"This feels like the most important role that I've ever played." That's how Matt Lauria describes his Parenthood role as Ryan, an Afghanistan war veteran who returns home and struggles to re-acclimate to civilian life.
Lauria, who was offered the Parenthood part from his former Friday Night Lights boss Jason Katims, tells The Hollywood Reporter that this character holds a special place in his heart because of what he called the "immense responsibly" that comes with honoring those who have served the country.
"I've been in touch with all these veterans from Afghanistan who have been extremely generous with their time," he says, noting he did a lot of research about what their time was like overseas and the personal and social challenges many faced when returning home.
"It has a stamp of authenticity to it and everyone has handled it with so much respect because of the issue of veterans coming back and not necessarily having the right channels to help them re-acclimate," he says.
First encountering Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) at a group for veterans, Ryan's struggles are slowly coming to the surface after he begins to romance Amber (Mae Whitman), most recently when he beat the living daylights out of a former member of his squad the night before burying a friend who took his own life.
"He needs a lot of healing," the actor who played Luke Cafferty on FNL says, noting the suicide rate of Afghanistan veterans in the past year has risen higher than the casualty number during combat there. "Not only are we seeing this guy who's just trying to get back on his feet but [he's struggling] with these things that we take for granted: little adjustments that the men and women [returning home] are trying to make that you just aren't used to doing anymore."
While Ryan and Amber's romantic beach detour on the drive home from the funeral was one for the books (watch the clip below), it won't be all sunsets and fairy tale settings for the couple moving forward as Zeek already seems to be weary of the pairing.
"Zeek is leery of it because he knows what it's like to undergo these types of changes and how long-term an impact it makes on you personally, so he's looking out for his granddaughter," Lauria says. "Even if you love someone, it's a really hard thing to see that kind of brutality; there's not really a place to reconcile that and it's something that will never go away and has to be dealt with. We haven't seen the end of Ryan working through his issues."
Which is where Ryan will continue to learn from Whitman's Amber, who is growing to learn to care for someone other than herself.
"This is a guy who desperately needs healing and he's with a girl who has never had to be responsible for someone else or to be so invested emotionally in a relationship that it requires her to give of herself this much and be the guiding force to be the one to provide that kind of guidance."
While Lauria believes Ryan and Amber have what it takes to make it work, he warns their path to happiness won't come easy. "I think they can go the distance and I hope they will but it gets pretty ugly," he says.
As for his co-star's Friday Night Lights allegiance to Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitch) and the Dillon Panthers, Lauria is as good as sport as his former character would be about the whole thing.
"I cannot fault her for her ignorance, she just doesn't know yet," he says with a laugh. "She doesn't know she should be rooting for the Lions. I think she's wading into the third season right now but she still doesn't know the error of her ways, so I don't hold it against her and I can say that with authority because I was a Panther and then turned from the dark side."
Do you think Ryan and Amber will last? Hit the comments with your thoughts. Parenthood airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC. Watch their romantic getaway, below.