Zach Villa Recounts His Road to Ryan Murphy + ‘American Horror Story: 1984’

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Photo Source: Kurt Iswarienko/FX

The following Career Dispatches essay was written by Zach Villa, who can currently be seen starring as Richard Ramirez on FX and Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story: 1984.”

I must say, I never thought I’d be here.

Well, that’s not entirely true, let me start over: I’ve thought I would be “here,” many, many times over. I’ve dreamed about it, believed in it, and worked hard for it. I left my hometown and my family behind for it; trained for it; deprived myself of food and sleep for it. I went not altogether unwillingly into both emotional and financial debt to pursue the artist’s path, and frankly I don’t have a completely rational or justified reason as to why. I’ve just always felt that it was my calling in life to punish myself and my concerned loved ones’ consciences in service of self-expression, storytelling, and the act of creating something from nothing.

SO. To rephrase: I never thought I’d be here, quite like this, or quite in this particular way.

One learns by living, and I continue to forge my own path, a constant student. Looking back on that sensitive yet oddly outgoing, loud, nerdy, energetic young man named Zach growing up in a Midwestern river town, it’s difficult to surmise what I might communicate to him.

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If I were to step out of my freshly converted DeLorean time machine and say, “Hey kid, here are a few gems that might help you on your journey,” it might just be a huge waste of time. Despite how awesome time travel would be, giving advice to my younger self is a bit of a paradox. I might try to say some things to better prepare him, to make his journey smoother. Things like: follow your gut instinct because it’s usually right; move to Los Angeles as soon as you humanly can; maybe don’t go to drama school; get more sleep; don’t second guess yourself; don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t practice more than one artistic discipline; it’s them not you—but sometimes it is you but you’ll grow past it.

But again, one learns by living, and I—well, you get the idea. Living is sort of a zero-sum game, which in and of itself is a profound lesson. If you’re in the middle of a crisis or career shakedown, life doesn’t feel like that zero-sum game, like things will balance out naturally. Not at all, in fact. It feels like the world is ending. We are in pain and suffering and nothing will ever be right again! But fortunately, that’s just not true.

Eventually, inevitably, reality swings the other way. Perhaps you get a raise, or land that huge Broadway role, or add a pet to your family, and BAM, everything is incredible all of a sudden and you’re living in Technicolor and life is perfect.

Sadly, that, too, is temporary.

Experiencing the extremes of life is a gift. As artists, we get to live in these extremes more often than others. The alternative would be to live a boring steady life—and hey, who wants that? If you do, you’re in the wrong business, so get out. There’s the door. For actors, it’s in this valley between the extremes that learning happens. And I’ve learned that perhaps learning itself is the greatest gift life has to offer.

I discovered this during my time at Juilliard. It wasn’t a lesson or a technique that was part of the curriculum, but while dealing with homesickness, heartbreak, heavy class loads, corrosive classmates, and the occasional moments of what felt like success, I learned that there was something to be garnered from every moment—not just the good ones. You can learn something from every single experience. Whether or not it’s a “good” one or “bad” one doesn’t matter: experience is experience and the good and bad values are cancelled out.

All things are temporary. This lesson was huge for me, and granted me a zen-like view of the world over the course of my career and personal life when things were in turmoil. As beneficial as that mindset can be, it can also be detrimental; at one point, I took the concept so far that I couldn’t really get mad or excited about anything, and that just isn’t any fun, so pump the brakes when things start to even out too much.

A quick word on Darwin: adaptability, am I right? We’ve established that life is full of ups and downs, so basically the one guarantee that we have to look forward to is that things will most definitely change. We have to be adaptable as artists and as people; and therefore, our definition of success must be able to change, to adapt.

I’ve been handed some pretty amazing opportunities over the years, and sometimes they appeared more or less how I had imagined; but sometimes, they weren’t even close. Needless to say, my goals have changed and adapted relative to my experiences. We can always redefine what success means to us, and I think that is especially empowering to artists. If something isn’t working quite how we wanted it to, we can redefine what success looks like to us and take a left turn. Give yourself permission to try something new, to get lost, or to rabidly pursue something until you’re blue in the face. I can’t tell you if it will pan out, but the beauty of it is that you get to decide how far you want to take it. And that’s amazing. It’s up to you. You’re not trapped or obligated to be anything, so you can’t fail. You are enough.

Lastly, I am so grateful to be in the position that I am. That might not sound like advice, but it is. At every point in my career staying aware, humble, and gracious has served me well. I’m not saying it’s easy, or that you can’t go ahead and bask in your own glory now and again (trust, we all need a healthy ego in this profession!). But there is an art to being thankful. Nothing is guaranteed in this life, and rarely is the climb to whatever you define as the “top” linear. As I’ve gotten more acquainted with life’s darker and more twisted surprises, taking a moment to breathe, thank my colleagues for their work, and acknowledge where I have been and where I am headed is just as important as the years of training one spends developing their craft.

Be thankful. Stay humble. Be proud. And live life bravely and to the fullest. It’ll make you a better actor.

What advice would you tell YOUR younger self? Get more Career Dispatches right here!