Kyle Chandler, now starring in Catch-22 and Godzilla, lives for the open road. Partway between Austin and L.A., he shares his rules for a long-ass drive—and by extension, life itself.
1. GO THE LONG WAY
“Welcome to my hovel,” says Kyle Chandler. Wearing a frayed chambray shirt, well-worn khakis, and dusty cap-toe boots, he’s standing beside me inside his gleaming aluminum 16-foot Airstream Sport, which he has affectionately named Tookus. He’s hauled the trailer up a serpentine road to a campsite near the 9,000-foot peaks of the Organ Mountains, outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, behind his manual-transmission Ram pickup, because—well, why not?
The 53-year-old actor is three days into a weeklong, 2,800-mile out-and-back drive from his home near Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles, for a photo shoot and some other business. It’s a route Chandler has driven countless times, often with Kathryn, his wife of nearly 25 years, and his daughters Sydney, 23, and Sawyer, 17, photos of whom bedeck the walls. But his sole companion on this trip is Geronimo, an 8-year-old mixed-breed rescue dog who’s recovering from cancer surgery and shedding white hair in tufts.
After a walk-through of his travel totems and movie-set mementos and a tour of the rig, which requires just a pivot—“there’s the shower, which I actually used today,” Chandler says—we’re back in the sun of southern New Mexico. I ask the obvious: Why not just fly? “I do fly every once in a while, when I have to,” he says. “But I’d much rather do it this way. I mean, look at this.” He gestures to the valley a couple of thousand feet below. It’s an active artillery range, currently airbrushed with a super-bloom of cadmium-yellow poppies. Behind us is a steep wall of mountain, with a light breeze coming down the pass. I get his point.
For the past day, Chandler and Geronimo have been soaking up the severe silence of this $7-a-night campsite. He’s been doing a bit of work, too: Last night, the actor read two scripts while pondering the real Friday night lights—fiery pink clouds hovering over the high Chihuahuan Desert.
He’s already made some friends at the campground. There goes Bliss, recently retired, been on the road for two months. There’s Don, who wired his RV with both AC and DC power so he can plug in more kitchen gadgets. A guy in a Phoenix Suns jersey comes up to ask for change for the fee box—he only has a 20. After each interaction, the campers’ eyes linger for a half-beat, perhaps trying to place Chandler. Maybe they’re taking in those familiar eyebrows, which sometimes cock to an angle that’s like the pitch of a doghouse roof. Isn’t that the guy from… Bloodline? The Wolf of Wall Street? First Man? Manchester by the Sea? Friday Night Lights?
Basketball-jersey guy walks away, and Chandler remarks that he shares these folks’ sense of wanderlust. It’s why he’s here. “All these people here have a sense of adventure,” he says. “And they’re trying to fulfill it in one way or the other.”
2. STEER INTO THE UNKNOWN
We head over to a picnic table set between a few alligator-bark juniper trees. Chandler has grilled up jalapeño sausages, onions, and baked beans on a tabletop charcoal grill. He throws down some enamel plates and pops the tops off a couple of bottles of Guinness. As we take in the desert panorama, I tell him that the desk clerk at my hotel told me that this is one day of two every year when you can drive right up to the Trinity Site, where the U.S. Army set off the first atomic bomb, in 1945, somewhere down in the distance to the north.
“Well shit! Why didn’t you text me? I’da been all over that!” says Chandler, who says he’s all about roadside oddities. I tell him it would have required meeting at the local high school parking lot by 7:30 a.m.
“Got it. Damn. Well, we’da just got irradiated anyway. Cheers.”
He shares a few tales from his current trip, which include overnighting on the shores of a spring-fed lake he found in West Texas, at a campsite five miles down a dirt road. “Paradise in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “I’ll go back.”
Chandler’s ease and equanimity are easy to understand: He’s in that coveted place where nearly all actors want to be, with a pair of projects out this month that cover the spread: from a blockbuster payday in Godzilla: King of the Monsters to prestige TV, with Catch-22, a limited series on Hulu. Check one for commerce, one for art.
In the former, Chandler co-stars in the reportedly $200 million monster movie, sharing screen time with Millie Bobby Brown, Vera Farmiga, and, of course, a giant lizard with atomic breath. He says he can’t wait to watch the thing on a big screen. With the latter, George Clooney’s production company takes on a six-episode adaptation of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel about an Air Force bombardier (Christopher Abbot) wrestling with the fringes of sanity on a sun-soaked Mediterranean island base during World War II. It’s a taut, dry, soulful, hilarious, absurdist riff on the insanity of war and capitalism’s ties to it.
The series also addresses, in writer Luke Davies’ words, “lunatics in positions of power who should not be in those positions of power.” Chandler plays one of those lunatics—Colonel Cathcart, a barking, insecure bureaucrat who jeopardizes his troops as he thirstily aspires for a promotion to general. Originally, it was Clooney’s part, until the actor wanted to step into a smaller role that would afford him more time to focus on producing and directing.
I WAS SCARED TO DEATH. BUT MY CAREER HAS BEEN FULL OF THESE SITUATIONS WHERE I GET OPPORTUNITIES THAT I CAN’T SAY NO TO.
Clooney called Chandler in Texas, but the actor took some convincing. “First off, making remakes of certain things is beyond the pale,” he says, citing Mike Nichols’ 1970 film adaptation. “And Catch-22 is such a historic book. Then there’s the fact that Cathcart is incredulous—the things that he says and the things that he’s doing are almost cartoonish.”
Chandler is known for subtler characters, men who dwell in the zone between authority and empathy. But he still took the part. “I was scared to death,” he says, “But my career has been full of these situations where I get opportunities you can’t say no to.”
To prepare, Chandler worked out of the Airstream, parked at home, for a month, marching up and down the driveway, going back and forth over chunks of dialogue, trying to find the right pitch. According to Clooney, the approach paid off.
“He’s one of my favorite actors,” Clooney says. “He’s the only guy I know who could’ve taken Cathcart from a vindictive buffoon to, by the end, a guy you have sympathy for.”
I relay this to Chandler—being one of Clooney’s favorite actors is not nothing, right? “I probably owe him a check now,” Chandler says. “I’m just good at making an ass of myself. I never thought it would pay off, but I guess it has.”
3. FIND THE RIGHT CO-PILOT
Before his Emmy-nominated role and the critical success of the Netflix series Bloodline, and before he took parts in films helmed by Martin Scorsese and J.J. Abrams and Kathryn Bigelow, came the actor’s career-defining role: coach Eric Taylor, on NBC’s Friday Night Lights. The drama is still talked about not just for the veracity of its portrayal of life and high school sports in far west Texas, but because of its realistic depiction of marriage and the chemistry between its leads: Chandler and Connie Britton, who played Tami, a guidance counselor, principal, and Eric’s wife.
So how did the pair hash out that relationship? On the road, of course.
“We’d drive from L.A. to Las Cruces to Marfa and then into Austin, where we were shooting,” says Chandler. “I’d ride my motorcycle, and Connie would drive her ’72 Mustang. One year I drove behind her, and that car was running so lean, I was stoned the whole time from the fumes.”
Britton says that the first time they caravanned, Friday Night Lights executive producer Peter Berg was sure the pair would sleep together and cause havoc for the production. “That did not happen,” says Britton. “But it was such a great way to bond and also to just sort of leave Hollywood behind and really drive into the world that we were gonna be inhabiting. On those road trips, we were creating our own dynamic.”
The pair’s dialogue, much of it improvised, has a push-and-pull rhythm that makes the couple’s conversations seem ultrareal, like something that you’d hear over the fence, or, if you’re lucky, inside your own house. Both got Emmy nominations—Chandler won in 2011. “I knew that if I fell backward, she’d always grab me right before I hit the ground, and vice versa,” he says. “I would start getting after her, and she’d back up in the defensive, but she always knew I’d give her room to come back at me.”
Chandler says that the scripts served as road maps—dirt roads they’d improvise off of. The series was shot on Super 16 film with handheld cameras in natural light, in real restaurants and other venues, with real people as extras. Actors would just wander into scenes and start saying lines, no “action” needed—just like walking into a room. “It was alive, and that’s what I think made that show so great,” Chandler says. “I’ve taken that to everything I’ve done.”
The results of that approach resonated. People still shout “Coach!” at Chandler in public, whether in San Marcos or Santa Monica. Yesterday in a Las Cruces grocery store, a kid asked Chandler for life advice. “Just give me anything,” he’d said. Forced to come up with something, the actor shared a staple: “Nobody is any better than me. I’m no better than anyone else.”
4. YOU’LL GET THERE EVENTUALLY
Chandler’s kinetic nature might be a result of a childhood spent on the road, bunking in a motor home overhead. He was born near Buffalo, New York, the last of four siblings by a wide margin—an unexpected addition after a wild New Year’s Eve, according to an old family tale—and spent his early years in Lake Forest, near Chicago. His father was a traveling pharmaceutical salesman; his mother’s passion was breeding Great Danes. By the time he was 8, Chandler and his parents would road trip for a month or more at a time, entering their dogs in shows across the country.
Compared with his siblings—they’d left the house by then—Kyle’s upbringing was hands-off. At the dog shows, the Chandlers would park their motor home in a sea of RVs. Kyle’s dad would hand him a few bills and the kid would wander off, reconnecting with the strange friends he’d made on the dog-show circuit. “There’d be thousands of people around, hundreds of motor homes,” Chandler says. “Over the course of a weekend I’d inevitably get lost. I’d come back to the show ring where my parents were supposed to be, but they weren’t; I’d look and they’re not in the motor home, either. ‘Where are they?’
“My old man had this laugh, and it was a fuckin’ belly laugh. I learned to stop and close my eyes and just wait and wait, and eventually every time, I swear, I’d hear it, and I’d start heading that way, and I’d find the old man.”
When he was 11, the family moved to Loganville, Georgia, and Pop bought him a dirt bike. “Imagination, freedom, boom,” says Chandler. His lifelong infatuation with wheels had begun.
In 1980, when Chandler was 14, his father died of a heart attack. Kyle was devastated. He entered a dark period, replete with totaled cars, arrests, soul-searching drives through the South. One quarter, Chandler took his tuition check for the University of Georgia from his grandparents and cashed it to buy a Yamaha Vision 550 motorcycle. Later, back at school, he ran into some drama students tripping on mushrooms in a Waffle House parking lot and he decided he had found his new calling.
“Some time later I drove home in the middle of the night and dragged my mom out of bed,” he says. “I said, ‘Mom, I figured out what I want to do.’ She looked at me, and she said, ‘Well, you know, it doesn’t surprise me. For God’s sakes, don’t not do it. You don’t want to regret your life.’ ”
Chandler had started to listen to the echo of his dad’s voice. “His favorite saying,” Chandler says, “was ‘Play it by ear.’ I can still hear him saying it.”
5. BE WILLING TO DITCH THE ITINERARY
Chandler walks back to Airstream and comes back with a couple of more beers. I ask why he and his family decamped for Texas after 20 years in Los Angeles. His answer? You guessed it: road trip. Chandler warns me that he’s told the story before but carries on and still gets choked up in the retelling. He met Kathryn, a writer and veteran advocate, in the early 1990s, after the ABC drama Homefront had jump-started his career. They married in 1996, settled in Topanga Canyon, and had two daughters. Things, by all accounts, were going very well.
In 2009, during the fourth season of Friday Night Lights, he’d planned to ride his motorcycle back to Austin, but Kathryn decided to come at the last minute. They took his Porsche Boxster. “I think it was the second day,” Chandler says. “I remember very distinctly. We were both still smoking. The top was down. It was a beautiful day. Out of nowhere, she just turned to me, and said, ‘Are you happy where we are?’ I thought about it for a minute and said, ‘I’m not. I’m really, really not.’ Kathryn felt the same way. “I get emotional just saying this,” Chandler says. “It was a moment that changed everything.”
During the rest of the drive, they ripped up their old plans. They considered moving to Wyoming or Nevada before passing through a town outside Austin. Kathryn went back to location-scout their new life a few days later.
FROM AUSTIN TO L.A.
Some scenes Chandler snapped during his drive (below). Highlights included a stopover near Balmorhea, Texas, home to the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool; and White Sands, New Mexico, where you’ll find 275 square miles of stark white-gypsum sand dunes.
Nearly a decade later, the family still lives there, on a big spread, with five miniature donkeys, two dogs, and “a barn that I use for creating things that fall apart quickly,” Chandler says. Once an overgrazed site, he has tried to re-wild the scene into a native grass- and wildflower-filled prairie, seeding 10 percent of it a year. Kathryn particularly loves May, when the Texas heat comes and dries out the wildflowers and their seeds pop like Rice Krispies, because it means that Kyle will finally mow the mess.
The whole Texas ranch deal seems pretty appropriate for a man who, in a way, appears to have stepped in from yesteryear. When I ask about his road-trip soundtrack, he says that it’s dialed to either classic rock or the 1940s channel on satellite radio—where the hottest tracks are by Glenn Miller and Al Jolson. His taste in movies skews similarly: He grew up watching the comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, and is “still sort of stuck in it,” he says. So maybe it’s no surprise that George Clooney describes Chandler as a pairing of “Spencer Tracy’s everyman with Larry Storch’s nuttiness.”
“WHEN I’M SHOOTING, I HAVE CRAZY NERVES. BUT ONCE I LEAVE THE SET, I DON’T THINK MUCH ABOUT IT.”
A few years ago, Chandler read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. He dropped cable, curtailed his time online, ditched most of his gadgets, and worked to leave the “echo bubble.” He hasn’t gone full Luddite: He is addicted to a military-spec night-vision scope he was turned on to by one of Bloodline’s camera operators. “I wait till it gets pitch dark, and I walk my property,” he says. “It’s amazing. Through the scope, I see blue and white herons grabbing fish from the water tank. The donkeys are freaking out, because they know something’s out there but don’t see me. The raccoons are up in the trees, maybe a ringtail. My goal is to one day sneak up on a deer close enough to just tap it on the ass.”
He makes a flicking motion. “And when you point it upward,” he says, “you can see 500 times more stars than the naked eye.”
6. NO U-TURNS
The shadow of the peaks behind us is approaching, and it’s already a half-hour past the time that Chandler had planned to get back on the road: He’s aiming to pull up to a park 30 miles west of Phoenix before its gates close.
As he starts to break down camp, Chandler reflects on the past few years, unsolicited. “I don’t look back too much, to be quite honest,” he tells me. “I knew you were going to ask me things about the last few years in this interview, and last night I had to go on my IMDb and look up what’s happened, because I sure as shit don’t remember. When I’m shooting, I’ve got crazy nerves and am constantly worried about doing a good job, and time flies, and I love it. But once I leave the set, I don’t think much about it.”
As he’s talking, I glance at my notebook to look for orphaned questions. I ask Chandler if he has any rules of the road.
“Just…I’ve found that if something feels uncomfortable, do it. Stop at the weird cafe, talk to the person there. If a road looks interesting but you think ‘eh—I don’t know,’ just drive it.”
He pauses a moment. “Oh yeah,” he says. “Kathryn has one that I’ve started to follow, too. Never go back. Never backward, always forward.”
“Unless,” he is quick to add, “you left your wallet.”