Written by Celia Vargas
Photographer: Darren Keith
Mike Zegen enjoys the hustle. Easygoing and quick to laugh, he’s the type of guy that plays hard and works harder, displaying equal parts overachiever and class clown. In his relatively short career, he’s already managed to rack up a bevy of movie parts, craft juicy television roles, and carve a name for himself in that fickle bastard they call Tinsel Town. And he’s done it all without breaking a sweat.
Mike Zegen smoked cigarettes before you smoked cigarettes. Mike Zegen had a beard before you had a beard. Mike Zegen thought Guster was rad before Guster even thought they were rad.
Mike Zegen’s a cool fucking cat.
Currently starring alongside Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, and Adam Driver in the dramatic comedy film Frances Ha, Zegen took a break from his busy press schedule to sit down with Moves for an interview. All business and professional decorum, he shared with us his wisdoms, his life musings – his Tao of understanding that make him the young success that he is.
“I like juicing,” he says of his secret formula. Mike Zegen likes to start the day off right, taking 30 minutes of his time to set up his juicer for a “tall glass of green juice.” It’s indicative of his character and also of his work ethic. Zegen starts his morning with a solid base and lets the day fly from there. The same goes for his acting roles. Not one to be burdened by staunch methodology and trivial research, he grounds his roles in reality and releases them to the wild. Still, it should be noted that some of his “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” acting was not by choice.
“I was supposed to be from the south and I showed up and they were like go!” he says of his guest spot on The Walking Dead. Zegen played a pivotal role in the popular series, throwing a moral dilemma into an already fraught season. Though the lack of on-set direction was jarring for the actor, Zegen wasn’t completely out of the loop. “[I was a] fan of the The Walking Dead, I knew what I was getting myself into.”
The same can’t be said for his role on Rescue Me, one that required substantial and specific physical demands, of which he was prepped for none. ““For the firefighter thing I never went through any kind of training.” Still, Zegen pulled it off flawlessly, going forward without any doubts. It’s this self-confidence that gets him past these obstacles, and has made him one of the most in-demand actors currently burning up our television screens.
No doubt his biggest project to date has been his break out role as Bugsy Siegel on Boardwalk Empire. Zegen played the notorious gangster as a young man, channeling all the danger and violence of the roaring ‘20s. But portraying a man of such mythic proportions proved somewhat of a challenge for the actor, who worried about his performance.
“I did some research,” he reveals, “but not a lot is available on his very early life and teenage years…[People] talk about how he was a bad seed from the beginning, but there weren’t too many stories that really informed me.”
Zegen recalls feeling insecure at the first read through, particularly when other cast members started showing their work. “A lot of my scenes are with Lucky Luciano [played by] Vincent Piazza, and Anatol Yusef who plays Meyer Lansky, and they know everything about their characters, they’ve done so much research.”
But backed with his patented self-confidence and balls of steel, Zegen put his all into the much anticipated role, giving an off the cuff performance that was perfectly off kilter. Bugsy Siegel, after all, is a man more steeped in rumor and hearsay than in fact. Zegen’s unbridled approach gave the role an unpredictability that audiences craved.
“I hadn’t done as much research as everybody else and [Steve Buscemi] said, ‘Well, just make it your own’ and I really liked that, and I’m doing that in a way.” And when Steve Buscemi talks, its best to just listen. “It’s fun, it’s a really fun character… I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun.”
Fun, of course, is one of Zegen’s essentials. (This, in addition to juice.) Fun and spontaneity have always been present in Zegen’s work, whether he’s shooting at bad guys or slaughtering zombies. It should come as no surprise that his earliest acting experiences were in sketch comedy.
“I started doing sketch comedy in Skidmore College,” he reveals. “My freshman year there was an improv group and I didn’t get in, and I was really broken hearted about it, and then I decided ‘screw it!’ I’m just going start my own group and I did. And it’s actually still there today, it’s called The Sketchies.”
It’s this brand of humor that makes his characters so wonderfully irreverent, no matter the project. Yet even with his laid-back attitude, Zegen knows that TV isn’t all good fun. Acting on Boardwalk Empire may be a blast, but the real life violence it depicts is anything but frivolous. As one of the most popular shows on television today, Zegen has his own thoughts on violence in the media, and particularly on the carnage in Boardwalk.
“Back then, this is what it was. There are no two ways about it. There were a lot of guns and a lot of killings and prohibition kind of started all of this,” he says, defending the show’s brutality. “It ignited the fire. But now I think things are a little bit crazy and people are looking at the Constitution as a guideline and it’s kind of out of date… Now it’s a little out of whack.”
With a good, clear head on his shoulders, Zegen seems ready to tackle whatever madness might come his way. Backed with enough self-confidence, focus, and juice product, he seems ready to go wherever he’s needed – just waiting to jump when the role is right.
“Anything is possible,” he admits, possibly prepping his blender. “Doing things yourself and making things happen for yourself… you just have to do it.”