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Q&A: Actor DJ Qualls on Being Witness to a “Z NATION”

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In Syfy’s series Z NATION, the dead do not walk; instead, they run at top speed. Babies get bitten, turn and kill people who have appeared to be series regulars up to that point. Survivors are hard cases, able to blow gaping holes in skulls with guns and using spiked metal sticks when ammo isn’t handy. If ever a narrative TV show was made for FANGORIA, Z NATION is it.

Created by Karl Schaefer and Craig Engler, Z NATION (airing Friday nights at 10 p.m./9 Central) posits that it’s three years after zombies overran most of the world. We follow a small group of people (played by a cast led by Harold Perrineau, Tom Everett Scott, Kellita Smith and Michael Welch) who are trying to get Murphy (Keith Allan), an absolute jerk who nevertheless harbors a possible cure for the plague within his body, to a lab in California. Monitoring their efforts is Simon Cruller, a.k.a. Citizen Z, played by DJ Qualls. Cruller is the lone inhabitant—not counting a rescued sled dog—of an Arctic NSA observation station. He was stranded there when he missed the last flight out, which crashed on takeoff.

Qualls, whose initials stand for Donald Joseph, is a lanky Tennessee native—he’s 6-feet-1 and weighs about 140 pounds, the aftereffects of surviving cancer in adolescence. Qualls has been appearing in feature films since his co-starring turn in 2000’s hit ROAD TRIP, but lately he’s been doing more television, including a recurring role on TNT’s PERCEPTION and his just-wrapped turn in two seasons of FX’s LEGIT. Genre audiences probably know him best for his recurring role on SUPERNATURAL as Garth, the sunny-natured monster hunter who, last season, became an equally cheerful werewolf. “LEGIT got the ax, which was devastating for me,” he says. “I love that show so much, and SUPERNATURAL. I’m still alive, so anything could happen, but I haven’t heard from them in a while. So Z NATION has replaced LEGIT as my day job.”

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Z NATION’s retro/indie-horror feel—the ghouls’ speed notwithstanding—suits Qualls fine. “We’re doing old-school zombies. We’re a throwback to horror films in the ‘70s—that sort of fast action gorefest. And I like the fact that we put fun back into this genre.”

Not that serious trauma doesn’t befall the characters during each episode: “Some pretty heavy stuff happens as the show progresses,” Qualls says, “and it impacts the survivors and me on a very deep level. The dynamic that plays out for Simon when things start to get real is, there’s no one else for him to lean on. They all at least can physically hug each other or look in each other’s eyes. He doesn’t get that.”

This is the first time in his career Qualls has had to do almost all of his scenes solo. “It’s a challenging thing for me, because usually, you’re only as good as what the other actor is giving you. [In Z NATION] I’m reacting to basically nothing. It’s all greenscreen on my monitors. But luckily, because it is just me, I have the freedom to do things a ton of different ways.”

Improvisation, Qualls notes, is expected. “[The Z NATION producers] let me ad-lib because they’re very cool people. I’d never met any of them before I went on set; this offer came out of nowhere, and that’s a great feeling. You automatically feel trusted.”

All of Qualls’ scenes are shot in blocks by a single director, John Hyams. “Just given the fact that I’m plowing through 20 or 30 pages a day, there’s no way I can know the lines word for word. And so early on, when I sat down with [Hyams], he was like, ‘We want you to make this your own. We want you to create voices and really have a good time with it.’ And I really do. They’ve let me off my leash on this one.” On the other hand, with no other actors on hand, “It’s exhausting work, because there’s no downtime from when I arrive in the morning to get into makeup till the end of the day.”

The lack of human contact starts to get to Simon as well. “The writers have been great about helping me explore that isolation madness as the show goes on. I think that if the other actors were there to read with me, it would feel different. I mean, I have an amazing crew around me, but when you see the same people for 14 hours a day, you’re not going to call them when you get home. And I’m in Spokane [Washington, where Z NATION shoots], not LA, where I live, so yeah, the isolation behind the scenes definitely plays out on the screen.

“Also, I’m using the feelings I had when I first got successful. I’d done one movie, and the next thing I knew, I’d done eight movies without a break. And you wake up one day, and you’re three years down the road in your own career, and all the people in your real life are three years down the road in their lives, so you’re constantly playing catch-up. I still kind of have those feelings of loneliness to this day, and I tap into them when I’m playing this part.”

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Even though Simon has fewer zombie encounters than the other Z NATION principals, Qualls has faced his share of on-set dangers over the course of filming. “I stepped the wrong way on a crate, fell 7 feet and got wedged between two more crates. I was wedged like five feet in the air, with one of my legs up above my head and the other one dangling. They had to come and remove the crates to get me out.”

Fortunately, nothing was broken, but Qualls recalls another instance when he had a literal meltdown. In any production, he believes there’s a temperature version of Murphy’s Law. “One common thing is, whenever you have to swim, be naked, be in a snowsuit, any kind of extreme activity—especially where wardrobe is concerned—it’s always the wrong time of year for it. I had to be in my underwear in my last episode of SUPERNATURAL, and it was just above freezing.

“In Z NATION, I’m in a full snowsuit parka, subzero pants, gloves, hat, and at the end of episode two, I was cooking steaks, and it was 90 degrees outside; I was in front of an open fire, and I just cracked. I broke character, dropped the steaks on the ground and started screaming at people to get me out of those clothes. I just lost my mind. And then I sat there with my pants around my ankles, in my underwear, crying. I was physically exhausted. I mean, I was close to heat stroke; I started seeing red. They had to take me and put ice packs all over my body, and then I went back and shot the rest of the scene.”

There was an upside: “The editors actually said at the premiere party, ‘Your meltdown was awesome!’ ” Qualls laughs. “I will say this—they told me I was kind in my meltdown. I wasn’t cussing anybody, being verbally abusive. I was just like, ‘This is not fair. Is this fair?’ ”

Like most people working in television, Qualls is spoiler-averse, but this is what he’ll say about the Z NATION season finale, “Doctor of the Dead,” airing December 5. “It puts us all at risk. No one is safe, including me. The thing about this job that I thought was so cool was, ‘I can’t be killed. I would have to die of a heart attack or something like that, and he’s a young man, so that’s not likely.’ And then I read the cliffhanger, and everybody could be wiped out. They could do this whole thing with another cast next year. I was like, ‘Well, damn it! There’s no security in this!’ [Laughs] “Karl Schaefer, our showrunner, and the [other] producers are evil geniuses, because you can’t get too comfortable. You know how casts start making demands? We’re not in that position, because we all could be annihilated.”

Qualls says he continues to enjoy interacting with cult fandom. “The fans are not shy about telling you if they love you or hate you in this world. Cult fame is pretty interesting, and I embrace it. We all know it’s a gift. I remember when LEGIT was first struggling in the ratings, I asked for my SUPERNATURAL fan base to get behind me, and I think we went up 256 percent in 18-to-54 in one night. So there’s love there. And it’s mutual. We love them right back.”

On Z NATION, “We definitely have a pretty great fan following. My Twitter blows up to the point where I can’t read it on Friday nights. Fourteen years into my career, every day when I’m on set, I feel lucky to be there.”

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