Zach McGowan ’02

Scene Stealer

By Kayla McGrady ’05
Zach McGowan ’02 wins over audiences with his larger-than-life characters, from the eccentric Jody Silverman on Showtime’s Shameless to the viciously conniving pirate Charles Vane on Starz’s Black Sails. How did McGowan go from Carleton football player to Marvel supervillain? Like any good story, it’s a tale filled with plot twists.

Scene: Goodhue Dining Hall, Carleton College, 1998

ZACH enters with a crowd of boisterous FOOTBALL PLAYERS.

EMILY is swiping meal cards and looks up at the FOOTBALL PLAYERS with obvious disdain. ZACH hands EMILY his card and smiles at her. She doesn’t smile back.

Zach McGowan ’02 grew up in New York City and had been acting since he was a kid, including stints on Sesame Street. He couldn’t wait to find fame on the Broadway stage, but he promised his parents he’d go to college first. He wanted an academically rigorous school in a part of the country with which he was unfamiliar. He found the perfect fit at Carleton, where he was both part of the theater scene—and a football player. His presence on the football team roster didn’t score him any points with Emily Johnson ’02 the first time they saw each other.

“Emily will admit that she was prejudiced against football players,” says McGowan. “I remember seeing her check cards at Goodhue Dining Hall. We’d just come from practice and were acting like a bunch of rowdy, ravenously hungry college freshmen. She wouldn’t talk to me. Later, we met through mutual friends, and I could tell she kind of liked me, but she was still like, ‘Ew, that football player.’ ”

Luckily for McGowan’s love life, his stint on the football team was short-lived. He played only one year. “Zach was a great football player,” says longtime Carleton coach Bob Sullivan, “but I lost him to theater.”

Indeed, when Johnson saw McGowan perform on stage, her opinion of him softened. He pressed his advantage when they were in an educational studies class together by convincing Professor Deborah Appleman to pair them up on a project. “We started dating at the end of my sophomore year,” says McGowan. “We’ve been together 19 years and married for 10.”

Winning over his future wife wasn’t McGowan’s only theater success at Carleton. He played Proteus in a Carleton Players production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and performed a variety of roles—both male and female—in student-produced one-act plays in Nourse Theater. “Part of acting is thinking of all the people you could be,” says McGowan. “You see where the boundaries are. At Carleton, there weren’t any.”

“Zach is a terrific character actor who put himself thoroughly into every role,” says Ruth Weiner, the Class of 1944 Professor of English, Theater, and the Liberal Arts, Emerita. “He was hilarious and a lot of fun to have in class. I remember thinking, ‘He’s going to wind up playing bad guys and gangsters.’ ”

McGowan channeled his passion for acting into his American studies comps project. “We picked our topics in fall 2001,” McGowan says. “I decided to interview people from Carleton who had been close to the World Trade Center on 9/11. My own dad had been trapped near Ground Zero that day.

“I also interviewed Northfield residents who’d been affected by Pearl Harbor to see what the similarities and differences were between the two attacks,” he says. “Then I wrote monologues based on these interviews and performed them all.”

Following graduation, McGowan returned home to New York, set on becoming a stage actor.

Scene: An off-Broadway theater, New York, 2005

Film director BRIAN CLYDE is sitting in the audience, waiting for a play to start. The curtain opens on ZACH, doing a handstand alone in the center of the stage, staring out into the audience.

BRIAN greets ZACH as he exits
the theater.

That was an impressive performance. I didn’t know you could do handstands.

Actually, I learned to do them for this play.

Do you think you could learn
how to be a soldier? I’m doing a war movie in the Philippines. Can you run through the jungle and not complain?

I can do that!

The Hunt for Eagle One would become McGowan’s ticket to Hollywood. “I got my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card doing that movie,” he says. “And SAG cards aren’t easy to get. It meant I could audition for other movies, so we decided to move to LA.” Emily, now his wife, was working as a teacher; McGowan was supplementing his acting income with restaurant jobs.

His budding career was derailed when the 2007 writers strike hit less two years after he’d moved to LA. “No one was making movies,” McGowan says. “I was turning down reality TV because that’s all that was happening then. I didn’t want to be a model, either. I wanted to be an actor!”

After a couple of lean years, McGowan started getting regular guest roles on TV procedurals like CSI: Miami, Numbers, and Cold Case. He had a bit part in 2009’s Terminator Salvation. He also started doing voiceover work for video games and trailers.

His deep baritone earned him a decent living, but he wasn’t having much luck scoring on-screen roles. His agency dropped him just before his first child was born. Things were looking pretty grim. And then he auditioned for a Showtime series called Shameless.

Scene: McGowan family living room, Los Angeles, 2012

ZACH and EMILY are sitting on the couch while BABY ELSIE sleeps in ZACH’s arms.

(Whispering) I don’t know what to do. I mean, they’re going to pay me, right? Do you think they’ll pay me more for that?

MARY JOHNSON enters the room. She sees that ZACH and EMILY are deep in conversation.

What’s up?

Zach got the Shameless job, but . . .

But what?

Showtime wants me to take my clothes off.

Whatever. You’ve got a kid now. Take the job.

McGowan followed his mother-in-law’s advice and accepted the role of recovering sex addict Jody Silverman. He appeared in 24 episodes of Shameless with William H. Macy and Joan Cusack.

“I was of two minds about [the onscreen nudity],” he says. “I streaked at Carleton. Everyone was getting naked. On the other hand, it’s the internet age, and those nude scenes are going to be around forever. But I’m glad I did Shameless. I had a blast. I jumped in. Once I decide to do something, I don’t do it halfway.”

Shortly after his role on Shameless wrapped, McGowan heard about Black Sails, a historical pirate series shooting for Starz. He wanted to audition, but rumor was that the British producers weren’t considering American actors. Undaunted, he submitted an audition tape speaking with a British accent. By the time the producers figured out he was faking it, McGowan had wowed them at a live audition. He was the only American cast for the show.

“An actor has to be willing to do anything,” says McGowan.

In the case of Black Sails, anything included a lot of physically demanding fight scenes. “You’re in this brutal ballet where you’re trying not to actually hurt the other actor, but it has to look like you’re trying to kill each other,” he says. “When it goes wrong, which happens all the time, someone punches you in the face. But mostly, the fight scenes are a lot of fun.”

Black Sails filmed in South Africa and, at the same time, he was filming other projects in Canada and Bulgaria. Fortunately, his family was often able to join him. By the time daughter Elsie was six, her passport—still sporting a toddler’s photo—had more than a dozen stamps in it.

McGowan’s roles in sci-fi show The 100 and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and his stint last year as the Scorpion King in a direct-to-DVD release) have made him a big draw at fan conventions. Between public appearances and acting jobs, McGowan is often far from home. Fortunately, Emily and the couple’s children, Elsie, now seven, and Nelly, five, are often able to travel with him.  

Meanwhile, Emily has found success in her own dream job. She is an educational expert at Lakeshore Learning Materials. “I create educational products that help children build skills important to their growth in today’s world,” she says. Her team designs everything from toys to textbooks, including complete classrooms for teachers around the world.

Scene: A TV studio, the not-too-distant future

ZACH compares notes with a DIRECTOR as they prepare to shoot a scene.

Let’s try your idea on the next take.

What’s next for McGowan? Although he’s acted in many successful TV series, he is hopeful he can win a starring role—and the respect and opportunities that come with it. “I’ve been able to steer my little piece of a project, but I’m looking forward to steering the whole ship,” he says.

No pirate puns intended.

  • Zach McGowan ’02Jody Silverman, ShamelessShowtime

  • Zach McGowan ’02Jody Silverman, ShamelessShowtime

  • Zach McGowan ’02Captain Charles Vane, Black SailsStarz

  • Zach McGowan ’02Captain Charles Vane, Black SailsStarz

  • Zach McGowan ’02McGowan, wife Emily Johnson McGowan ’02, and daughters Elsie and Nelly attend the premiere of Disney's Zootopia at Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre on February 17, 2016.Sammy Smith/Getty Images

  • Zach McGowan ’02Anton Ivanov, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Eric McCandless/Getty Images

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