Friday Night Lights a ‘Smash’ hit

Gaius Charles was determined to find a full-time acting job within a year of his 2005 graduation from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama. Although he had previously had some spots in various commercials and a performance in NBC’s Book of Daniel, Charles was unsatisfied. According to the press release issued by the School of Drama, he wrote on a piece of paper that he would have a job by February 2006, along with “In God I Trust.” He hung this on his wall so he could be inspired by it daily — and during the first week of February, he landed a regular role on the new NBC series Friday Night Lights.

Charles can be seen as Brian “Smash” Williams on Friday Night Lights, which debuted October 3 on NBC and has already received rave reviews. The show, which airs Tuesday nights at 8, is based on the 2004 film and the book by H.G. Bissinger of the same title. On the surface, it seems to simply feature a small Texas town’s state championship football team in yet another underdog story. What sets the program apart from other cliched sports programs is its focus on the interpersonal relationships in the team and backstories of the town. Although it has not received the number of viewers projected by the network, The New York Times has critically acclaimed it “a fiercely controlled and inventive work of art.”

Friday Night Lights focuses on the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and its high school football team, the Dillon Panthers. Football is the highlight of this town’s life. When their star quarterback gets paralyzed during the first game of the season, the team and town must learn how to cope with the immense pressure to bring back the championship with their second-string quarterback. Charles’ character on Friday Night Lights is a tough-talking running back — think Terrell Owens back in his high school days. In a recent episode, for example, “Smash” clashes with teammate Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), both on the field and off, and then seduces Riggins’ girlfriend. So much for “there’s no I in team.”

However, Charles’ character’s personality is a testament to his acting skills, according to Charles’ former professors in the School of Drama. He is described as “kind and humble” by professor Anthony McKay, who taught Charles in his first year at Carnegie Mellon. Charles credited Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, claiming that it “gives us the technique to do anything as an actor.” McKay made a note about Charles’ career at the School of Drama, saying he was “impressed with his growth and range” over the four years. Charles’ sophomore acting professor, Barbara MacKenzie-Wood, agreed with McKay and added, “He had a quiet tenacity and was not at all showy.... [He] was a very green actor coming into the program, but was such a hard worker, was so determined, and he continued to grow. Some students rest on their laurels; Gaius doesn’t.”

Movement professor Catherine Moore, who had Charles as a student his first and third years, remembers Charles specifically in a one-man show that he wrote and starred in during the School of Drama’s Playground week. During this week, students develop their own theater performances. Moore remembers that Charles’ show, about a soldier in Iraq, was so popular, that he was so “flexible and talented in creating” distinct and strong characters, that it sold out, and demand dictated the addition of another performance. Along with his Playground production, Gaius participated in the world-renowned National Institute of Dramatic Art program in Sydney, Australia, his senior year, where the seeds for his one-man show were planted. He is also remembered for his performance in the musical Wild Party. Charles was dedicated to getting everything he could out of his Carnegie Mellon training and showing the many aspects of his talent.

Charles’ legacy in the drama department is one of a hard worker, dedicated to his artistic success and development, and a role model to his peers. He came in taking nothing for granted with a “cooperation to learn,” according to McKay. That attitude has rewarded him professionally. As Moore said, “[It is] nice to see success happen to kind people.”