Zack Weinstein always knew he wanted to be an actor. A native of Massachusetts, he did plays and musicals in middle and high school and went on to major in theatre at Skidmore College in upstate New York. In the summer after his freshman year, however, Zack’s dreams were put on hold after a canoeing trip in Maine took a tragic turn and Zack broke his neck. The accident left Zack paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
When he got back to school after a year’s absence, some of his professors suggested that he think about directing instead of acting. “I wouldn’t go for it,” he says. “I could still talk, I could still think, and I could still feel emotions.” Despite an injury that would have discouraged many people, Zack refused to give up on his dream of becoming a professional actor. “Besides,” he likes to joke, “being an actor is a completely unrealistic life goal anyways, so what’s the difference?”
Zack moved to Los Angeles after college to pursue his dream. Since then he has appeared on several TV shows including Criminal Minds, NCIS, and Glee and is also an inspirational speaker and official ambassador for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. Kelly Groves, DTC’s Manager of School Programs, sat down with Zack to talk about his role as Mike in Colossal and how he’s not letting his injury prevent him from shooting for the stars.
In Colossal you play “Mike,” a football player and dancer who has suffered a spinal cord injury that lands him in a wheelchair. Besides the obvious similarities, how do you relate to your character?
Well, I was actually a dancer before my injury. I grew up dancing very intensely. I took hip hop and jazz, modern and ballet and I got really into ballroom dancing when I was sixteen. I was a very, very good ballroom dancer. If I hadn’t been injured… I probably would have a been a dance minor in college.
So this play almost seems tailor made for you.
Yeah. And I’m a huge football fan. Big Patriots fan!
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced since you became injured?
It’s been interesting. You have to develop a facility with words, because you need to communicate your needs to people – how you need things done. And in terms of engaging with people, it has to be verbal. You have to connect mentally. You have to develop that more, because that’s what has to take over, when you have this injury. And that’s a huge thing.
What about being an actor with a disability?
Well, it’s very tough to get seen for roles that aren’t specifically written as “guy in wheelchair.” There are several actors in wheelchairs in Los Angeles and we all go out for every role that says “guy in wheelchair.” But it takes extra effort to get seen for something that isn’t specifically written as “character in chair” where the story isn’t about the wheelchair, its just about the character.
How do you feel about actors without disabilities playing characters with disabilities?
I think there is a lot more work to be done to find actors with disabilities to actually play those kinds of parts. I have more of a problem with how disabled roles are written. I think so many disabled roles are written where the disability is a metaphor. The disability is seen as a lesson for other able-bodied people. It’s used as a symbol for strength, or as a form of inspiration. That’s why I think audiences are so much more comfortable seeing a non-disabled person play the disabled role, because they don’t actually have to engage with the fact that this is the life that this person is leading. They’re able to see the reveal of the actor coming out and they’re able to applaud the strength to go into that role and to explore that as a form of otherness. And it works! Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar [for The Theory of Everything]. Daniel Day Lewis [for My Left Foot]. And you can’t fault their acting. They’re phenomenal. But the roles themselves provide the disability as metaphor, instead of just disability as life.
What draws you to this play?
It’s not a play about disability. It’s a play about love. It’s a play about defining who you are and staying strong in that. It’s a play about love between men – love between fathers and sons, between friends, and between lovers.
Colossal brings up some difficult subject matter for some people, especially concerning our ideas of masculinity and sexuality and how those ideas are enshrined in the world of sports. What do you think this play says about that topic?
I think this play shows that there is a mutual exclusivity between the two, you know? That who you fall romantically in love with and whether or not you’re able to hit somebody the right way and catch a ball have nothing to do with each other. It’s just that simple. I mean, we’re not starting this conversation. This is the continuation of a conversation that has already been happening, not just in social consciousness but in actual law.
What would you say is your biggest challenge about doing this show?
Well, you know, I guess there is always an element of pity, you encounter pity or people feeling sorry for you. Or they go straight to “Oh you’re so strong, you’re so brave.” You don’t know that! I mean, I am, you’re right, fine, but you have no way of knowing that. I could still be selfish. And I often am, but I am also generous. At the end of the day, you just want people to know… I’m an actor. This is my job. I’m conscious that I’m still “Zack, That Guy in the Wheelchair,” and I’m fine with that. But what that idea of “in the wheelchair” means to people – I want to help bring that out. That’s definitely something I consciously work at.
What is something you would like for people to take away from this production?
One of the things that I think the play speaks to is the phrase “Wherever you go, there you are.” What disability explores with that, and what the play explores, is that you have these things that you’ve built up to define yourself – what are you, who are you, what are you going to do, and what happens when these things get taken away? That’s the dilemma my character faces. And it’s a natural progression. It’s what happens as you go through the different stages of life.