It’s Sunday afternoon in New York, and actor Chris Zylka and I plan to meet at the corner of Perry and Hudson Street in the West Village. We’ve never met before, but he’s easy to spot amongst the listless post-brunch crowd that’s shuffling about. At six foot one, Zylka’s an attractive looking jock with a rebel’s swagger, who also happens to be incredibly punctual, arriving at our scheduled meeting time, to the minute. He saunters over, and asks if he can finish his cigarette before we get started. “I’m trying to quit, but it’s really fucking hard,” he says sheepishly.
As Zylka savors another long, slow drag, I decide to test his sense of humor by telling him he’s responsible for the herniated disc in my lower back. He gives me a quick, puzzled look. “What do you mean?’ he asks, cautiously. Keeping up the ruse, I explain how I slipped a disc in my back after attempting his character’s “stretching exercises” in Gregg Araki’s Sci-Fi comedy, Kaboom. You see, in the film, Zylka’s character, Thor, has devised a stretching exercise that allows you to suck your own…well, never mind. If you’ve missed this little celluloid gem, check it out to see what I mean, and to get a clear idea of just how game Zylka is as an actor. “I wore a sock for that scene, but it kept falling off, so I just went for it.”
Zylka takes one final hit from his cigarette before we head into a quiet, empty café. As I gather my notes, Chris suddenly yells out. “Chevelle’s new album is the shit!” I look up, somewhat confused, not sure if he’s speaking to me in his outdoor voice or what. He continues shouting over my shoulder, ‘Ouija Board’ is the shit!” I quickly realize he’s addressing the bartender across the room who happens to be discussing the alternative metal band with a customer. Without missing a beat, Zylka turns back, and smiles. “I love music. I always wanted to play an instrument, but I’ve never been able to sit down and practice. I want to be good right away!”
At 29, one thing Zylka has achieved “right away” is a thriving acting career. Surprisingly, however, becoming one of Hollywood’s hottest up-and-comers was not even on his radar while growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, a place, he says, “You don’t wear nice clothes, if you want to keep them.”
Born Chris Settlemire, (Zylka is his mother’s maiden name) his ambition was to be an artist. After graduating high school, he enrolled at the University of Toledo where he majored in art, and put his jock skills to use playing football. When his grandfather suddenly took ill, Zylka dropped out of college to care for him, and in the process, received an unexpected lesson in the Russian theatre. “My grandfather’s from the Ukraine, and when I was caring for him he turned me on to Stanislavski, Chekhov, and all these amazing Russian artists. I was completely blown away. Up to that point, I had always looked at acting as just a form of entertainment, not as art. As soon as I saw it as an art form, I just wanted to go destroy my mind!”
With a newfound appreciation for the actor’s craft, Zylka found himself weighing his options. “I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I have two choices here. I can move to New York and be a starving artist, or I can move to Los Angeles and try my hand at acting.”’ He placed his bet on L.A., and at nineteen packed up and headed west. “I had never studied acting, but in my naiveté, I thought it was fine to go without having any training behind me.”
If Zylka thought the streets of Youngstown were rough, nothing quite prepared him for his arrival in Hollywood. “I moved to L.A. with about three hundred dollars, and an army surplus bag. I was completely unprepared.” So unprepared, that within a short period of time he found himself living in his car. “For about six months I lived in a ‘94 Ford Probe behind a 7-11 parking lot. I wound up leaving it in the lot because it wouldn’t start anymore, and it just kind of became my home.” Was he ever ready to pack it in? “No, not really… I think that’s where my naiveté helped… or I was just being stupid! I had this adolescent mind telling me everything was going to be okay, and it was. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Zylka’s good fortune came in the form of L.A. manager and acting coach Jon Simmons, who he met while working at a restaurant in Burbank. “He asked me if I was an actor, and I said I wanted to be. He took me on, and taught me everything I know. He’s a brilliant coach, and although I’m not with him anymore, he’ll always have a special homage in my world.” While under Simmons guidance, Zylka quickly booked a couple of television shows, including a recurring role on the 2009 series 10 Things I Hate About You. His first feature, the aforementioned Kaboom, led to a couple of silly horror films, which then led to his role as “Flash” Thompson in the big budget 2012 franchise The Amazing Spider-Man.
In just a few short years, Zylka has moved from television to film with relative ease. I ask him if he has a preference. “A few years ago I probably would have said film, but the way television has evolved over the past few years, it’s a tough call,” he says. Television is so cinematic now, almost every episode is a mini-movie, and it’s taken much more seriously due to such high-profile actors doing it,”
This interview takes place a month prior to Zylka’s very own high-profile television project, HBO’s The Leftovers, and though he’s hesitant to share details, his enthusiasm for the project is evident. “I’m excited for it,” says Zylka. “We have ten episodes this season, and it’s really the first thing I’ve been a part of that’s really close to my heart. The cast is just amazing, I love everyone on set; I mean, you always hear people say, ‘We’re like family,’ ... but we really are.” When pressed for details about his character, Zylka clams up. “I’m sorry, I can’t really talk about it.”
What he can talk about is his upcoming film, the comedy/horror mashup Kitchen Sink due out next year. “Matt Tolmach, someone I look up to immensely, produced it, and it’s the first project I’ve done where I had such a difficult time not laughing at what I had to say. It’s that hysterical.” When asked for details, Zylka lights up. “Oh man, it’s literally the whole kitchen sink. We’ve got vampires, zombies, and this creature that I’m not allowed to reveal, but what’s really cool is that for half the movie I’m human, and the other half I’m a zombie. Which is just so great!”
Some actors may not be quite so enthusiastic about having to play a rotting corpse for half a movie, but again, Zylka’s committed to his craft. Or perhaps, his enthusiasm is nothing more than residual bliss after having proposed to his girlfriend of four months, actress and model, Hanna Beth, a few days earlier. “I know I haven’t known her for that long,” he offers, “but I knew pretty much right away. She’s a genius. She inspires me in every way imaginable. She makes me want to be a better person. I mean, I was just awful, she saved my life.”
Zylka checks his watch, and downs the last of his coffee. “I’ve got to run,” he says. “I’m meeting the Carvers (Max and Charlie, his co-stars from The Leftovers) in Times Square to see Spider-Man 2.”
Stepping out of the café, and into the warm afternoon sun, Zylka digs into his pocket for a cigarette. “Let’s see if I can make it more than a block without one,” he says, partly to himself. We say our goodbyes, and I hang back a moment, watching as he reaches two short blocks before puffs of smoke trail behind him.