ABOVE: CHRIS ZYLKA IN THE CLUB ROOM AT THE SOHO GRAND HOTEL, NEW YORK, NY, JUNE 2014. PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER GABELLO. STYLING: JESSI JACQ. STYLING ASSISTANT: EDELAWIT HUSSEIN. GROOMING: JAMIE DORMAN.
Two percent of the world’s population vanishes. Among the departed are Condoleezza Rice, Jennifer Lopez, Gary Busey, and the Pope; among those remaining are Mapleton, New York’s chief of police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his wife Laurie (Amy Brennan), son Tom (Chris Zylka), daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), and Jill’s outgoing best friend, Aimee (Emily Meade).
This is the premise of HBO’s newest show, The Leftovers, which premieres on Sunday. “The show involves this normal, typical family,” explains Zylka. “No one gets lost to the departure but, at the same time, they all lose each other.” The show should do well: it has the requisite famous faces (Liv Tyler is also in the show) but, more importantly, big-name showrunners including Lost‘s Damon Lindelof, Friday Night Lights‘ Peter Berg, and Tom Perrotta, upon whose novel the series is based.
As Tom, Zylka is removed from the other protagonists. While the rest of his family still lives in Mapleton, Tom is a devoted disciple of a cult-leader named “Holy Wayne.” “Tom’s off doing his own thing, but me and Justin communicate a lot,” says Zylka. “We all get along really well—we email back and forth and such.”
At 29 years old, Zylka still looks like a tween heartthrob: chiseled jaw, blond hair, and muscular. He’s been one in the past, with roles on CW’s The Secret Circle and in The Amazing Spider-Man, and guest stints on shows like 90210. The Warren, Ohio native (or “Warren-out Ohio,” as he calls it) even publically dated another tween star, Pretty Little Liars’ Lucy Hale. But The Leftovers is Zylka’s chance at a long-lasting career. “I’m not one of those people that pretends he doesn’t watch himself,” he tells us in New York, where he is living during filming. “You’re your worst critic. I think it’s good to know, ‘Wow, technically I was horrible; I’m seasick, I’m moving around so much.’ I critique the shit out of myself and then try to learn from it.”
EMMA BROWN: Tell me about an early memory.
CHRIS ZYLKA: I don’t if it is a real memory, but it’s [of] me and my brother getting all of the couch cushions and putting them on the floor. We were huge Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans and we wore these little bandanas over our heads; I would be the blue one, Leonardo, and he would be the Michelangelo, and it was just because we loved blue and orange. We would just beat the shit out of each other on these pillow cases and it was so much fun. [My brother and I] are still super tight. He actually lives in California—he’s an RN at an oncology unit at UCLA, so he’s the smart one. We’re almost exactly a year apart.
BROWN: Was there ever any rivalry?
ZYLKA: Never! Or it went unnoticed because we were always together growing up. I was the one that liked the limelight and was a little more dominant and he was the smart, intelligent one.
BROWN: When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?
ZYLKA: I was an art major [in college] and I painted, mostly, and I did sketches and some graffiti. I played college football and my second ball game that I was playing in, my grandfather had a heart attack and had quadruple bypass surgery—he survived, he’s still alive today. He’s from the Ukraine, Kiev. When I went home to take care of him—I dropped out of school—for the first time ever, we started talking about arts. He’s talking about Stanislavsky and Chekhov; growing up in Warren, acting was just a form of entertainment. There’s not a whole lot of critiquing that goes on in watching TV or movies. So I was like, “Fuck, that sounds really hard, like an ultimate art form,” so I just packed up and moved out and got lucky, I guess.
BROWN: Were you close with your grandfather before?
ZYLKA: Absolutely. Super, super close. He was always a sports fan so he never talked about his life in Kiev or anything like that. [When I moved home,] we talked a lot about art because I started painting and stuff at his house.
BROWN: Was he an artist?
ZYLKA: He was, but he never talks about it. He was a great wood sculptor. He has all these cool figurines up in his bedroom, but he never shows anyone. It takes real patience to be able to etch out—he has this big grizzly bear holding a kid. It’s so detailed and so wonderful. It’s like, “Damn, dude, you’re good.” But then when he came to the States, he was good with his hands, so he worked at a steel mill and that was the end of his artistry. [laughs]
BROWN: But he’s continuing it as a hobby.
ZYLKA: Oh, yeah, influence is sometimes more powerful than actually acting it out.
BROWN: So you were interested in both sports and the arts when you were growing up—was that difficult in small-town Ohio?
ZYLKA: They collided so much, and not in a joyful way. I was the only art major on the football team, that’s for sure, but I never really talked about it. I got in trouble a lot in school; my art teacher called [my mother] and was like, “Look, he has this book, he has 150 sketches that he has to do, and he hasn’t done one,” but I was doing them the whole entire time, I just didn’t turn it in then because it wasn’t due till the end of the year. So it was just funny that art was always a secret. It was just something that was fun.
BROWN: Why were you always getting in trouble?
ZYLKA: Boredom! Have you ever been to Warren, Ohio?
BROWN: I’ve never been to Ohio at all. Did you enjoy football as much as you enjoyed art?
ZYLKA: It’s an art form in itself. All sports are. You see all these superstars like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady—they have to walk up to the line of scrimmage, read a defense that’s pre-snap, that’s coverage, and the defensive linemen’s alignment and linebackers. Then the snap happens and you see how they were covering up the coverages and where they’re going to go and which route’s going to be open. It’s an art form. You have to do all of that in your head in four seconds. It seems like a long time when you’re counting it out—[claps four times]—but if you don’t have it out, if you don’t have the ball at your end, you’re getting tackled by someone that’s three times your size and heavier. It’s a dangerous art form. [laughs]
BROWN: Do you remember your first audition?
ZYLKA: Oh my god, yeah. I think the CW was doing Aquaman: The Pilot, or something. I was just this little chubby kid—I had zits and a shaved head and bumps and bruises all over the place because I was homeless at the time. I didn’t learn any of the lines, just went in there and read it off the page. I was 18, maybe 19.
BROWN: But they’ve cast you in shows since.
ZYLKA: Yeah, it must not have been too, too bad. Or they just forgot. [laughs] More than likely they just forgot. Blacklisted from the CW? That would be a pretty sad day.
BROWN: Were you nervous?
ZYLKA: No! I guess that’s the oddest personality trait for me—I’m too dumb and naïve to ever really be nervous about anything. I just don’t take it all that seriously. I’m much more happy to go home and lay on the couch and watch I Dream of Jeannie with my fiancée and our dog.
BROWN: How did you get involved in The Leftovers?
ZYLKA: Pete Berg and I had worked together months prior on a show that didn’t work out for the network. I think I read on Deadline or something that Damon Lindelof was coming back to TV [for a project based on] Tom Perrotta’s book. It’s like, okay, Emmy, two Oscar nominations; I need to at least read for this. Thank god Pete had the faith in me to just offer me the part. I met with Damon and we sat down and just kicked it off instantly. He’s such a good, genuine human being.
BROWN: Peter Berg seems like he has the people his likes and if you’re one of them, he’ll take care of you.
ZYLKA: Yeah. If there’s anyone that you should strive to be exactly like, it’s Pete. If Pete was in The Leftovers he would be Holy Wayne—the Holy Pete. He demands attention and respect, but at the same time he’s bitterly honest.
BROWN: How much are you allowed to tell your friends and family about what happens on the show?
ZYLKA: HBO is pretty strict; we’re not really allowed to say anything other than that 140 million people disappear one day. I like to think of it as almost an animalistic thing: What would you do? It’s complete chaos.
BROWN: Whose trajectory do you identify with the most? If the Rapture happened, what would your reaction be?
ZYLKA: I like the way Tom goes. He tries to search for something to believe in, because when something so drastic happens, you would think that your primal nature would just go to what the fuck do I believe in? Was this biblical? Was this just something that happened? Was it a rapture? Was it just people disappearing? Find a guru, or be a guru.
BROWN: Do you have any medium-term goals: This is where I want my career to be in 10 years?
ZYLKA: I just want to keep working. Longevity is really important. I am extremely passionate about what I do and the happiest I am is when I’m on set working. I suppose longevity and respect. It takes longevity to earn respect.
BROWN: How does one work towards longevity?
ZYLKA: Don’t suck. [laughs] Do the work. Anyone that books a job, most people who are “shitty,” it’s just because they didn’t do the work. They earned the job; they just didn’t do the work.
BROWN: What’s the first thing you do when you get a role?
ZYLKA: Read the script as a fan and try to create this community in your head. That’s the thing that a lot of people tend to forget —it’s not just about your character. Even if you’re a lead, you’re still supporting the supporting the entire story.
BROWN: Your fiancée was talking about The Fault in Our Stars earlier. Are you a movie crier?
ZYLKA: I cry so much. I would cry during the title sequence of that movie. I get really involved when I’m watching; I enjoy watching movies and television. It’s fun to kick back and forget about everything else. That’s why I tend to not go towards that genre, because I’d be that kid weeping in front, just bawling his eyes out.
BROWN: What’s the last film that made you cry?
ZYLKA: I cried at a Justin Long movie. The best man dies. It was so sad—so brilliantly sad. What was it called? Best Man Down. What’s the actor’s name? It was Tyler Labine. It was genius. So good.
BROWN: Have you ever lied on your résumé as an actor?
ZYLKA: I never really did one. I think in the beginning you had to put theater credits and actual credits and my manager at the time put that I played Oliver Warbucks in Annie, and that was a blatant lie. I’d never even seen Annie. It’s not on there anymore.
BROWN: Are you quite a sensitive person?
ZYLKA: Yes and no. Things bother me a lot, and I think through maturity I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut a little bit more than I used to.
BROWN: What sort of things bother you?
ZYLKA: Man. When people are rude to other people. When people belittle other people. Bullies really bother me a lot. A lot, a lot.
BROWN: Is that from personal experience? Were you bullied as a child?
ZYLKA: No, I was fortunate enough to never really be bullied. Maybe one time in middle school, but it was my fault. I had said something to someone, and they waited for me outside for a month until finally I put my dukes up and ran out. It was completely my fault.
BROWN: In your experience, do Midwesterners fit their stereotype—are they nicer and more polite than other Americans?
ZYLKA: I think it’s the way you’re raised. My mom raised me right. I was raised by women, so they made sure that we were polite to women and treated women like women, but also treated women like equals.
BROWN: You have quite a few tattoos; which one did you get first?
ZYLKA: My first says “Mom” in a heart.
BROWN: Did your mother think it was a sweet gesture? Or was she upset that you’d gotten a tattoo?
ZYLKA: Yeah, thank god. I was so nervous, because they’re all Russian, so it’s like, I’m not in a gang. I think I was visiting home from L.A. and I come down the stairs and I’m like, “Mom, I got a tattoo,” and she’s like, “Aw, you didn’t have to!”
THE LEFTOVERS PREMIERES THIS SUNDAY, JUNE 29 ON HBO.