and chance meet and destiny takes its course. Such was the case when Kyle Chandler, a young student at the University of Georgia, was “bumming around” the town’s Five Points neighborhood. “It was two points of light that struck each other in the middle of absolutely nowhere when I bummed a cigarette from these four characters at 3 a.m.,” he reflects. It turns out the characters in question were actors who suggested he try out for the Shakespearean farce “The Comedy of Errors” at the university’s local Cellar Theatre. “I can’t imagine why I did it to this day, but I studied it, auditioned and got the part as one of the Dromios. I loved the camaraderie, enjoyment and applause at the end,” he says. “And so many odd, strange characters!” 

He never looked back. While still in college, Chandler and a buddy took a train up to New York to audition for a talent showcase for ABC. Chandler was offered a development deal on the spot, and he packed his bags for Hollywood. Jobs as a bartender and a bouncer followed, but it was roles on the dramatic television dramas Tour of Duty and Homefront that first placed him in the spotlight in the 1990s.

While a memorable guest performance as an ill-fated bomb-squad expert on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy earned him his first Emmy nomination in 2006, it was his career-changing role as the principled Coach Taylor on NBC’s Friday Night Lights that made the actor a household name. A cult favorite, the binge-worthy series follows a high-school football coach and his players as they navigate life in a rural Texas town. “I started out in comedy, played the kid next door, and the nice gentleman that would always do good, and then Coach Taylor came along. I blended my experiences into that with a little W.C. Fields thrown in.” 

For research, Chandler looked to the life of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick for inspiration, along with sage advice over a barbecue dinner with a local high-school football coach. “I was standing out on the back deck, holding his 6-month-old, and after a lot of conversation — and it gives me chills when I say this — he said, ‘There is really only one thing you have to know: You have to love the kids.’ It gave me a freedom to do what I wanted to do, if I wanted to be a tough coach and realize if I loved these kids, I could push if it was justified and still be fair.” Chandler took the advice to heart, molded it into his character and won an Emmy award as Outstanding Lead Actor for the performance in 2011, beating competition that included Jon Hamm for Mad Men and Hugh Laurie for House.

The quote-worthy role — (“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” is a part of pop culture lexicon) — provided the actor with another fringe benefit: While traveling solo from Los Angeles to the show’s location in Austin, Texas, Chandler says his wife suggested they take a road trip. “On the first day of driving she asked if I was happy in LA. I said this is a really big serious question you are asking and I said, ‘No, I am not.’ So she said, ‘Let’s move and change it up.’ ” The couple and their two daughters ended up relocating to a 33-acre property an hour outside of Austin. “I don’t have a farm; I have a garden with corn, okra, tomatoes and beets. I am a beet farmer,” Chandler says. “It’s a good bit of work to do here: bush-hogging land and planting here and there. In Texas they call it a quote-unquote ‘gentleman’s ranch.’ It gives me something to bitch about.” 

It’s a life that suits him, he says, adding that “the whole Hollywood thing is not me.” In between acting gigs, Chandler served as a volunteer fireman, where he saw plenty of action during the record two-year drought. “It was challenging and fun and hats off to all those guys who people don’t realize are the ones putting their lives on the line.” 

Serious film roles followed the 51-year-old actor, who found himself cast as a series of authoritative men: White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan in Argo, the CIA chief Joseph Bradley in Zero Dark Thirty and FBI agent Patrick Denham in The Wolf of Wall Street. 

“Somehow I started getting these roles of people with this gravitas. My manager and agent said no more CIA, no more sheriffs and no more suits and ties!” One “suit” role he did take was perhaps his most serious role to date: playing the beleaguered and angst-ridden Sheriff John Rayburn on the popular Netflix drama Bloodline. Looking for a great series after FNL turned off the stadium lights, the role of the golden-boy son whose family owns an inn in the Florida Keys (along with a slew of dark secrets) recently landed him his fifth Emmy nomination. “The producers on Bloodline wanted to turn Coach Taylor upside down, and I was more than happy to do that,” Chandler says. “The show is my first dark role, it’s been a great ride and I feel blessed to get another year.” What does the future hold for John Rayburn in the show’s third and final season, due out next year? “The only one who knows what is going to happen is the #2 pencil sitting on the writer’s desk,” he replies. 

This November, Chandler stars in the indie film Manchester by the Sea, where he plays a man who unexpectedly dies, leaving his teenage son in the care of his brother (Casey Affleck), a janitor in Boston. Co-starring Michelle Williams, Tate Donovan, Matthew Broderick and Gretchen Mol, the film received rave reviews at Sundance this past winter. Chandler’s role plays out in a series of flashbacks. “I read the script once, read it again, it got me and I cried. And I am not that sensitive,” he explains. “When I first met Kenny [Kenneth Lonergan, the film’s director], we rehearsed the heck out of it. And when we shot the film, I got this insecure feeling that we had created a mess, as Kenny has a particular way of doing things, and I was not sure how it would work out.” 

The actor was also stricken with another insecurity: learning a Boston accent (he spent time soaking up the vernacular in the local bars). The result turns out to be one of his most passionate, favored projects to date. “I saw the film at Sundance for the first time and it’s amazing,” Chandler says. “The film is truly incredible; it’s so tight and so finely sewn together. It’s one of the best movies I have ever seen.”

Photo above Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Claire Folger/Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Chandler is an actor’s actor. “My favorite part of this job is the process. It’s like a runner running. I love it when the camera starts rolling, and until the time it stops, it’s like a roller-coaster ride. It’s that enjoyable.” He cites the late actor James Garner as his role model. Perhaps it’s a childhood memory of watching The Rockford Files with his father or his resemblance to the multitalented television and film idol, but he does appreciate the longevity and range of Garner’s career. He also credits the advice of his acting coach, Milton Katselas: “Know your casting,” when choosing roles. “I don’t think it’s made me too careful of choices I have made, but it’s also protected me from how I look at projects.” 

While serious roles appear to dot his career path, Chandler would love a part with a comedic turn. If his dry sense of humor and playful nature are any indication, it’s just a matter of time before we see that side on-screen. 


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