Z NATION – Interview with DJ Qualls

We had the great opportunity to have a conversation with DJ Qualls (Legit, Road Trip, The New Guy) recently to chat about his role in SyFy’s Z Nation as Citizen Z.

ALERT! (contains spoilers for the “Full Metal Zombie” episode of “Z Nation” that aired Friday, October 3, 2014)

Why do you think zombie shows are so popular right now?

DJcloseDJ Qualls: I don’t know. But you know what’s interesting, if you go to any major city, drugs, like problems with drugs are out of control. There’s a lot of homeless, druggie people that kind of resemble zombies. And I was walking around downtown Spokane where we shoot and I had this really weird experience just looking at things like as an outsider. And probably just this looks like our show. It’s sort of a reflection maybe of what’s happening in current culture. And also vampires, sort of ran their course. I think it’s zombies’ turn.

All those romantic themed vampire movies I really just didn’t understand. Having sex with a vampire probably’s not that fun. They’re cold. It’d be like, you know what I mean, getting stabbed with a popsicle. OK. So, I probably shouldn’t talk about that anymore.

What is it like working with the dogs on the set?

DJ Qualls: You know, it’s interesting about this show for me. I don’t work with any of the other actors. I only recently met them all at the premiere of the show. So, I am talking to myself or two a blank computer screen most of the time. In Episode Eight, I have an actor to play off of. It’s my favorite episode of the season. I can’t wait for it to air.

But the dog scene was interesting because we have budgetary constraints on our show. So, we’re not getting, obviously like — we’re not getting a dog who has played in a movie where he dunks a basketball or any of those kinds of dogs. These dogs don’t really want to be there.

And actually, the dog that we used, his name is Wizard. He got a movie or a big TV show or something like after we shot the first three episodes. And he came back and now he hates us. The catering on that other show must be amazing.

But, it’s — you know, the editing on this show is amazing. I really take my hat off to the editors to make it look like the dog likes me. I put peanut butter behind both ears. I put the peanut butter jar down my pants just to try to tempt him to come over and stand beside me. And he did it in one take and that’s the take that we used. So, they’re not kidding when they say don’t work with kids and animals. Because it’s a long day.

And also, it was like 90 degrees in Spokane when I was shooting that stuff and I’m supposed to be in the arctic. And I was wearing a snow suit that whole day while I was jumping from like crate to crate in the — chasing the zombie dog. And at about hour 14, I was in that snow suit and it — with hat and gloves and a scarf on and a big parka cooking steaks over an open fire.

And I lost my mind and started crying. And the producer had to talk me down off the ledge. As I’m going this is abusive. This is abusive. Get me out of these clothes. I’m standing there in my underwear with the snow suit around my ankles just crying from exhaustion. So it’s — I’m really digging the fact that people like the show so much because we bust our ass to make it.

Citizen Z, is he going to continue to sort of suffer signs of the isolationism?

DJ Qualls: Yeah, that’s one of the fun things about the show for me. I mean, I don’t get to play with other actors, but I get to play the isolation. And he does start to crack after a while. He develops like multiple personalities that he uses to do different things on the air during broadcasts. Yeah, you definitely see the effects.

I think, at this point, when the show starts, he’s been by himself for, I think he’s been isolated for a year, because they’re two years into the zombie apocalypse. And he hasn’t seen another human being for a year. The dog’s the first thing that he sees. And that’s why he’s so — that’s why he tries so hard to save him in episode two. But yes, you definitely see that, the effects that it takes.

And also, I mean, one of the saddest moments to shoot for me, and when I watched it, it really drove it home, because I didn’t see the actress playing Daisy but when he’s playing that video chat with his girlfriend and he realized that she’s probably dead and this is a recording that he talks to. We see a lot of that as as the season goes on.

Z Nation seems to be making an effort to put more fun in the Zombie genre.

DJ Qualls: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. I mean, but we also play our dramatic moments honestly. Some pretty heavy stuff happens mid-season in the next three or four episodes that really, really affects not only the group of survivors but also Citizen Z in a really, fundamentally, sort of detrimental way. And he has to deal with that and he doesn’t have the — there’s no one around for him to hug. There’s no one around to really comfort him. So, you see him suffer that by himself. I take my hat off to the writers, too, on this show. They do a really good job of balancing the, you know, the fun and the drama in this show a lot.

And also, as opposed to shows like, you know, the inevitable comparisons against Walking Dead are happening. And we’re not that show. We don’t strive to be that show. We are a fast-moving, popcorn show. And it’s really fun to be on one of those.

The spiels that you read off at the end of each episode, are all of those scripted or is there some improvising?

DJ Qualls: That’s a very good question. It’s a mix of both. Becdjmicause I have so much dialogue to memorize by myself, I mean, a lot of times, on an average shooting day on a TV show is about 11, 12 pages and that’s split between multiple actors. I shoot about 30 pages a day by myself because I block shoot.

And I’ll do maybe an episode in a day. So I’m shooting a lot of dialogue. So, it would be impossible for me to memorize it word-for-word. My brain sort of blanks about 14 pages into it. I can’t remember anything. So, they’ve given me some license to really make it my own and find different voices to say things in and different cadences of speech and different accents. And that’s also playing some of that isolation madness that Citizen Z has. So, yeah, it’s a good mixture of them, the writers and myself just sort of coming up with stuff. I mean, I have to hit basic plot points. But how I say it is left up to me.

How did you get cast for this show?

DJ Qualls: I was on my back porch and I’d just gotten a call that my show, Legit, on FX was cancelled. And I was pretty broken hearted about it and I was outside just sort of thinking and then, the phone rang. And my manager called and said that I’d gotten offered this thing on SyFy and my initial, honest reaction was, no, I’m not doing it. just because I was in that sort of thing where I just didn’t want to get emotionally attached to anything else so quickly.

It just felt like I was cheating on my old cast and crew because we get very [close] television actors more so than film actors. Films have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s going to take, you know, one-to-three months of your life to shoot. And you may not see these people again but television is open ended. And you let your guard down in a way that you don’t in film. You become really close with y, your fellow crew, for example. And you know, I was mourning the loss of that.

And then, a couple days later, I read the script and talked to Karl Schaefer, our show runner and co-creator just about the creator and what they were seeing and what the demands would be of my time and all that stuff. And you know, and my heart started to open up to it and then I read the episode again. I was like this is really good writing.

And it comes with its own set of challenges, the fact that I’m totally isolated. And I don’t get to work with other actors. So, I rely solely on myself.

And usually, when I have a reaction that I don’t want to do something, I try to question why and I think the reason why was it’s hard. This is a really hard thing I’m doing. And I needed to see if I could do it. And I’m glad for that reason alone that I took it. But also, I’ve fallen in love with our new crew. They bust their ass for us. And I couldn’t love them more.

 Were you a fan of The Asylum going into Z Nation?

DJ Qualls: To be honest, I haven’t seen any of their movies. The first time I was really aware of them, obviously, was  Sharknado stuff. but I was working most of that time and I was in and out of the country a lot. so, I didn’t really, I still haven’t seen them. I understood the sort of social media phenomenon that occurred from it. But I’ve met the two guys that run it. I met a lot of the staff at The Asylum. They all seem crazy happy to be there and when everybody’s happy to go to work every day, it trickles down to the production itself and to the actors and everybody who works under them. So far, I will say they’ve been pretty great. Our season ends in a bit of a cliff hanger so you don’t really know any of our fates. So, maybe my attitude toward him will be determined by whether I live or die. So far, so good. They seem to be really great, creative, fun people.

Performing all your scenes in one place, is it harder or easier than performing in multiple locations?

DJ Qualls: It is so much harder to do what I do on the show being isolated. I don’t really get the benefit of someone else’s performance. I’m a big believer in film and television as an ensemble experience. You know, from the writers, the directors to the other actors, it’s about everybody. And I don’t really get anybody and I don’t get to see the other side of the conversations that I have with the survivors.

So, and a lot of times, I work right before them, so they do get to see what I have done or at least, they get to hear it. So, they get to respond to something. It’s a challenging thing. And you know, I have a hard time watching my own work but I have — I’ve watched, you know, every airing of the show and I’m seeing it with the audience. I haven’t seen anything that hasn’t aired yet. And I mean, I’ll be honest, I’m proud of myself. I’m proud of holding it together and I’m able to [act] basically, in a bubble.

And I’m lucky that we have John Hyams is the guy who — he directed the pilot and a couple other episodes this season. He’s also a producer on the show. But he’s the director who directs every one of my segments in each of the episodes. And then, he gives the footage over to the director and they — he does what he wants with it.

But, I have a really good crew behind me of producers and directors who help me. And you know, they’re my — they help me sort of understand the intent of lines. They help. They see the big picture, I don’t. And they help me get through it and I really appreciate that.

Are the screen images there for you when you’re working? Or is that all put in later?

djscreenDJ Qualls: Yeah, they’re all put in later. I don’t see anything. I have to imagine what I — and what we do before I shoot every scene, we all work out with the — I work out with the director of photography, Alex Yellen. I work out where I’ll be looking. And I get to choose what monitor I see different things on and where things happen in that room. And then, Alex lights accordingly and then, we will blue that screen out so it can be CGI’d later and they can add the visual effects they need just so I can see what I’m seeing.

Tell us about the mental state of Citizen Z.

DJ Qualls: I mean, he’s helping save the world. And just physically being this guy, I know what it’s like to [be] marginalized. You grow up and you sort of look like me. You have interests that aren’t sort of mainstream and that you know, people marginalize you. They don’t like take you seriously. And this is a guy who’s really good at this one thing and this is a time in his — in his life that it’s not only — it’s not only his biggest moment; it’s the world’s only hope.

And we use — we see that as the season goes on that the isolation and loneliness that that brings. And just to sort of equate that to my own life, like I got successful really fast. I went to a one-line audition for my first movie. And wound up like eight months later, I was on “The Tonight Show”. And it was so fast and I got exactly what I asked for, what I’d always wished for, which was to be a working actor.

But, I was incredibly lonely. I’d done like 10 films without a break. And then, somewhere around 2004, I woke up one day and I was like, I can’t go to the grocery store by myself and feel, you know, and feel like safe.

And I was in Vegas once and these frat dudes were hugging me. You know, I — turned down security guards when I first started because [I was] embarrassed about all these things that actually, you need to live. And in Vegas, I do need security and these guys started hugging me and sort of passing me around. And later that night I went to my room and started getting sick to my stomach and they had cracked my collar bone.

But then, I look at these moments. I’m like well, you got exactly what you wished for. You didn’t know what that entailed. You asked for this. And all the good stuff and all the bad stuff that accompanies that, is part of it. it’s part of the wish even though you don’t know.

The Author

Guy Hutchinson

Guy Hutchinson

Guy Hutchinson has worked as a radio talk show host and personality on WHWH and WMGQ radio in NJ and is currently the co-host of 'Drunk On Disney,' 'Adventure Club,' 'Flux Capaci-cast' and 'Camel Clutch Cinema' podcasts.

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