Austin actress takes on 'Friday Night Lights' role

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Austin actress takes on 'Friday Night Lights' role

Austin actress Angela Rawna (raw-NAY) has been on "Friday Night Lights" for a year, but most of us haven't seen her. Because of the deal struck between broadcast network NBC and satellite television provider DirecTV to keep the show on the air, the latter has already shown Season 4 of the locally shot football drama (Season 5 is already filming), while those of us who subscribe to other providers or rely on over-the-air signals won't see what's been happening in fictional Dillon, Texas, until, well, Friday night, May 7.

Even then we won't see Rawna portray drug-addicted Regina Howard, whose troubled son is given a choice: prison or football. Her character is introduced in the new season's second episode, "After the Fall," airing May 14. But a week is a short wait when we almost didn't get to see her at all.

"I originally wasn't going to go to the audition," Rawna explains. "When I first got the breakdown and the (script) from my agent, I really paced the house, just really trying to figure out, OK, is this really something I want to go and do?"

The actress hesitated for two reasons. First, she was worried that the character — drug addicted, African American mom, husband in jail, son in trouble with the law — might be taken as a stereotype. And she admits to being afraid. Rawna boasts a sheltered, middle-class childhood, growing up as a "daddy's girl" in a San Antonio military family.

"I was quite terrified, I guess, of what that world would be like to live in during the duration (of filming). My thought process was ‘Do I want to go and exist and live in that world? Am I willing to go do all the research and the backstory in the way that I have been trained? Was I up for that task?' "

After a private session with her acting coach during which he encouraged her to go after the part, Rawna still wasn't convinced. "I just really wasn't sure if I wanted to go into an audition and look that way and feel that way and go to that place." But before she arrived home, she'd made up her mind. And now Rawna is one of those overnight success stories that was actually a lifetime in the making. She had big dreams, but although she had appeared in elementary and junior high drama productions, those dreams didn't include Hollywood.

"I thought I was going to be a professional volleyball player, I really did," she explains. "I thought I was probably going to make it to the Olympics. I'm such a sports fanatic, all kinds of sports. And I ended up playing volleyball in college and really thought that as I proceeded forth I probably could do either the pro beach circuit or possibly even do the Olympics."

But then "reality set in," she admits. "My body, honestly, was giving me signs of breaking down. And then the other thing, too, is that I really wasn't as talented of a volleyball player as I thought I was. Let's just put the truth out there."

As Rawna set out to reassess her life and determine her calling, she slowly returned to acting. She came to Austin, where she got her feet wet appearing in University of Texas student films and appearing as an extra in movies such as "Miss Congeniality." Rawna's had plenty of formal training but, like the best in her profession, relies heavily on keen powers of observation.

"I think, honestly, to watch someone work — particularly as an actor watching another actor — seeing how they operate is magnificent to watch," Rawna says. She talks about practically stalking "The Closer's" G.W. Bailey when they appeared together in "Sonny's Last Shot," a political satire staged at the State Theatre in 2005.

"I just marveled and loved to watch G.W. Bailey on stage or in rehearsal and just fed and learned and took meticulous notes," she recalls. "I don't even think to this day he's aware of how much I studied him." She calls her experience as a "walker" (a kind of stand-in) for Anna Deavere Smith during rehearsals for "Let Me Down Easy" at Zach Scott "a crash course in just seeing someone work. It was fabulous."

Also fabulous: Rawna's work ethic. To bone up for the demanding "Friday Night Lights" role (the actress had difficulty coming up with more than a few broad similarities between herself and her character) she spent a good amount of time at Recovery Austin, an addiction treatment center.

"I was just very forthright and I said, ‘Hey, I'm an actress and I just booked this role. I need some help — I don't have anything from my life to pull from because I've never been on drugs, but I want to be as authentic as possible'."

She spent time with staffers, including a reformed user working at the facility. "This woman who was addicted for 17 years literally let me walk in her shoes and took me back to her time of being on drugs and having substance abuse issues," Rawna says. "And she took me around Austin to some of the most seedy places in our town where we have a huge population of those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. We walked the streets."

The work paid off. Rawna's "FNL" Regina, who comes across as terrifyingly, heartbreakingly real, will be back for Season 5. "We've got some unfinished work there," she says. "I'm anxious to see what the writers are going to do with my character."

The actress loves, loves, loves Austin, but a performance of this caliber could make it difficult for her to remain here.

"Depending on how things go for Season 5, we'll kind of see how it pans out," she says. "I know I'm going to have to fly to L.A. here in a couple of weeks to take some meetings, and we'll see how those turn out and go from there. But if I can do the dual households and hopefully just continue to do a back-and-forth thing, that would be great."

In the meantime, Rawna is following her parents' advice — "Their motto was keep 'em busy, keep 'em out of trouble," she says — by pursuing several local projects. She's appearing in director Richard Linklater's mysterious "untitled 12-year project," playing opposite Patricia Arquette. She's raising funds to shoot an independent film version of "All from the Same Dust," a script written by her acting coach. And she's writing a one-woman show she hopes to stage in Texas in another year or so.

Rawna sometimes wishes that her profession were more like the business world, with a clear path up the corporate ladder. In lieu of that, she says she falls back on two things: "a lot of hard work and a lot of damn good luck." You get the idea that the majority of her success comes from the hard work.

When we last left Dillon

Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford, at left) decided to pass on the Art Institute of Chicago and remain in Dillon to care for his grandmother. Meanwhile, Tim Riggins reluctantly headed off to college in San Antonio. Billy and Mindy told Tim they were going to have a baby. Tyra Colette was finally accepted into the University of Texas while Lyla Garrity switched gears and headed off to Vanderbilt. Coach Taylor was ousted from his position at Dillon High and took the job as head coach of the East Dillon Lions.

'Friday Night Lights': 7 p.m. Friday, May 7; NBC

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