Last week, we posted the first segment of Louis Butelli’s interview with Zach Appelman. Louis met with Zach over coffee in Brooklyn last month and had a lovely chat on subjects ranging from karate to studying at Yale…Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Harry Potter. Here, Zach speaks about his work on Broadway in War Horse — and making his screen debut opposite Daniel Radcliffe. Remember, both will be appearing on the Folger stage come January 2013 in Henry V. Ladies and gentlemen…we give you Part Two:
Louis: So, you were in the Broadway production of War Horse. Why don’t we talk about your experience with that a little bit.
Zach: War Horse was incredible. Working on a production of that scale and magnitude was just…something like that is not going to come along very often. To be in the original New York cast and to see it come together from the ground up was really, really special.
LB: Did you all know how special it was as you were putting it together?
ZA: I think we did. I mean, we all knew about the buzz from the show in London. But, you know, the minute you get in that room and you see those puppeteers working, you just know. Nothing like this has ever been done on stage before. This was a Broadway show with no movie stars that wasn’t a musical. It was really an ensemble of thirty-five actors with everybody doing everything. And that’s very rare for New York, to be in a true ensemble of that nature. The star of Act II is spending Act I in the ensemble holding a pole to be a fence. There was a real sense of willingness – among everybody – to have it not be about stardom or a spotlight. Everybody was working together towards just making the show.
LB: It certainly does seem that War Horse, if it didn’t pave the way for it, certainly rode in on a wave of, ensemble-based, storytelling theater that seems to be in vogue now. If we think of Peter and the Starcatcher, if we think even of The 39 Steps. You know, not star-driven, not musical, but energized by this “let’s put on a show” ethos.
ZA: Yeah. I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the rise of CGI in movies. There’s an appetite now for a different kind of spectacle, which is the magic of human creation. I think with CGI there’s this thing where nothing can impress us anymore. If we think of movies like Avatar, there’s nothing they can’t do with CGI at this point. We’ve already seen it.
LB: We’ve seen the giant blue people plug their weird ponytails into things and watched them fly off on magic birds.
ZA: Right. And the theater can still offer that sense of awe and wonder and amazement in an audience. When you see a human being with a stick and a piece of rope create a trench or a boat. Or when three puppeteers create a horse that actually comes to life.
LB: It seems that the way we live our lives now – digitally, and with all of our various devices – doesn’t celebrate “presence.” People all in the same room, breathing the same air, engaged with the performers in a shared imaginative experiment. This, I think, is truly unique to the theater.
ZA: I think there’s a magic that takes place in the theater that you don’t get in any other medium, be it the Internet or television or whatnot. And yet it’s something that human beings have been doing for centuries. So I do think there’s a re-discovery of that bare-bones thing happening, and I think that’s wonderful.
LB: We do hear a lot of people sort of bemoan the state of the art form. But I think things like War Horse, particularly, re-emphasize that if you were to strip everything else away, we would still light a fire, and we would still sit around it, and we would still sing songs and tell stories to each other. You know, after the bombs fall.
LB: Sorry, that was a little dark.
ZA: It’s okay.
LB: So, fundamentally, War Horse was a particularly special project for you.
ZA: Yeah. Even after two hundred or so performances, I was still blown away by the magic of those puppets and the amazing story. And the camaraderie we had as a cast was really fantastic. And, even though I’ve been out of the show almost a year now, I’ll still find myself popping in backstage to see everybody. There was a sense that we were in the trenches together. We had a chance to bond. You know, people had babies over the course of the run. Well, not with each other –
LB: The horse puppets had babies.
ZA: People got married. You know, you’re with a cast for a year, you share a lot of life events together.
LB: You’re living through it together.
ZA: And it’s something you don’t always get. It was an honor.
LB: Now, if I’m not mistaken, you’ve also made your film debut this year. Is that right?
ZA: Yeah, since leaving War Horse, I made both my television and film debut this year. I did a film back in the spring with Daniel Radcliffe called Kill Your Darlings, which is a movie about Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets back in the ‘40s when they were all teenagers and getting to know each other.
LB: Who did you play?
ZA: I played Allen Ginsberg’s homophobic, anti-Semitic college roommate at Columbia.
ZA: So I had four scenes –
LB: With Harry Potter.
ZA: With Harry Potter. And that was actually my first on-camera experience.
LB: So you were thrown right into it.
ZA: Yeah. It was very much like, “okay, here I am on set, and go!” I think I was more nervous than I needed to be. You know, initially I thought, “oh my God, I’ve never worked in this environment before.” And then once I got on set and started working, I actually completely relaxed and realized, you know, it’s the same thing as stage. I’m just talking a little bit quieter and not doing as much stuff with my face, and it’s fine. And it was actually a wonderful testament to the crew and the director on that film that they all just made me feel incredibly comfortable and prepared. Daniel Radcliffe was actually the most generous person you will ever meet in your life. He made me feel like a complete equal when I was working with him. There was no sense of, you know, celebrity or fame at all.
LB: He’s someone who’s been in that mode ever since he was a child. It’s kind of all he’s ever known.
ZA: Right. And there was a comfort in that when I got on set. It was like, you know, I’m in a new environment, but my scene partner is in a very familiar environment, so I could very much take my cues off of him. I will talk about as loud as he talks. In between takes, if he’s joking around and talking to people, I’ll joke around and talk to people. If he’s quiet and focused, I’ll be quiet and focused. So I was able to use him as my model for how to work in that unfamiliar environment – because it is a different environment than when you’re working for stage. And it was great. I got to play a really big a******. I’m a much nicer guy in real life. I am not homophobic or anti-Semitic at all.
LB: You have other hates, just not those hates.
ZA: Yeah. Anyway, the movie comes out next year, so I’m really excited to see it and see if they’ve cut all of my scenes.
LB: I hope not.
ZA: I hope not, too.
Okay! That’s it for Part 2. And if you haven’t seen it yet, make sure to see the play that the DC critics have been raving about – pick up your tickets to see The Conference of the Birds. It closes on November 25th.