First, I’d just like to personally send my warm thoughts and best wishes to anybody suffering loss or damage from the recent storm. As a New Yorker, my heart goes out to everyone as the city and surrounding area gets back on its feet.
Finally, here is part one of my interview with Zach Appelman, who will be playing the title role in Henry V later this season. Zach and I met up for coffee in Brooklyn last month and had a great, freewheeling chat. In this chapter, we hear about Zach’s background, his karate skills, his time at UC Santa Barbara – and Yale.
Louis Butelli:Hi, Zach!
Zach Appelman: Hello.
LB: Do you want to talk a little bit about your background as an actor – where you came from, where you’re going, what brought you to this point?
ZA: Yeah! I guess the Cliff’s Notes version would be, I grew up in Palo Alto, California, which is where I was born and raised and went to High School. I didn’t do theater, really, as a kid. I did a lot of sports in High School.
LB: What, like, swimming? Basketball?
ZA: More track and field, wrestling, and a lot of competitive martial arts.
LB: Really! Like, tae kwon do?
ZA: I did karate. I was actually a black belt in High School. That was sort of the world I came from.
LB: Not to pry, but, was this the result of some sort of antagonism from other students?
ZA: No, I think it was much more a direct result of watching the Ninja Turtles as a child.
LB: Very nice.
ZA: It was just something I was really interested in and, you know, my parents always said I was “a mover” –
LB: There’s something sort of “California Parenting” about that.
ZA: I remember in fourth grade just saying, “I want to take karate lessons,” and they said “okay.” And so I did that, and it ended up being a great source of focus and motivation and physical activity and discipline in my life. I think it gave me a lot of tools that now serve me as an actor.
LB: Totally. So, did you do tournaments and things?
ZA: Oh, yeah. But I will say that my mom tells me repeatedly how much more she prefers watching me in plays than she did watching me in karate tournaments.
LB: Right. There’s more framing. More context. There’s, you know, a story.
ZA: And there’s usually less risk of bodily harm.
LB: Far less. One hopes.
ZA: But it’s funny how much stage combat I’ve ended up doing in my acting career so far, and how handy that’s come in for casting. People ask me if I have combat experience, and I say, “well actually…”
LB: “In fact, I’m a black belt and I do tournaments.”
ZA: Exactly. My first job out of grad school was playing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet.
LB: You get the second half of the play off. Because you’re dead.
ZA: During Act II of Romeo and Juliet at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, in the fall of 2010, I finished reading Moby Dick. I’m not kidding.
LB: So, black belt in karate in High School, finishing Moby Dick in your spare time at your first professional job – do you think you might be something of an overachiever?
ZA: I think the perfectionist in me is something I’ve actually had to try to get rid of. One of the things I remember most from drama school was teachers saying “you don’t have to get it right.” You know, dare to be sloppy and get it wrong. You’ll find your way to your work a lot better.
LB: I think that can be one of the most challenging things for any actor – be they a student actor, be they a young professional, or be they, you know, a tired, grouchy old regional actor – is this idea that there really isn’t a “right way” or a “wrong way” to be doing it. I think that’s a large conceptual hurdle that a lot of us try to get over.
ZA: Yeah, I think there was a discipline in martial arts. There was a portion of that discipline that certainly served me as an actor. But there was also a certain rigidity that I had to shed in order to be a bit more flexible and open.
LB: How much of the martial arts do you think lives with you instinctively as an actor? How much of that do you “dial up” when you need it?
ZA: I think it’s helped me to be very much “in my body.” I’ve always felt very grounded physically, very comfortable in my shoes. And I think I got a lot of it from that.
LB: Right. So, what, then you went off to college?
ZA: Yeah. I did undergrad at UC Santa Barbara, which was where I fell into theater. I went there undeclared. I didn’t know what I was going to do – I thought maybe English, maybe History. I had a friend who was a drama kid, and she suggested I take the Intro to Acting class to fulfill my arts elective requirement. I said, “sure, why not? There probably won’t be a lot of outside reading.” So I took that course, and was just immediately like – (snaps) “oh, man! This feels incredibly right.” And it was sort of that light bulb moment of “I want to do this.” Then, I found out that UCSB had a whole theater department –
LB: And that, in fact, there was a whole field, and a several thousand year-old tradition –
ZA: Exactly. And I came into it really late – I hadn’t done theater camp or any of that.
LB: You were a newbie.
ZA: I was a blank slate. Which was sort of great – I didn’t have the baggage of childhood “drama trauma” coming with me.
LB: So, if we talk about an epiphany, a light bulb moment, what do you think that was about? Was it about pretending? Escaping from yourself?
ZA: I had an amazing history teacher my freshman year of High School who would put on these, sort of, dramatic re-enactments with the class. We did one about the bubonic plague, and one about the French Revolution –
LB: What was the dramatic re-enactment of the bubonic plague like? Did people pretend to be missing limbs and such?
ZA: It was sort of like we were assigned characters who were talking about what was happening to the town during the Dark Ages –
LB: Was there much happening? Apart from people dying?
ZA: (laughs) It was this amazing way of getting the students really interested in the subjects. And the, sort of, crown jewel was a mini-play about the Diary of Anne Frank to coincide with the Holocaust unit –
LB: This was sort of a dark period in your education.
ZA: It was, it was. But, again, this was the first indicator that storytelling was something I could maybe be involved with. But I never really thought of it as “theater.” And when I took that acting class in college, I was like, “oh! This is sort of the same thing.” This storytelling that I was so passionate about in High School, I can continue doing that in the theater. And it’s ironic that so many of the plays that I’ve done since then have been historically based.
LB: (laughs) That’s true! You sort of can’t escape death and destruction.
ZA: Exactly. So I think that was sort of the light bulb –
LB: The light bulb of death.
ZA: Of death and storytelling, I guess, yeah.
LB: So then you went to Yale. Let’s talk about that a little bit. I mean, if you’re going to approach acting with any seriousness, if you’re going to join the Mafia, as it were, of successful theater artists –
ZA: Which it is!
LB: (laughs) I’m not trying to be funny, just honest. I mean, if you’re going to go somewhere, you’ve got to go to Yale, right? Was this something you were cognizant of at the time?
ZA: I guess I didn’t really think about graduate school that much at the time. I think when I came to the end of my training in college, you know, I still felt like I had a lot of stuff to work on. And I thought, “I think I’d like to do more training.” I auditioned for a bunch of programs and got into Yale. And it was clear to me – not even based on reputation, but from having met the teachers when I went to audition – this immediate sense of wanting to go there to work with those people. And it was wonderful. It was three of the hardest years of my life. You know, the hours put in and the rigors of it are incredibly challenging. But I’m a completely different actor now than I was when I went in. And I’m blessed that I got to spend three years working with the most amazing teachers in the world.
LB: Without playing favorites, were there any that stuck with you, you know, in the way that your history teacher did?
ZA: Ron Van Lieu, who is the head of the acting program there, and is a legendary acting teacher. You can’t see any theatrical production in New York without coming across his students. He was the reason I decided to go to Yale. He said to me, “I can really help you get where you want to go,” in terms of my acting and my work. One of the things he said to me that had a real impact was, “you just need to be okay living in your discomfort.” You know, learn to be okay standing on stage in a state of discomfort.
LB: Yeah, that’s quite nice.
ZA: Tolerate your own discomfort.
LB: Allow it to happen.
ZA: Yeah. Be okay with it happening.
Okay! That’s it for part 1. Stay tuned for part 2, coming next week when we chat about his experience working on Broadway in War Horse, and making his film debut opposite Daniel Radcliffe. Please enjoy! In the meantime, check out the amazing Jay Dunn‘s latest Rehearsal Diary entry right here. And don’t forget to pick up your tickets for The Conference of the Birds.
Until next time!