Bar-Hopping With Kyle Chandler: 'Bloodline' Star on His "Dark, Evil" Period, Comedy Dreams and Return to TV
Chandler makes his TV return with Netflix's 'Bloodline' — and vows never to wear a baseball cap again.
This story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"What would you do with two hours to see Austin?" I ask Kyle Chandler as I turn off my tape recorder.
It's half past three on the first Thursday of February, and we seem to have exhausted Chandler's enthusiasm for talking about himself. We've been on the topic for the better part of two hours, ever since he blew into The Driskill hotel and suggested we bag our lunch plans and head to the bar: "You didn't want to eat, did ya?"
"Nah," I lie, trailing him through the palatial lobby, past a mounted longhorn head and a couple of cowboy-booted patrons who turn as he passes by.
A bartender fills our glasses with a "nice, heavy cab," Chandler's request, as we talk at length about his role as Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights — with which he is so closely associated, you find yourself wondering where Taylor ends and Chandler begins — and his long-awaited decision to return to television with a decidedly darker part in Netflix's Bloodline, which debuts March 20. This is the point at which we're supposed to say our goodbyes, but Chandler, a 49-year-old with impeccable manners and a mischievous disposition, wants to be sure I'm as enchanted by the Lone Star State as he is — even if it requires that he play tour guide for the afternoon.
"Lemme think," he says, pulling an iPhone from his wrinkled khakis. He tries a local dive he's hoping has live music. "Not 'til 6:30," says a voice on the other end of the line. That this is my first time in Austin, where he, his wife, Kathryn, and their two teenage daughters settled six years earlier, adds pressure. He runs his hands through his thick black hair, still thinking, and then he's got it. "How's this," he says, his Southern drawl tippling with excitement: "We go to Perla's for some oysters and a beer, then we stop by The Continental Club for a quick shot, then I'll take you to the airport."
Chandler was photographed by Miller Mobley on Jan. 29 at ACME Studio in Brooklyn, N.Y.; styling by Sam Spector.
As our adventures in afternoon drinking continue, the many sides of Chandler — the ambitious actor, the committed husband, the Texas everyman — come into clearer focus. "I'm not big or flashy," he says at one point, acknowledging that he's considerably more comfortable at a 1,400-mile distance from Hollywood's glare. His friends don't have last names like Damon or De Niro, and neither do his heroes. "It sounds dated, but James Garner is my [role model]," he says, adding of the late actor's work: "It was a career that just kept going along, a steady deal."
As Chandler's more recent choices suggest, he, too, gladly will take career over fame. He was deluged with offers when Friday Night Lights signed off in early 2011, fielding opportunities to star on Homeland, Longmire and Person of Interest, to name a few. He lunged at none of them, choosing to dabble with such films as Argo and The Wolf of Wall Street instead. The parts, like the paychecks, were significantly smaller, but they allowed him to catch his breath and, just as important, create some distance from the high school football coach role for which he earned an Emmy and legions of fans. But now, as Chandler returns to the medium that made him with 13 episodes of something new, he'll finally be able to answer a question that's been dogging him for nearly half a decade: Can he shake Coach Taylor?
Chandler never preened for the spotlight as a young boy growing up in the upscale suburbs of Chicago; nor did he clamor for it when his pharmaceutical salesman father moved the family to rural Georgia when he was just 11. "It was such a different world," says Chandler, the youngest of four. "Our mom and dad had a kennel, and we always had animals around: cows, horses, chickens. In the summertime, my dad and I would sit on the porch and share a Budweiser." Then, when Chandler was only 14, his father dropped dead from a heart attack.
All these years later, you still can feel the profound effect the loss has had on Chandler. There was a "dark, black, evil" year that followed, then a longer period of self-destructive behavior: DUIs, crashed cars and a few arrests. "My kids are at a certain age now that I think about myself at their age and think, 'F—,' " he says. "I should be dead at least 10 times over."
When I ask what ultimately snapped him out of it, his square jaw loosens into a smile. "It's still fun to take chances and do things you're not supposed to do," he says, adding coyly as I press for details: "Things that I shouldn't mention on this recording, things that are bad enough that I don't want to talk about it in the public eye."
For all of the talk about "Kyle Chandler, the good guy" (he is) and "Kyle Chandler, the family man" (he is that, too), there's also "Kyle Chandler, the bad boy." There are traces of him in many of his stories, including the one in which he landed the part of Coach Taylor over a meal with producer Peter Berg. "I was extremely hung over, and I had smoked, like, 20 cigars — it was either my birthday or someone else's birthday, but it was a big bash — and I hadn't shaved or probably showered in a few days," he tells me. "So I show up on my motorcycle, probably late, and I just remember him looking at me and going: 'That. That's exactly what I f—ing want right there, just do that.' "
The motorcycle habit continues, and so do the birthday bashes, the cigars and the booze. But he's turned that love of risk-taking to more productive ends, too, including a side gig as a volunteer fireman. Until Chandler relocated to the Florida Keys to film Bloodline last year, he'd been putting in a 24-hour shift each week at the local firehouse, though given its potential danger, he kept quiet about it on the Friday Night Lights set. "You walk into a burning building with a hose, and it's a rush," he says, "a f—ing blast." (He still has his black hat and intends to go back when life settles down again.)
It's not hard to sense the pride Chandler feels about the world he's created in Texas: the 33-acre spread the family has a half-hour up the road, the army of dogs and donkeys his wife has assembled and the simpler life that his two daughters, Sydney, 19, and Sawyer, 13, have been able to enjoy. He's a regular fixture at the girls' volleyball matches and soccer games, though he's left the coaching to his wife, a former model to whom he's been married nearly 20 years. "Kyle's not like some of these young actors nowadays who pull their entitlement out of their pocket and shove it in everybody's face," says his college pal Trent Bross. "He's a 'yes, ma'am,' 'yes, sir,' 'thank you please' kind of guy. He was raised a good Southern boy."
Before long, Chandler and I are back on the subject of his father, whose death is a key reason he became an actor. "As a kid, that was so brutal that I think that's what made me turn inside myself to try to figure out what I'm supposed to be," he says, staring off wistfully. "I started looking at other people trying to fit in, trying to do all that, and I think that's why I got into acting. I started looking up to role models, looking for father figures in films."
A few credits shy of graduating from the University of Georgia, Chandler and his buddy Trent, both drama majors, boarded a train to New York City to audition at an ABC talent showcase. Chandler was among the dozen or so awarded a development deal; he scored a first-class ticket to Hollywood and an introduction on Entertainment Tonight.
"I was just dumb enough to think that I could pull it off, and then once I got out there and started making enough money to live, I thought, 'OK, I might be able to do this,' " he says. "It's like gambling: You keep pulling the arm, and you know nickels are going to come out eventually."
In those early days, Chandler would shuttle between auditions and paying jobs — bouncing at The Palace, bartending at Gorky's — until he landed a part on CBS' Vietnam drama Tour of Duty; one episode turned into three, then eight and then it was pulled. Next came Homefront, a 1940s-set drama on ABC, then Early Edition at CBS. But Chandler didn't secure his spot on TV's A-list until Friday Night Lights, which premiered in 2006 on NBC.
The irony, of course, is that Chandler had reservations about taking the Coach Taylor role. "Billy Bob [Thornton] played the original coach [in the 2004 movie], and I thought, 'I'm not old enough, I don't have that,' " he says. Plus, he wasn't exactly a sports buff, much less an athlete. "He's not that guy who's going to sit down on Sunday and watch eight hours of football," says Taylor Kitsch (who played FNL's Tim Riggins), with whom he bonded during long motorcycle rides. Chandler found inspiration in a biography of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick but acknowledges: "I couldn't coach my way out of a paper bag." (He's still asked to speak to coaches and teams and politely declines.)
Chandler was more at ease playing husband and father, both familiar roles made more comfortable by his close relationship with co-star Connie Britton (Tami Taylor). The pair hit if off during a multiday drive they did together from Los Angeles to Austin after the series was ordered. "Pete Berg used to joke that he was terrified we would hook up and get together and destroy [Kyle's] marriage, which thankfully was never, ever a problem," Britton says, laughing.
It was important to both actors that their onscreen marriage not be marred by the type of philandering behavior that Hollywood writers rooms often thrive on, a point both actors conveyed while shooting the pilot. "There's an old falsity that a working relationship is not going to be something interesting to watch," she says, "and I like to argue that Kyle and I proved that falsity wrong." The co-stars would meet at the same coffee shop before every episode to run through their scenes, which they often would ad-lib.
The series showrunner, Jason Katims, remembers getting calls from Chandler about the dialogue. "Kyle would say, 'You see this speech on page 28,' and I'd open my script to page 28, and there'd be like a huge, awesome speech for him, a half-page speech that you'd think an actor would be like, 'Yes, I'm going to sink my teeth in,' and he'd say to me, 'You know what I think Coach would say there? Nothing,' " says Katims, chuckling in his retelling. "I'd be like, 'What?' And he'd say, 'Yeah, I think I can do that with a look.' And he was always right. Over time, I just trusted him. As much as any actor I've ever worked with, it was as much about what came between the lines as it was what he said."
Though Chandler speaks affectionately about his time on FNL and has remained tight with Britton and Kitsch, it was he who hit the brakes on a movie follow-up. Katims had taken a pass at a script, and Netflix is said to be the last place that tried to make it happen, but Chandler acknowledges he's not interested. "The show ended perfectly," he says. "It was five seasons, it was really good, and I just didn't see a movie."
By the time FNL wrapped in 2011, Chandler had become one of the hottest commodities in television. "Every show where there was a 40-year-old male lead he was offered," says Gersh's Leslie Siebert, who has represented Chandler since Early Edition. (Cynthia Pett at Brillstein has an even longer tenure as his manager.) Among those feverishly courting him was Sony programming president Jamie Erlicht. "He's such a versatile presence onscreen," says the studio exec, "and he's capable of getting a subtlety and bringing it to life in a way that so few actors are able to do."
But Chandler, together with his reps, made a strategic decision to focus on film for a while. In short order, he scored roles in Zero Dark Thirty (as a CIA station chief), Argo (White House chief of staff) and Wolf of Wall Street (an FBI agent), all Oscar-nominated movies. "My friends started making fun of me," he says of the string of authority-figure roles: " 'What suit-and-tie role are you doing now?' " Chandler did a handful of indies, too, including The Spectacular Now, where he plays a deadbeat alcoholic dad, and the not-yet-released Todd Haynes project, Carol, where he plays a jealous husband to his lesbian wife (Cate Blanchett).
The more he did on the big screen, the more discerning he became about the choices he'd make on the small one: "All of a sudden, I'm working with a few of the best directors in the business and a few of the best actors in the business," he says, "and I guess I was a little spooked by stepping into something I wouldn't have been pleased with, so I was cautious."
Then, in February 2013, Showtime announced it had lured Chandler back to TV. He'd star in its provocative religious drama, The Vatican, from Oscar nominees Paul Attanasio and Ridley Scott. The Sony-produced entry was a pet project of then-studio chief Amy Pascal, and it would reteam Chandler with Showtime president David Nevins, who'd been a producer on FNL and is, in Chandler's estimation, "good people." It had all the elements Chandler was after: a pedigreed cast and crew, the creative freedoms of cable and an opportunity to shed some of that Coach Taylor association. Plus, he adds, "I was getting hungry for [a series]." Ordering just a pilot felt like a formality; a series order was all but inevitable.
But the project took a sharp turn while shooting in Rome. The footage Nevins received was underwhelming, with Chandler, ostensibly the series' star, absent from large swaths of the pilot. They were sent back to reshoot scenes with more of Chandler, but it was too late; the final product was, as Pascal later noted in an email to Nevins, "a complete, colossal bust," and Showtime pulled the plug.
"The Vatican was a misstep," allows Siebert, who faults herself since she'd pushed the perceived prestige project on her client. Chandler, who had been hesitant about having to uproot his family initially, insists he quickly moved on. "I saw the final pilot, and I saw why it didn't work out," he acknowledges, "but I don't regret one bit of it." Still, he seems genuinely surprised to hear Attanasio has been in talks with Netflix on a new iteration.
Before the official word came down on Vatican, Chandler already had sat down with Bloodline co-creator Glenn Kessler, who'd flown in to meet the actor at the Four Seasons' bar in the fall of 2013.
Kessler and his partners, brother Todd and longtime collaborator Daniel Zelman, were working on their next thriller, which aimed to do for the family drama what their FX darling Damages had done for the legal one. They'd sold it to Netflix off a verbal pitch, and they wanted Chandler to star. They promised they'd work with him to craft the character, just as they'd done with Glenn Close years earlier.
A hard sell wasn't necessary. By then, Chandler had devoured the first season of Damages, and he loved the idea not only of working at Netflix but also of doing something considerably darker than FNL. A couple months later, Kessler returned to Austin with his two partners and a script. Chandler was in.
The trio of producers were struck by what Chandler could bring to the Sony-produced series — both his "fearlessness" as an actor and his familiarity with viewers. "In the beginning, some of the qualities that an audience has come to know and love in Coach are present in John Rayburn," Kessler says of Chandler's character, who had been the family golden boy. But that stature gets called into question when Rayburn's black-sheep older brother (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to their Florida Keys inn and the family's shameful secrets are at risk of being exposed. "As things get more complicated for John, he starts to make choices and take actions that will be more challenging for his audience," adds Kessler, "and it's a terrific resource as a storyteller to know that the audience is starting with an allegiance to this guy and that they're going to root for him." (You'll never see Chandler in a baseball cap on Bloodline, another subtle way to differentiate Rayburn from Taylor.)
Chandler stepped up as a leader on Bloodline's Islamorada, Fla., set, just as he had on FNL. He'd host big parties at a house he'd rented on the beach, and invite everyone out on his brother's boat. Though he became tight with the whole cast, including Sissy Spacek and Linda Cardellini, he grew closest to supporting player Jamie McShane. When Chandler found out on the first night that the veteran actor didn't have a car with him, he generously offered up his, just as he later would his motorcycle, his boat and his home. "I had just met the guy, and he's like, 'Take my Jeep,' " says McShane. "I say: 'I'm not going to take your Jeep. You don't even know me.' He's like, 'Eh, I don't care, just take it.' "
Soon, the reviews for Bloodline will begin pouring in, and Chandler is prepared to read all of them, just as he has the critiques of his other work. "You're damn right I [read them]," he jokes, adding of the good ones: "I pin them up in my room." A few days after I leave him, this magazine publishes one that would belong above his bed. It touts Bloodline as "a riveting, superbly cast slow-burn family drama … serving up startling moments in meticulously measured doses." Of its lead, THR critic David Rooney writes: "The return of Chandler and his warm gravitas to complex TV drama will be cause for rejoicing for Friday Night Lights fans, and this looks to be a juicy role for him."
Chandler unlocks the passenger door of his new Mustang GT, which he's parked in a lot down the street from The Driskill, and tosses his daughter's chess set into the backseat so that I can slip in. Bob Dylan sings through the speakers as we drive to Perla's.
We arrive just in time for happy hour and snag a seat at the bar, where the bartender is happy to see him. Chandler has a dozen oysters and a cold beer; I order the tuna tartare and nurse a Stella. We talk some more, about books we're reading (he's loving Rory MacLean's Berlin), TV shows we watch (he's a Game of Thrones fan) and parts of the world we still want to see (he and Kathryn have been talking about Spain). Eventually, we weave our way back to FNL, which began when Kevin Reilly was running NBC. "I loved Kevin," he says. "Where's he now? NBC Sports?" Turner, I tell him. "Right," he says, but it's clear he doesn't keep close tabs on the industry's machinations. So who's running NBC now, he asks? "Green something?" Bob Greenblatt, I tell him. He nods, though I'm not sure the name registers.
What else does he want to do? I ask at one point. His wife's been taking writing classes at UT, but he says that doesn't appeal to him. Neither does directing. He tried it on FNL. "Didn't thrill me," he shrugs. He thinks stage acting would be interesting, and he's desperate to do a comedy. I must do a poor job of masking my surprise because suddenly Chandler is trying to convince me that he's funny, which in itself is funny. "Come on," he says, "Tami and I had some good family dry moments." Sure, I say, but nobody walked away from FNL thinking, "Wow, that Kyle Chandler is a barrel of laughs." "Yeah, yeah," he says. "I could turn a double take like nobody's business, and then that Coach Taylor just washed all of it away."
Chandler's been lining up other gigs as he waits on a second season of Bloodline. He met with writer-director Kenneth Lonergan in New York the week before and landed a role in his dark family flick, Manchester-by-the-Sea, opposite Casey Affleck. Chandler's team still is hammering out a deal, but he's hard at work on a Boston accent. "You really don't want to screw that up," he says. His plan is to head up to Scituate, Mass., a week or so ahead of time and hang at bars just listening to locals. "If I'm lucky," he tells me, "I find some guy who I can give a hundred bucks to read all my lines on a tape and have that to go off of."
As 5 p.m. approaches, I start to get antsy about my flight, and he suggests we grab that drink across the street and get going. At The Continental Club, he orders us a pair of Wild Turkey shots. It goes down easier for him than it does me, but he's too polite to say anything, and soon we're back in the car. Kathryn calls as we're driving to the airport, surprised as I am that he's "still with the reporter." Does she want to be interviewed for the story? he asks. "No way," she says, adoring but definitive. She just wants him to pick up a carton of milk and some AAA batteries for the TV remote on his way home. Minutes later, we arrive at the Austin airport. Chandler pulls my carry-on out of his trunk and hugs me goodbye. I wish him luck on Bloodline. "Thanks," he says, with a warm smile. "I really hope this one works."