Nominated for a Heath Ledger Scholarship off the back of his work in groundbreaking web series Starting From… Now, Zielinski recently nabbed a role in another significant innovation, this time a series for short form content platform Quibi.
The official synopsis for Don’t Look Deeper: “Set in Merced, California, ‘fifteen minutes into the future,’ Don’t Look Deeper centres on a high school senior (Helena Howard) who can’t seem to shake the feeling that something about her just isn’t right. And that something is… she’s not human… not one of us. This revelation of what she really is, where she comes from, and who has started looking for her, sets in motion a series of events that suddenly puts her entire life in jeopardy.”
The series is being directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Lords of Dogtown, Thirteen) and also stars Emily Mortimer and Don Cheadle.
We sent some questions to Zielinski to find out more about his role and also what makes him tick.
Can you tell us about the character that you play in Don’t Look Deeper and about your experience on the show?
I don’t think Abel is going to be the character you’re rooting for… He’s impeccably dressed and fantastic with a taser. He’s the ‘fixer’ for him and his brother Noah’s tech empire, the company behind a lot of the tech central to Don’t Look Deeper. He was so much fun to play; suave, calculating and pretty ruthless. My experience shooting was just incredible. Filming entirely out on location in LA, places like Pasadena and Altadena where you’re surrounded by stunning mountain ranges, under an auteur director like Catherine Hardwicke, alongside extraordinary actors like Don Cheadle, Harvey Guillén, Helena Howard, Kaiwi Lyman, Emily Mortimer… I mean wow. The whole experience just blew me away.
Was the production a world away from your previous, mostly indie, projects?
It was definitely a world away from the indie projects I’ve been on. I’ve never been surrounded by a crew of that size, for a start. This production could afford to create stunning futuristic sets, give actors transformative SFX makeup, execute elaborate stunts in the middle of Downtown LA. It’s just a different world of creative possibility.
Do you think that being in the running for the Heath Ledger Scholarship helped with you being considered internationally for roles?
Being a finalist for the Heath Ledger Scholarship was a real turning point for me. I’d never been to LA before then. During the five days I was there (I didn’t have long as I was in the middle of rehearsing for Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer), not only did I make countless amazing connections and learn so much about that industry thanks to the scholarship, but my Australian rep MKM connected me with Grandview, and I signed with my U.S. manager, Will Douglas. This led to auditioning for more U.S. projects, and getting cast in Don’t Look Deeper. It also really helped me get my O1 visa so I could do the role. I owe a lot to that nomination!
How long have you been interested in acting, and what was the spark?
My parents enrolled me in after school acting classes when I was eight, to build confidence. I have never really questioned what I am going to do with my life since then. I don’t think I could do something else if I wanted to. My career necessitates a sort of endless quest for emotional honesty, communication, connection, physical/vocal/expressive freedom and play. I’m lucky that the things acting needs are the same things I value in life. That’s probably part of what makes it so addictive. I get to stay a big kid.
Can you speak about some of the challenges that you face as a transgender actor in terms of casting?
I’m not sure what exact challenges I face because I’m not privy to those casting discussions. I think all actors have some unkind stories they tell themselves as to why they’re not being cast, and I definitely have those but it’s hard to know which ones are warranted. I think my identity is innately politicised; I’m sort of seen as an activist just for existing. This might mean casting me also has political implications for productions. If I become the face of a brand of chips, that shouldn’t mean anything other than we all live and work under capitalism but will the alt-right now boycott that brand? Could I be the romantic love interest in a film without the film being entirely reframed as a queer romance? That feels reductive if the only queer element is my casting (not that I’m not all for more queer romances, more of a queer lens on everything). Is a rom-com now a political statement just because I’m playing a role? Diverse representation should, of course, be applauded loudly, but I do wonder if the inescapable politicisation of my identity discourages casting, and I do want to be more multi-dimensional than just gender identity.
The briefs I receive for transgender characters can also contain challenges. Sometimes these characters are living in abject horror inside these narratives, or they are reduced to their gender identity. I worry that a young transgender person would watch these stories and be really demoralised. It’s a relief when I come across a transgender character who exists in a three-dimensional way like every other character. I know conveying struggle is so important because it promotes empathy in viewers but there’s a line between promoting empathy and reinforcing the idea that being transgender means a horrifying and narrow existence. I think in my ultimate utopian vision of the world someone’s gender identity ceases to be noteworthy, but we probably have a long road ahead before we can achieve that. In film and TV though, there seem to be more and more examples of characters just existing while also being trans. Watch Pose! Sense8!
So many great performers and filmmakers have come out of the Starting From… Now series – can you pinpoint why that may have happened?
They were just such a talented bunch! And, the show became more popular than I think any of us could have anticipated; over 100 million views worldwide! SFN was a real milestone for me and I loved working on it. I actually shot that show in the very early days of my transition, and my character existed entirely without mention of gender, so there’s another good example of what I was speaking about before!
What do you hope for the future in terms of your career?
I am extremely ambitious and totally obsessed with acting. I want a consistent, international career in theatre, film and TV. I want to play such a diverse array of characters and be a transformative actor within them, across comedy and drama and style and genre. I want the fact that I can’t be pigeon-holed to be a statement in itself. I hope young queer people will see me, feel stood up for and dream expansively for themselves. I’ve always dreamt of being in great films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Magnolia, Brokeback Mountain, American Beauty, Candy, Lars and the Real Girl. TV shows like Pose, Breaking Bad, Flowers, Six Feet Under, Love My Way. I write, so I want to step into creating my own work too in a bigger, more disciplined way. I want to keep challenging myself, my ideas about myself, my perceived limitations, everything.