As the infamous Night Stalker, Iowa-born actor Zach Villa is a chaotic evil in the latest series of American Horror Story. Entitled AHS: 1984, the show plays off the hopes and tropes of the 1980s, incorporating elements from films like Friday the 13th and Halloween into a spine-tingling thrill ride. The chief villain of the series is Villa’s Richard Ramirez, a reality-based serial killer set on making the lead characters’ lives a living hell — quite literally.
In real life, however, Villa is an obvious contrast. A multihyphenate with a strong career across a range of disciplines, he first caught the attention of the mainstream from his collaboration with Evan Rachel Wood in the project Rebel and a Basketcase. Now, as AHS: 1984 keeps audiences around the world thoroughly spooked, Villa opens up to Schön! about growing up in Iowa, his willingness to collaborate with Taylor Swift, and the unexpected call that announced his role on American Horror Story.
How did you get your start in acting?
Well, I’ve been on stage since I was two, so the whole shebang started quite early. Acting, oddly, was an afterthought when I first started. I had been dancing and singing on stage for years, idolising great song-and-dance performers like Gene Kelly, Donald O’ Connor, and Sammy Davis Jr. when it occurred to me that I should probably focus on learning the craft of acting if I wanted to continue pursuing that particular path in the entertainment industry. I had focused intensely on two out of the three “triple threat” disciplines, so I guessed it was time that I figured out the third part. It was an accessory to being able to perform musical theatre roles more effectively, and I guess that backfired in a sense and became a more central focus as I developed.
Iowa isn’t the most common birthplace for a big-time actor. What does your family — and presumably other Midwestern relatives — think of your journey into Hollywood?
They are both thrilled and confused. Don’t get me wrong — my family is very happy for me, and while we have had our spats over the years about whether or not I should be pursuing a highly volatile, financial unstable career, they have ultimately come through and rooted for me and my success.
That being said, I think pursuing a career in the mainstream entertainment industry is a very singular experience. Unless you’ve lived it and hit the pavement in NYC, L.A., etc., it’s very hard to understand the day-to-day struggles of a performing artist. I think that certain regions of the country are — generally — a majority of media consumers as opposed to creators, and there is a disconnect between the public and those of us pursuing an arts career that propagates the fallacy of things being easy and breezy, since you don’t have to get up every day at 6 AM, go to the office, and then come home and make dinner. People see that lack of structure as undisciplined and fancy-free. Let me tell you, it’s anything but. Artists have to hit the pavement in a very different way that is highly varied from day to day, and that uncertainty introduces a unique kind of stress, in addition, to actually trying to be good at your job. I always say that booking work is my “job” as an actor, and when I actually book a gig, that’s where the job ends and the craft and career begins. Translating that to someone without firsthand experience can be infuriatingly difficult.
Where were you when you found out about landing AHS: 1984 and the scope of your role? What did you do?Who did you call first?
I was in the studio recording an audiobook — one of the many ways that this particular actor has been able to supplement their income, and it has been such a gift. I was waiting on the call, and I stopped narrating mid-sentence — much to the puzzlement of my audio engineer — and picked up. I got the news, opened the door of the vocal booth and leaned against the front wall, sliding down to a sitting fetal position, and started to tear up. I called a few close friends and family and walked around for the better part of an hour mildly freaking out. The studio staff secretly went and bought a bottle of champagne down the street, and after I finished my page quota for the day they surprised me with a toast. Then everything in my life became a blur.
Of course, without spoiling anything, what can you tell us about your role as Richard Ramirez in AHS: 1984?
Oh, that’s a very difficult question. Richard Ramirez was a real person. I am playing a character that shares his name and is informed by him and his history. Beyond that, you’ll just have to wait and see.
What was the most memorable moment from shooting the series?
I can’t say my absolute favourite without revealing secrets! But I’ll say that the encounter with the hiker in episode two was quite “fun” — if you can call pretending to murder someone “fun.” The makeup and FX team on the show is the best in the biz, and the blood rig that was used in that scene was just wild. It was messy and crazy, and [there was] high pressure to get it right in one take, and I loved it.
What’s your method for getting into character, both in the weeks and moments leading up to a shoot or performance?
I have to play these cards close to the chest. Some of it is instinct. I just feel as though I am inside the character’s head at some point after spending enough time with the material, but it’s different with each role.
Sometimes I need to know how they sound, sometimes it’s historical research. It’s ALWAYS spending an exorbitant amount of time with the script — that’s the golden rule for me. Whether its Shakespeare or the 200th episode of Friends, you have to start with the text as an actor, and the most minute differences in phrasing, punctuation, word choice, etc. are clues to how this person operates as a human being and in the world. I always come back to the text. Any other secret sauce that I do I’ll keep secret for now.
What’s been the most challenging part of playing a character like this?
I’ll modify the question to ask what’s the most important part of playing a character like this… and that, I think, is being able to let it go at the end of the day — which I don’t always succeed in doing. Sometimes after an intense shoot it takes me a minute to let go of the energy I was carrying around on set. I pride myself on being able to flip in and out, but that is challenging from time to time for me on this particular project.
If you could only watch one film and one television series for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
The Back to the Future Trilogy for movies and Battlestar Galactica for TV. Nerd alert.
Apart from acting (and dance) you’re also well-versed in music. How did you begin as a musician?
The same time that I started hearing it, so very, very early. Growing up with a dance studio attached to your house, you hear a lot of very diverse music over the years. That all seeped into my subconscious, and I was writing full-on symphonies in my head walking through the woods in Iowa when I was seven or eight years old. Mind you, I didn’t have the skills to put that into writing or notation — and still don’t, not for the symphonies anyway.
I learned how to read music by playing the violin in elementary school. I didn’t pick up a guitar or actually start producing original music in any tangible way until my junior year at Interlochen Arts Academy. There, my roommate Filip — a wildly talented self-taught metal guitarist and visual arts student from Macedonia — taught me things here and there, and I also taught myself by ear. The Internet, man.
Who are some other musicians with whom you’d like to collaborate?
St. Vincent. Top of the list. Blink 182 — a childhood dream. Jimmy Eat World. John Mayer but only if he lets me be in his next ridiculous green screen music video. Mac Ayers, Tears For Fears, Snail Mail, and oh, I dunno… Taylor Swift. Come at me.
Who are your biggest musical inspirations? And what have you been listening to lately?
Biggest? That’s tough because it changes with each project. Tower of Power is a huge influence for me. My first band was funk-based, and man, they are so groovy. If you don’t know, now you know go listen to them. St. Vincent. Jimmy Eat World. And, regardless of the drama surrounding this artist from time to time, John Mayer. He really is one of the great guitarists of our generation, and more importantly, the songwriting that he produces is top-notch. I’ve learned a lot from diving deep into his material over the years. Miles Davis, and jazz in general, is huge for me. Brain fuel. Listening lately to Sleater-Kinney’s new record, Knuckle Puck, and a lot of 2000s pop-punk.
What else can we look forward to from Zach Villa — be in 2019, 2020 or later?
The track [“Revolver”] on the video content [for this shoot] is the first single — a tease if you will — of my new solo project. Go check it out. My band Sorry Kyle will be dropping a ton of music over the next few months if you’re into punk and emo.
And that’s just music. Acting-wise, post-AHS I’m waiting to see what comes down the pipe. I’m always creating. I want to be fluid in music, movement, film and TV, directing, etc. There’s no time like the present and the present is, well, now. So hang on tight.
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