Gregory Zarian of “Days of Our Lives,” “General Hospital” and HBO’s “Westworld” fame can be seen starring in the hostage thriller 86 Melrose Avenue. I got to chat with Gregory about the film, the significance of photographs and being kind.
86 Melrose Avenue was written and directed by Lili Matta, and is about a diverse group of people at a gallery opening who are taken hostage by an ex-Marine suffering with PTSD and forced to confront their cultural differences, their pasts, and their looming mortality as time ticks away.
In addition to Gregory, the film stars Dade Elza, Anastasia Antonia, Jim O’Heir, Terri Ivens, Langstone Fishburne, Michael Polak, Andy Evans, Richard Sabine, Helen Kennedy, and Gary Sturm.
Check out our conversation!
What drew you to 86 Melrose Avenue?
Gregory: The director, Lili, and I worked together years ago on a film and we stayed in touch. She reached out to me, and this was like a couple of years before we actually went into working on the film, and said ‘I have a hostage thriller, would you be interested?’ And here’s what I want to say about being an actor, when a director that you respect, and I’m a real big proponent of strong women in any business, you know, my mother was my hero. So, when a strong woman that you respect and admire says ‘hey, I want you to read this,’ especially after you’ve worked together, you take note of that. So basically I said to Lili, ‘when you call, I jump.’ And it was such a prominent poignant script. I said, ‘whenever this goes into production, I’d love to be your Avi.’ And it was unlike any other job I’ve ever had. So a couple years later, she said ‘we’re good to go. Will you come in?’ And here’s what I love about it, she didn’t just hand me the part. I had to audition for the part even though she said she was thinking about me. We did our due diligence and our due process. And I respect everything about that because I have been given parts before but to work and get this job and bring the truth of this character to the story, to her, it’s just meant so much more to me.
What about Avi made you want to play him?
Gregory: We all have to face our demons and face our past. My parents were immigrants, so I am a child of immigrant parents. And we were brought up being very respectful of this country and in the movie the character actually leaves his country to come to the United States. He makes that choice. The reason why it made sense to me is when I was in my early 20s, I went to my father and I said, ‘Dad, I’ve been scouted by a modeling agency. And I would love to go to Europe.’ I was living with my dad at the time and I was in college and my dad, because he was so old school and it’s not that he didn’t understand that business, but he saw his son go to acting jobs and auditions and I wasn’t getting everything. He just saw the disappointment. So when I said that I was scouted by a modeling agency in Italy and that I’d like to go, he said ‘Gregory there’s one of two things. You can either stay here, keep your job and get a degree, or you can move out of my house.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to move out of your house.’ And it was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made because I did that for a couple years and I then, on those decisions of leaving Los Angeles and living in a foreign country, became a man. So, young Avi’s living in Israel and the choice was to come to America so they mirrored each other in a very similar semantic…. And I just want to say it was the best decision my father ever gave me because when you’re living in a foreign country, I took Spanish in high school but I chose to take up Italian to become part of the fabric of the country I was living and it changed my life. But then propelled me to move to Paris the following year, and it’s some of the best teaching I’ve ever had. One thing that I do want to say about that is the character Avi is Israeli and I said to Lili, ‘is Avi supposed to have the authentic Israeli accent? I’ve gone to dialect coaches and I’ve gone to class. I believe, out of respect for you and your film, if you are looking for an actor to have the authentic Israeli accent, then I’m not your guy.’ I don’t believe in doing an accent that comes in and out, I believe in doing something so authentically that you’re not thinking about the accent, you’re thinking about the performance and you’re thinking about the story. The beautiful thing for me was the character ends up in the United States when he’s five. So, it turned out great right because 30 something years later, we meet his character in an art gallery.
Speaking of the art gallery, who took the photos to be on display?
Gregory: They were personal photos that Lili Matta shot of her travels all over. They were stunning. They were on some of her trips all over the world.
Did you have a favorite?
Gregory: The one with the eyes. There’s a photo of the eyes and I remember even when we were filming, and they were so piercing, that they actually took me on a journey as we were actually filming because there’s a pivot that I make in the movie with those eyes. So they rang true to me and then just some of the landscape shots that she’s done during her travels were stunning. And because she is such a detailed storyteller. They weren’t just, for me, they weren’t just snapshots, they actually told stories. So as I’m actually filming the movie talking to Nadia, who is the photographer in the film, it was easy to ask and say ‘hey, tell me what this is, describe this for me.’ So, it just made that part of the film, so much easier to participate in.
Can you explain Avi’s pivotal moment just a little more?
Gregory: Eyes are the windows into our soul, and eyes can be intimidating. Eyes can be blank. Our eyes tell us our story. Everything in the gallery was shot chronologically, which, for me and I want to say for the rest of the cast, you have 10 actors that are being held hostage by an ex marine that is suffering from PTSD and he storms and he has blood all over him, you are facing your maker and you are facing the choices you have made in your past up to that moment. And when you look into someone’s eyes they tell you this story. And for me, the eyes on the wall, they were heartbreaking to me. There was history behind it, there was the question of where have you been in what have you seen and there’s a part of me and I’m even coming up with this now as we’re talking that I wished I had met that person to say I’m sorry. I don’t know the history, but that’s great artwork or great photography when you get so sucked into a piece that you are empathetic, or you’re celebratory and for me, my heart became extremely touched for those eyes.
That was a beautiful explanation.
Gregory: Thank you and, you know, we all look at photographs. There’s an artist named Patrick Nagel and he did all the Duran Duran photographs, they are iconic. There was one that I saw that wasn’t popular and I loved her and I’ve named her, it’s not the name that Patrick Nagel gave her but I named her Rebecca, because she, for me, is telling a story. And being an actor or even my years as being a model, everything needs to tell a story for me because if it’s not telling you a story or I’m not participating in that story. I’m not doing it right.
Was the connection with the photograph scripted? I noticed that Travis (Dade Elza) also looked at the photograph before his kind of pivotal moment as well.
Gregory: It wasn’t scripted, everything that you saw and here’s where I want to give Lili a hats off to her as a director. I’m going back to when we all met at the table read. I actually auditioned with Anastasia, the girl that was Nadia, and Dade. We auditioned together. And I had never met either of them. I had heard of Dade briefly through Lili, but we literally met in a waiting room and she brought us in and we did a very intense scene. And we walked out of there saying, ‘that was magical.’ And next thing we knew, we had all been hired in the parts that we auditioned for. We had done one or two things before but we shot the entire gallery chronologically, so everything that happened in those four walls was authentic, was real and Lili allowed us to just play. Other than a few directorial notes, sometimes directors want to just give you everything but Lili just said ‘go.’ So, the fact that you’re acknowledging that Dade looked and I looked and that his character and my character had a pivot on that, thank you for bringing that to light because I hadn’t even thought of that. I just know that those eyes took me on a ride. I think it’s a beautiful connection that you made between me and Dade… It just adds another layer for me in the storytelling of what we did, because then it just fulfills a piece in the movie that Avi and Travis go through, there’s a definite connection. I believe there’s a definite connection between Travis, the ex-Marine, and every character. There’s a little bit more of a connection between some than others but there’s a definite connection, because I believe that we all suffer from PTSD in so many ways. So, to connect that I think is beautiful because as much as we say we are not connected, we are so, face to face with so many people that we don’t even know.
Did you get a chance to learn Avi’s backstory with PTSD before filming?
Gregory: I read the script and it was very personal to me. The actor who played the younger Avi, Adam Elshar, we met the day that he was filming and him and I took a walk. And I remembered I asked him a couple questions, he asked me a couple of questions and I told him things that were personal for me, that ultimately are personal to Avi and I really wanted that connection to be in there. Like I said being a child of immigrant parents, you know, and really one of the gestures, you double kiss. For me, I would always double kiss my father, kiss on the cheek and so I double kissed Adam, he double kissed me back. I believe that if you add that history especially with somebody playing the younger version, it just breeds more life into it. It was important for me to have that history with him. So that when I was telling the story of the younger version of me, even though another actor played it, it was important to have the history behind it. My father came here to this country when he was 15. So he got on a boat, he landed in Boston and then he took her car from Boston to California. He came to the country of the American dream and it’s California. And I believe, coming from that generation, you instill in your children what it’s like to work and earn a dollar and be a gentleman and have respect and this history that you come from knowing that I’m my parents’ child. Avi is his father’s child. So, there’s a history behind that, and the more I knew and the more of what my upbringing was, I could give to Adam, which I shared bits and pieces of which then allowed me to bring out the Avi that was laying on the floor, praying for his life.
And Avi also has a connection with Nadia, where he continues to call her neighbor, but everyone else thinks that they’re kind of lovers and stuff. Can you explain that connection?
Gregory: Of course I can. Nadia played beautifully by Anastasia Antonia, she’s Lebanese and Avi is Israeli and they are enemy countries. It is full on culture clash, and they are neighboring countries that do not like each other. There was the beautiful point that Lili saw with Anastasia and me was that we had immediate chemistry, because to tell the story that we did, there has to be chemistry. You can’t create chemistry. It’s either there or it’s not. And I became very protective of Anastasia, and her character, while we were filming, and here’s my analogy of all of it. When the Twin Towers in New York fell down, we as a country suffered this loss. We went through this fear of this terror, this shock of what just happened to our country, no matter where you went, race, color, size, male, female, it didn’t matter. You grabbed hands with anybody that was right next to you. It didn’t matter the story. What mattered was that we were human beings suffering the same loss. So I believe at this moment in time, when Avi and Nadia are fighting to stay alive, the culture clash didn’t matter. What Avi’s mission was to do was to protect who he was next to, period.
Do you think that they’re going to continue the relationship that they’ve kind of formed after the movie ends?
Gregory: I love that question because when Lili and I spoke about it, I’d hoped it’s left to the imagination of conversation. I hope they do. It’s a conversation like let’s talk. I believe everything bad that happens, I don’t want to say fix, but there can be more of an understanding, if there’s more conversation. ‘What is this for you? How is that for you? Why do you feel that I, being Israeli have hurt, I wasn’t there. I didn’t pull the trigger. Let’s talk about that.’ And look at the beautiful moment that I believe we are in this country is, I believe, everyone’s house can be on fire. However, last year and even at this moment, it’s the Black Lives Matter house. We are talking about what it is ethnically culturally, racially, to be a black man, a black woman, we are now talking about what it’s like to be an Asian man, woman, child, it’s opening up the conversation about what is this for you help me understand. I mean, who am I to, you know, I was lucky I was brought up with people that were Latin, a few Jewish, you know, Mexican, Latin, Jewish, white, Israeli, black, we were brought up with all the colors of the crayon box. So I never looked at anybody for their color, we were brought up to respect everybody for who they were and who they are. Now, if they made a choice that hurt us that’s different, but color had nothing to do with it. So, I hope it opens up the conversation of, ‘hey you know what, you believe in God this way and I believe in God that way. Hey you know what, show me, help me understand what that is.’ And it’s just a conversation. I don’t have to take your answer, but I want to be enlightened. So, yeah, I believe that Avi and Nadia, they do what they do to hopefully enlighten each other….
An-ex marine storms an art gallery that is suffering from PTSD. I just worked with a friend of mine, she’s an actress, her name is Megan West and she’s on 911. She was sharing with me that one of her friends came to her and said that she is suffering from PTSD with COVID. And it’s not that she had it, she is suffering from PTSD because she’s so afraid of it. We’re all suffering from some type of that. One minute we’re living our lives and the next minute we are suffering from a global car crash. Stay inside, don’t move, more will be revealed. We were all suffering from some type of mental health trauma, which I then hope opens up the door of people saying, ‘Hey, how are you today? Hey you know what, I’m being bullied, I’m going to stop this, I’m going to do that, I’m an engage here,’ and it makes all of us kind and it makes all of us ask more questions, because who are we if we’re not in inquiry?
And that also just makes the film even that much more beautiful because it gives you the ability to have these conversations.
Gregory: Thank you for saying that because if we don’t ask, we won’t know. People always want to make the person with the gun, holding people hostage, the villain but if you turn it around and go, ‘What is that for you? What happened? What trauma in your life or my life or anybody’s life, what happened? Help me understand what that is. Okay, thank you,’ because then we can be empathetic to other people and again I think the movie is so timely because it poses all those questions. And it makes you root, you know, I want this movie to have people root for everyone and yeah, it was beautifully told with the do they make it, don’t they make it and I think that’s that’s part of all of it.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Gregory: One thing is, you know, just be kind. Let’s all just be kind to each other and it doesn’t have to be something that we tell people that we’ve done, it’s just being kind is even stepping aside for somebody to walk past you. We are in such a fragile state coming out of what we’ve come through. So, if we hug somebody a different way, if we pay more attention, if we wash our hands and wear our masks and just a little bit more ‘thank you’ and ‘please.’ One turns into two turns into a thousand turns into a million. We can all be a change somewhere, somehow and I believe that we can all do it and just open our hearts to more understanding.