With hardworking grit, rugged good looks and boatloads of Southern charm, First Man’s Kyle Chandler might be Hollywood’s most likable star.
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Kyle Chandler is exactly what you hoped. He’s warm and witty, handsome and easygoing. He tells a good story (often at his own expense); has a hint of a Southern drawl; and radiates an authentic, down-to-earth vibe actors at his level of success rarely possess. He’s a good guy. And it isn’t an act.
I verify all these qualities in person at The Musso & Frank Grill, the iconic Hollywood Boulevard establishment where Chandler requests we meet. It’s one of his favorite spots, which he tells me over a tuna fish sandwich and a large glass of cold milk. He’s lived right outside of Austin for about the last decade, so a trip to his former L.A. stomping grounds nearly always includes a stop here.
It’s in a booth at this legendary joint where we discuss Chandler’s enviable career, which began some 30 years ago when he first came to L.A.—one of only 12 who had procured a rare development deal with ABC. Upon hearing the news, Chandler dropped out of the University of Georgia and made his way west with his best friend. He has worked consistently since, but it wasn’t until his role as Coach Taylor in cult-obsession Friday Night Lights that he truly became a household name. “I’m sort of like a hunter and a gatherer,” says Chandler. “In the beginning, everyone starts out, and you’re just trying to get a job, and you’re trying to start a career—I’ve never stopped that mindset. There is, and always has been, a fear of never working again.”
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In the last few years, Chandler has also earned rave reviews and two Emmy nominations for a darker role in the critically acclaimed Netflix show Bloodline. His filmography is vast and varied, from roles in the wild true story The Wolf of Wall Street to the Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea to the comedy flick Game Night. Yet it seems some of Chandler’s biggest roles are still on the horizon: First Man, the behind-the-scenes story of NASA landing Neil Armstrong on the moon, comes out in October and stars Chandler as the late Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton, a WWII pilot-slash-aeronautical engineer who became the first chief of the astronaut office; Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong. “Some roles are downright intimidating,” says Chandler. “It is sort of aggravating because when a role is really intimidating, and it scares you a little bit, then it’s almost like, God damn it, now I’ve got to do it.”
In an effort to learn about Slayton (who passed away from a brain tumor in 1993), Chandler read books, listened to podcasts and talked to people who knew him. He also visited Cape Canaveral in Florida and Mission Control in Houston. “The research into the whole thing was fantastic,” he says. “You get a lot of history from people, and then you put on the costume and do your thing. I don’t really feel a responsibility to live up to Deke Slayton—I never could—but I hope I did a good job for my little piece of the puzzle.”
While it was Armstrong who made those first historic steps on the moon, Slayton had quite a narrative as well. Chosen as one of the original NASA Mercury Seven astronauts, Slayton was supposed to be among the first men in space, but an irregular heart condition grounded him in 1962. “As I was doing the role, that was never lost on me,” says Chandler. “He was coaching the baseball team—he wasn’t out on the field.” The more Chandler learned about the man he was portraying and the unbelievable task that was landing a man on the moon for the first time, the more enamored he became with the story they were telling. “These people were all so young,” he says of the men at Mission Control in the late ’60s. “All the responsibility was on them—the responsibility of life and death. The average age at Mission Control was around 26 or 28 years old. Cellphones blow away the possibilities of the technology they had back then. It’s one of the most incredible adventure stories I’ve ever been a part of on screen.” Slayton ended up receiving medical clearance and finally realized his dream of flying into space in 1971 at the age of 51.
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Chandler shot First Man in Atlanta, a place where he spent a good portion of his formative years and where sadly his father passed away when he was only 14 years old. “I’m 52 now, and it’s funny how through the lens of age, you take on different perspectives,” he says. “[Living in Atlanta when I was young] was a strange time—there was a lot of exploration of the soul.” Chandler had only shot in Atlanta once since moving away in his early 20s, until recently when he not only shot First Man, but also Game Night and the upcoming Godzilla: King of Monsters. “I still have many friends that I went to high school and college with who live there, so we always catch up when I go back,” says Chandler. “I’ve got a little Airstream trailer that I sometimes live in at a buddy’s farm outside of Atlanta.”
Now, Chandler and his family (he has two daughters, ages 16 and 22) feel at home living Texas. “After 20 years of plugging away in L.A. always concerned about that next job, we were financially able to step away as a family and see the world through a different lens, which afforded us a new take on priorities. For us, as a family, this was the right decision for many reasons. However, some things never change: I’m still always thinking about that next job.”
Not one for resting on his laurels, Chandler not only has First Man out this fall and Godzilla: King of Monsters slated for next year, there is also Catch-22, the limited series directed by and co-starring George Clooney that comes to Hulu next year. “I both like and respect Clooney’s directing style. Sardinia was a beautiful place to work. It was a great experience and the chance of a lifetime.”
If the pace and trajectory of Chandler’s career are any indication, there’s no telling what the future holds for this talented man. “At age 52, after 23 years of marriage and with two beautiful children, I have so many experiences to draw from—both of the mind and of the heart. I find that, as I get older, acting takes on a different meaning for me. It comes far more personal and means more in different ways. I’m blessed to get to practice its magic,” he says. “Every project I take on is simply another acting class, in that I’m always learning how to negotiate each role, and each role takes on different challenges. I will never be done learning how to act—any more than I will ever be done learning how to be a father or a husband.”
Photography by: john russo | styled by ashley zohar | Grooming by Kim Verbeck at The Wall Group | Production: Photohouse