Living the Hollywood dream sounds so glamorous, but what is it really like? I got to ask actor, voice actor, producer, screenwriter, director and editor Zack Ward, who has worked in the industry since he was eight, all about it. Are you ready to have your bubble popped? Then read on…
Zack Ward, the man with a 124 credits to his name for acting, voice acting, directing, producing, editing and writing, the founder of Grit Film Works and CEO of Global Sports Financial Exchange keeps lighting up screens in movie theatres and homes around the globe in awesome movies such as A Christmas Story, Freddy vs. Jason, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Transformers and super series like Walker Texas Ranger, Titus, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and CSI: Miami to name but a few.
Fun Zack fact: Zack was the only person to ever knock out Chuck Norris on Walker Texas Ranger. Even though it was totally fake, done with a rubber tree branch and written in the script, the loyal crew members still gave him dirty looks for attacking Chuck.
The Skype call sound comes out of my laptop speakers. A connection is made from Los Angeles to Holland. Zack Ward appears on the screen.
Marjolein Smit: Hi, nice to see you! Thank you so much for doing this.
Zack Ward: Hi, no problem. Do you mind if I eat during the interview?
Marjolein Smit: Nope, go right ahead.
Zack takes a bite of his ramen noodles.
Marjolein Smit: At eight years old you decided you wanted to become an actor and got your first job, a Jell-O commercial. At 13 you starred in your first movie as Scut Farkus in the now-classic movie A Christmas Story. Was there anything different about having the dream and living it?
Zack Ward: I did not dream of becoming an actor as normal kids do, yearning for some glamorous fantasy only to be shocked by the harsh realities of the industry. My mother is an actress so I was raised on the sets of TV shows, movies and commercials from the age of five. My experience was similar to having a parent who’s good at sports and brings their kid to watch their games. At some point, the kid thinks: ‘Okay I can do this!’ because they’re familiar and comfortable with the process. I watched my mom get up early, take the subway to set, go through wardrobe, make-up, rehearsal blocking (see explanation below), get notes from the director, make adjustments and do it again. At the end of the day she would take off the wardrobe, make-up and we’d go home. It was a job. Acting for me was an extension of a world I was already comfortable in.
Tip: Realize that living the Hollywood dream is a job.
Marjolein Smit: A Christmas Story was a big hit. So at 13, you were suddenly a star. How did you keep your feet on the ground?
Zack Ward: Staying grounded was never a concern. I know there is an expectation that fame will change you, turn you into a monster. Well, that was not a problem I faced as A Christmas Story was not a blockbuster film and didn’t have great reviews when it came out, so honestly, nobody cared. I did a lot of commercials and guest-starring roles, but it was normal for me and therefore my classmates. In fact, most of the times it would be the reason I got punched in the hallway between classes, not doted upon as you would expect. Another factor was the reality of poverty; you can’t get a fat head when you’re always hungry. My single mom bounced from job to job to make ends meet, so any money I made went to rent, food and clothing. In retrospect, I’m grateful, the struggle kept me focused unlike the cliché Hollywood stories of young actors getting lost in their own ‘press machinery’.
Tip: Stay focused and grounded so you don’t get a fat head.
Marjolein Smit: Because of the role in A Christmas Story you became the breadwinner for your family. Apart from a travel break, you have been a journeyman actor ever since, hunting job after job after job. How have you dealt with the pressure of it all?
Zack Ward: I am drunk all the time, use heroin… [We laugh] No, it is just a gig economy. In the old days, you got a job for 20 years and that was that. That doesn’t exist anymore. The gig economy has been my life since I was ten, my reality. I had been in eight different schools before junior high. By the time we moved out of the flat in Toronto, I had lived in 21 different locations since I was born. So there was constant movement and an ebb and flow of money, with my mom sometimes having good money because she was on a TV show, to having no money or a bit. It has just been something I have always been used to. It was my normal. It doesn’t stress me out as much as someone who has been used to having one home, one job and the same steady money. They would shit their pants. [We laugh]
Tip: Be prepared for the gig economy’s ebb and flow (or shitting your pants).
Marjolein Smit: You have lived all over the place during your career. So the ‘you have to live in Hollywood to be successful’ myth is busted?
Zack Ward: Yes. I have been asked about that at conventions while I was raising money for anti-bullying charities and ‘The Boys & Girls Club’. Kids would come up to me with their parents and tell me that they want to go to film school in California and become a filmmaker. I would then turn to their parents to ask: “Are you rich as hell?” because an education like that can cost something like forty thousand grand a year and then when that kid is done, they will work for me as an unpaid intern who doesn’t get to do anything yet because he doesn’t have any experience. So he will still be getting coffee. [We laugh] It is better just to start from where you are. Save up for a camera, bust your ass, learn how to edit online through YouTube tutorials and just go make a movie. Make it happen. Anything I wanted to do, I have just gone out and done. You do not have to live in L.A. to make content. There are plenty of opportunities to distribute and ways to reach an audience right from where you are.
Tip: Wherever you are. Just go and do it. Make it happen. Bust your ass.
Marjolein Smit: Some of the jobs you had, next to acting, were being a PA (production assistant) and first AD (first assistant director) on set. Did those jobs teach you stuff that was useful later on?
Zack Ward: They gave me a holistic view of the process. I love all sides of the crafts, to see how all of them mesh together to create a story and a special moment for the audience. It gave me a perspective of myself as an actor and enabled me to assist in the process instead of getting in the way of it. There is an Alfred Hitchcock quote: “Treat actors like cattle”. Some people might think that this is offensive. I don’t think it is. It means that as a director or producer you have to compartmentalize their focus. As a producer you are, like the actor, also focusing on what your shooting, but also thinking about location issues, parking, your next day of shooting, what is happening with the drives (storage of the movie), if the DIT’s (digital imaging technicians) are doing their jobs, about the investors, the props. For actors to deliver a performance it means they need to have a singular focus.
Marjolein Smit: Like a horse with those things on the sides of its eyes.
Zack Ward: Blinders, exactly. When the actor is creating a moment that makes us tear up, as we watch the screen holding our lover’s hand, there are like fifty people around them making it happen. This holistic view helped me to transition into other jobs like directing and producing.
Tip: Get any job in the industry young Jedi, and become a master you will.
Marjolein Smit: Is writing, directing, producing and editing easier when you are an actor?
Zack Ward: Yes. When I direct, for instance, I like to state technical aspects out loud for everyone to hear. If it is an emotional nuance and a subtlety, that I want them to try, that is very intimate, I tell them in a way so they are the only ones that can hear me. I do that for two reasons. One, so that they feel safe enough to hear me, opposed to pretending that they are listening. Two, so that the other actors are not expecting the performance shift and stay on their toes. This way I get a more organic response from them. I am also able to talk them through a story. Let’s say two characters are arguing, that is fine but then I ask the actor; “What happened just before that moment? Where is your head at? How are you thinking? What is the impact? What is it that is going on in your head and your chest that is bringing up this reaction? You just don’t yell at something for no reason. What is the motivation?” I can help actors to get to a very emotional position and vulnerability but have them feel safe at the same time.
Tip: Use the skills of one field to your advantage in another field. Taking an acting class, attend a writing course or following feeds of industry members, who work in a different field than yours, can be fun and cheap ways to get a new perspective and teach you heaps about other sides of the biz.
Marjolein Smit: How do you deal with working with someone you don’t like?
Zack Ward: You are a professional, you just deal with it.
Tip: Have a professional attitude at all times.
Marjolein Smit: When you directed your mother in Restoration you helped her to get more out of her performance by having her draw from personal experience. Do you do that yourself?
Zack Ward: No. I use a Kundalini Yoga breathing technique. You breathe in five short breaths, through your nose, hold it and then breathe out through your mouth. It heats up your core and gets your body back to when you were as a kid. That energy is amazing. When you do that breathing technique, while you’re running your character in your head, you instantly know what you are excited about, what you are scared of and the words and everything start to mesh together in about 30 seconds. Now that emotion is very real. Using personal experiences, like your dog dying over and over again, wears it out so that it just doesn’t have the same impact anymore.
Tip: Try Kundalini Yoga to get in the zone but remember there is no one way. Find what works for you.
Marjolein Smit: From the age of five you grew up in the Kenny G. Mills Foundation cult group. When you were eight he banned all of his followers from seeing Star Wars because it was full of lies.
Zack Ward: Yeah during one of the unfoldments, a few hours of Kenny G. Mills spewing out spontaneous poetry, he explained to a 1000 people that the name of the Star Wars Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi was telling us a lie. He started to change the words to match his phrasing until he ended up with: “I am my Father are one cannot be.” just to accommodate the message he wanted to get across, that the movie was telling us that you cannot be one with the Father and here I am at eight years old, looking at the people around me buying it like: ‘This is some bullshit!’.
Marjolein Smit: What do you believe in now?
Zack Ward: I am an atheist. I believe in science. Religion doesn’t allow room for questioning and I believe you need questions to grow. We are Skyping through a laptop right now, connected through Wi-Fi, from Holland to Los Angeles. This only works because people questioned things and tried to interpret the world around them. I think it is great that some people find solace and guidance in religion. My problem with religion is that every single religion thinks that they are the chosen people, chosen to dominate over others. I have never seen a religion that says we are going to paint houses and just do good things for other people. It is always about we are the chosen ones and we are better than you. I always questioned things. In the cult group it always gave me pause to see grown-ups put on a show of lies but what baffled me most were the followers willingly participating in the lie just to be part of a group. To grow in life there has to be room for questioning and discussion. I believe that when I die I will be eaten by worms and that is why I make the best of the time I have now.
Tip: Do not join a cult group.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” “The truth is often what we make of it; you heard what you wanted to hear, believed what you wanted to believe.”
Tip: For growth, never stop questioning.
Marjolein Smit: How did you learn about the business side of acting?
Zack Ward: My friend was a lawyer so that was handy. I would just ask questions and learned how to break down contracts and spot the obfuscation (purposefully making it difficult for you to understand what is being written). It is not the thing you understand in the contract that is going to get you. It is the thing that you don’t understand or the thing that is not in the contract that can ‘kill ya’. It depends on the contract. When I did a guest appearance on American Horror Story I got a standardized SAG (Screen Actors Guild) contract. That was not an issue. But another time, when I was offered to do a movie it was different. The rate was pretty good but I wanted to look at the back end participation. Meaning I would get extra money when it would earn over a million dollars, playing in theaters. My agent at the time said: “That is great, right?”, while I knew that it was a ‘Direct a video movie’ (released on video straight away) which meant it would never be shown in theaters. So basically he was saying that I would get that extra money when pigs fly. So that was a bad deal. You always have to beware of pointless ‘fluffery’. I have always found it very useful to break down a contract and ask a lot of questions and if I would know I would live to become a hundred and fifty, I would go to law school.
Marjolein Smit: So you always take a contract home to look it over first?
Zack Ward: Yes.
Tip: Beware of pointless fluffery. Look for what is NOT in a contract. Befriend a lawyer.
Marjolein Smit: Once upon a time there was an action figure debacle. Can you tell me about that?
Zack Ward: Sure. So this one time, NECA (National Entertainment Collectibles Association) owner Joel Weinshanker, a complete *sshole, wanted to make a Scut Farkus action figure. I liked the idea and signed a contract stating that I had to see the action figure first and approve of it which did not happen and that I would get paid a certain amount for it. Not only did I not get paid but when I took him to court it turned out Joel had tried to use this contract to cover the rights for A Christmas Story board game which had my face on it. A board game he had made a year before, which he needed my permission for because I am the only actor of A Christmas Story who owns his own rights.
Marjolein Smit: Yeah because you were actually hired to play the role of Grover Dill, the henchman of bully Scut Farkus, but when the director met you for the first time on set and saw you were a head taller than Yano Anaya he switched your parts round and forgot to make you sign your rights away.
Zack Ward: You did your homework. That’s right. So Joel needed to get permission from Warner Bros. to have the board game box say A Christmas Story and Scut Farkus but if he wanted there to be an image of me on the board game he needed my permission. Warner Bros. had already warned him the year before that he could not use my image without my permission or I could sue Warner Bros. Joel thought that the contract I signed for the action figure would let him off the hook for the 100,000 board games that were produced and in presales. It did not, because the contract was specifically for an action figure. So suddenly the action figure case turned out way worse than suspected and I ended up going to court for two and a half years before finally settling out of court.
Tip: Know the lingo of the industry, what your rights are and what you’re signing.
Marjolein Smit: Did going to court give you any negative publicity?
Zack Ward: People think actors are rich. They don’t see me eating ramen. Some people gave negative comments online about it. I am used to that. I think that everyone is entitled to their opinion but I am always open about stuff and willing to share my story.
Tips: Get a thick skin. Leave people in their value. Be willing to share your story.
Marjolein Smit: What would you tell 8-year-old Zack if you could tell him something?
Zack Ward: Buy Apple shares. [We laugh]
Marjolein Smit: Thank you very much for doing this interview, Zack.
Zack Ward: You’re welcome.
Tip: If you want to know how to shoot a feature film in 4 days for $75,000 and be profitable then check out Zack Ward’s on-demand Webinar:
You can follow Zack Ward on:
I want to thank Zack Ward for giving this interview and his trust, Donna Faye for teaching me some new writing ninja skills, Joleene Moody for her patience, and Stage 32 for posting my Blog. Thank you all so much!
Other Stage 32 Posts by Marjolein Smit:
3 Ways Writer's Can Get Noticed by Helping Others
About Marjolein Smit: (aka Mack, because my name is hard to pronounce)
After I graduated from the Amsterdam Theater Academy ( ATA) as an actor and theatre maker, I decided writing was the way to go for me.I started writing a movie script. I enjoyed that so much that it all just snow balled from there. Even though I am Dutch I prefer to write in English. It feels like this language has more options available to me when it comes to expressing myself. Another advantage to writing in English is that I have a bigger market available to me when it comes to selling my screenplays. Humor and cockiness are two things that you will always find in my writing. I am a sucker for underdogs winning and happy endings so it goes without saying that those ingredients usualy find their way into my screenplay souffle's too.
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