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Homegrown Star

Matt Lauria may often play a tough guy on TV, but in casual conversation, it only takes a few moments for his sensitive side to rise to the forefront. In fact, the first words out of his mouth, following a very polite greeting, involve an offer to move a phone call over to Zoom, just so his facial expressions can be seen and all of his answers during a wide-ranging interview can be received as they’re intended, with authenticity and sincerity.

That dichotomy has been evident throughout Lauria’s nearly two decades as a working actor, in which he has become known for playing hardened characters—a high school football star in Friday Night Lights, a professional mixed martial artist and ex-con in Kingdom, an investigator with a traumatic past in CSI: Vegas—who also display the full gamut of emotions.

It was in Orlando that he first learned to tap into that well of feelings as a student at the renowned Dr. Phillips High School Theatre Magnet Program, which has also produced other distinguished alumni like Wayne Brady, Joey Fatone and Ashley Eckstein. Lauria credits the experience with getting him laser-focused on acting and fueling his desire to build a career on stage or in front of the camera.

Lauria, who turns 41 this month, made his television debut with an episode of 30 Rock, and after breaking through in the role of Luke Cafferty on Friday Night Lights, he reteamed with creator Jason Katims on the critically acclaimed series Parenthood. In addition to his television work, he has also appeared in films like Miss Bala, Shaft and 80 for Brady, alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

He spoke to us about his high school years in Central Florida, some of the most notable roles he’s enjoyed playing and the next steps he’d like to take in his career.


It seems like you caught the acting bug pretty early in life. Do you think your father, who was also involved in the arts as an animator, heavily influenced you?

I would say it was both my mother and my father. Obviously, my dad was an animator, and I think of animators as actors with pencils and paintbrushes, so we were always around a pretty zany, imaginative and unusual crowd as kids. And then my mother, whose career conversely was decidedly more technical—she was a statistician, so [she was dealing with] numbers and things that were much more tangible than illusory, imaginative arts—she’s a great lover of Shakespeare and the arts. There was a time when my family moved to Dublin, Ireland, and in that transition we home schooled for the first year. Most of what we did was the retelling of many of the Shakespeare plays, comedies particularly. We would build sets and make little clay figures. We were only 7 and 8 years old, my sisters and I, and I think that was my first exposure to the arts. We would also learn poems, some of the more mention-worthy, indispensable poems of the modern canon.


When did you really start to pursue acting?

I can tell you this, which might be a feather in the cap for the Orlando reader: My real passion for acting and the theater was completely nurtured and developed in Orlando. When I moved back to the United State from Ireland, I was going into eighth grade, and I went to Southwest Middle School in Dr. Phillips. I don’t remember the specific class schedule, but you could choose from a rotating group of classes and it was either like art, theater and woodwork, or computer science, business and technology. I said, “Well, definitely not technology or computer science, because who will ever need that?” (Laughs) So I took the art classes and that’s when I did my first monologue in front of the school that I had to memorize, which I’m sure was way more humiliating to me than I probably remember.


How did things progress from there?

Over the summer, a friend of mine from that drama class was volunteering for a beautiful organization called Serenity House. If memory serves, because this was now 27 years ago, it was an organization in Orlando that supported single mothers and children who had been affected by HIV and AIDS. We were putting on a play that was going to raise money for them, and I remember rehearsing in an abandoned mall and anywhere we could get space. That friend, who got me involved in that play, was auditioning for the Dr. Phillips High School Visual and Performing Arts Magnet Program that was run by Karen Rugerio at the time. So I auditioned and by the grace of God, got accepted, because I know my audition was absolutely abhorrent. Maybe she took pity on me, I don’t know. Then it became my entire life—it’s all I did in high school and it’s all I wanted to do for the rest of my life.


That program at Dr. Phillips is internationally recognized and has turned out many notable actors and entertainers. What do you remember about it?

It was an 850-900-seat theater. We were running the fly system, we were running the lights—the kids were doing everything. We were running the office and doing the purchase orders, building the sets, using heavy machinery to cut the wood and everything. I loved it so much that even at lunchtime, I would go into the theater and just be there, even if I was by myself. We would rehearse until 11 o’clock at night. It was all I ever wanted to do and it was all I did.


Wayne Brady also spoke to us about Karen Rugerio. She seems like a pretty special person who influenced a lot of different people.

Definitely. I would go back there and visit [when I was older] and see high schoolers, and they looked so tiny to me. They looked like children, but at the time, she never made us feel that way. To run a theater and to be given the responsibilities we were given, she instilled in everybody a sense of agency and sovereignty. She gave me a passion for the craft and the art of theater. We also had an English teacher named Sue Porro who worked closely in conjunction with the drama program, so most of our literary education … was related to the world of theater and the great works. It was very immersive, and my oldest friends are from that program and most of them are in New York City working as union stagehands on Broadway. It’s a really special place.


Is that what you envisioned for yourself, a career on Broadway?

Not working as a stagehand because I always wanted to be an actor, but yeah, that was the dream. But life takes you on a very individual journey. … I auditioned for all of these conservatory programs—really intense, drama training programs—and I got close on many of them, waitlisted or called back, but never got into any of them. I had done a play that was well received at the Florida Theater Conference my senior year of high school, but then I went away to Colorado for the summer to work as a ranchhand, because I didn’t have any college prospects. But because of that play I had done, I got accepted to a school called the Florida School of the Arts in Palatka. I don’t think my mom wanted me to work as a ranchhand forever—and by the way, it’s a great line of work and I admire anybody who does it—so she got me all set up there and I did my first year of college in Florida. Then I realized pretty soon that it was time to move on, because I had learned a lot and I was also in love with a girl I had met while I was ranchhanding and she lived in California, so that precipitated a move to Los Angeles. That woman is now my wife.


But you eventually made it to New York, right?

It took me about another three years of auditioning and just living in LA, working, going to school and skateboarding in Venice Beach, and then eventually I went back and went to [drama] school in North Carolina. By the time I got to New York City, many of my friends had already been up there for seven years. I finally got up there in 2007, and by then I was married and had far better living standards as a husband. (Laughs) Aside from that, I would have been living in squalor with my best friends from high school and just living the dream. The dream was always to have a ratty apartment in New York City and develop a theater company together and do the [acting] thing. My standards were a little higher because of my wife, but we still did a lot of that. We did our Shakespeare readings every week, and then you’re just grinding, living in New York City and making your way into the business. I loved every minute of it.


When did your big break come?

When you’re living and working in New York City, everything feels like a big break. Any break at all is monumental. High view, I would say Friday Night Lights changed the trajectory of my career and I probably owe a lot of the successes that I’ve had to having been blessed with being a part of that fantastic show. Right when I got to New York City, my first job ever was an English language DVD insert that went into a textbook for an international English course, and just to be paid as an actor was phenomenal. And then I got to do an episode of 30 Rock and I was on set with Alec Baldwin and Will Arnett, and that felt pretty amazing. I worked on some other things and did some guest starring, and it all felt pretty huge because you’re just a young, scrappy artist in the big city. But Friday Night Lights was definitely my big break. I was just a few years out of school so I was kind of holding onto my hat and hoping I could pull it off.


Both Friday Night Lights and Kingdom required you to show off your athleticism. Were sports a part of your life growing up even though you were so devoted to the theater?

As a matter of fact, the two things I wanted to do with my life when I was really young were to be an animator like my dad—I definitely had the artistic propensities—and the other thing I wanted to do was be a sprinter. I had been on club teams and I was always an athlete, in particular the 100-meter sprint, and I did some hurdles too. So I was either going to be an Olympic sprinter or an animator, and then as soon as I discovered theater, I was going to be an actor or a sprinter. Then acting took over in high school and I never looked back.

But I’ve always been athletic, and before I got Kingdom I was already doing some martial arts and some boxing and training for fun. It obviously ramped up from there, and I don’t think I’ve ever had something as demanding as Kingdom athletically. I also have to give credit to our incredible stunt professionals. In Friday Night Lights, we had real football players who were either Arena League players, former NFL players and some Division I players, and they would be able to take the hits and do some of the more intense [tackling]. We did what we could but they took the lion’s share of the really dangerous stuff, obviously for insurance purposes and everything else. They were just going to make it look way better than I ever could anyway. In Kingdom it was harder to fake, because we were sitting there shirtless and we weren’t in helmets and pads, so there was a lot more we had to do. But there were a couple of suplexes that I definitely did not do. (Laughs)


In addition to the physicality on Kingdom, you also had to show a lot of emotional range, particularly in the scenes with M.C. Gainey, who played your father. Did you look forward to that challenge?

Yes. M.C. Gainey is a beautiful man and a beautiful artist, and Kingdom made more of an artist of me, because I had never been handed that type of material before. There was only one way to do it and that was with absolute, unwavering commitment. Not that you would ever not commit in other jobs—I always commit in every job—but not every job makes you get into freezing cold, Artic-type water, and not only is it freezing, Arctic-type water, but it’s also the kind of job where you can’t just stick your toe in and ease your way in. There was only one way, and that was to dive in headfirst. That’s just the way the job was.

To pay tribute to my incredible collaborators, the other actors on the show were so intensely committed too, and we all knew that the only way this thing really works is if we all give it everything we’ve got all the time. We would say, “All in, all the time.” … Being an artist in that type of storytelling is incredibly vulnerable work. I think about Joanna Going and her character’s journey. It was so demanding and I think it pushed me harder than any acting role I had ever had to take on before. It’s like if you train and then you get into a sport or workout that just decimates you and takes you to a level you didn’t even know was there. It was kind of like that artistically and creatively.


I think that’s a show that many people came to after the fact, when it came to Netflix after originally airing on a different network. Is there more story to be told there? Could Kingdom ever be revisited?

It’s funny, we had another season lined up. We were filming the fourth season—they called it the third, but let’s be honest, it was the fourth—and before we were finished, we knew there was another season lined up and that we were [the network’s] most successful show. But it was the classic example of the producing entities not being able to … agree on the terms, I guess, and that was that. There was more story to tell and I definitely think we could have had more seasons, but it is what it is. That’s business.


Now you’re part of the iconic CSI franchise, in which you’ve gotten a chance to work with some of the original stars while also taking the series in a new direction. Has the experience lived up to your expectations?

It’s been awesome and it’s definitely exceeded expectations. First of all, I worked on the original show for three episodes over 10 years ago and had the time of my life. I wasn’t expecting to have as much fun as I did [back then]. I had done things that were much more character driven and didn’t have a specific plot that had to be resolved by the end of each episode, so it was a different format. Also, with the science there’s a lot of information to get across in 45 minutes. I was surprised by how tight the scripts were and how fantastic and kind the actors were, so I had a great time.

When I was presented with the opportunity to throw my hat in the ring for this version of the franchise, the first thing that appealed to me was the character description of [Josh] Folsom. It was a really dynamic idea for a character that [showrunner] Jason Tracey had laid out, but there were a lot of contradictions, a lot of pushing-and-pulling forces between who this guy is in his nature versus who he aspires to be and the cards he’s been dealt. It was a paragraph that was chockfull of appetizing, challenging stuff that got my imagination and my curiosity on fire. I had an incredible conversation with Jason Tracey about the direction of the show and the character, and I was all in. I was lucky that they liked me too.


Have you been surprised at what you’ve been able to accomplish in a procedural format?

I never would have imagined that we’d be telling the types of stories that Jason and the writers have come up with and that CBS has given him the green light to do. In the last few episodes of this [past] season—we talked about the emotional stuff with M.C. Gainey on Kingdom—and there’s some emotional scenes [here too]. Artistically, I can’t believe the gifts that I’ve been given. The scene work that I get to do in the last three episodes of the season are as challenging and as sensitive as I’ve ever been gifted. In a procedural format, when you have so much to accomplish in a single episode, I would never have imagined that I’d be gifted the kind of character opportunities that I’ve been given last season and especially this season. The last episode sort of plays like a film; there’s a third of it that takes place in a flashback and talks about the origin of my character and the trauma and heartbreak he’s faced. … There’s some heavy lifting and I feel very privileged that I’ve been able to sink my teeth into some of the creative opportunities that have been given to me. I’m actually blown away by it and really grateful. It’s a whole different format of storytelling, to be sure, and a whole different pace. But I’ve been loving it.


Do you ever get back to Florida?

I haven’t been back in a while. I used to have some immediate family there—until recently my mom and sister where there but they’ve moved. I still have a beloved aunt and cousin there, so hopefully I’ll be back before too long.


What are your goals for the next phase of your career? Would you like to venture into more film work?

I do have a few films that are on the horizon and some other projects that I’m really interested in. I’m eager to begin producing some projects and also I’ve always taken a real interest in directing. I got to do some of it in college and I just loved it. Really, it’s just about great storytelling and whatever inspires you. I think you get your edge as an artist and stay sharp by doing things that challenge you, excite you and make you feel a little nervous in your stomach, so I’m always looking for those things.