Michael Zegen caught the acting bug when an elementary school peer was kicking ass in commercials. “Toys, fast food chains, sugar cereals, you name it,” says Zegen of his friend’s success. “My insane, unhealthy jealousy led me to acting.” After the born-and-raised New Yorker honed his dramatic skills on six seasons of the FX firefighting drama, Rescue Me, he landed recurring roles on Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead, while balancing a thriving theater career. Zegen can currently be seen Off-Broadway in the Roundabout Theater production of Bad Jews, an acerbic dark comedy about the ties that bind and break families. And while Zegen nails his role as a volatile grad student returning home after a death in the family, it’s his recent turn as a dry-witted Manhattanite in Noah Baumbach’s talky comedy Frances Ha that will serve best on his next big project: Last June, Zegen was cast as a recurring character in the blisteringly anticipated third season of Girls, premiering in January. Details about his character are under wraps, but Zegen is quick to point out that, in the wake of Chris Abbott’s sudden departure from the show last year, his character will not be functioning as a ‘Charlie surrogate.’
What made you want to get into acting?
When I was little, there was a kid in my elementary school who acted in TV commercials. Like hundreds of them. Toys, fast food chains, sugar cereal, you name it. My insane, unhealthy jealousy of him led me to acting, I imagine.
When was the moment you realized this could be a profession?
There was never a doubt in my mind that this could/would be a profession. I’m not good at anything else!
Tell me how you came up in the business, a brief-ish chronological ascension.
I got my professional start as “Dwight The Troubled Teen” on The Late Show with David Letterman. It was a silly little sketch, but Letterman loved it and kept bringing me back. I ended up doing like 50 episodes. After that, I got Rescue Me, and worked on that for about 6 years. Coincidentally, my audition for Rescue Me was in the same building that Letterman films in. Ed Sullivan’s got my back!
What do you see as being your big break, or do you still think it’s coming?
I’m not concerned with any kind of big break. I just want to continue working on quality projects. The rest will take care of itself.
I see you as a “New York” actor, given your theater background, your upcoming role on ‘Girls,’ etc. Do you see yourself that way?
Some of the best actors are “New York” actors, so I’ll take that as a compliment! I love theater, both doing it and seeing it, and New York is essentially the mecca of theater, so it would be hard for me to work or live anywhere else.
It seems as though you’ve always worked in this city. Did you ever feel pressure to move to Los Angeles and pursue acting there?
Nothing against LA, I just happen to like it here better. Luckily, I’ve been working steadily enough in NYC that I haven’t had to move.
In Bad Jews you play a character whose grandfather is a holocaust survivor, which is the case with you in real life. Did that similar history make this role easier to play?
I could definitely relate to my character, sure, and being Jewish also helped me relate to the play. But it’s not a “Jewish” play. I think its themes are universal; family, tradition, love. And it’s funny. Dark, but funny.
You step over a lot of mattresses in Bad Jews. It looks annoying and distracting. Is it?
It’s fun! Sometimes it feels like we’re inside one of those jumpy moonwalk things they have at kids’ birthday parties.
After reciting the same lines night after night, is there a risk of the performance feeling mechanical after a while? How do you maintain emotion in each performance?
There’s nothing mechanical about this show. Every night is different. Plus, we’ve had some very vocal audiences, so you never know how they’re gonna react. As for maintaining emotion…that just comes with the territory. Surprisingly, all of the shouting and arguing that goes on in the play is quite therapeutic.
What can you tell us about the character you play on Girls? Are you a series regular?
I don’t think I’m allowed to say much, to be honest, though I will say that I loved working with Lena Dunham. She’s obviously hilarious and super-talented, but she’s also down-to-earth. Pretty much a dream boss.
How did that role happen for you, and do you think it will be your biggest/most visible role yet?
I simply auditioned for it. Dunno if it’ll be my most visible. I also did a few episodes of The Walking Dead, and that’s like the most popular show in the world.
How has it been being the new kid in town on the Girls set? Did it feel that way?
The set was extremely warm and welcoming. Everyone from the actors to the writers to the crew made me feel right at home.
A lot of people assume that your character is filling the void left by Christopher Abbot’s departure. Is that accurate?
I’m not replacing Chris as the new “Charlie,” if that’s what you’re asking. It’s an entirely different character. He’s funny. I look forward to hearing what people think of him. And dread it, too.
What’s been your most surreal experience so far as an actor?
I auditioned for Woody Allen last year.
What is your acting dream job?
A Woody Allen movie.
Photo by James Orlando. Styling by Paul Bui. Grooming by Janet Domann.