An interview with Louanne Stephens and Liz Mikel
They aren't surgeons saving lives or CEO's making million dollar decisions. They don't have superpowers and they aren't charged with trying to save the world. What they are, are some of the strongest female characters you will ever see on television. They're the matriarchs of "Friday Night Lights" and they are the real American heroes.
"Friday Night Lights" is the story of a small Texas town that lives and breathes high school football. But as much as football is central to the theme, the show isn't about the sport at all. It's about life in a small town. It's about pinning your hopes and dreams on the one slim chance of getting out. It's about family, community and how quickly we can fall from grace by chance or our own undoing.
"There are towns all over, not just in Texas, that rally behind these sports events because that's all they have," says series co-star Liz Mikel. "Every kid wants to grow up to be the athlete. Every girl wants to date an athlete. Every parent wants to say, 'yes, my kid is playing for this team.'"
That's Dillon, Texas. A town where having a son who is the quarterback gets you a better deal on a new car or an extra portion at the local steak house, a town that's willing to bend the rules to win and spends each Sunday in church praying to God for another state championship.
But what happens when the lights go out? What happens when the pressure to be number one becomes too great? That's where the ladies come in.
Take Corrine "Mama Smash" Williams, the character Liz Mikel plays on "Friday Night Lights."
"When I first auditioned for this role, honestly, I thought it was all about the kids," says Liz with a fast-talking fanciful Southern accent. "You know, eventually the kid might come home for dinner, and here's mama fixing something – that's it. I had no earthly idea that it would be what it is.
But, whether by design or happenstance, Mama Smash became a force to be reckoned with, an important player in the world of "Friday Night Lights." And though it would have been easy to slide into the stereotypical, poor, African-American mom raising her kids on welfare, that's not where the creators decided to go.
"Here's a single mom, a widow. He's (her husband) died and she picked up the reigns. She goes to work every day, keeps her kids in line, and goes to church. She's sassy, but they've also given me the opportunity to bring some strength," said Liz. "She could have been that kind of overbearing mother, but I think the writers saw the love beyond all of those sassy words. Coupled with what I could bring to the table, being a mother, and having had a strong loving mother, I kind of colored Corrine with all of that wisdom."
Wisdom comes in a totally different form when you visit the home of benchwarmer Matt Saracen. Matt (Zach Gilford) has more responsibility than any boy his age should have. His mother is gone and his father is in Iraq leaving Matt to juggle school and football while acting as sole caretaker for his aging grandmother, Lorraine Saracen, in the early stages of Alzheimer's. "How was that character told to me when I auditioned?" says Louanne Stephens, who plays Lorraine Saracen. "Slightly brain damaged grandmother of the backup quarterback - had a wonderful ring to it."
A grandmother with Alzheimer's as a main character on a network drama?
"Isn't it incredible? Can you think of another show that's not a sitcom that has older women?" asks Louanne with a soft, slow Texas drawl. "I don't think people like to watch old people on TV cause they don't want to ever be old. And I think that's what makes "Friday Night Lights" different from other shows with teenagers. It's what makes it rich. I remember Lena Horne saying in her fabulous one-woman show, 99% of songs are about romantic love but truly 99% of life is about the family. It's these matriarchal women that run things. You know the saying, if mama ain't happy then nobody's happy, but if papa's not happy don't nobody care. In real life you're very concerned about what your mother, your grandmother, your great aunt thinks but that doesn't translate into TV."
Playing a character with dementia is no easy feat but Louanne pulls audiences in with her warm, charming Southern style. Her character is a woman who would welcome you in on a hot day for homemade lemonade and fresh baked cookies. She blushes when complimented and the pride she has for her grandson outshines the Texas sun. That's why it's so devastating to watch when her mind slips. The frustration, the confusion, the fear - it'll have you grabbing for the tissue box week after week.
"When the filming began on the first episode, Peter Berg gave me great direction. He said, 'don't play the dementia.' It made perfect sense. When you meet someone for the first time, you don't always know they have Alzheimer's and it's only when you sit there awhile that you see that. 'Let the dialogue do it' - that was the best advice he could have given me."
Like real Alzheimer's sufferers, Lorraine Saracen has her good days and her bad days. On the lighter side, she forgets to take her medicine and reminds her grandson over and over to make a sandwich even though it's sitting on the table in front of her. At the worst of times, she wanders off and settles into a neighbor's home, or sets fire to dinner on the stove.
"If you've dealt with people with this, sometimes they're fine and especially in the early stages you think maybe they're okay and I'm mixed up," says Louanne. "They'll answer correctly and understand and the next minute they might not."
And Louanne speaks from experience, as one of her passions in life is volunteering her time at a nursing home.
"I remember one woman just broke my heart. I've known her for a long time and every time I came she turned to me and quoted poetry that she'd written. Toward the end of her life, she was bedridden and I went in to see her and she wanted to sing "America the Beautiful" to me. She started and she couldn't remember the words and she just cried out, 'this is not fair'. She was so aware. I don't think that Lorraine Saracen is to that point and this year she's gotten quite a bit better than last year. I haven't gotten lost or gotten locked in the closet or burned anything lately."
But the women of Friday Night Lights are the only unusual components of this critically acclaimed series. Even the way it's filmed is unlike anything you're used to seeing on TV.
"When you shoot a TV show," says Louanne, "Usually you'll shoot the master, which is the overall scene, and then you'll shoot the close-up and you need to match what you did in the master. Here you may have three takes and every take can be different. You can rethink it. Play it a different way, even say a different line. It's kind of a joke around the cast, always be on 'cause you never know when the camera is on you."
This loose filming style works because the show is primarily shot with handheld cameras that allow the cameramen to trail after the actors wherever they go. The result is more natural looking movement and a feeling of actually being there in the same room with the characters.
Liz chimes in to agree. "This is so free. Our director of photography has such an eye for capturing the emotions. He'll catch a shot of me sitting at the table, and through the window you're actually seeing Smash and Waverly talking outside. That's very smart - very smart - because it makes it very real. It's taking you to that moment. You don't feel like you're watching it on TV, you feel like you're in the room. They're capturing the essence of what life is, and that's the beauty of it."
Another aspect that makes "Friday Night Lights" unusual is a strong religious element that runs throughout the show.
"I remember some of my friends criticizing that," says Louanne Stephens. "And I thought, they have not been in small town Texas lately, I have. The coach can't lead the prayer, the boys have to, but they still pray. You see in the NFL, it just hasn't been cool but there are lots of religious people everywhere and I'm glad. This is the way it is and we're going to show it and let the chips fall where they may. "
"I know, I know," Liz agrees and you can almost hear a chorus of Hallelujahs following. "A lot of people don't touch on it, but I think that's another reason that so many people love "Friday Night Lights," because, we do go to church in this country.
I've thought one of the most poignant moments was in the pilot episode after Jason Street got hurt, and Smash lead the team in a prayer. They fell to their knees right then. Even when I was in high school here in Texas, I've seen it at football games. At the end of the night, the team, on the field, on their knees giving thanks. Not just because they won the game. Because nobody was hurt, you know, because we're all here together, and I'm grateful that [religion] has been a common thread throughout the show. It's that side of people that we don't ordinarily see on network TV."
Normal people are what "Friday Night Lights" delivers week after week – from teenagerse, to adults, and parents who who walk that fine line between trust, love and letting go.
"I just get caught up in it," says Liz. "I watch and I get caught up in the lives of these people, even though I know they're fictitious characters. And I'm like, 'this is crazy, Liz.' You did this scene! But the emotion is so real because it touches that common thread in all of our hearts. What other show touches us like that?"
And for Louanne Stephens, playing Grandma Saracen in that small Texas town is even more personal, more emotional.
"This character that I play is all the Texas women that I've admired and loved - these feisty farm women from Odell, Texas where I'm from. It used to have two banks and a movie theater, and 90 people, but some have died. Those women are my role models. And their names - Mary Tom, Etta Faye, Etta Mae, Eva Lee - all these wonderful women that wow - I'm getting tears in my eyes."
Her voice cracks and its real and compelling just like the series she stands for.
"There are a lot of women like that out in this country," says Liz. "Women who wake up every day at the crack of dawn (and) get up and put their stockings and their shoes on and get their household in order, and keep their kids in line. We need to celebrate those women. And there are not a lot of them on TV."
Maybe that's because "Friday Night Lights" has more than its share of strong, hardworking women who put their families, God and their communities far ahead of themselves.
Editor's note: At the time of this posting, "Friday Night Lights" has been shut down for the rest of the season and the future is uncertain. It seems unlikely that NBC will air the series in the Fall of 2008 but the rumor is that the show is being shopped around to The CW, USA and other smaller networks. In the meantime, the first season of the series is available on DVD and season two will be out in May. Buy it. Watch it. Enjoy it.