"I had started the doctorate program in the fall with the little voice in the back of my head that was telling me that acting was my passion ... The weirdest part is that once I actually made the decision [to leave school], I was completely at ease."
Known for his roles as a character actor, Zach Avery is taking his career to the next level this year. Avery has multiple movies set for release in 2019, including a role that earned him a spot at the top of the call sheet—alongside Bruce Dern. Most recently, Avery co-starred in The White Crow, the story of legendary ballet dancer Rudolph Nuryev, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. He just wrapped The Gateway, a crime thriller in which he stars opposite Olivia Munn, Bruce Dern and Frank Grillo. We chatted with Avery about his legendary costars, why he forwent a doctorate degree to pursue acting, and how he uses his psychology education to bring his characters to life.
Cailin Loesch: You are a performer who started out playing small roles as a character actor...but now with your upcoming role in The Gateway with Olivia Munn and Bruce Dern, you are at the precipice of a major step up in your career. What have you learned from your years on the grind up until this point?
Zach Avery: I think the most important lesson that I have learned along the way is that no matter how “small” you may view a role early in your career, if you totally embrace the experience, there will always be something to learn and take with you to future roles. Simply being on set as an actor allows you to experience the process and mechanics of how the whole production works and how you fit into the puzzle. There are so many moving pieces on a film set, so even when my particular role in a film was not large, I studied the set, learned what each department did—so that when I was higher on the call sheet, I felt completely comfortable and confident, which is such a huge part of acting.
Cailin: I have to ask about your experience on set with Olivia Munn and Bruce Dern. Are you pinching yourself?
Zach: Both Olivia and Bruce are so incredible at their craft that it was a true honor to work with them. Olivia plays my wife in the film so there was real backstory that had to be built into our relationship in order to make it authentic and layered. She was so generous and collaborative throughout the whole process… I think we really brought something special to the film. As for Bruce Dern—I mean what can I say? He is a true legend and a master at what he does. Working with him will be something I take with me for the rest of my career.
Hannah Loesch: As someone who minored in psychology, I am fascinated by the comments you’ve made about how you link your education in psychology to your work as an actor. When you first read a script, how do you get inside the mind of a character?
Zach: When I first read a script, I try to read it without focusing too much on my specific character so that I can get a macro feel for the story itself and how each character fits within this story. Once I have a solid grasp of the world that we are living in—then I read it again with a microscope on my specific character. Can I picture this guy? Can I picture where he would live, who his friends would be, what his daily routine looks like? These are the types of questions that I ask myself about a character before taking on the role. If I can see the guy and feel like I can bring a unique perspective to him then I start working from the outside in. Hairstyle, clothing, physical build...everything I can think of that would give me clues into what the character cares about or drives him points me in the right direction when starting to work on the actual character traits. Psychology plays such a large part in this process because it’s a real study on why people do the things that they do, and the outside influences that push them toward these decisions.
Cailin: Eventually, you made the decision to take a leave of absence from the doctoral program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology to pursue acting full time, which I imagine was an intimidating leap of faith. What was running through your mind at the time?
Zach: I had started the doctorate program in the fall with the little voice in the back of my head that was telling me that acting was my passion, and I should stop listening to what everyone else wanted me to do and do what I knew that I wanted for myself—but I just couldn’t do it. I started the program, but after 3 months, I couldn’t allow myself to stay stagnant and go through the motions when my heart was pulling me in another direction. The weirdest part is that once I actually made the decision, I was completely at ease. The anxiety and fear of what was ahead completely went away and there was a calmness about the road ahead. I knew it was would be hard as hell, but I would rather fail trying to do something that I loved rather than succeed doing something that I wasn’t passionate about.
Hannah: Speaking of passion, we often hear people talk about the importance of cultivating relationships in the industry with others who share your passions—and some of your earliest successes were put in motion by people you met along the way. What would you say to an aspiring actor who is looking to form a network?
Zach: Take advantage of the opportunities to show people who you are as a person rather than always trying to “get the job.” It is easier said than done, but this industry is so competitive that everyone is always trying to climb the ladder rather than build genuine relationships with people that may actually result in future opportunities rather than a one-off job. We all bring a unique perspective and individuality to everything that we do—so take every meeting, dinner, networking event or party as an opportunity to build friendships and show people who you are. If a producer or director wants to hang out with you as a person, he or she will be much more likely to want to spend months with you on set, and will think of you when they are casting their next project. Be confident in who you are and what you bring to the table rather than how many credits are on your IMDB page. If you can do this, success will follow.
The White Crow is out now. Keep up with Zach Avery on Instagram here.