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Zach Gilford of ‘Friday Night Lights’ faces language barrier on his new show

Zach Gilford as Danny on "This Close," streaming now. | Sundance Now

Zach Gilford has done a lot of TV since scoring big as Matt Saracen on “Friday Night Lights,” but the Evanston native found a real passion project in the modest series “This Close.”

“I hope people find this show, because it is so interesting,” Gilford told the Sun-Times. “The whole time I was shooting it and since, my wife has said, ‘I’ve seen you more proud of this than anything I’ve seen you work on the whole time we’ve been together.’ ”

The first show created, written and produced by people who are deaf, “This Close” looks at people in their late 20s/early 30s figuring out life. The twist is that it centers on the complicated relationship between two deaf best friends played by creators Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman. The dramedy’s six-episode first season currently streams on the subscription service Sundance Now.

Gilford plays Danny, Kate’s fiancé, who is not deaf. Because of their language barrier, Danny often feels disconnected from Kate, a struggle that is exacerbated when Kate and Michael get together.

“Even though we’re getting married, there’s a bond we’ll never have,” Gilford said of Danny and Kate. “It felt so real the way Danny played out those insecurities.”

Zach Gilford and wife Kiele Sanchez in 2016. | Joe Scarnici/Getty Images
Zach Gilford and wife Kiele Sanchez in 2016. | Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Married in real life to actress Kiele Sanchez, the actor can relate to how Danny feels when Kate is around Michael. “I’ve reacted to my wife’s best friend in that way — well, a mirror of Danny anyway,” Gilford said, stumbling to find the right words. “I’m not being very eloquent right now, but they have a lot of fun together.”

Gilford and Sanchez have been married five years and have a daughter, Zeppelin, who was born in November 2017. Despite both being from the Chicago area, they didn’t meet until years later when they shot a TV series pilot in the city.

Gilford attended Evanston Township High School and Northwestern University. His parents still live in the Evanston home in which he grew up. Sanchez was born in Chicago and went to Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream.

Gilford got a little bit of home while shooting “This Close.” Another Chicago native, Marlee Matlin, guest stars in the show. Gilford admitted he was starstruck and initially intimidated by the Oscar-winning actress, through no fault of her own.

“She’s a legend,” he said. “It took me half a day on set to act like a normal person.”

They started working immediately after meeting and didn’t get much time to talk, he said. At the end of the day, they rode in the same van. When they began talking about their mutual Chicago-area origins, Gilford got more relaxed.

“That’s genuine. I’m not bull—-ting,” Gilford said. “I think that’s a Chicago thing. Any time I meet someone from Chicago it’s like, ‘Ah, cool, we get each other on a certain level.’ And it truly was what made me feel more comfortable around her.”

One thing he didn’t tell Matlin was that in college he starred in a stage production of “Children of a Lesser God,” which became the film for which she won an Oscar. But that experience introduced him to American Sign Language, which he had to relearn for “This Close.”

Kate (Shoshannah Stern), who is deaf, and Danny (Zach Gilford), who isn’t, are engaged to marry on the streaming series “This Close.” | SUNDANCE NOW
Kate (Shoshannah Stern), who is deaf, and Danny (Zach Gilford), who isn’t, are engaged to marry on the streaming series “This Close.” | SUNDANCE NOW

His character doesn’t know ASL well, so Gilford didn’t have to become an expert on signing. Still, his lack of expertise created funny moments on set.

“The big joke was that we were using ASL on set, but I’m fluent in ZSL,” he said, meaning ‘Zach Sign Language.’

GIlford also can be seen on “Good Girls,” airing Mondays on NBC. He plays the father of Mae Whitman’s daughter in the series about three women who turn to crime in order to solve some money issues. Christina Hendricks and Retta play the other two women.

“Mae and I were together in high school and there’s chemistry there,” Gilford said. “But that chemistry comes with this element of, ‘This person drives me nuts.’ ”

Gilford’s character, Gregg, intends to sue Annie (Whitman) for custody of their daughter. Annie hopes her criminally gotten cash will help fight Gregg in court.

“They set me up as kind of a jerk,” Gilford said. “I’ve seen more scripts and I do some sleazy stuff.”

Gilford will go from “Good Girls” to filming the pilot for a “Bad Boys” spinoff series starring Gabrielle Union.

He also hopes to film a second season of “This Close.” Despite the future of his character’s relationship being in doubt, he’s pulling for Danny and Kate.

“It just felt really honest and real,” he said of “This Close.” “I don’t know, I just loved it, I really loved it.”

Find more Curt Wagner at http://tvshowpatrol.com/