From the daily soaps to Westworld and award-winning dramas like Venice The Series to guest appearances on TVs top shows, Gregory Zarian puts his heart and soul into every role he takes on.
For his latest character, Avi, from the new video-on-demand drama 86 Melrose Avenue, he drew inspiration from his own passionate relationship with his father.
86 Melrose Avenue is a tense tale of an ex-marine who suffers with PTSD, who storms into a gallery, taking hostages and forcing them to confront their complex past and looming mortality.
Your new movie 86 Melrose Avenue comes out this month. Tell me about the film.
86 Melrose Avenue is a hostage thriller. It is about an ex-Marine who was suffering from PTSD. He storms an art gallery showing and takes all 10 people hostage. It’s about culture clash. It’s about PTSD, mental health, and it’s about these people from all walks of life. Given that one moment to make a decision, what would you do if this was the time that your number was up? And it is a thrill ride. You are cheering for one, you are empathetic to the other and you are rooting for the best of humankind. So that’s what it is. It opens on April 20th, on all video-on-demand platforms.
What drew you to the movie?
The story, the writer, the director and the creator: Lilly Mata. Her and I were together years ago on a different film, and we remained friendly. She reached out to me a couple years ago and said, “Hey, you know what, I have this script, would you read it?” I loved it, because the movie is a thrill ride in itself, and it’s also about the human experience and what would you do if this happened or how would you approach this if that happened. There’s a character that I ended up getting – his name is Avi. He’s a kid that was expected to show up in life a certain way and wanted to do life differently.
My father wanted his children to show up and do life a certain way. My twin brother Lawrence and I chose to go in different paths and we’re both in the entertainment business. I’m an actor and he’s a lifestyle expert. We also have an older brother who is very much business oriented. My character had to step outside of what was expected, and do something different. I stepped outside of what my father expected of me and did something different. And here I am talking about a movie that I’m very passionate about.
Did you find it easier becoming your character by bringing that part of yourself into it?
I found that it made more sense. I believe in every part in every character that I play. There is so much of me going forward, making my storytelling authentic. The name is different, the location is different, however, I believe authentic acting is when you bring truth to who you are – just the name, statistics and facts are very different.
I believe that we boys were given this mission to make a name for ourselves. Avi, I believe, chose to make a name for himself. Ultimately, we want to make our parents proud, so I am very much part of the character that I play, although I would have made different choices. We are really every bit to every character that we play.
The movie is very intense, you can even see that in the trailer. It’s very, very fast moving. The movie also deals with a lot of inner demons. Tell me about the inner demons of your character.
It does deal with inner demons, trying to make dad proud. My father came to this country wanting his boys to do X, Y, and Z. I want ABC – I chose differently. There are generations and generations of people before my character, Avi, that just wanted it to look a certain way and my character didn’t want to go on the path that was hopefully decided for him. So it is a struggle, and a fight to make for me, as Avi, to make my own choices, create my own way and also at the end of the day, make my dad proud.
My father passed away eight years ago, and he had a dance with the industry because he saw his son go to audition and not get everything. He considered my career a pipe dream.
My older brother was successful and my twin brother was on a lot of TV shows talking about lifestyle and fashion and I was pounding the pavement.
The beautiful part of that was when he was in the hospital, I had a great guest spot on the TV series The Mentalist, and I said “Pop, do you want me to watch it with you?” And he said, “No, no go home.” So he had his nurses around him. He watched that hour of TV, saying I’m proud of my son.
So he saw my hope and dreams and my wish come to fruition. What more could someone want? He called me the next morning and said, “I’m proud of you”.
All we want at the end of the day is for our parents, friends and siblings to be proud of the path we chose. Now when I think of my dad, I think Pop, I’m making you proud, I love you. And it’s a win win for both.
One of the biggest things my dad ever did, because he was an immigrant in this country, was that he came to this country with no money.
I was a model and went to Europe, but my father didn’t believe in this career. I lived at home at the time and he said to me: “There’s one of two things that can happen. One, you can stay in my house, get your degree and get a job, or two, you can move out of my house and move to Europe. And I moved.
I remember calling and saying “Hey, Dad, you know, I’m in Italy, I’m learning the language, it’s great Pop, but I don’t have any money, I don’t know what to do”. He said “I love you”. And I said, “I love you too. Can you send me $1,000?” He said, “No. What I can do is offer you two things. You can cash in your ticket. And you can come home, and you can go back to school or get a job”.
It was when I heard from my twin that it was the hardest thing he had to say to me, as well as leave my home. He was proud of me because I thought I’m gonna do it and that’s why Avi, my character in the movie, and I feel so mirrored. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to walk my parents’ path. I’m going to take the history, the knowledge, and the gift of their love.
Come on, how lucky are we that we get to know that our fathers were proud of us?
One aspect of this film is PTSD. And that’s got to be traumatic to work with. It’s a work of fiction, but it’s based on something real that’s happening around us.
Here’s what I think is so beautiful about Lily Mata. She took her personal experiences from Lebanon, and survived such horrors that she put a lot of her past into a movie – and that’s what is so timely this film. As you know, the art gallery is stormed by an ex-Marine suffering from PTSD. It allowed me to dive more into that conversation with where we are in the world. Almost one in seven adults suffer from mental health. PTSD is mental health; it is mental illness; it is mental distress.
I’ve done my research. The veterans that served our country from Vietnam, over 30% suffered from PTSD. The movie is based on an ex-Marine, and there are 11 to 20% that are dealing with PTSD as we speak. That’s not even including sexual trauma, sexual past. It is such a cry for help.
Right now in the world, we are all surviving a global car crash called COVID. We were living our lives and then bam, we stopped. I believe that all of us are suffering from it in one way or another, but we are slowly building the pieces back.
I was fortunate to be part of a great series last year called Venice: The Series, and my character dealt a lot with bullying. So when we were in lockdown, and I was doing interviews, I got to open up the conversation about bullying and how it is, double fold of an epidemic, especially with most of us living online.
I got to create this great platform of what to do if you’re being bullied – what to say, where to go. Close your computer, get off your phone, talk to your parents, ask if you have a moment to maybe engage with the bully, saying, “Hey, what is that like for you?” It just means opening up your heart asking more questions, and being compassionate to the person right in front of you. And even if you’re not going to address that person, have more empathy.
We were taught last year, wear your mask, wash your hand, social distance. A year later, I wash my hands, I still wear my mask. I am above and beyond more kind to that person because I don’t know what they’re suffering from. I have no idea what’s going on in their world.
So that’s all I know, and it’s a long answer, but PTSD is someone screaming, please help me. And that just means finding avenues realizing you’re not alone.
I want to jump a little bit now. You’ve been on one of the coolest TV shows recently – Westworld. Tell me about that show and what it was like.
It was like Disneyland in every way possible. Did you watch the original movie? Richard Benjamin, the actor in the movie, and his wife, Paula Prentiss, are friends of ours. When I first got the job, I was able to say, Richard, I am joining season three of the movie that you are a part of. What do you have to say? And he goes, “Are you a host? Or are you a robot? Don’t tell anybody”.
So I got that advice from him, and I had already worked on a series on the same location, same stage, same group, so the day that I got hired, it was kind of like I came home.
The writer/director Jonah Nolan was so generous to me. He brought me back for more, so it was amazing to go to work on one of the biggest shows in the world. Working with Tessa Thompson and Vincent Caselle, and everyone else was one of the best gifts. Tessa Thompson was so generous.
On my very last day, she had a cold, and we had one more wraparound of my character. She came from her dressing room to deliver the same lines back to me that we had already done earlier in the morning for her, because it made it real.
Vinson Caselle is a pro too and when you get to work with people that are internationally well known that treat you on the same level, it’s a dream come true.
I believe every job I get is Disneyland. On this job, I was in the head of the line every time. They’re filming season four now, and I just keep on thinking how great would it be to come back to work with those amazing people that allowed me to do what I do. It was one of the highlights in my career.
Westworld is one of those shows that will probably go into the Comic Con realm, so your character can easily make its way to a Comic Con at some point.
Well okay, from your mouth to God’s ears. We all have our fans and I’m grateful for that. I know daytime fans have been phenomenal to me. Up until Westworld, Criminal Mind fans have been so lovely to me.
I try to respond to everything and anything because I know that when I reached out to somebody or something, that little fix, that little touch changed everything for me. It made me feel super grateful that I am now part of the story in that world.
You probably never would have envisioned that any of this would have happened because of Days of Our Lives.
You have no idea what God’s plan is and you have no idea what the universe is gonna do here and there. I don’t take any of it for granted. I got to have lunch with some of the people that were part of Days and I got to look them in the eyes and say, “Thanks you changed my life. And I am forever grateful”.
I am still forever in the trenches of learning, honing my craft every day – every day is class to me. What we’re doing right now is class to me.
A little bit of a fun question. Your IMDb says that you have a tattoos. As a guy with tattoos who’s an actor, you probably have to cover these up sometimes.
I have, but here’s the thing about tattoos. I am not sleeved. When somebody says something about my tattoos, I always say you have to find them. They are on my left ankle and they are in script. The first one is the Hindu symbol of Om, which means the breath of God. And underneath it is the Kanji symbol of mom. So the breath of God to mom – right next to it is in Kanji – it’s me having my family with me – all five of us.
My parents have gone on to another adventure and I am proud to be one of the five and I look at my leg often. With my parents being gone, I’m like “Mama, how are you? What’s happening? What’s going on?” I talk to them all the time and they answer in a beautiful, beautiful way. So that’s where my tattoos are and what they are about.
What an awesome way to actually close this interview. We started to talk about your dad at the beginning and then we close with that beautiful statement. Thank you.