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Zach Gilford Breaks Down Riley’s Fate on ‘Midnight Mass’: ‘I Almost Choke Up Every Time I Think About It’ (Exclusive)

Midnight Mass didn’t return for a season 2, but the supernatural horror miniseries created unsettling story lines and philosophical dialogue that still remain with audiences.

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For Zach Gilford, working with its creator has contributed to how he’s approached future roles. “Because it’s a Mike Flanagan project, you have to memorize your lines because there’s a lot of long monologues,” he exclusively told Us Weekly while promoting his new film, There’s Something Wrong With the Children. “I really learned something on that show that I’ve taken to other things because I had to do so much preparation to know it so well. That even on other things, I didn’t get to go back to L.A.’s Finest, but things that are much lighter and a little more fun. I was like, I’m gonna just know my stuff inside and out so that I can totally just be in the scene and never think about the words that are coming outta my mouth, but just feel them coming out and react to the person.”

Gilford, 41, played Riley Flynn on the Netflix drama, who returns to his isolated island community to uncover that alarming incidents are happening after the arrival of a mysterious young priest. In episode 5, Riley’s fate is revealed when he sacrifices himself and burns alive at sunrise on the water while reflecting about life and death to Erin (Kate Siegel).

Zach Gilford Breaks Down Riley's Fate on 'Midnight Mass
Eike Schroter/NETFLIX

“When I die … my body stops functioning. Shut down. All at once, or gradually, my breathing stops, my heart stops beating. Clinical death. And a bit later, like, five whole minutes later … my brain cells start dying. But in the meantime, in between … maybe my brain releases a flood of DMT. It’s the psychedelic drug released when we dream, so … I dream. I dream bigger than I have ever dreamed before, because it’s all of it. Just the last dump of DMT all at once. And my neurons are firing and I’m seeing this firework display of memories and imagination,” Riley says in part. “My brain activity ceases and there is nothing left of me. No pain. No memory, no awareness that I ever was, no … that I ever hurt someone. That I ever killed someone. Everything is as it was before me.”

For Gilford, one line in particular continues to stand out to him.

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“I still like that one line that he says when he says, ‘I did my best.’ Like, I almost choke up every time I think about it,” the Friday Night Lights alum told Us. “Because just as a human to be at that point in your life, the end of it and just feel like I did my best and it wasn’t good enough is kind of a heartbreaking thought.”

Gilford often approaches each project he does the same, regardless of the genre. “Whether it’s a built set or you’re in an actual house that you’re filming in, you kind of just play make believe, you pretend you’re there, you know your lines, and then you kind of go with it and you see what the other actors in the scene are doing and you react to that. I don’t like to, before I get there, decide how I’m gonna read every line. You kind of just go with it,” he explained to Us. “The directors I love [are] great directors. They’ll watch the scene, and they’ll see something new and they’ll be like, ‘You know what? I didn’t think of this before, but I realized watching the scene, we should do a little more of this.’ And it always gives you something else to do and it always heightens or improves what everybody’s doing. It’s such a collaborative medium. And that’s what I love about it.”

Zach Gilford Breaks Down Riley's Fate on 'Midnight Mass'
Zach Gilford in ‘Midnight Mass’ Courtesy of NETFLIX/YouTube

He continued: “Dramatic stuff is fun to do too, but a lot of times at the end of the day you’re pretty drained. You have a big emotional scene at the end of the day. You’re either drained because you feel really good and it’s pretty draining, or you feel like crap because you feel like you didn’t do good enough. So either way you feel bad at the end of the day, whereas if the subject is lighter, you go home and be like, ‘That was fun. I had a good time at work today.'”

Everything to Know About ‘The Midnight Club’

Since Midnight Mass, the Purge actor has teamed up again with Flanagan, 44, in The Midnight Club, launched the podcast “It’s Not Only Football: Friday Night Lights and Beyond” and currently has a recurring role on Criminal Minds. Earlier this month, his horror mystery film There’s Something Wrong With the Children also debuted.

“I’ve weirdly done a lot in the genre and that’s kind of given me an appreciation for the genre is the fact that it’s huge,” Gilford told Us. “It’s everything from flasher films to psychological thrillers. It’s just such a kind of a bucket category. And of course, my mom’s always like, ‘Oh, is it another horror movie?’ Like, ‘Hey, thanks mom.’ A horror movie can be a lot of different things. These are possessed children and it’s kind of a psychological theme because I think what’s fun about it is you don’t know if [my character] Ben the character is crazy or if he’s the only one seeing reality. Midnight Mass was — spoiler alert — vampires. The Purge is just this kind of scary concept of what if the world did this one night a year. And so they’re just so diverse. And even though they’re all horror, I feel like it’s been fun for me because I’ve gotten to do completely different projects.”

He added, laughing: “It’s not like I’m just running away from some guy with a knife all the time.”

There’s Something Wrong With the Children follows a family who goes on a weekend trip with their friends. The reunion, however, quickly goes downhill when their kids begin to act strangely after disappearing into the woods. The Roxanne Benjamin-directed film also stars Amanda Crew, Alisha Wainwright, Carlos Santos, Briella Guiza and David Mattle.

Zach Gilford Breaks Down Riley's Fate on 'Midnight Mass
Paramount Home Entertainment

Although Gilford has grown to love the horror genre, he’ll never be a fan of getting bloodied up in the makeup chair.

“It’s the worst,” he said. “Even on this one, I remember, I very often will wear my own socks at work and mostly just because I’m too lazy to change my socks. When I’m getting into wardrobe, I’m like, I’ll just keep my socks on. And of course, I was wearing my own really cool Bombas socks when I had to do the blood scene and it dripped down my leg. And to this day I have the one pair that’s just stained red! And now I literally, every time I go to work, I change my socks into the wardrobe socks.”

There’s Something Wrong With the Children is now available on digital and On Demand.

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