Zachary Booth Opens Up About 'All the Terrible Things'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 22, 2015

Zachary Booth has had roles in many movies and TV series, including the role of Michael Hewes -- the gay son to Glenn Close's lead character Patty Hewes -- on the FX drama "Damages," a lead role in the 2012 Ira Sachs-directed gay romantic drama "Keep the Lights On," parts in films like "Last Weekend," "The Beaver," and "White Irish Drinkers," and appearances on shows such as "Person of Interest," "Elementary," and "White Collar."

The well-rounded actor has also appeared on and off-Broadway, sharing the stage in a 2008 production of "Prayer for My Enemy" with "Looking" lead Jonathan Groff and starring in Edward Albee's 2007 play "Me Myself & I" in a 2010 production. Now Booth is paying Boston his first professional visit as one half of the cast in the Peter DuBois-directed production of "after all the terrible things I do" by the Huntington Theatre Company, where he stars opposite Tina Chilip in a two-hander by playwright A. Rey Pamatmat.

Booth plays Daniel, an openly gay man whose struggle to accept himself may not yet be fully resolved. He's also a budding novelist, so when he needs a job the prospect of working in a bookstore appeals. The shop's owner is Linda (Chilip), a Filipino-American. The play centers around Daniel's meeting with Linda as a prospective employee -- an encounter that quickly becomes more involved than the usual job interview.

Though this production marks Booth's first acting job in Boston, it's not his first visit to the city.

"My brother went to Emerson, so I spent time here, I guess, in the late 90s," Booth told EDGE during a recent phone chat. "My car was broken into, I had some stuff stolen... I had a tow truck ride from Boston back into New York."

Welcome to The Hub of the Universe, eh?

"It's a good story," Booth said, good-naturedly.

Asked about how he ended up being cast as Daniel, Booth recalled how it was mutual connections in the theater world that let DuBois to him. "I had a meeting with Peter... and we discussed the play, and why he thought that I should maybe play the role... and then I sort of sat on it for a little while, and eventually made the decision that it was something I wanted to do.

"I love working with Peter," Booth went on to say. "I think he's a great director. He's very insightful, and he has a way of observing that doesn't [make you] feel like you're under a microscope, though he is very in tune with the minute details of what you're doing in your performance. I think he really works from his gut and his heart, which I respect and admire. He's a real artist."

Booth also had praise for his co-star.

"Tina's great," he enthused about Chilip. "We didn't meet until we were in New York before we came up here; we had dinner. She's a fabulous actress, and she's very committed to realizing the intensity of her character. She never wastes a moment."

"Intensity" must be the word, given that this is a full-length two-character drama about one of the most controversial and highly scrutinized topics of our time. But more about that topic later.

"I've never done a two-hander before, and it's a lot of work," Booth noted. "I'm in awe of the technical aspects of it, because there's no scene where you can sit down for a minute and take a deep breath; there's no intermission; there's none of that. You're gonna shoot out of the cannon and the next time you stop it's going to be the end of the play. You just hope that you've said all the words in the right order."

That's the nature of stage acting, of course, which is worlds apart from what it's like to act on television or in movies. Performances involving multiple takes that are later edited into a smooth and faultless performance have their own challenges, but forgetting or mixing up lines isn't one of them.

"I was always a theater actor first," Booth disclosed. "I live in New York, and the experience I have in theater came before I ever worked in television or film. It's a completely different process; both have their advantages. On stage there are so many more variables. You have an audience [right there] and you're getting a reaction immediately to what you're doing, which for certain things -- in particular, comedy -- makes it a lot easier, because you are getting an immediate gauge on how well you're doing.

"On film you can make a mistake and it's okay, because you're going to go back and do it again. But still there's a kind of pressure, in that at some point in the next hours you're going to have give your best version of this performance. On stage, you have to surrender to the length of the process and say, 'At some point in this process, I'm going to give my best performance, and [at some other point] I'm going to give my worst performance. I can't obsess about trying to control when those things are going to happen. I just have to commit to what I'm doing every night and then try to be as aware as I can be of what was working and what wasn't working.'"

Getting a read on that - what's working, what's not - is part and parcel of the rapport that stage actors form with the collective responses, expectations, and, if you will, the energy of the audience.

"I spoke to the comedy side of it," Booth said, "but on the dramatic side, you can sometimes intuitively feel the weight [of the audience reacting to a performance]. But I think that's very similar to film, because I think in film you're connecting with one person, for example [a co-star], and you can really gauge how you're affecting them. I think I have a more effective ability of gauging the drama of a moment on film than I do on stage."

Stage work not only entails the chance to revisit a character on a daily basis, but also involves the likelihood that one is making an attempt to find one's own interpretation for a character that other actors have portrayed -- maybe dozens, maybe hundreds, or maybe even thousands of times before. But if it seems like a lot of responsibility to contend with when one is performing in a long-loved theatrical chestnut -- think of how actors must struggle with the part of Willy Loman, or Stanley Kowalsky, or Hamlet -- it must surely be just as intimidating, in its way, to take on a role that only a few (or perhaps no one) has previously made their own.

"It's a combination of a lot of things. As you work on a new play you do kind of hope that the words will change as you make it through the process, but you never really know what's going to happen," Booth said thoughtfully. "It's a little bit of personal connection, and a little bit of analysis, but I think that the best place to start is to understand the emotions [of our character] in the most general way that you can so that they can be acceptable to you, even if you haven't had this specific experience. And then finding specific things that you can identify with, or that you can study up on that can help you ramp up your connection to the character.

"Daniel, I think, in a nutshell, is somebody that believes that he's a good person, but has done bad things and is trying to come to terms with whether or not he can be a good person - or if maybe he isn't. That's something I actually can identify with. I haven't always treated people well in my life. I've made mistakes. On a daily basis I try to be a better person, but there's always, in the darkest moments, this bit of doubt that you go home with: 'Am I really a good person?'"

Those are questions that belong to the actor's art. They also belong to the writer's field. An actor playing the part of the writer must, then, become especially aware of the agonies involved in trying to examine oneself and one's life, and make conscious, responsible choices.

"Yes, and as a writer I sum up my life through -- I don't know -- actions and intentions, and I think I am very in tune with that," Booth reflected. "As a writer, I think Daniel looks at it from the other side: Every event, every story in his life has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end; there's a narrative to the way he thinks about himself."

The play is, at least in part, a meditation on bullying; Pamatmat reportedly began writing the play well before the "It Gets Better" phenomenon, wanting to explore the roots of this particular form of aggression. If race or gender or sexuality are things bullies seize on, and if it's true, as one hears from different minority groups, that everyone is a little bit "racist," or "homophobic," or "misogynistic" -- even unconsciously -- then are we all also a little bit given to being bullies, however much that idea might horrify us in the brightly-lit, deliberative parts of our minds and identities?

"I got into some heated debates with Peter and Rey and Tina about if the play is about bullying, and what bullying is," Booth said. "Like you said, it's a topic right now. I struggle with it, because I think when a word becomes a part of our vocabulary in a new way, the word that existed before that and had a certain definition, and then became a topic that we talked about, [at that point] the definition got a lot broader.

"On the broad scale, I don't think that the issues that are discussed in this play are similar to the headlines that we see in the news, or similar to documentaries that we may have watched on bullying. I think this is a different look at a specific kind of bullying, or a specific kind of abuse.

"I don't know," Booth went on to add. "I think if we take the large definition, then yes, everyone is capable of bullying... well, I don't know. I can't actually comfortably say that. I can say that I was. I can say that I was a queer, artsy kid; I liked to color my hair and wear different clothing than everyone else, and I was in theater, and I liked to play in band, and I liked to skateboard -- I felt like I was not in the [mainstream], but at the same time I certainly bullied other kids. I can only really speak to my experience, and that's been one of the tough things about working on this play, looking at your own experience and saying, 'What are you guilty of?'"

Another aspect of the actor's craft: The willingness to take that sort of hard, honest look at the uglier, messier parts of one's own psyche. But if the actor's instrument is his body, then it's also his mind and his heart, warts and all.

"Sure," Booth agrees. "And this play is about a 23-year-old, and I think [the character of Linda] is supposed to be in her late forties. As far as I can tell, most of the [contemporary] conversation on bullying has to do with kids that are under the age of 18, so I think that if people come in to see what they see to be a conversation on bullying, they are going to be quite surprised by who these character are, and where they are in their lives."

The conversation swung back to Booth's film career ("Please do," he said dryly when EDGE proposed the subject change), with some of the more under-appreciated projects he's been involved in becoming the focus. EDGE suggested a few titles, starting with "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," along with the John Gray feature "White Irish Drinkers" and the Mel Gibson and Jody Foster vehicle "The Beaver," a film the strangeness of which -- it's about a man who takes to using a hand puppet to communicate -- was overshadowed by controversies swirling around Gibson at the time.

"'Nick and Norah' was very early on in my career," Booth recalled, "and Michael Cera was certainly a star already, but he was a star on the rise. It was early on in the careers of a lot of terrific actors -- Kat Dennings, Ari Graynor, Jay Baruchel, the list goes on. For me, the experience was that the film wasn't that it was underrated. I was in New York City, which was the background of that movie, and I got to go see it with friends in a movie theater, and it seemed to be quite appreciated by the audience that I was watching it with.

"As far as 'White Irish Drinkers,' I think that movie, unfortunately, did not get the attention that it deserved. I think John Gray, who wrote and directed it, is a really brilliant guy. He works in television a lot, but he has an artistic spirit. He threw himself into this personal story and created something that I think is really special. I don't think that it's a perfect movie, but I think that it exists, and it will exist; it's the kind of thing that people will find on Netflix and be happy that they didn't, whereas a lot of times I find things on my Netflix and I wish I'd never found them."

EDGE and Booth both burst into wry laughter at this.

"As far as 'The Beaver,' I think that was one of the best scripts I've ever read," Booth continued. "There's always going to be controversy, but I think... Jennifer Lawrence, Anton Yelchin, there are just such fabulous actors [in that move], and I had such a teeny part in that film, but I did feel that it was a bit of a shame that it didn't get the attention that it deserved. I don't know if it was because headlines dragged it down, or the film itself didn't live up to the script -- we can never really be sure why something doesn't land with audiences, but I can say I am proud to have been a part of all of those films, and would certainly encourage anyone to see all of them -- if they asked me."

EDGE put the question to Booth as to what sort of roles and genres he would like to explore in the future.

"You know, I think I am hilarious, but I have a horrible fear of comedy," Booth replied - an admission that, it must be said, he delivered with impeccable timing. "I would love to get involved in some more comedy at some point, I play a lot of dark roles, a lot of menacing roles, so [comedy] is something that I'm interested in.

"And I'd also love to do some more period work. 'White Irish Drinkers' was a period piece, set in the 1970s; I've done some theater that was set it the early 20th century or there as another play I did that was set in the 70s. I guess those would be the sort of character roles that I would like to play."

There you have it, casting directors: For future roles, envision Booth in stories set in the past.


"after all the terrible things I do" will run at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts from May 22 - June 21. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2014-2015/after-all-the-terrible-things-i-do

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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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