I met Zack Ryan in New York last year at a screening of Beautiful Something. “A compassionate, romantic drama,” the Village Voice aptly described it. In his screen début, Zack plays Jim, who’s in a torrid relationship with Drew, who is a famous sculptor. Jim is his muse, but seeks more attention, so he takes it to the streets. Rough and tumble, one scene finds Zack completely naked, sporting a solid build—I might add!
Zack gives a polished performance as the broken Jim. Seeing his name on the marquée that night, I asked if this was his real name, as it seemed like a typical choice for an actor’s name. He replied, “My birth name is Zachary…Thomas…Ryan—three first names!”
He told me he graduated from Rutgers with a degree in mechanical engineering because he
wanted to be Iron Man. Okay. With a sense of humor like that, I was enthralled.
I was also captivated by his humanitarianism. This twenty-six year old began his charitable work as a senior in his New Jersey high school. He was part of a program called HiTops, Health Interested Teens Own Program on Sexuality. Their byline is: healthy communities begin with healthy young people. The organization addresses risky sexual behavior and violence. They focus on prevention, providing education and support.
In college, Zack and his frat brothers fundraised for St. Jude’s. He also worked with (Product) RED, which was established in 2006 by Bono and Bobby Shriver [A&U, March 2007] to provide help for those who suffer with AIDS in Africa.
Not just a thespian, Zack started several clothing companies employing his marketing, advertising, and web design skills.
On this snowy Big Apple afternoon, I bundle up in my faux fur, hop Amtrack, and speed out to Zack’s home in Princetown, NJ. I catch up on my reading, In Such Good Company by Carol Burnett.
Ruby Comer: What a lovely area you live in, Zack. [As we settle into his cozy living room, he offers me hot tea.] Tell me more about your involvement in HiTops. I must be honest, I had never heard of this project.
Zack Ryan: We pretty much educated underclassmen about HIV, STDs, homophobia, and date rape through workshops and skits. We made sure that everyone knew the facts. I guess you can say that was my first acting job, Ruby!
I guess…[he cuts in].
No [he announces with gusto]. My first actual performance was when I was eight when my mom cast me in her blind date scene as her ailing child. She needed an escape in case the blind date went south. When she scratched her nose, that was my cue. So I chugged my soda and pretended like I had a terrible stomachache. I slowly built it up to a terrible aching pain, even getting myself to the point of tears. When we got back to the car, my mom asked if I was okay. I responded with a smile on my face, “How did I do?”
You are funny! Did your New Jersey high school provide HIV prevention education?
Yes! I first learned about it as a freshman, when I took health class. Once you were in HiTOPS we had class almost every day, including tests and quizzes to make sure we knew all the material before presenting.
What a grand school! How did you hear about the epidemic?
I’m pretty sure it was my mom who explained it to me. She also told me to wear a condom. HIV was a great reason to wear one, as I remember having that fear instilled in me.
Kudos to your mom! How do you practice safer sex?
Condoms. I’ve always worn protection.
You’re smart, Mr. Ryan, for advocating safer sex. Because you played gay so well in Beautiful Something, I thought you were.
Thanks for the compliment. That’s what I was going for.
You have been dating Samantha for three years. When you first met, how did you guys bring up the topic of STD testing?
I’m pretty sure we asked each other, “So…you don’t…have anything right?” We pretty much took each other’s word for it and we always practiced safe sex. I’m not ready to be a father yet. [He chuckles.]
I have to know more about this Iron Man fixation.
I loved the idea of building a mechanical suit that would give us super strength and let us fly. It’s not such a far-fetched idea. It’s actually possible. I always wanted to be at the forefront of technology and building and coming up with crazy ideas—and I’m good at it!
I guess you now apply these ideas to your acting! What scene were you not looking forward to shooting in Beautiful Something?
Honestly, I was not looking forward to all of the hot-man-on-man action scenes. But once I stepped into character, I lost my anxiety and just went for it. Joe Graham [the director and writer] made sure we were actually huffing and puffing and sweating! We definitely gave it our all. [With a tender nod, Zack beams.]
I like how AIDS is mentioned in the film.
Yes, AIDS comes up when Jim, my character and, Bob, the older gentleman, were back at Bob’s home after dining out. Bob tells Jim that his lover died and Jim automatically asks, “From AIDS?” Joe wanted to point out that in Jim’s [young] mind, the only way older gay men die is from AIDS. Turns out that Bob’s lover died in the Vietnam war.
I see. Any more thoughts about the disease….
Fortunately, I don’t have anyone close to me who is HIV-infected. I believe where technology is going HIV doesn’t have to be [potentially fatal]. Hopefully within the next ten to twenty years it’ll be as rare as polio. My cousin is studying medicine and has some very cool ideas to help reprogram the virus to attack itself.
How stunning. Keep me posted, Zack. [I look out the window at the accumulating snowstorm. Zack catches my distress. He invites me to stay for dinner.] If you could have dinner with anyone famous, who would you choose?
Robert Downey Jr. He’s Iron Man. [I purse my lips and give a knowing nod.]
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].