"Life feels like an uncomfortable comedy": Zach Woods embraces the awkward and new movie "Downhill"

The actor appears on "Salon Talks" to share his love of improv & why he's more Mr. Potato Head than Buzz Lightyear

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 14, 2020 4:00PM (EST)

 ("Salon Talks")
("Salon Talks")

About midway through "Downhill," one character asks another who she is. It's such a deceptively simple, seemingly unanswerable query that her first response is to balk at it. Within moments, though, she realizes she has at least a partial answer. "Downhill," the new American remake of 2014's dark comedy "Force Majeure," is a movie that wants to know, really, who are you? Are you the accumulation of everything you've ever been and done, or are you a split second decision?

Pondering that existential dilemma are Billie and Pete Staunton (Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a long-married couple on a family ski vacation whose relationship is turned upside down in a moment. Intersecting with their crisis are Rosie (Zoe Chao) and Zach (Zach Woods), a couple flush with new love and dragged into the drama. Awkwardness ensues.

But Zach Woods is a performer comfortable being uncomfortable. In movies like "Ghostbusters," as well as series "The Office," "Veep," "Avenue 5," and his five years as Jared Dunn on the recently departed "Silicon Valley," his characters are never far from the exquisite tension that life is constantly doling out. In real life, he happens to be gracious, curious and charming, as we learned when he joined us recently for a "Salon Talks." 

This is a remake of "Force Majeure," about a couple who go on vacation and experience an incident that changes things. Your character walks into that situation. Tell me about who the character of Zach is.

It takes place on a family's on a ski vacation, and they're having lunch outside. What appears to be an avalanche hits them. At the last moment, the father grabs his cell phone and runs away, while the mother sort of cowers with her two kids. It turns out, it was a controlled avalanche and it wasn't dangerous. The father comes back, and the rest of the movie is then metabolizing that moment, dealing with the fallout from that.

I play one of the father's friends from work, who he invites into their vacation as a buffer from having the conversation that moment necessitates. But instead, my girlfriend and I, who've traveling through Europe together on a new love expedition, end up being unwilling witnesses of Julia Louis Dreyfus and Will Farrell's characters' marital conflict.

Your character is rather enigmatic. You are the person who has to absorb this and you have to be restrained. Who do you think Zach is? How do you work on creating a character like that?

Any time I play any character, even if it's small character, I try to figure out what I love about them, what they love and what they're afraid of. You have these two couples in very different phases of their relationships. The main couple, Pete and Billie, have a marriage and two kids, and are, especially after the incident with the avalanche, dealing with the cracks in the plaster that are getting more and more vivid.

My girlfriend and I in the movie are in this flush of new love, where your brain is so soaked in dopamine or serotonin, or whatever your brain secretes when you're in love, that you don't even notice the distant whine of possible dysfunction. You're too busy just having sex and eating waffles.

We're a foil for them in a certain way. One thing that happens in the movie is, I sort of advocate for Pete, the father. In trying to figure out how to play the character, I don't want him to just be some sort of bro schmuck who gets his bro's back as a sort of default. I thought, that's not that interesting. One of the things that makes it difficult for men who have done things that are regrettable and disappointing is, they feel so identified with their efficacy, their strength, their courage, their pragmatism, that they can't acknowledge the ways in which they — like everyone else — are a kid who's just pissing his pants and terrified, and a mess.

I thought it'd be kind of interesting if my character, rather than just being a bro who's trying to buck him up and get him to keep being a man, was someone who's a little bit more receptive, ultimately, to his mess.

And you're working with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who are also very comfortable in front of the camera playing very complicated, messy characters. Was that helpful, having two directors who also have that comedy experience?

It was interesting. Having two directors was not that different from having a single director. It just felt like notes came in two different voices, but they were good at synchronizing their feedback so that you never felt like like, "Well, Mom said this, but Dad said that."

You've been in comedy almost your whole life. You started traveling up to New York City to UCB when you were 16. That's a wild thing for a 16-year-old to do, and then to be that single-minded at such a young age. Were you looking at people like Will Farrell and saying, "I want to do that"?

No, I wanted to be a jazz musician when I was a kid. I played trumpet, and I used to practice hours and hours every day. Then I got braces, and I couldn't really play anymore. I had all this free time when I used to be running scales. Oddly, improv was one of the first things I did without a plan or without single-mindedness.

I'd been very focused on what I thought my life would be. It was sort of a lark — I was like, "This looks like fun," and I took an improv class. I just loved it. It just felt so good. I didn't really have much in the way of ambition around acting. Once I did improv classes, I was like, "Oh, I just want to keep doing this."

You were coming up in a world with Chris Gethard and Bobby Moynihan at the same time. That's a really great pack to find yourself suddenly running in.

It was wonderful. It was people who seemed genuinely passionate about something. One of the charms of starting at UCB at that time was, no one had really become famous or rich, or gotten a career out of it yet. The self-selection was just all these weirdos who liked doing it. There wasn't any sort of careerism, at least not that I could detect. That's such a good feeling, to be around a group of people who are united by their shared passion, as opposed to their shared ambition.

I read an interview with you where you talk about seeing this 16-year-old kid toss his keys to a valet, and wonder, "Who do you become if that's where you're starting from?"

I was walking into a sushi restaurant in Studio City in Los Angeles. A kid drove up in a Porsche in a letterman's jacket, tossed his keys to the valet, and then went in to eat sashimi or whatever. I think one of two things happens. You either become like Patrick Bateman and become someone who's cutting off people's heads with a chainsaw in your penthouse apartment, or you've reached the Mount Everest of douchebaggery at such a young age, that you then move onto some new thing. Maybe by the time you're 20, you're a salt of the earth sweetheart.

Because you've skied down douche mountain.

Following your career for the last 10+ years, one of your first breakout successes was "Awkward Boy." You have for all of your career gravitated towards uncomfortable comedy. You've been on shows that are known for discomfort and the tension of discomfort. What is it about that specific energy that's your zone?

Life feels to me like an uncomfortable comedy a lot of the time. I feel probably equal parts amused by, irritated by, and fond of the way so much people are a mess. I like having a job that allows me to pay close attention to the strange ways in which people cope with their own terror and hope. It makes me laugh, and it also resonates with my experience of myself.

I don't think I'm a massively awkward person interpersonally, but I do feel, just interacting with people, there's a lot of information. Like, just someone's face. There's so much going on at any moment. I remember hearing about in the airport in Israel, they have these people who do facial profiling, which means they've been trained to identify these micro facial movements that evidently suggests that you're a terrorist. This could also just be racial profiling with a different name.

Any time you look at a person, there's so much happening, like, "Oh, they raised their eyebrow weird." But some of it, you can't even identify. Basically, I just think all those little silent moments between people are so funny and weird, and sad, and sometimes exciting.

Having a corporeal existence is a very strange thing. You avoid social media; do you think maybe that's part of it? When we take away those cues and we're only looking at text, we're getting a very limited amount of information, and we're not picking up the nuance and the subtlety that give depth to our understanding of what another person's humanity is.

I think that's probably true. I always prefer making phone calls to texting for the same reason. It stresses me out to have to compose something. To write an email or to write a text. You're presenting yourself in this way that requires consideration. I would rather just barf my personality at you and deal with the consequences afterwards on a phone call.

And just have me wipe the chunks off.

Exactly. I guess that's also true in social media in a larger sense. With Instagram, you're also sort of composing yourself. Even though it's not verbal, it's still the same idea. You're curating a presentation of yourself, and I don't really want to do that too much. It just feels lonely to me.

One thing I really like with the movie is, it's interested in the ways in which people are contradictory and imperfect and disappointing and beautiful, all at the same time. Once in awhile, I'll do a voyeuristic search through Twitter, and I envy people's moral confidence. Just knowing myself, I'm like, "Man, I could never say anything that crusadery, because I know earlier today, I was a jerk in a thousand different ways. So, from what perch do I condemn?" I can't do it.

I wonder, that must be why you love improv so much.

I think that's true, because you don't have time to wring your hands and perfect something. As a constitutionally anxious person for much of my life, I loved improv because you have to show up for the moment, or you'll be humiliated. The threat of failure and humiliation is always right there, so you have to be there. You can't be in your head, or you pay the price.

That moment of hesitation, that's what the film was about, too. That moment where it's this or that, and everything is determined after. And, you've taught improv. 

Years ago. I haven't done it in a long time. I wonder if I'll do it again at some point. I really loved it.

As someone who's also constitutionally completely anxious, and has never had an un-overthought moment in her life, what's a beginning improv exercise?

A lot of times, the first step of improv class is having people do things that are really embarrassing and unchallenging in a technical way, but challenging emotionally. Like, you're throwing imaginary knives at each other. It's child's play stuff, which I think is meant to inoculate you against your own self-consciousness. If you have to do enough embarrassing things around strangers enough times, eventually, your gag reflex gets suppressed, and you can be ridiculous without feeling so compromised.

Zach, I want everyone to take improv classes now.

I find it very touching, yeah.

That degree of letting yourself be vulnerable and humble and weird must be incredibly good for the soul.

I think so. I also think it's the version of people that's most beautiful. So often, I think we, or I have, led with scorn or irony or opinions or whatever. You lead off with this stuff because it feels protected, but the most beautiful parts of people, I find, are when they're self forgetful. When they're not trying to manage your experience of them, when they're just lost to an experience themselves. That was one of the things about improv, and seeing people who had no chance or interest in becoming professional comedians. A 65-year-old corporate lawyer shows up and does this stuff, and you get to see that little boy or that little girl inside this adult. It's so moving. And, it's so nerdy. I's so embarrassing, doing improv classes. Just listen to that. "I'm taking an improv class." It's horrifying.

That's probably not a statement that gets people laid a lot.

Not cool. No, I suspect it's not, from experience.

You're talking so much about how we present in the world, and how we identify, and that is at the core of this movie. I really hope this opens up a lot of conversations, because there's so much about if you are who you are in a moment, or if who you are is something bigger than that. I'm wondering how you look at that. So, the avalanche is coming, or seems to be coming. Who do you think you would be? A stayer or a runner?

I don't know. I hope I'd stay, but I don't know. Have you seen "Toy Story 3"? You know the scene I'm talking about, where the toys are going into a trash incinerator, and they sort of are struggling to get out. Then they realize they can't get out, because it's impossible, because there's just too much and then, they just all sort of gaze at the fire, and they hold hands. They pull each other in, and Mr. Potato Head rests his head on Mrs. Potato Head.

It's crazy. It is so beautiful and disturbing that is in a children's movie. It's both incredibly hopeful and incredibly bleak. It's like the Titanic. It's like the guys playing the violin as they sink into the icy, dark ocean. I think it's that kind of futile, beautiful resistance to the inevitable. It's not even resistance, it's just keeping each other company. There's something about that, that kills me every single time. So I hope I would be the Mr. Potato Head and not Buzz Lightyear, freaking out and going off. Although I think even Buzz Lightyear behaved himself well in that trash incinerator.

Your characters that you've played that you're known for, which one do you think would be the most likely to stay? And which would be the most likely to run?

Jared from "Silicon Valley" would definitely stay. And, Gabe from "The Office" would definitely run. Or, the character I played in "In The Loop." It's just ego you have. Jared has none at all, and Gabe had a ton.

What about your character in "Avenue 5"?

I think he would be so excited for the avalanche. The character I play in "Avenue 5" has a different relationship to the fire. I think he wants to hold hands, but he also cannot wait to feel those flames.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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