Why Zach Gilford Considers 'This Close' His Proudest TV Work Since 'Friday Night Lights' (Exclusive)

Sundance Now

The 36-year-old actor talks to ET about the Sundance Now series centered on two deaf best friends.

Zach Gilford steps outside the box in Sundance Now's new dramedy, This Close, an endearingly heartfelt and messy tale about two best friends and their complicated, imperfect love lives. But there's more to the six-episode series than just the latest in a long line of shows chronicling the modern generation's struggles with adulthood. The two main characters, Kate and Michael, are deaf and are played by deaf actors Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman.

For Gilford, who portrays Kate's charming yet idling-in-life fiance Danny, the promise of entering into unfamiliar territory was intriguing and creatively fulfilling. "This was a very refreshing experience for me," Gilford tells ET. "I've been working in TV for a while. Some experiences have been great, some have been less than, and this was one of those [situations] where you're like, alright, this is why I love this job."

Best known for playing Matt Saracen in the beloved football drama Friday Night Lights, the 36-year-old actor connected with the idea of slipping into the shoes of a man stuck as a third wheel in his own romantic relationship. Because of Kate and Michael's unmatched connection as deaf friends, Danny is sometimes left feeling disconnected from Kate, an ongoing conflict that heightens in intensity as the show progresses. 

"Her gay best friend threatens him, and it's because they have a special bond that he'll never be a part of. He will never understand what it means to be deaf. The way that This Close touched on that and gives the audience a little bit of insight into the deaf community and what it's like to be deaf without hitting you over the head or trying to preach was very interesting to me," Gilford says. "They were all things that I could empathize with in my own life." He admits at times he finds himself feeling a little like Danny does when his wife Kiele Sanchez gets together with her best gal pal. "They can just be next level goofy together and I can't do it, I can't go there," Gilford chuckles. "Sometimes I feel like, God, she can have more fun with her friends than she can with me."

There's more than meets the eye when it comes to Danny, who harbors a secret about his job that adds another layer to his already complex relationship with Kate. "I understand the feeling of being left out within the relationship, where it's supposed to be intimate, just you two. I can understand how that plays into 'I can't let Kate know that I'm less than in any way, because I know this other guy is better than me. I know their connection is deeper than ours,'" Gilford says. "'If I let her know I'm not perfect, I'll lose her.'"

Finding the perfect Danny didn't come without its ups and downs. Stern, who co-created This Close with Feldman, confesses in an email to ET that Gilford's character was the "hardest one for us to cast because we put the poor guy through the wringer." As audiences will discover, he's just as capable of being a gentleman on a romantic dinner with Kate as he is starting a fistfight at a Thanksgiving gathering. They needed an actor who could make people "understand why Kate was with him" in spite of his flaws and "still root for him."

Zach Gilford (left) plays Danny, fiance to Shoshanna Stern's Kate (center) in Sundance Now's 'This Close.' - Sundance Now

Gilford's name came to mind over a brainstorming lunch session, first because Stern pictured Danny as someone who played high school football. "I remember turning to Josh while he was eating a salad or something and going, 'Oh my god, Zach Gilford!' And his mouth just dropped open and we said at the same time, 'He's perfect,'" recalls Stern, who later rewrote the character to Gilford's voice and mannerisms. After a Skype call followed by a dinner the next day, Gilford was in ("They were so humble and kind," he says of their first meeting). "I'm just kind of still mind-blown (and very grateful) that he actually said yes."

Because the story revolves around two deaf characters, sign language is a crucial component of the show. Gilford signs in all the episodes he appears in on This Close, though it isn't the first time he learned American Sign Language. He first familiarized himself with ASL for a college play more than a decade ago. What also proved helpful for Gilford was his character was meant to be "sloppy." "One of the things they mapped out so well with the character and his relationships is the de-evolution of those relationships [through his signing]. In the beginning, Danny is much more about trying to impress Kate or trying to be inclusive, and by the end, they're engaged [and] he takes her for granted," he says, acknowledging that signing became an unexpected security blanket: "I think it became a little bit of a crutch for me."

Asked what he ultimately thinks of Kate and Danny's roller-coaster romance, Gilford defended his ground in the sweetest way possible. "To be completely honest with you, I am rooting for them, because if there's a season two, I would love to be on the show," he says with a laugh. "As a spectator of the show, I think I always thought they'll work through this. I don't know how biased I am because I'm him, or as a person because I want to be involved with the show or because I love Danny, so I want him to have a happy ending with Kate." Either way, Gilford has his eye on the prize, broaching the possibility of trying his hand at directing should it return for a second season.

Gilford's passion for This Close is apparent in the way he speaks about his time on the show, which counts Cheryl Hines, Nyle DiMarco, Marlee Matlin and Colt Prattes as notable guest stars. More proof: Last week, Gilford declared on Twitter he's "more proud of this than anything I've done since @nbcfnl." While Gilford rarely watches his own work, he intends to break his rule and watch the first few episodes of This Close over the next several days as he switches gears and goes back to work in Atlanta on NBC's Good Girls, where he plays Mae Whitman's estranged beau. "Finding time to watch myself is just weird," he concedes, striking a hopeful tone when the topic turns back to This Close. "I hope people find it because it's a really cool show."

This Close is available for streaming now on Sundance Now.