Rising Star: Matthew Willig

Matthew Willig’s path to Hollywood has been different from most other actors.

At first glance, a resume that includes about a dozen TV shows and two movies — most recently, as the muscle-bound hunter Marlak opposite Jack Black and Michael Cera in “Year One” — may not seem extraordinary.

But then again, there are few actors who also boast a 14-year NFL career and a Super Bowl ring.

A former college and pro football player, Matt — who retired from the NFL in 2005 — has now shifted his attention full-time to acting.

“I was pretty fortunate,” Matthew told AccessHollywood.com. “I really did have some good breaks, number one. But I was just fortunate to stick around and play that long.”

When it comes to a career in acting, it wasn’t always how the former pro athlete envisioned his career path.

“I’ve been joking that I am the fifth of six kids so I was always looking for attention to begin with,” he joked. “When I was at USC, I did a movie with somebody and I had a blast doing it. It just kind of put it in the back of my head. And then, the longer and longer I played in the NFL, I kind of said, ‘Well, I’m not going to go out and get a 9 to 5 job at any point soon, so what can I do?’ So I started hosting radio and TV shows while I was still playing.”

After a series of TV commercials, and guest spots on such TV series as “CSI,” “My Name Is Earl,” “Chuck,” “Dexter” and “Everybody Hates Chris,” Matthew landed the role as Marlak in the new Judd Apatow-Harold Ramis produced comedy, “Year One.”

And in fact, Matthew is the first face moviegoers will see at the start of the film.

“It was the only demand I had in the whole process – I needed to be the first face that everyone saw to scare everyone into paying attention,” the 6’8” actor joked.

When it came to sharing the big screen with notorious comedians like Jack Black and Michael Cera, Matthew said that was the biggest reason he wanted to be a part of the project.

“Jack’s comedy is so in your face and always on, and that is the opposite of Michael, who has this very subtle comic timing. It was a real treat for me as an up-and-comer just see that and learn from it,” Matthew said. “That’s what this whole movie was for me, it was just a very cool learning process of seeing some veteran actors and how they do things.”

In fact, it was producer and co-star Harold Ramis who Matthew was most looking forward to working with.

“I am a big fan of his. That was one, if not the biggest, selling point of doing this movie was the chance to work with him,” he said of the former “Ghostbusters” star.

Of course, sporting a 6’8” nearly 300-pound frame, it can be difficult for Matthew to step into any “everyday” role. But that’s something the actor doesn’t let get him down.

“I know I’m going to be pigeon-holed at first… That’s something that just happens, but it’s not frustrating” he said of playing the typical -– yet often in-demand — over-sized guy. “There have been times in this last year that I have literally been told, ‘Listen, you were great, but you’re just too big.’ But size wise is the best way you can be can be turned down as far as I’m concerned. The frustrating part would be if I was to have them say, ‘You’re just not acting well. You don’t have the chops.’”

But Matthew, who is married and has two daughters, is willing to pay his dues in Hollywood.

“I liken it to a long tall ladder that I’m just trying to climb, and taking little baby steps. But it seems that it is slowly getting better and better roles are coming,” he said.

As for what lies ahead for Matthew, he is eager to find out where his acting journey will lead him next.

“I don’t have anything written in stone. There is an HBO pilot coming up that I am very interested in. But there is nothing right now on my table that I am getting ready for next week,” he said. “Things have been coming across that hopefully in the next year or so will put me out there and make me a little more visible.”

When it’s all said and done, should a slew of roles come his way making Matthew a household name, how would a possible Oscar statue compare to his Super Bowl ring?

“I think an Oscar would be number one at this point. It’s an individual accomplishment and where I have come from and where I have started from, to be able to say that I got enough work to be nominated for something like that is completely out of my realm at this point. But to win one of those…,” Matthew explained. “I grew up knowing I would be good at athletics and dreams of a Super Bowl were always within reach as long as I progressed. At this point, to reach that goal of an Oscar would absolutely be number one.”

And should the time come where Matthew has to find space for both trophies on his mantle, he’s not too worried about finding room.

“My ring finger is big enough where I could put the ring on top of the Oscar’s head as a crown,” he joked.

Copyright 2014 by NBC Universal, Inc. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.