Zach Villa sits in a conference room armed with nothing but a cup of coffee (medium roast, splash of almond milk) and a glass of water. “This is medicinal, so I can awaken,” he nods toward the coffee, then turns to the water. “This is therapeutic, so I can stay hydrated.”
Both are crucial in the midst of a whirlwind couple of months. This past June he auditioned for an anonymous role on an anonymous show. It went well: In July, he was being welcomed into the storied Ryan Murphy fold. Filming for American Horror Story: 1984 began dominating his schedule not long after. Save his ‘80s rock styling, all details about his character, including a name, have been kept completely under wraps, but Villa’s long-haired, leather jacket-wearing character is said to have a key role in the upcoming installment, so it’s completely logical that days off — like the one we’re meeting on — have been few and far between.
No immediate visual cues suggest that Villa has been working around the clock (literally — night shoots are completely unavoidable when filming a summer camp slasher), but there are tells if you notice them. His need for coffee is one, his preference to sit with his back to the sunny window as a view of Hollywood sprawls behind him is another. Mostly, though, he comes off as open and social.
His confidence may have to do with the fact that AHS is the exact break he’s always wanted. He openly wept when he found out that he’d been cast. “I mean, I once went in for Pippin on Broadway 11 times and didn’t get the job,” he contextualizes. “So, to go in once for this, and then to find out what it is and the scope of what it is, I freaked out.”
Sometimes it’s too easy to see a successful person and know that they live a charmed life; Villa is not one of those people. His overall vibe is more lived-in and experimental. He dyes his hair shades of blue and green and, in a weird way, it almost looks natural. He’s vividly self-aware and at times self-deprecating, calling himself “an NPR regurgitating system” and stopping short of identifying as an empath because “that’s such an ‘in’ thing right now.” He’s a Pisces.
It's pertinent that Villa was bullied as a kid. And that bullying was, at times, really traumatic. And it was hard for him to get through it. But he pushed hard enough and, eventually, he did. It was almost like his whole life turned around in the snap of a finger — or the tap of a tap shoe.
Villa downplays his past as a “classic ‘woe is me’ story,” but the impact of the bullying is pervasive. When condensing his life into an hour-long conversation, there are two things he keeps bringing up: his artistry and being bullied.
It all started when he was 2 years old living in Clinton, Iowa, and his mom, a dance teacher, enrolled him in dance classes as an alternative to daycare. He was a year younger than the youngest of his fellow students — which can be developmentally significant, at that age; 2-year-olds are mostly known for being terrible. But this toddler instantly connected with the art form.
The tiny dancer became the kind of self-professed nerd who made a household event out of watching his first-ever scary movie, Alien, with his dad on Halloween. “It was just the dorkiest, stupidest father-son bonding experience that we'd ever had,” he says. Later, while at a party where Jeepers Creepers became the main event, he sat in the corner laughing hysterically so as to shield himself from feeling scared as hell. Villa was a sensitive kid.
The 33-year-old is careful to be politically correct about the treatment he endured, affirming that his hometown has experienced a “paradigm shift in the town’s collective consciousness” in those twenty-or-so years since his adolescence. In some ways, it seems like the entire country has undergone a similar shift. “Even when we were growing up, there were certain things that were just not cool, and certain curse words were used as slurs, and it's just not done that way anymore,” he says. (Still, the National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2017 that about 20% of students ages 12 to 18 have experienced bullying.)
Dancing grounded him — “It just puts you in your body, physically,” he says — it also set him apart from his peers. That, combined with his sensitivity and the vulnerability of performing, made him a “primo target for Midwestern bullying.” Still, he persisted. Villa continued his formal practice through high school. He discovered Old Hollywood staple Gene Kelly and quickly became obsessed with the idea of adding music and acting to his repertoire, just like the legendary entertainer.
By middle school, Villa had secured the lead in the school musical. “I think it was like, Daddy Warbucks or something in Annie,” he tries to remember. “It was the most dorky thing ever, but it was such a huge deal because I finally got the lead. It's so small-town, but it's real, and it garnered me a certain respect that at the time was huge, and I was just like, ‘Yay, validation!’ I just kind of felt used in the right way for the first time, and that felt great.”
At the same time, Villa’s bullies were relentless. He sought some reprieve during a year outside of the public school system at a local religiously based school, but even with brand new classmates, he just couldn’t escape the bullying. “By the end of that year, I basically wasn’t speaking,” he says.
He returned to public school, where he experienced somewhat of a grand ‘Saturn returns’ moment. Kids weren’t quite as mean to him as they had been, and he “kind of stopped giving a fuck.” Villa now rationalizes this in two ways, the first being that the kids who were mean to him had grown a bit, and the second being that him leaving was a wake-up call for them. “I think there was some buried guilt,” he says. “And also just wonder that I actually took some kind of space and power.”
Back in public school, Villa realized in order to truly become the triple-threat he was set on becoming, it was time to really hone his acting skills. He performed in his high school’s production of The Outsiders, but his Gene Kelly dreams coupled with the treatment he’d endured for too long led him to boarding school in Michigan at his idyllic Interlochen Arts Academy. For the first time in his educational career, he felt accepted by people who truly were his peers. He started playing guitar and writing songs, exploring the untrained musician inside him. “I was in heaven there, it was perfect,” he says. But high school doesn’t last forever, and soon Villa was off to study acting at the esteemed Juilliard School in New York City.
Things got tough again. Villa had gone from his combination of formal and informal studies of dance, music, and acting to a fiercely competitive conservatory where the strategy was to “tear you down to build you back up.” The professional deconstruction combined with favoritism by the staff and cliques that were even “more intelligent and more insidious” than the ones from high school left Villa feeling beaten.
He almost left halfway through. He had transfer paperwork filled out for a hilly east coast school where students freely design their own majors. “I was unhappy, and I felt underused, and I felt underutilized, and misunderstood both as an artist and as a person,” he says. “And so I was like, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’”
Leaving was the comfortable option; it’s what eventually got him through high school. But then, in a defiant turn of events, he decided to stay at Juilliard.
“There was just this day where I woke up and I was like, ‘You're not going to beat me.’ I don't know what prompted that. And then I choreographed a tap solo, which I hadn't done in a couple years, and I went and won the Iowa State Fair, won 10 grand worth in prize money, and took that back as an allowance to live on for the next two years,” he says. “It was a big middle finger, but it was also like a big, I'm coming back to play on your terms a little bit, but don't cross me again. And those last two years really changed.”
Villa contends that he learned a lot during his time at Juilliard, but the most important lessons he learned had nothing to do with acting; they were about surviving adversity.
In the years since college, Villa has found the balance he needs to pursue his cross-disciplinarian lifestyle. He’s found success in music, having performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon as one-half of the Rebel and a Basketcase duo. He’s also played at the legendary Hotel Cafe, the same stage graced by global stars Adele, Katy Perry, Sia, and the late Mac Miller. Now, he’s embarking on another musical project with Sorry Kyle, an emo/pop-punk project. It’s almost a full-circle moment for Villa; he wasn’t cool enough to go to emo shows when he was growing up, but all the music seeped into his psyche. Now he is the show.
His art is not always the most romantic pursuit — some things he simply does to make money, like his side-hustle recording audio books — but sometimes he finds himself in pleasantly fulfilling, thoroughly challenging places. Places that invoke the same glimmering feeling he first felt in middle school, like with his current AHS role.
“A lot of my friends have been asking, ‘Are you just so stoked about the role? What's your favorite part about the job?’ Or, ‘You just must be so stoked about the role!’ And I am, make no mistake. Ryan Murphy, if you're listening, this is the best job, and the best creative outlet I've had, and it's amazing,” he says. “Am I excited about the role? Yes. Am I excited to wake up every morning and know that I have a purpose, and all of my talents, and all of the things that I bring to the table as an artist are being fired, and used, and called upon on a daily basis, and that I feel sharp in the morning? That's the most satisfying part, that I feel used.”