How to endure the instability of a creative life (& make it to the other side)

Interview with TV, film, and Broadway actor Zach Knighton


Think about your favorite TV show of all time. You know the one. It’s that one you watch over and over again - on airplanes, in hotel rooms; you devour it like your favorite food after a rough day or a big life transition. Something about it  feels like home.

It’s also the show you and your partner (or best friend) quote so much that at some point you realize almost half of everything you say to each other is quotes from this show (and in that exact moment you realize you and this person have the perfect relationship).

Now think of your favorite character on that show, the one who brings you the most joy.

That joy hinges on a very individual person -  the particular actor - and his or her ability to manage and endure an unpredictable series of rejection, instability, and months, sometimes years, of wondering what to do next.

If you’ve ever lived in the gap between jobs – endlessly scrolling indeed.com, sending resumes off into the void, coming home from an interview that you know will lead nowhere, you actually know a lot about what it’s like to be a professional actor.

It’s like living in that gap forever.

It’s tough, but it’s a gap that must be endured by almost everyone pursuing creative work professionally. (And the fruit of that endurance is not just enjoyed by the artist, but also by all those who experience the art that comes from this emotional seesaw.)

But how do you endure the gap long enough to see the incredible things waiting on the other side?

How do you actually deal with the uncertainty?

The rejection.

The instability.

The sheer not-knowing if any of this will be worth it?

That’s why I’m sitting across from Zach Knighton at a Philz Coffee in Santa Monica.

Zach has had many roles in film and television, including as one of my favorite characters from my favorite show (Happy Endings), “Dave Rose.” (People also often stop him in the streets when they recognize him as “Random Guy” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.)

Zach Knighton has been acting professionally for 20 years in TV, film, even Broadway.

And yet -  though he’s been a working, professional actor for decades - today at this Philz Coffee in Santa Monica, in the spring of 2018, it is clear that he has no idea what is about to happen next in his career.

The Necessity of Boats

Zach is wearing a beanie and looks like he spends a lot of time in the Malibu sun, where he lives. (I offered multiple times to meet him at a coffee shop near his home, but he very kindly insisted on driving the 20 miles to Santa Monica so that I wouldn’t have to travel too far).

Zach Knighton is kind.

Zach Knighton is cool.

Zach Knighton is a good actor.

I know this because Zach Knighton, aside from the kindness, is not really at all like the Happy Endings character Dave Rose. Dave Rose is not cool, which is the distinct comedic magic of his character – a leading man who is not quite cool but tries so hard to be. Dave Rose’s antics make me laugh out loud immediately, while Zach Knighton’s humor is subtle and more leading-man worthy (days later when I read the transcript of our interview, I catch jokes I didn’t even get in person and laugh out loud to no one in my home office).

I suspect that humor helps you survive; Zach’s lies just on the edge of sardonic but never quite tips over, hope keeping it tethered to the other side, if only just barely.

I don’t take notes while Zach and I talk. I just turn on the recorder and listen. Notes come days, sometimes weeks later, when I’ve had time to read the transcript, process, think. But the moment I left Philz Coffee my hands felt twitchy and I just had to get something down. I whipped out the notes app on my phone and quickly wrote:

Being an actor is living on the edge of ‘Everything Could Happen’ and ‘Nothing Could Happen’ at the same time, all the time.

At any given moment, your whole life can change. You could get a pilot picked up that funds your life for years and becomes a part of the fabric of our culture - or the phone could stay silent forever and you’ll be forced to wonder if it’s really time to throw in the towel and get a “real job.”  That’s why you need a boat.

The boat will make sense soon.

Why Pursuing Art is Like Getting Pelted with Ice

I used to think acting was easy. When I was 11, anyway.

My brothers and I were obsessed with the video camera and my parents have hours and hours of embarrassing tapes of our skits, variety shows, and movies. The skits and variety shows were always original, the movies were reboots (we were ahead of our time, I guess). The first reboot was Titanic; we made our three-year-old brother Robby play Fabrizio and did a bunch of takes until he got his one line right (he was adorable). Ice cubes were thrown at our Jack (my brother's best friend) and Rose (me) as we stood in the empty bathtub that served as our ship, capturing the epic iceberg scene. We chose the cast, adapted the screenplay, managed production design, directed, acted, and filmed the whole movie in 40 minutes.

As the lead actress in our Mission Impossible reboot, I simply said the lines we wrote and tried to match my emotion to the words. Acting felt just like reading a book to my little brother. You just say words and play pretend? This is fun!

Acting is fun. People who do it and stick with it love it (or simply are incapable of doing anything else, as Zach jokes).

But acting is not easy (well, good acting, anyway).

And the career of acting is quite painful, like getting pelted with ice cubes while standing in a bathtub in the  too-big lime green dress your grandma wore to your parents’ wedding.

The auditioning.

The waiting.

The rejection.

The My-whole-life-will-change-if-this-pilot-gets-picked-up to What-if-I-never-work-in-this-town-again.

The social media posts telling all your friends and family the good news.

The follow up social media post letting everyone know the bad news.

The hope.

The disappointment.

Prosperity.

Despair.

Security.

Depression.

The shows we love require people to willingly get on this seesaw (also known as pilot season).

Like many, Zach began his TV career with pilot season, a time each year where professional television creatives of every craft come together to produce the first episode of a show that, if picked up, will be their full time jobs for however long the show lasts. Contracts are signed, friendships are made, and all involved deeply and rightly hope that this thing they’ve just created will be the first of many.

Zach moved to LA from New York after spending the past 12 years of his life getting a stellar acting education, winning fellowships and awards, and starting his career with a stint on Broadway. At 23 years old he was pretty optimistic about what his first months in LA would be like. I mean, he’d been on Broadway, right? Move to LA. Live the dream, yes?

“It was terrible.” He remembers clearly. “It was a miserable first three months. I was broke. My car was breaking down all the time.”

He very quickly realized that at this rate he couldn’t afford California and decided that if he couldn’t get an acting job he would find something else to do with his life that would allow him to stay in California. In my experience it only takes knowing Zach for three point five seconds to understand that he loves the Pacific ocean as much, if not more, than acting.

For someone who studied and focused intensely on acting for 12 years, there are some things he has been committed to not giving up for his craft – his happiness, his sanity.  He wouldn’t let the things he couldn’t control (e.g. whether or not people found him right for a role), change that.

But acting is what he could do. What he was trained to do. So he kept going on auditions, while still planning other ways to keep himself financially afloat should this acting thing not work out.

Giving up seemed imminent.

But then, he won the lottery.

The LA-kind, that is: he got cast in a pilot and then that pilot got picked up.

It was called Life on a Stick, created by Victor Fresco.

“It was first time I had money,” Zach remembers. “For me, at the time, it was a lot! I had this killer apartment on the beach in Venice that was at the time so expensive for me - $2,000 a month or something.”

He was living the LA dream. Pilot show picked up. Steady, somewhat-predictable income, doing the work he’d trained to do for 12 years; living on the beach.

Then the show got cancelled after its first season.

A Sinking Ship

Zach knew the first thing he needed to do was cut his expenses in half. “That day I walked down the beach and found this other little studio apartment that was $850 a month.”

He was able to cover his $850 rent each month with savings, and, in his words, also “getting really, really broke and going in debt,” always hoping another job would come along to pay off the debt, help him patch the holes, bucket out the water, and steady the ship.

But that didn’t happen.

“I had a terrible year of not booking a single job. I was seriously at the edge of quitting acting.”

If you’ve seen the pivotal scene in La La Land (spoiler alert) where Emma Stone ugly-cries in the middle of the suburban street she grew up on, lamenting that she can’t take the rejection anymore and it’s time to stop acting, then you know a lot about what it’s like to be an artist right before a breakthrough.

It never comes as fast as you want it or need it.

Jenna Fischer talks about this in her (amazing) book — the intense call with her agent where she tells him she is done, truly done pursuing acting. Then she gets the role of “Pam” in the American version of The Office.

It would be nice to think that the next big break is always on the other end of that feeling of wanting to quit, and I wish that was true for everyone, every time. But the more realistic truth is that pursuing art leads to a lot of moments when you feel like quitting; it’s simply enduring them until you finally make it to the Really Great Thing or Really Big Break just on the other side of one of your ‘wanting to quit’ moments. (That’s why it’s so vital to keep going!)

Even though Zach was on the edge of quitting again, Zach didn’t quit. Instead, he learned to survive on that edge, the edge where professional artists set up camp. He learned to pitch tents, make fires, find friends.

The Importance of Your Crew

When Zach first moved to LA he had a big group of acting friends, but as the years went by the number dwindled. “There’s only a few of us left.” You’ve probably heard of most of his friends, too – because the ones that are left are the ones getting work, able to make a living.

While it’s easy to guess why that number dwindles, I ask Zach what he thinks: Why do so many people leave? It’s not that they can’t handle the rejection, he shares, it’s the instability. Because it almost never ends, and people have to move out of their studios eventually. They have families, and at some point they can’t all fit on the seesaw.

For a while, Zach stayed afloat by sheer force of living with the risk – go into debt, get a job that pays off the debt. That worked for a while.

Then Zach had a daughter.  And he jokes that she doesn’t like just regular ice cream, no, she likes Coolhaus ice cream (Coolhaus ice cream sandwiches will change your life). As Zach got older he knew just barely affording his studio on the beach wouldn’t work anymore. He needed to help keep his daughter clothed and fed (with delicious ice cream).

 Zach and his daughter at the beach.

Zach and his daughter at the beach.

He moved to Malibu, but, instead of getting a day or night job to make up for the instability of acting, he wanted to find another stream of income to support his daughter (he hated bartending in New York when he was on Broadway and desperately wanted free time to surf the Pacific instead of being tied to an hourly job). So got into real estate, renting properties to friends and family.

Having another income stream was vital to Zach’s endurance.

Because no matter how successful you are, pilot season never ends.

Zach lists all the pilots he’s been involved with over his career, and what it feels like to memorize 25 pages of dialogue, sign a half-a-million-dollar contract, put everything you have into a performance, think your whole life is about to change and that you’re going to be able to breathe easy for a year at least and keep your freezer stocked with Coolhaus, to getting one phone call that turns all those dreams turn to dust, with you left wondering what to do next (because all that time you could have been lining up other auditions you were focused on the pilot, because, well, it could have happened).

Then there’s the loss of friendship cast and crew members feel when a pilot doesn’t go. Filming a show is an intensely collaborative process and people get close. Zach talks about becoming friends other incredible actors on pilots he’s worked on, such as Candice Bergen and Laura Graham, and the disappointment that comes when you go from thinking you’ll be the kind of friends who see each other almost every day to at best catching up for coffee once in a while.

These friendships are not just nice, either, they’re vital. Artist friends help each other grow in their craft, yes, but they also help each other survive it, especially the business of it.

Zach is particularly close friends with the creators and cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; some of them formed a diving group they call the “Dive Bros” which makes us both laugh (it sounds like exactly something out of a page of an Always Sunny script).

 The Dive Bros making their best Dive Bro face.

The Dive Bros making their best Dive Bro face.

Every year the Dive Bros go on a scuba diving trip. But a couple years ago, Zach couldn’t go. It was one of those down times. “I didn’t have the spare cash.”

He tells Rob McElhenney (“Mac” on Always Sunny, creator of Always Sunny, and fellow Dive Bro): “I just can’t do it this year. It’s not in the cards for me.”

Rob: “Come on man - it’s only going to be $2,000 bucks a person. Come on, man!”

Zach: “I can’t do it, man, I can’t do it.”

The next day, Zach gets an offer for a job from Always Sunny to do voiceover on an upcoming episode.

It pays exactly $2,000.

(If you watch the Always Sunny “The Gang Hits the Slopes” episode, you’ll hear Zach giving hilarious 80’s-style ski-related announcements over a loudspeaker…a role he plays perfectly, and coincidentally, keeps the Dive Bros diving for one more year).

How to Survive the Waiting

Zach has done what so few can do – he’s stuck it out. From that 23-year-old to now he’s gotten work on TV shows (Bones, House, Law and Order, Fresh off the Boat), movies (The Prince and Me, The Hitcher, Believe Me), recurring roles (Parenthood, Santa Clarita Diet, LA to Vegas), and has been in more than one pilot that did get picked up: Flashforward, Weird Loners, and my personal favorite, Happy Endings.

In addition to learning to survive on the edge, Zach of course is good at his craft; he spent 12 years of his life doing nothing but training. Being good gets you in the door, but it’s not a shield against the instability of the business. Because, despite Zach’s very full IMDb profile, today, at this Philz Coffee in Santa Monica in the spring of 2018, Zach has just wrapped his recurring role on LA to Vegas and he has no idea what he’s going to do next.

“I’m doing nothing right now. Then you start getting this panicky feeling. It’s very up and down.”

I ask Zach how he survives the waiting, the not knowing. The answer surprises and delights me.

Doughnuts.

And camping. In San Diego. Where I live.

Zach has a tradition.

During pilot season, when all he can do is wait and see if his show gets picked up or not, he goes to San Elijo State Beach with his girlfriend, a campground in San Diego where you can pitch a tent on sand that curves right above the Pacific Ocean.

 Zach parked at San Elijo.

Zach parked at San Elijo.

San Elijo State Beach also happens to be across the street from the most delicious, savory, pillowy doughnuts in the world – VG Donut.

I smile in recognition when Zach reveals how he sometimes drowns his sorrows in VG Donuts. (I moved to San Diego a few years ago and VG Donut helped me cope with uncertainty, too; secretly, it’s why I think Zach and I become friends so quickly. We get each other on an artist-and-VG-Donut level. It’s a thing.)

 Pictured: actual VG Donuts (before I ate them).

Pictured: actual VG Donuts (before I ate them).

The donuts and the beach that is hours south of LA helps Zach forget. During this unique waiting period, there’s nothing more he can do. It’s out of his hands.

Then his phone will ring in San Elijo. The Call.

If it’s a Bad Call (the pilot didn’t go), he surfs the cold Pacific. He hangs out with his friends. He gets more donuts. Sleeps. And then drives back up to LA to audition for something else.  

Sometimes on the drive home the instability and the risk will set in and he’ll try to think of other ways to make money in this business if he ever stops getting cast for good, if one day all the calls are Bad Calls.

“As actors we are all these little commodities that agents and producers can pick up and drop. I don’t want to become disposable, if I’m going to stay in the business.”

The strain on an actor to look a certain way also makes him think about switching over to the creative side of the business. Maybe directing? Producing? “I also like to eat and I don’t want to feel like I’ve got to stay fit all the time. I’m not going to look like Brad Pitt anytime soon, and if you are producing you can eat as much as you want!”

He considers the options on the drive, but in the end, it always comes back to acting.

“I’ve always been an actor. I certainly can’t do anything else. This is all I got now. I’m almost 40. It’s got to keep going or else I’m really screwed.”

So keep going, he does.

But not in the ways you might expect.

The early decades were all about intense focus, training, making ends meet, doing whatever it takes.

Now, his priority is cultivating what’s outside of acting – tending to the things that keep you sane enough to keep going.

Surfing. Diving. “I have a sailboat.”

That’s where Zach is headed after our interview, to his boat. “I’m a member of this salty dog club in this marina that brings me more joy than anything. I’m going to go over there after this and polish the brass lights and hang out with Eric who is this 70-something-year-old historian who talks to me for hours about boats and William Randolph Hearst, and it’s like my dream, you know what I mean?”

And in the same breath he adds: “That stuff will break you up.”

Heartbreak and Co-captains

“That stuff” is not the boat stuff. It’s the Bad Call stuff we were talking about just before the boat. The waiting stuff. The how-do-I-keep-my-daughter-fed stuff. We’re not talking about the boat anymore. We were never really talking about the boat.

The long conversations about William Randolph Hearst at the marina keep Zach sane during times when, despite an impressive IMDB history, he has no idea where his next paycheck will come from or if he’ll ever get cast for anything great again.

He recounts one of the most recent rejections. It happened last week.

It was a “Big One.” A Very Bad Call.

It all started off so well. A Good Call seemed imminent, virtually promised.

Zach unsurprisingly nailed the audition. The creator, the producer, and all these people involved in the show thought so too. They kept calling him, emailing him, and texting him with the same message:

You are the guy. You are the guy. You are the guy. You are the guy.”

And he was.

Until he wasn’t.

At the last minute, they cast another guy. One of Zach’s friends, in fact.

“It really broke my heart. I understand why he got the job. I understand our fundamental differences and that that there was nothing I could ever do to be what he represents and I am at peace with that. I bid him out for a job last year actually. It was his turn this time.

“But, still. Initially, I was very upset. It almost felt like a panic attack.

“The day I found out I was with my girlfriend. I’d just sent my kid to school. It’s morning, raining. I’m depressed. I turn to my girlfriend and say, among expletives:

“I can’t do this anymore.”

She’d heard this before, and this time, she’d had enough. She turns to Zach, like any great and necessary partner of an artist does, and shouts:

“’DUDE!!!!!!!!! YOU ARE ON THREE F—ING TV SHOWS RIGHT NOW!!!! [At this time, Zach had recurring roles on shows like Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet and Fox’s LA to Vegas]. SHUT UP!!!!! YOU. ARE. ON. THREE. COOL. TV SHOWS. SHUT. UP!”

Sometimes artists need their accomplishments yelled at them, especially after a rejection. Are you friends with an artist who’s just been rejected? Call her up right now and yell all her accomplishments at her, with all the love in the world.

Because it works.

Zach’s girlfriend snapped him back to reality faster than any of us snap back alone.

“I realized instantly,” he remembers, “Yes, she’s right. I’m going to work tomorrow on a cool TV show. Why am I so upset?

One of those shows, Santa Clarita Diet,  was created by Victor Fresco, the creator of Life on a Stick, that very first pilot that helped Zach live on the beach. Here he was, after all these years, still working. There was a lot to celebrate.

But sitting here at this Philz Coffee, Zach’s role on Santa Clarita Diet has just wrapped.

Today, his work on those three TV shows has ended.

Zach has no idea what is going to happen next.

He even jokes about retiring early, that when his daughter goes to college perhaps he’ll simply sail away from LA on his boat, out into the Pacific.

As we both walk away on that clear California spring day in 2018, me towards the train station, Zach towards the ocean, we have no idea that in a few months Zach will get a Very Good Call.

I practically jump out of my chair months later back in San Diego when I see his name show up in my newsfeed:

“Zachary Knighton To Play Rick In CBS Reboot Pilot.”

Months after our interview CBS announces that a reboot of the classic show Magnum PI, with “Zachary Knighton” playing a lead character (Rick Wright, a marine), opposite Jay Hernandez and Perdita Weeks.

The show even has boats.

And it’s filmed in Hawaii.

On July 4th, 2018, about 20 years after he first moved to LA for his very first pilot season, Zach posts a picture on his Instagram of he and his girlfriend sitting on beach chairs nestled on a rug, overlooking a sparkling blue Pacific; they’re sitting in his brand-new apartment in Hawaii, clinking glasses (mason jars). The caption reads: “Don’t have a couch yet. Costco beach chairs will have to do.”

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On August 27, 2018, Zach married his girlfriend.

On Sept 24th, 2018, Magnum PI premieres on CBS.

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