The news late last week that Friday Night Lights will be back for a sophomore season on NBC was no surprise to Dallas-based actress Liz Mikel. She had faith all along. Mikel, 42, plays Corinna Williams, mother of Brian "Smash" Williams (played by Gaius Charles), star player for the fictional Dillon High School Panthers.
The series, which will move to Fridays at 9 p.m. and already has earned a Peabody Award, has brought big-break national exposure for Mikel, a 6'1" actress who's spent two decades onstage as one of the leading divas of Dallas musical theater. Her performance as Corinna so impressed the network, four of her scenes have been submitted for Emmy consideration in the supporting actress category.
Mikel doesn’t even have time to think about all that right now. Since Friday Night Lights ended its first season -- all episodes were shot in and around Austin -- Mikel’s been working in Shreveport on The Better Man, a new comedy directed by Malcolm Lee. It stars Martin Lawrence, Michael Clark Duncan (playing Mikel's husband), Cedric the Entertainer, Nicole Ari Parker, Mo'Nique and James Earl Jones, who confessed to Mikel that his wife is a huge Friday Night Lights fan. "And I imagine she knows something about good acting," says Mikel by phone from the set.
The movie job was a direct result of Mikel’s work on Friday Night Lights. "I've performed in the theater for a long time," she says. "I will continue to do that, but now the opportunities to do things on a bigger scale are presenting themselves. It's one reason I'm in this movie. Because I'm in a critically acclaimed TV show week to week."
But she’s not giving up theater quite yet. She’s fulfilling a longstanding commitment to Theatre Three to play the lead in the Tony-winning musical Caroline, Or Change, opening May 31.
For an actress working out of Dallas, this year has been “like a dream,” she says. “Everyone involved [in Friday Night Lights] -- the actors, production people, extras -- they were all happy to be there, giving their best. Honestly, it was the equivalent of doing live theater captured on TV. Real, alive, happening in the moment. Raw emotion."
She’s full of praise for Gaius Charles. In the first season, his character fell into steroid use and then hooked up with a bipolar girlfriend. "Smash" had several come-to-Jesus moments with mom Corinna, one of the strongest and most protective mother figures in prime time. Mikel says she patterned the character on her own mother and sister, who were both educators in the DISD.
"Let's celebrate the lives of women like Corinna who get up at 6 every morning with their back hurting, put on their shoes and stockings, fix their kids breakfast and go off to work to support them. That's what I love about Friday Night Lights. It's not just one side of a football game or of a mama. Corinna's a mother, and she's a person and a friend and a community member,” says Mikel.
NBC has shown confidence in the show with the second season greenlight. And, though Friday night aren't typically network hotspots, it's likely a sweeter timeslot. The show ended its freshman year airing at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, but it was stuck for several weeks in limbo, replaced by Dateline. (Marathons of Lights episodes have run on USA Network and Bravo and are still available online at NBC's Rewind site and on iTunes.)
"They're going to have to strategically place us on a good night and leave us there," says Mikel. (This interview was done before the schedule was released earlier this morning.)
She also wants NBC to leave the series on location in Texas. When she heard rumors of the show moving to Louisiana, Mikel personally lobbied the Texas Legislature to fight to keep the show in Austin by offering a bill (still pending) that would grant financial incentives for the production to stay.
"There need to be tax breaks to be more competitive with Louisiana, where they're making a ton of movies right now," she says. "It's good for the economy of the state and for the community where the film or series is shot. As a Texas actor I'm grateful for the opportunity not to have to move to New York or Los Angeles to work on a weekly series. I choose to live in Texas. It's so important to keep the life of this show there. The production staff is from Texas. They know what it's like to live and breathe that air."
Mikel's not the only professional Texas-based actor to land a plum role on the show. Other Dallas actors in the cast include Brad Leland, who plays town bigwig Buddy Garrity; Mark Nutter as the father of "Jason Street," the high school QB who suffered paralyzing injuries in the first episode (Nutter and Scott Porter, who plays his son, look so much alike some viewers assume they're actually related); and Derek Phillips as Billy Riggins, alcoholic older brother of fullback Tim (played by Taylor Kitsch).
One of the greatest benefits of the location shoot, says Mikel, is that it keeps the young cast focused not on their budding fame but on their work (though they're playing high schoolers, most of the actors are in their 20s).
But there are drawbacks to being Austin-based too. Like feeling alienated from the usual hoopla accorded to a critically acclaimed drama. "Our stars aren't available to do Leno and Letterman and Entertainment Tonight," says Mikel, who adds that for the second season she'd like to see NBC-Universal step up the marketing of the show. "They need a publicist to get us on the covers of Family Circle and People magazine."
She's as much of a cheerleader for her team as the Panthers' "Rally Girls." --Elaine Liner