Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: By his own admission, Brad Leland continues “to play bad guys, rednecks, and cowboys, and all those sidekick-type characters.” But of all the shit kickers the actor has played, none endures like Buddy Garrity, who begins the TV version of Friday Night Lights as a pushy, nosy high school football booster and ends the series as one of the most sympathetic figures in the fictional West Texas town of Dillon. The drama celebrated its 10th anniversary at this year’s ATX Television Festival, where The A.V. Club spoke with Leland about Buddy’s redemptive arc, the time-killing habit he shares with Paul Rudd, and the surprising audition he gave for Thomas Haden Church.
Friday Night Lights (2004)—“John Aubrey”
Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)—“Buddy Garrity”
Deepwater Horizon (2016)—“Kaluza”
The A.V. Club: You have a long-standing relationship with Peter Berg—did that start with the Friday Night Lights movie?
Brad Leland: It did. It’s funny, because it was here [in Texas], and I had not yet had an audition. And I saw Peter walking through the lobby of the hotel, and he was walking with this little entourage. And I’d yet to hear from my agent. I knew the movie was going to happen. But I walked by [Berg], and I just looked at him. And I’d never met him. And he kind of did a double take. And I don’t know what it was about the way I looked at him or what clothes I had on, but I knew. I was like, “Why is he looking at me like that? Because I want to see that guy. I want to go in and audition for him for this picture.” And I’ll be danged if the next day I didn’t get a call.
And that’s where that improv thing really started. That’s what we did in the audition. Because we had the script, and Peter would take it to the limit, and he asked me questions, and I came out of there in a fervor, because that’s what he had done. He let us improv through the whole thing. And having recently done a film with him, he’s still doing it. It’s just a tremendous way of working—some people don’t like it. But I really enjoy it when you have a director that knows you well enough, that can push your buttons and take you to new places, and you can find out things about characters that even the writers didn’t know—and you didn’t know before you started.
AVC: You played football in high school. What was it like to return to that world for the movie and then seep yourself in it for the TV show?
BL: The idea of high school football had never really gone away, because I was on the state championship team, so we still played, and we went to games. In my school, at that time, our coaches were so well-respected that they didn’t have a lot of Buddy Garritys and dads who were getting involved. They just said, “Okay, whatever that coach says that’s what’s going to happen.” So I didn’t draw that character from my own life experience. I drew it from having watched over all those years.
AVC: Looking back on the series, how do you feel about Buddy’s arc? He begins as almost a villain, but at the end, he’s one of Coach Taylor’s closest allies, second only to Tami.
BL: Having been a theater person first, you have the whole character, and you see the arc of the character in a play. And then when you do a movie, you have the whole character—or, if it’s a small role, there’s not much arc, but you see what the whole part is. And having done television—but never having done television where I had a character that lasted for years and had an arc that occurred over such a long period of time—the first day we shot, I was very surprised at the way scenes were cut and things were changed. On the first episode, when Jason Street gets hurt: That’s my future son-in-law. He’s the quarterback of my football team. Don’t think Buddy Garrity wouldn’t cry his eyes out, wouldn’t be just as sad, if not more sad, as Coach Taylor. But think how it would’ve ruined things if they had left it in there. Now, me being so happy to have that role and realizing what Buddy Garrity was fully, at that moment, it killed me that that scene was edited. But then they explained it to me—that can’t happen. We have to have this conflict between Coach and Buddy. We can’t have Coach having the same scene Buddy’s having. And we don’t need to see that about him yet. He’s got a long way to go, and things have to happen to him before that happens.
My actor ego was saying, “Golly, I hate that stuff getting cut.” But it took me about one or two episodes to trust them and know what they were dong. As the years went by, I could actually see how what we did affected what they wrote, and vice versa. It was fun to see how that arc works in television, how they can stretch it out. It was tremendous for me to finally have people come up and tell me, “You make us laugh. We used to hate you, but now we love you.”
I don’t think anyone realized—except the writers, who were brilliant—that this was a universal story. It just happens to take place in a Texas town, and it happens to be centered around high school football. But it’s not a show about football. It’s a show about community and relationships and your girlfriend and your teachers, and everybody in the world has those. And we’re learning now that this show being broadcast in other parts of the world has just as much effect. I’m doing a show right now in Paris [Le Bureau Des Légendes], playing a completely different character, but I can walk down the streets of Paris, and people know Buddy Garrity.
AVC: Do you have a favorite episode?
BL: I can’t say that I do. There was a scene that was omitted, which was fun and nobody ever talks about it—we went to a town that was extremely religious, and they wanted to beat us really badly. And we were in a hotel, and I remember the coaches and I were in a hotel room playing cards. A bit of the scene is in there—Coach Taylor’s playing cards with us, and we’re having a couple of drinks the night before the game. And then Coach leaves, and that’s where they cut it. But what really happened that night was we ended up all having this scene where we all got very drunk, and we ended up playing pillow tackle football in this hotel room. And I’m talking about the big old coaches and Buddy and some of the little coaches and Billy Riggins. And we were literally tearing up the set, which was a hotel room—a large one—running across the bed, tackling each other, throwing pillow passes, catching them, jumping over furniture. By the end of the scene, they just kept shooting and shooting, two or three hours of demolishing this room. And then cut to the next morning, and they had us strewn throughout the room, laying in piles, and we were all obviously passed out from the night before. And they open the scene, and I can remember, I was standing there, and I thought, “Okay, how does this start?” And I just went [Makes fart noise.], and they went “God! Brad! That was real!” And I said, “No, it wasn’t!” And they said, “It sounded too real.” So I did another one, and we were laughing our butts off. What a scene, and how much fun, and how many hours were spent. Not a bit of it was ever shown to anyone.
Veep—“Senator Bill O’Brien” (2012-present)
BL: I don’t get to be there as much, but it’s been a joy to continue to go back. You know everybody, and everybody feels the same. “Where you been? We’ve been talking about you behind your back for the whole season! For five episodes, we’ve been annihilating you. It’s good to finally see you.” And I’m like, “Well, what did you guys say?” “Oh, you’ll find out.” And then I finally find out what they do to me. It’s not near as bad as what they do to Jonah! Poor Jonah. They’re rough on Senator O’Brien, but they’re rough on everybody on that show.
AVC: As someone who comes from theater, do you enjoy the way scenes are rehearsed on Veep, with additions and subtractions from the script made along the way?
BL: I love the rehearsal, as long as it’s not over-rehearsed. I love it when the actors can rehearse until we feel really comfortable, and then the crew come in and shoot it. I’m not especially a big fan of rehearsing with the crew and the crew rehearsing and, “Let’s rehearse this tracking dolly shot 25 times until it’s just right.” I’m a definite fan of the Steadicam, handheld technique that we used on Friday Night Lights. And some people are incorporating it in some ways. But television has to be shot a certain way to have a certain look. And sometimes the tried-and-true method is the best. You see a lot of that master shot, and that two-shot, and then over-the-shoulders, and then close-ups. It’s much more difficult. But I do enjoy the rehearsal as long as it’s very free-spirited.
Parks And Recreation—“Fester Trim” (2012)
AVC: There’s a bit of overlap between Senator O’Brien on Veep and city council candidate Fester Trim on Parks And Recreation.
BL: And a dream come true in a way. For some reason as a kid growing up in Lubbock, Texas, I always thought I was going to go to UCLA. I think it was because they had such great sports teams, and it was in California, where the actors were. But even though I was talking about being an actor when I was young, I was first going to be a football player. My dream was “I’m going to go to UCLA and be a football player.” By the time I was in high school, I wasn’t talented enough and knew that I wasn’t going to be a professional football player—nor was I going to be playing football at UCLA. I tore up my knee, and it made it sort of easy to be an actor. And I dropped that whole idea of going to UCLA.
And I’ll be danged—30-whatever years it was later, I get paid to be brought in to Beverly Hills and stay in a fantastic hotel and driven to the set—at UCLA. We shot that debate scene in the theater on campus. And one of my little dreams came true. The only thing was I wasn’t an athlete. I was Fester Trim. I asked them, “Where did you get that name? It’s odd.” But before I said anything bad about it—“Well, that lighting guy right over there, his name is Fester.” I went, “Oh! Hi, Fester, nice to meet you!”
Paul Rudd and I stood on stage doing debate speeches and doing improv comments and drawing cartoons. He was at his podium, and I was at mine, and I wondered what he’d been drawing on his legal pad all day. Because in between shots, you’re just standing there waiting. I was just over there doodling and drawing pictures. I have a tendency to do that. We compared notes somewhere near the middle of the day, and his little legal pad was full of the same stuff mine was. Just silly pictures. “Oh, Paul Rudd and I are both nuts! We draw pictures!”
Walker, Texas Ranger (1994-1998)—“Bobby”/“Ridgeway”/“Deputy Roy”/ “Horton”/“Luke”/“Carl Wade”/“Joey Dunbar”
AVC: This might be one of the places where IMDB gets it wrong, but your listing for Walker, Texas Ranger has you in seven episodes, each as a different character.
BL: I think I did seven or eight. It might have been every year but one. But the fact of the matter is, yes—each year you could come back as a new bad guy. So I did. You thought, well, once you got on that show, you’re done forever like most shows. No, that wasn’t the way it worked on Walker, and there’s lots of actors in my boat who got to come back on Walker, year after year, and get beat up by Chuck Norris—or one of his stuntmen. And one year, I even got beat up by Clarence Gilyard. It was a good job for us. That’s one of those great shows that continues to play forever and ever. It lives forever in what we call “The Land Of Las Residualas.” If you know you what I mean.
AVC: Have any Chuck Norris stories?
BL: I was playing a former boxer. And the camera was on me, and [Chuck’s] stuntman was standing in. It was supposed to be a roundhouse punch where Chuck knocks out this former boxer, who’s overweight, and I think it was the last time I had really short hair and was really clean shaven. Really young, too. So the camera’s pointing toward me, and the stuntman and I had rehearsed the scene, but for some reason, he got a little too close, or maybe I leaned in, and he landed that punch right on my forehead. And when I looked up, I saw the whole crew turn white. Most of the crew ran. The stunt coordinator, Chuck, the stuntman, and the medic came running over, because it looked like big-time wrestling. My face was completely covered in blood. It was a pretty good-sized gash on the forehead, so they said, “Well, we’re going to take you in and get some stitches.” I didn’t see it. They put ice on it, got me laying down and whatnot. They had it taken care of. It stung a little bit, but I didn’t mind.
The driver’s taking me to the emergency room of one of the major hospitals of Dallas, where I was going to be stitched up, right there on my forehead where my actor face is, by some guy in the emergency room. And I was talking to my agent. I said, “They’re taking me to the emergency room,” and she said “No.” She said, “They need to take you to a plastic surgeon so you don’t have a big, old, brand-new scar to deal with. You do make a living with your face!” So I said, “Good idea!”
And it happened quickly. Great production company, because in a second that driver turned around to the finest part of town where they had the finest plastic surgeons—like the Beverly Hills plastic surgeons of Dallas. Well, I ended up knowing the guy and knowing his family, and he did a tremendous job. And it was one of those experiences you don’t even believe, because I can remember, to calm me down, they gave me a Valium, and then believe it or not, they asked me if I’d like a cocktail, and then they give me some headphones to listen to some music while I sat there, waiting to get my head stitched up. And I was in this really cool, old-fashioned antique barber chair, which was stretched out. And they did a beautiful job—you can’t even see it. It’s right on a wrinkle line. I think that’s the only time I got hurt, though.
AVC: How did working with Chuck on Walker compare to working with Steven Seagal on The Patriot?
BL: They were both very nice gentlemen. Steven Seagal was a much different—we were in Montana, and he was very quirky, but very kind to me. And, again, beat the crap out of me. It was one of those things where he hit me 25 times in 10 seconds, knocked me into a candy machine through some glass, and my character was gone. So it was very similar in that respect.
AVC: Have you had a lot of experiences with fake glass?
BL: I have a few. The old beer bottle over the head in the saloon. I’ve done a lot of falling. I’ve fallen off of a horse. We’ve had a lot of gunplay. Quite a few fistfights and stage combat fights. Even in Friday Night Lights, Buddy Jr. and I chased after each other, and I grabbed him off the fence and threw him down. And that scene was us—no stunts there. And even the scene when Buddy gets in a big brawl in the strip club, we did that ourselves, too. We did have some stunt doubles who came in and did some long shots. What was terribly tragic was my stunt double ended up tearing his ACL when he was doing that scene, and he had to do three takes with a torn ACL. Luckily we got that scene, but we did a lot of good close-ups where Buddy was beating that guy. And he should’ve, because that guy was really small. And the whole scene was that Buddy was out of control. There’s been a lot of stage combat over the years, and I’ve loved it. Started in college with Shakespeare. I’ve always liked the active things.
BL: That was my first job on TV. Got my union card on Dallas.
AVC: How did that come about?
BL: I had been doing plays. I was doing One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, playing McMurphy, being very physical. In those days, as odd and horrifying as it may be to the readers, Buddy Garrity was in a thong, playing McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest with the audience members within eight feet. It was a different body from Buddy Garrity in those days.
This agent saw the play, and I didn’t have an agent at the time. I knew I wanted to do film and television, but he came up to me after the show, and he said, “Do you have an agent?” And I said “No.” And he said, “Do you want one?” And I said, “Yes.” I knew who the casting directors were in this part of the world, the main ones, and I said, “I tell you what: If you get me meetings with these four ladies, I’ll sign.” And within 10 days I had met all four of them. Within two weeks, I had a job on Dallas, had my one line on Dallas and paid my union dues, and the rest is history.
Got Silverado right after that, which was really lucky. My first TV show was Dallas, and within a month or two, I got cast in Silverado by Lawrence Kasdan and got to go to Santa Fe for a couple of weeks. Even though nearly everything was cut that we did. Ended up with my one line in Silverado, and that was the beginning.
AVC: Do you remember what that one line is?
BL: Absolutely. [Clears throat.] “This is the man, sergeant. He claims the animal was stolen.”
AVC: And what about your line from Dallas?
BL: My first line from Dallas? Oh yeah! Truck driver, sitting at the breakfast café, truck stop. “Hey, girl, what does it take to get a cup of coffee around here?”
AVC: Was it common for Dallas to cast those types of roles from the theater community?
BL: Yes. And as with Walker, I ended up coming back, always a different character. It was common in those days. If you weren’t going to be memorable, they’d recast you.
AVC: Outside of the Westerns, Dallas and Friday Night Lights are arguably the most iconically “Texan” TV shows. How do you feel about being associated with that legacy?
BL: Fortunate. Very fortunate to have been able to live in Texas nearly the entire time, to have the career I’ve had, to raise my family here. I was in California for a short time. Didn’t really want to live there. Felt more comfortable here. So it was nice that I was able to live here and still work.
BL: The story that goes behind that was Thomas Haden Church was directing, his first directing job, and I went in to read for another role. I was supposed be reading for a cop or some regular guy that I always read for. Beth Sepko [who cast Friday Night Lights] was the casting director, and Tom whispered something to her ear, and suddenly Beth goes, “Brad, we have an idea.” Tom said—we knew each other, we had the same agent at the time—“Can you do a woman’s voice?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I just had this idea that it would be fun if you played Dot the waitress. Because looking like you look, I want it to be very”—he had a word for what he wanted her to look like. It was more descriptive of what I can think of at this moment. It was very spot-on.
And I thought, “Well, I’ve always imitated my mother and her sweet Southern accent, and I can do my mother’s voice perfectly.” So I did my mother’s voice, and they both fell on the floor laughing and rolling. And so did I. And it was so odd, and he said, “That’s exactly what I want.” And then they walked out and told the ladies who were waiting to read for that role, “Forget about that role. We want you to read something else.” None of those major actresses who were in to read for that ever knew, until later, that I was the one. It was quite an experience. The voice that came out of this big, ugly face was absolutely unnerving. Luckily people laughed.
We had to work on those breasts. Tom wanted her to be very heavy-breasted. In the beginning, the Styrofoam wasn’t working, because it just looked like B-52s. So they ended up using birdseed, which ended up helping me understand these poor ladies. After wearing semi-heels and birdseed all day, my back hurt really bad. They got me in great makeup early in the day, but nine hours later, I had a five-o’clock shadow, so Dot was pretty damn ugly.
AVC: Is that the most involved costume you’ve ever had to wear for a role?
BL: I wouldn’t say that, but it was involved, simply because it was uncomfortable—shooting here and hot. Well, probably, because I had the wig, which made me sweat. The makeup, which had to be redone. And they never reshaved me, so that is odd. Maybe for all those reasons, it was a tough one. It’s always tough to do a Western or anything period piece here, because of the heavy wool costumes you’re wearing in Texas in the summer.
AVC: You got to use your mother’s voice for Dot. Is there any aspect of your native accent that you haven’t been able to use for a role at this point? What’s a Texan that you haven’t played?
BL: I don’t know if there is one. And there’s so many Texas accents. There’s four distinct ones—North, South, East, and West. Like all dialects, they have to do with the population. They have to do with the climate. I revel in that I can do all of those. Those have filtered now into other Southern accents. I love playing Cajuns, and I just recently got involved in doing a New Orleans accent, which is different from doing a Cajun. It’s always fun when I throw in something New York, and they can’t believe it’s coming out of my mouth.
I have a good time with accents. I got to audition for Fargo. I didn’t get the role yet. Hopefully, I’ll still get one, but working on that [Affects Midwestern accent.] “Minn-soh-tah,” that was fun. “Ya know.”
Mafia III (2016)—“Lou Marcano”
AVC: You have a few voice acting credits on your résumé. Is that an area you’re interested in pursuing further?
BL: Most recently, I’m in a new game, Mafia III. But it’s not just a voice. I’m the whole character, which has been animated, and we do the full suits that you do, and they animate it. That was a 1968 mafia New Orleans sound, which I had a very good dialect coach for that one.
AVC: What’s the motion-capture experience like?
BL: I love motion-capture, because you’re just free. It’s like when you’re a little kid, and you say, “Okay, we’re the army men. We’re going over the mountain.” Or, in this case, “We’re walking through the swamp” or “Walking through the casino.” And it’s just a blank room. But it’s not called a room. They call it a “volume.” You don’t walk to the sound stage. You don’t walk onto the set. You walk into the volume.
AVC: “The volume”—it sounds so futuristic.
BL: And it feels that way while they’re shooting it. It’s a little different, but it’s pretty much the same: You do your words, faces, and gestures all at the same time. And you’re in those suits. Which you would think are restrictive and hot, but they’re not. It’s actually very comfortable. They give you good posture.
The only thing weird about them is that camera is right in front of your face. So you’re talking to the other character. There’s two cameras between your eyes and his. So you’re trying to look at their eyes, but all you’re seeing is a camera right in front of your eyes.