Kyle Chandler is not a method actor. Not even when he’s murdering his brother. Chandler’s latest gig is playing Deputy John Rayburn, the publicly good son of a rapidly unraveling family on the Netflix series Bloodline, set in the Florida Keys. Things are not what they seem, and by the end of season one, Rayburn is drowning his brother Danny in a shallow cove. (Chandler cracks his aw-shucks smile and tells me, “He deserved it.”) On set, as soon as he’s done choking Danny, Chandler was back to making corny jokes with the crew and insisting he would be great at comedy.
Fratricide is something he can put behind him immediately; he’s no Daniel Day-Lewis. “I’m telling a joke,” remembers Chandler. “I get halfway through the joke — ‘Let’s go kill him’ — and I come back and tell the punch line.”
John Rayburn is a long way from the clear-eyes-full-hearts-can’t-lose coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights, a character someone — OK, my wife — described as a combination of your father, your husband, and the boyfriend who treated you nicely your first time. That hail fellow well met isn’t far away, but make no mistake: The actor’s knowing smile and kind eyes have been earned. Not all scenes are that easy. “He’s a very wise and sly man,” says director Peter Berg, who developed Friday Night Lights for television. “He knows how to take all that kind of genuine, authentic emotion and translate it into his work.”
In a scene early in season one of Bloodline, John Rayburn discusses family business while having a beer on the porch of the family’s hotel with his father, played by Sam Shepard. For Chandler, the relatively low-key exchange was a twisted dream come true. His father died of a heart attack when he was 14. Now he was sitting across from Shepard but channeling someone else.
“For a minute I was able to act myself — ‘This really is my pop sitting next to me’ — which I’ve always dreamed of doing,” says Chandler, his eyes going wet while he sips a scotch in a posh Santa Monica restaurant. It is getting a little musty in the bar, but Chandler’s face goes from sadness to triumph. “I never had a beer with my pop, but I did that day on the porch.”
There is silence for a little while, and Chandler shakes the one cube of ice in his glass. He talks of the angst all artists draw on and how it’s usually something private and harrowing. “I’m figuring it out about my personal life,” Chandler says. “Pain causes introspection, which makes me have a lens on life that maybe other people don’t.”
When he needs to think about such things, he jumps on his motorcycle and tears through the Keys. That’s where the two Kyles — family guy and badass — collide. I asked Bloodline executive producer Daniel Zelman if he has ever worried that Chandler might wreck his bike, break some bones, and hold up shooting for weeks. “The other guys get into crashes,” Zelman said with a laugh. “Hell, he’d just keep going.” Zelman told me that on one off-day, Chandler drove six hours, up to northern Florida and back. “I probably should worry about him, but I never do. When he gets on a motorcycle — and the clothes he wears when he rides — he seems like some mythic figure, iconic figure. He’s like Steve McQueen, and Steve McQueen doesn’t get hurt.”
Chandler shrugs as if he’s not sure whether all this introspection is a good or bad thing. His eyes dart somewhere far away. But then they focus in on his target. He’s looking for the waiter. We need more booze.
When Chandler was a boy, his family raised Great Danes — “It was the closest thing my mom could get to a horse” — and he spent many weekends traveling to dog shows. “You know that movie Best in Show?” he asks. Chandler is wearing jeans and a black fleece jacket as he catches some double takes along a Santa Monica street. “Those shows were exactly like that film. My parents’ first piece of furniture literally was a Great Dane.”
Chandler has two brothers and a sister, all significantly older, and the family joke was that Kyle was conceived after too many martinis on New Year’s Eve. (In homage, his middle name is Martin.) His dad was a traveling salesman, and some of Kyle’s earliest connections, perhaps not shockingly, were with dogs, including Lily, a Great Dane. When the Chandlers lived outside Chicago, his dad would take Kyle and Lily in a Buick Centurion convertible for ice cream after school. Lily was his love, and when she got sick with bloat, his parents allowed him to decide whether to have the vet perform a potentially life-ending operation. Kyle said do it, and Lily lived another three years.
Chandler now has four dogs and five miniature donkeys on a ranch outside Austin, Texas, where he lives with Kathryn, his wife of 21 years, and their two daughters, Sydney and Sawyer. They lived in Los Angeles for two decades before moving to Texas six years ago. “Every time I come home, we have another dog,” says Chandler. “It’s cool. You build a fire on the property and just sit out there, and the dogs stay with you. It’s a good feeling.”
When Chandler was young, his family moved to Georgia, where it was often just him, his mother, and the dogs. “I loved my mother very much, but she was not the most able at showing affection.” He pauses. “She loved her animals.”
With his brothers and sister gone, Chandler ran wild, and his mother didn’t stop him. He quit the football team. (His team won the state championship, but according to Chandler, he was the short, fat kid who never played.) He wrapped a car around a telephone pole and once ended up in jail, where his mother told him that would be the first and last time she’d bail him out. Still, even as his grades plummeted and his alcohol intake increased, Chandler now sees those years as some of the best of his life.
“I’ve got such good friends, and we cared for each other over the years, and we still do,” says Chandler. “We saved each others’ asses many times. If I’d had bad friends, I’d be dead for sure.”
Even at that point, Chandler knew there were a few major things he needed out of life. “I never wanted to have to wear a tie, and I always wanted a family of my own since the time my pop died,” says Chandler quietly. He repeats himself: “I wanted a family. I wanted that.” By then we’ve moved to a restaurant down the block.
The waiter comes over to take our order.
“You still got the soft-shell crabs right now?”
“Oh, you son of a bitch.”
The waiter looks mortified — this is high-maintenance Los Angeles, after all — but Chandler offers his Everybody’s All-American incandescent smile.
“You got peanut butter and jelly?”
The waiter exhales.
Chandler laughs. “See? I can be funny.”
This is a recurring theme. Despite his dark and suave looks, Chandler insists he can do smart comedy, maybe because his first show was a 400-year-old farce. He found his calling at the University of Georgia, but not before he pocketed his grandparents’ tuition money, took a semester off, and bought a motorcycle. One night he bummed a cigarette off a ‘shrooming theater major. They got to talking, and soon Chandler was trying out for a role in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. He got the part and loved it. He then rode his motorcycle home at 3 in the morning from Athens and told his mother he’d found his calling. She was fine with it.
“If my dad was alive,” Chandler wonders, “and I took that home to him, I don’t know what he would have said. I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing right now.”
But it was done.
“The people from those dog shows seemed like children,” says Chandler. He grins at the waiter to make sure he knows he was joking about the crabs. “It was a circus atmosphere. There were all sorts of broken people, and I was broken and I had no guidance.” He pauses and smiles. “And then I was home.”
On our walk back after dinner, we talk about a movie star who ended an interview by stating that work was everything. Chandler was flummoxed and said something that may explain why he’s not his generation’s Robert Redford.
“How can you not say that family is the most important?” Chandler says with a shake of the head. “Wow.”
The theme is never very far from Chandler’s mind. It’s what makes him who he is as an actor. In one of their first meetings, Bloodline creators Zelman and brothers Todd and Glenn Kessler got into Chandler’s history and his need to keep the family whole after the death of the patriarch.
“There is a melancholy that comes with that experience,” says Zelman. “We certainly got indications of that early on, and that’s what made us enthusiastic.”
Chandler cops to being a bit of a grump. But he sets the tone at work, and he knows that if he shows up in a shitty mood, then the crew will be in a shitty mood. So he tries to get everyone jumping. At the end of season two, Chandler showed up with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who’d befriended Chandler while he was shooting Friday Night Lights. “I was directing the last episode,” says Zelman, “and I turned around and said, ‘What the hell is Belichick doing here?’ ”
Chandler grabbed a best actor Emmy nomination for Bloodline’s first season — he won it in 2011 for Friday Night Lights — and insists he’s having a blast. He and his co-star Jamie McShane take his boat out to a place called Alligator Reef and down a 12-pack while watching the sharks swim around.
Fratricide aside, family is important to Chandler, and if he can’t be with his own on his Texas ranch, he will build a second one on Key Largo, where the show films. He befriended McShane, the father of four boys, who has a smaller part and a smaller wage. They talk about their kids and missing them. McShane was making his way around the Keys on a bicycle when Chandler found himself with a week off and heading back to Texas. “He said, ‘Use my Jeep, use my boat, use my house,’ ” says McShane, who now counts Chandler as a close friend. “I said, ‘Kyle, you’ve known me for a week,’ and he just said, ‘Use it all.’ One of the kindest men I’ve ever met.”
Chandler makes his life choices with his gut. And he can tell you the times he’s ignored it. In 1994, he tried Broadway in William Inge’s Picnic. “I turned that job down twice,” says Chandler with self-disgust. “Finally, the day I went for the audition, there was an earthquake and I still took the job.” The play, featuring Ashley Judd, received mediocre reviews, and Chandler was described as miscast by The New York Times, which proclaimed, “His boyish demeanor and unimposing physique make it impossible to think of him as a hunk.”
Still, Chandler’s gut got him to 50, happy and well employed if not quite the superstar some think he should be. The early days were rough, with bartender jobs and countless auditions that went nowhere. But he didn’t have to suffer all that long. There was a regular role on Homefront from 1991 to 1993, and then the starring role for four years on CBS’s Early Edition, where he played a hapless man who got the Chicago Sun-Times a day early. He and his wife met while walking their dogs in a Hollywood park, and they married in 1995. (Kathryn, a writer, admitted that she’d staked him out.) She has provided the grounding Chandler decided he couldn’t live without, which began with her running lines with him and trying to point him in the right direction.
The marriage wasn’t as rock solid as it is now, but Chandler has never thought of walking away. One night while he was filming in Chicago, the two had a rip-roaring fight in their high-rise apartment after putting their kids to bed. They ended up on their balcony smoking cigarettes, with Kathryn wondering if they were going to make it. He told her about his grandparents, whose marriage he worshipped. At the end of his grandfather’s life, his grandmother placed her hands on her husband’s as he slipped away.
Chandler remembers the night. He told Kathryn: “Nothing’s ever going to happen to us. We’re going to make it to the end. One day one of us will be lying on that bed, and one will put their hand on the other’s hand and say, ‘Hey, we made it.’ ”
That remains the plan.
The following morning, Chandler and I walk along the Venice boardwalk, past Muscle Beach, the dudes selling diamonds, and the fellows in green bodysuits entreating us into their marijuana dispensary. Chandler watches with the relieved smile of an expatriate who has successfully escaped from the planet Neptune. Then we walk into the Sidewalk Café and his mood shifts. “A buddy of mine passed away not long ago. My friend Dale and I came down here after.”
Fans of Chandler might be surprised to learn that their small-screen hero has a morbid streak a country mile long. “My wife gets very upset with me when I say things like, ‘Oh, you know, we’ve only got 20 years.’ She goes, ‘What are you talking about? You’ll only be 70!’ ” Most of it can be traced to the loss of his father. Chandler says: “At some point you realize that death is your friend. Mortality is something to be looked at as a positive, because if you realize you’re gonna die and life can end, you wanna use it and live it to the most.”
An awareness of time’s passing has informed the second part of his career, infusing it with a positive what-the-fuck attitude. For his Friday Night Lights audition with Peter Berg, Chandler showed up, rode hard, and put up wet, after a long bender with friends that involved booze and cigars. Berg told him that was the hangdog, hungover look he wanted from Chandler every day, which did not please Kathryn.
Another revelation for Chandler was his portrayal of husband to Connie Britton, who had little to do as the coach’s wife in the Friday Night Lights film but became a major player in the TV version. To bond, they convoyed from L.A. to Austin for shooting and got to know each other well enough that their marriage seemed real and vulnerable.
It was hard not to take some of that home to Kathryn and the girls. Sometimes he’d say something he thought was wise, and they’d remind him it was from his television dad. “Living with three women means you have to stay on your toes and you’re going to watch a lot of crappy television,” he says with a playful roll of the eyes. “I’m OK with that.”
In the years between Friday Night Lights and Bloodline, Chandler split his time acting and working as a fireman. He was new to Dripping Springs, Texas, about 30 minutes from Austin, and his wife suggested that to meet some new friends, he join the fire department. It became more of a time suck than she’d anticipated. Texas was drought-ridden, so Chandler spent two years doing everything from putting out attic fires to shooting the shit at the local firehouse on an overnight shift. In 2011, he drove through tunnels of ash while fighting the Bastrop County Complex fire, which destroyed 1,600 homes. He didn’t want work on an engine or behind the scenes. “I loved squirting the water.”
His firefighting days were interrupted by pivotal small roles in films that ranged from the hipster The Spectacular Now to the Oscar-winning Argo and Oscar-nominated The Wolf of Wall Street and Carol.
Playing a cameo in a prestige movie is like jumping on and off a moving train, and Chandler was terrified at first. In The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese, Chandler had one of those pants-wetting moments. He plays a dumb-as-a-fox FBI agent chasing down rogue broker DiCaprio. They have an eight-minute conversation on a yacht resplendent with lobsters and bikini girls.
“We did the scene and it wasn’t working,” says Chandler with a little shudder. “I knew it wasn’t working. He knew it wasn’t. They’d go back and look at the tape, and I kept sitting there thinking, ‘Man, what do we do?’ ” He thrusts his hands out like a little boy looking for divine intervention. “There are those moments you either lock up because you’re so afraid,” says Chandler, channeling that fright in his face before breaking into a grin. “Or you go: ‘Fuck that shit. What’s going on here now? How can I make this work?’ ”
So Chandler started giving DiCaprio shit, and DiCaprio dished it back. By the end of the scene, Chandler’s FBI agent has gone from hapless subway-strap holder to having DiCaprio by the short hairs.
“I started fucking with him,” says Chandler proudly. “He was fucking with me, and then, boom, Martin is smiling and Leo runs back and he watches and goes, ‘That looks really good.’ That’s a great feeling.”
We finish our breakfast and a family asks for a photograph. Chandler obliges, and one of the women says that she works on the Ellen show. “Oh, I’ve been on her,” he says, then pauses for a beat. “Well, not on her but on the show.” He lightly grabs my shoulder.
“See, I told you I was funny.”
Life doesn’t suck, but Chandler is a thousand miles away from his family for seven or eight months a year, and I get the sense it bothers him more and more. “That’s the hardest part,” says Chandler, a darkness passing over his face for just a moment. “That makes me feel like a little baby.” He drains his glass. “I get down there and let that loneliness get to me. That hurts. I hate that.”
But soon we’ll be done, and Chandler will be able to retreat to his hotel room, where his younger daughter, Sawyer, waits for him. They went for a walk along the Santa Monica Promenade yesterday, and tomorrow they fly home to Mom and Sis. And that makes Chandler smile, a smile that suggests a full heart is kicking middle-age melancholy’s ass.
Stephen Rodrick is a contributing editor for Men’s Journal. He profiled John McAfee in the October 2015 issue.