Zach Villa Interview: Hypochondriac

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Written and directed by Addison Heimann, Hypochondriac is an LGBTQ+ psychological horror film that makes its protagonist question his own sanity. After being raised by a mother with bipolar disorder, Will (Zach Villa, Destroyer) attempts to move on from his childhood trauma and leave the past behind.

However, Will learns this is easier said than done when secrets threaten to derail the life he’s built with his boyfriend, Luke (Devon Graye, Nope). After his mom (Marlene Forte, Knives Out) begins leaving ominous voicemails on his phone, Will notices a shift in his mental state. Hit with an onslaught of terrifying and brutal visions, Will struggles to maintain his grip on reality as he further succumbs to the mental illness.

RELATED: American Horror Story: 10 Single-Season Actors Who Should Come Back

Screen Rant chats with Hypochondriac star, Zach Villa, about preparing for the role and the challenges that came with it.

Screen Rant: First, I wanted to tell you how much I loved this movie. It was super good. I thought you did a phenomenal job. I talked to your director—I thought that the directing was amazing, too.

Zach Villa: Yeah, Addison’s a pretty good guy [laughs]. We’ll let him stick around, I guess.

Screen Rant: I was curious if you had done other horror projects before, so I looked it up and saw that you were in American Horror Story.

Zach Villa: Yes, yes. One of the penultimate kings of horror.

Screen Rant: How was preparing for this movie different from preparing for that role?

Zach Villa: Oh, wildly different. American Horror Story is… I guess there’s a parallel in that there was a bit of a real life model to at least begin the research in both roles. And yet, it didn’t really take place in the same way. Richard Ramirez is a well known, creepy as hell, serial killer. And, you know, there’s a lot of real life evidence and I kind of went in going like, “Yeah, I’m making the biopic,” and then found out that they wanted to put it into kind of this, you know, this 80s, the Stranger Things Hawkins, sort of fantastical world.

And I was like, “Oh, well, that’s different. Let me adjust,” and then came up with something that was more of a cool, original hybrid version of that person. And with Hypochondriac, it’s roughly based on some of Addison’s real life experience, as a director-writer, for those of you who don’t know, and he’s brilliant and lovely and charming, and reminds you a lot of Will—the character that I play.

And so, Addison and I spent a lot of time together. I think by osmosis, certain mannerisms or traits were kind of incorporated into the character, because I couldn’t help but imagine Addison going through some of these things that are depicted in the script. And then there’s also moments where I’m like, “That’s not Addison at all. That’s just the character.” And I think that’s—I think that’s generally how I build any role, right?

As an actor, you borrow from what you know best. That’s your life, the people you know, the things you’ve experienced… That’s why they say, “You have to live in order to act good,” I guess. And the more you live and the more you experience, the more you have to draw from. And so, I think parts of Addison’s personality or mannerisms were definitely incorporated. But Will is who he is. That character just kind of was born out of a hybrid of a number of experiences.

Screen Rant: Did you know the backstory of this role when you auditioned? Or did something else draw you to it?

Zach Villa: As is the actor’s journey, sometimes, we very rarely—at least, where I’m at in my career, get to quote-unquote “choose” the roles we do. I think we get handed things that we might be able to do if The Powers That Be line up in such a way that they’re like, “Yeah, you’re the guy.” And then I’m the guy, and then I get to make it what I think it should be, you know what I mean? But when you get those opportunities, it’s like, “Oh, okay. Now I get to take this and run with it.”

I guess, I was given the opportunity to, you know, to do this role. And immediately it was just like, “Oh, this is something that is very unique.” I think what drew me to it, I guess, is more just the unique way in which mental health is portrayed on the screen and through the script. I haven’t read anything like it. I haven’t been able to find anything quite like it. And so I was given the opportunity, and that’s one half of the business. And the other half is the fact that I then got to come in and, you know, and really just flesh out this role. That was such fun.

Screen Rant: I definitely haven’t seen a movie like it before. There were parts when I myself was like, “Did I see that right? Did that just cut off? Or was that supposed to happen?” When I was literally questioning myself as a viewer. Like, “Am I seeing this correctly?” And that was something I really loved. So what was it like for you to play that?

Zach Villa: Well, I was actually going to push back with a question.

Screen Rant: Sure.

Zach Villa: What was the thing that you saw where you were like, “Was this supposed to cut off? Or keep going?” or whatever. Was it more like how things were filmed, or the actual themes and elements of the story that were depicted on the screen? Was it the content or how it was done that you were like, “Oh, is it supposed to be like this?”

Screen Rant: It was a little bit of both, honestly. But that was what I loved about it.

Zach Villa: Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of what I was fishing for. There’s inclusivity in this film; it’s an unequivocally queer film. And it’s just kind of part of the tapestry of the story that I think is really unique. And so I think that was one of my favorite things was just knowing that Will’s gay. It’s there.

There’s a lot of things that are normal that are included in this film that are mainstream, yet taboo in some places of the world still, and that’s just not okay. So, I was just really proud that the story was as nuanced and inclusive as it was.

Screen Rant: Was there anything particularly challenging with the role? There are a lot of interesting scenes in there with the wolf. How was filming that?

Zach Villa: Yeah, I mean, challenging. I’ll give you something that’s a little more fluffy first. All the pottery stuff—and I mentioned this a little bit for my own hubris, because I think a lot of people…when they watch the film they assume that there’s a pottery person that comes in and makes all of the stuff in the original sequence—but every time you see pottery or drawing ceramics being done on screen that’s me. And we shot it live.

And so that was challenging to become a professional ceramicist in a week [laughs]. So, that’s just technically difficult, and I’m really proud of that. As far as some of the more emotionally taxing scenes, a lot of the stuff with the wolf and the sustained fight-or-flight places that Will has to live in… It’s exhausting. There’s no other way to say it. I don’t have a magic formula of like, “Oh, yeah, this was hard and here’s why.”

At the end of the day, you’re stomping around, pacing in between takes trying to keep the intensity up because you’re just scared literally all day. And that does something to your brain and your mind and your heart. And then you have to go home and shake it off and sleep and then wake up and be on set at 5am and do it all over again. And luckily, we shot this in about a month. It wasn’t that long of a time. But for me, being on set ten hours a day…

Screen Rant: Yeah, that’s a long day.

Zach Villa: Yeah. It’s a tough place to live in, psychologically, for that long. Like I think we all move in and out of those spaces in our own lives, but to actually do a role like that? Respect for the actors that have walked that path. That can be hard.

Screen Rant: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was the relationship with Luke. It was one of my favorite parts because I wasn’t expecting to be so drawn into the romance in a horror film. What was important to you when you were bringing that relationship to life?

Zach Villa: Really just the truthfulness of it, I think. The thing is, Devon is such a wonderful actor, and he will probably pull away and blush when he hears that, because he’s so sweet and so generous. But it’s true. He’s so wonderful and so giving. And when the camera is on, man, he’s just a firecracker. He’ll meet you step for step. Whatever I gave him, he pushed back and gave me something else. And it was really just building this fortress of a performance with him.

And then the cameras would cut, and he’d be like, “Hey, was that okay? Do you need anything?” I’m like, “Bro, you just crushed that scene. How are you so nice? Stop.” I think that what we were trying to bring to it was just a reality and a truthfulness and kind of a domesticity about it, especially early on. Devon and I, both as people and as actors, are a bit Yin and Yang.

I think we balance each other with the things that we bring to the screen presence-wise and energetically, and so that’s kind of how our relationship as characters also began to develop. And I think I really wanted to bring a sense of normalcy and stability to their relationship early on. So as it devolved, or, Will devolved—and Luke does to a certain degree too, he’s affected by mental health; he’s a victim of it in a different way—you see two people try to navigate that.

And one maybe has their s–t together more, but Luke has his own demons too. And so you see these two men in a loving relationship, that you want to work out so badly, just try to navigate one of the hardest, most confusing times. I think we just really wanted to go for the reality of it and the honesty.

Hypochondriac Synopsis

Will has a loving boyfriend and a good life, but when his mentally ill mother reemerges after a 10-year absence, he descends into a dark spiral of madness, haunted by the manifestation of his childhood trauma.

Check out our other interviews with Hypochondriac star Paget Brewster and director Addison Heimann.

 

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