After a successful 14 years in the NFL that included a Super Bowl victory, Matthew Willig turned his attention to acting. This season, he’s conquered both TV and film, being a part of ABC’s hit “Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” and co-starring in the acclaimed NFL drama, “Concussion.”
What was the impetus for transitioning from football player to actor?
I did a film when I was at So Cal my senior year. I was introduced to it by the head football trainer and I was intrigued by the process of it so I put it in the back of my head and went and played football. I’ve always had the personality for it and as I progressed, I hosted radio and TV shows, got comfortable in front of the camera and was then introduced to a commercial agent who dealt with ex-athletes. I did commercial work in the off-season and it put me in the biz. When I retired from football, I didn’t know if I was going to go into broadcasting like so many other athletes do. But I gave myself a few years to try my hand at acting and that was how it got started. It was natural to me.
You won a Superbowl with the Rams. Now you’re playing a football player in Concussion. What is that like to come full circle?
It’s a surreal moment for me. Acting is such a long ladder of success and I’m slowly climbing. I feel like Concussion is another step. When I saw this movie come across my plate, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Very few roles come through and fit me both physically and character-wise. I matched his physical appearance and having the experience of knowing what that’s like to struggle after the NFL, it lent itself to being able to really connect to this character.
Much has been made about the subject matter of the film. As someone who has been there, and you’re playing Justin Strzelczyk, the Steelers tackle who died at age 36 and sparked the debate about concussions – what sort of responsibility to you feel?
For the character, I wanted to get to know who he was and what kind of person he was. It’s hard to judge someone who takes their own life, so it was important for me to connect with his widow and talk about him a lot. She was really honest and open and gave me some of his writing. He liked to write. He liked poetry and music and songs. I was able to actually see the digression in his writing. I could see him slipping into a different person so it was nice to be able to bring truth to him.
The film has been a catalyst for more conversation about the residual effects of the toll football takes on the bodies of those who play.
To be able to do interviews and have this experience be about more than just a film, is great. I can bring my perspective to this character since I played football professionally. It’s made me really stop and think about how I can lend a small voice to what I believe should happen going forward.
On Agents of SHIELD, you are playing Lash. What’s been the most challenging aspect of your performance and the character?
The process of the four-plus-hours of getting into the character is both fun and challenging at the same time. It does take some time to get into that character mode, but about halfway through that process, I feel that character coming through. I would love for this to go on forever. I’m not sure where it’s going in the series. I think the great thing about it is the instantaneous response from social media when the show airs. It’s driven that way and fans react instantly to characters like mine. I’m having a blast doing it.
What has acting taught you about yourself that you didn’t know when you were a footballer?
In football, it’s physical. There are a lot of mental aspects to the game too, but with acting it’s really about learning to be still. It comes down to one phrase: slow everything down. When I first started out, my biggest problem was wanting to always move and never be still. I’ve found that my best performances have come when I’ve slowed things down and been in the moment. I’ve been taking the time to really understand what I’m doing and where I’m at, both on and off screen. I’ve been learning to breathe and not be go-go-go all the time. Those things have really helped me outside the acting world.
As a tall man, have you felt that this helped or hindered you as an actor?
It’s a hindrance for sure. There’s a cut-off where you are just too tall for the parts. I’ve been on set and seen a director whisper to a camera guy about how to fit me in the back of the shot. I know I’ve missed out on jobs because I’m too tall and it can be frustrating, but every actor deals with that in some way. Whether it’s age, beauty, height or weight, we all deal with it. My goal has always been to expand my bubble as far as it can go. Whenever I get in front of directors or producers, I think I’ve exceeded the expectation of who I am. There’s still the lingering thought that I’m just a football player trying to be an actor, but I’m trying to open the door to be more than “that guy with the body.” I can’t change how tall I am but I’m working as much as I can.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D airs Tuesday nights on ABC.