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2014 Winter Issue 8 (March 7, 2014)

Interview: Zach McGowan ‘02, Actor on TV Show Black Sails

March 10, 2014
By Becca Giles

Zach McGowan, Carleton College Class of 2002, is a television actor from New York, NY.  He recently landed a prominent role in Black Sails, a major STARZ production. On the show, Zach plays Captain Charles Vane, a ruthless pirate captain known for his entrepreneurial endeavors.  Zach also plays ‘Shkelgim’ in the feature film Dracula Untold, and has played ‘Jody Silverman’ on SHOWTIME’s Shameless.  In addition to these long-term roles, Zach has guest starred on a number of major television shows, including CSI: Miami, NUMB3RS, and Cold Case.  Zach took time out of his hectic filming schedule and family life to reflect on his time at Carleton and his life as an actor.  

For starters, how do you remember your time at Carleton? Fondly? Frigidly? Indifferently?

Carleton was such a little bubble, but I loved that it was okay to be on the football team and act at the same time. A lot of the other places I looked at were not like that at all. It also didn’t have fraternities, which I liked. The world is cliquey enough; you don’t need more ways to divide people. I learned not to judge books by their covers at Carleton. People can be really wacky and crazy, but also really smart and good at what they do. That realization really helped me as an actor. Artists can be a little wacky and eccentric, but they’re also good at what they do.

My time at Carleton was very formative. I think I would be a very different person had I not gone to Carleton. My Carleton friends are still among my best friends. I met my wife Emily at Carleton, and we invited 40 Carleton people to our wedding. I haven’t been back since my five-year reunion, but I would love to visit as soon as I have the time to do so.

What brought you to Carleton in the first place? How did you find it, and why did you decide to come here?

I went to a great high school in New York, and a great deal of people who go there end up going to great liberal arts colleges. When I was looking for schools to apply to, I talked with a kid I played football with who went to Carleton. I was looking to play football and for a school with a good theater program. Carleton had both of those things, so I decided to visit. My visit was organized through the football team and took place in the spring, which was very strategic on Carleton’s part. I saw how beautiful Carleton could be, and loved that so many people were outside throwing Frisbees on the bald spot. I immediately fell in love with the school.

I loved football, but I didn’t want it to be everything I did. There’s a saying that goes “You can play sports, do extra curricular activities or be a strong academic, but you can only do two of the three.” I wanted to do everything; Carleton enabled me to do that. Carleton puts a lot of stock into people doing more than one thing. I met a lot of people who were not just into one thing, who explored different avenues, and that’s what excited me about it.

I also didn’t want to go to school with everyone I went to high school with. I spent a lot of time on the coasts during my childhood, but I had yet to explore the Midwest. I felt my upbringing in America would be lacking if I didn’t spend some time in the heart of the country.

What was it like moving from the Big Apple to Historic Northfield?

My freshman year, I arrived on campus before everyone else for football training camp. I moved into Goodhue 421, which is literally the farthest dorm room from campus. I think there were two other football players living in Goodhue with me, but that was it. When I arrived, I dragged my stuff up to my room. When I set my final suitcase down, it was absolutely silent. In that moment, I asked myself  “Where am I? What have I done?” By the time I settled in, though, orientation was happening, and all of the sudden we were off to the races.

What was your life like at Carleton? Where did you focus your attention and energy, both academically and extracurricular-wise?

I arrived at Carleton in 1998. My freshman year I played on the football team and did a bunch of plays. I eventually stopped playing on the football team because it got in the way of doing plays. I always knew that acting is what I wanted to do, and the theater community at Carleton was fantastic. It was a very small community, which was very different from my experience in New York and very different than the theater experience I would have had if I had went to school in the northeast. I liked that.

At the end of my sophomore year, I ended up declaring American Studies. I’ve always been that odd person with a lot of interests in seemingly disconnected areas, so I love multidisciplinary stuff. The American Studies major allowed me to study a bunch of different things, and allowed me to incorporate theater into my comps, which was really important to me.

The professors I had at Carleton were always good at pushing me to think about things differently, and to better understand myself as a scholar and a person. For me, going to college was about continuing my education, not developing concrete vocational skills, so needless to say I really appreciated Carleton’s academics.

Tell me a little bit about your involvement in theater before and at Carleton.

Growing up in New York, I did a lot of Black Box Theater, and was a part of the Nielsen Theater Group. I’d always done theater as a kid, and wanted to continue doing it at college. Some people, especially people from New York and the East Coast, want to go to very competitive theater schools like NYU. There was a part of me that wanted to do that, but I’ve always believed that actors are only as good as their experience, so I was confident that I could make it no matter where I went to college.

At Carleton, I began with Theater 101, which was taught by Ruth Weiner. During my four years at Carleton, I was almost always in a theater class, and took most of what was offered in the department. I also did some work in the media studies department, because I knew there was a limited amount of money in theater, and that I would make more money doing film and commercials.

In terms of performances, I did big plays in the arena theater and acted in some smaller productions on campus. I got to play some big roles and some small roles. There’s an old adage that says, “there’s no small part, only small actors,” and I’ve done my best to believe that. With actors, there’s always this desire to be on the big stage. While everyone else is fighting for as much dialogue as possible, I try to do the best job I can in the role that I’m playing.

So how did you get from Little Nourse to Los Angeles to where you are today?

I left Carleton like most people leave Carleton: with a very thin plan. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to make it work. I moved back to New York with Emily. When I moved back, I was thrown into the fray. Having been in theater for a while, I had a couple friends who were trying to do it, and I met with a lot of teachers who kept telling me that I had two options: 1) Take some head shots and work in free productions or 2) apply to a Masters program. There was no way I was going back to school, so I had headshots taken, and I bought a hard copy of Backstage, which contained a list of free theater productions. Then I went to a lot of random auditions. Sometimes I’d walk into seedy places and ask myself, “Are these people trying to take advantage of actors?” But I knew I had to take some risks if I really wanted to make it.

In 2004, I was still in New York, bartending during the day, teaching in the afternoon, working free productions at night and occasionally substitute teaching. An afterschool teacher I worked with was a film director, so I invited him to a play that I was doing. He liked what I did and asked me if I wanted to go to the Philippines to star in a B movie production. From January to June of 2005, I ran around the jungle with a gun in my hand, repelling out of helicopters and saying really cheesy lines. For the first time, I got an inside look at the true madness of filmmaking. After we finished shooting, I asked Emily if she wanted to move to California. She said yes, so we moved to Los Angeles where the saga continued.

So what was it like going from a small town to a big city to the big time? What’s it like being a star?

I’ve taken all of this day-by-day and step-by-step. To be honest though, I don’t feel very different today than I did then. It’s easy to think of Hollywood as this big magical place, but it’s really not. It’s just a bunch of people trying to figure out how to do what they do to the best of their ability. For example, I was in a meeting the other day, with all the execs, and it felt like a class at Carleton. Yeah, there was a professor of sorts, and we had to show that person respect, but in the end it was just a conversation, and we were collectively discussing our end goal. While it can seem very different and unattainable, to me it feels very normal.

I’m lucky that it took me a long time to achieve some level of success; the length of my journey has motivated me to continue working hard, and has prevented my fame from going to my head. If I had attained this level of success right out of high school, I think I would have lost my shit. I’ve seen that happen to people. In all honesty, I’m a family man with two young daughters, and my feet are firmly planted on the ground. During the day, I go to film shoots and do interviews, and at night I come home and change diapers and kiss my wife. I’m often confronted with the question “How do you do what you do and be who you are?” I do what I do and be who I am. It’s as simple as that. At the end of the day, I’m just happy to be able to provide for my family and do what I always dreamed of doing.

Do you have any advice for current Carleton students, especially those who are going into competitive fields like acting?

Don’t take no for an answer, and trust in your abilities. I got to where I am today by not taking no for an answer, trusting in my abilities, knowing what I’m good at and recognizing what I need to improve on. Those are some of the biggest obstacles for people whose training is in the arts. It’s also difficult to find a way to monetize what you do. Artists always pretend that they don’t care about money. They say, “People will buy my work as it is,” but there’s a give and take to this career path. That was hard for me to accept, and it took me a long time to figure out.

Ultimately, I think you just have to ask yourself what you want to do and how you can make it happen. While education is important, your GPA isn’t everything. I am a living transcript. I am my resume. Come to think of it, I don’t think I even have a resume anymore, at least not in document form. My resume is myself; it’s the only thing employers see when I walk into a room, which is why I strive to always put my best foot forward. I think I understood that for the first time at Carleton.

So what were/are some of your favorite Carleton traditions?

When I try to describe Carleton to people, I use Rotblatt and Beer Olympics and Schiller. People say, “It sounds like every other party school,” and I say, “Carleton’s special because everyone works really hard on their academics, but when the bell rings at the library everyone leaves and has a drink together.” The ability to be good at what you do and also have a good time is a real skill. Knowing that you actually have to function after having a good time and figuring out how to balance work with play has been vital for me and my career. I mean, I play a pirate; we live by the “work hard, play hard” motto. Everyone on set does.

I think college is so much more than what you do in a classroom. And although what you do in a classroom is very important, community and teambuilding and all of that is important too. Rotblatt is like that. Everyone comes together to make it happen. That aspect of college was extremely important to me and defined my college experience. I’m happy to hear that students are continuing to fight for the Carleton experience. When I was at Carleton, the Administration was always fighting for the school’s image, while we students were fighting for the experience.

Do you have any especially crazy stories from your Carleton days?

I’ve got a couple. One that comes to mind is the time I stole Schiller. I do a lot of my own stunt work, and when people ask me if I’m afraid of getting hurt, I think about being back at Carleton, chasing some kid dressed in a ninja costume down the aisle of the Chapel with 25 other people. I was the running back on the football team, so it was pretty easy for me to catch the person who was carrying Schiller. As soon as I got my hands on Schiller, my friend took him from me and put him in his car and starting driving away, so I jumped on the roof of my friend’s car to make sure I wasn’t left behind. Together, we buried the bust in a cornfield somewhere. Eventually my friend took it to Mexico with him, left it on a mantle somewhere, took a picture of it and submitted the picture to the CLAP. I think someone even followed my friend’s trail to retrieve it.

Another really memorable moment happened during my junior year, when President Clinton came to speak at Carleton. My friends and I had always wanted to paint the water tower, and decided we’d paint President Clinton’s face on it in honor of his visit. We hatched this big plan, made a giant stencil, and worked out all the logistics. My role in the whole operation was keeping Campus Security at bay. When the day finally came, I wreaked havoc on a razor scooter for 25 minutes while Campus Security chased me. We had someone on the inside, so I always knew where Campus Security was. They never caught me. At convocation the next morning, President Clinton publicly thanked the people who painted his face on the water tower. Campus Security had already painted over it by the time of the address, but apparently President Clinton caught a glimpse as he was driving in, before they got the chance to cover it up. Bill Clinton thanked us for doing something that Carleton didn’t want us to do. Officially, that’s something that the college frowns upon, but it was definitely in the spirit of Carleton.

Clearly Carleton’s a big part of my psyche, and it’s not just because of what happened in the classroom. It’s because of the spirit of  the people who were there.

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