DJ Qualls wants zombies to be fun again, and SyFy’s new series Z Nation is doing everything it can to make the undead not quite so gloomy. The actor has played a wealth of characters and capitalized on his personality and unique look in films like Hustle & Flow and Road Trip, but is probably best know to our audience as the beloved character Garth on Supernatural.
This time out, Qualls plays Citizen Z, an NSA operative stranded in a remote Arctic base that has become the eyes and ears of the survivors through the wealth of tech at his disposal. The actor took some time to talk to the press via conference call and tell us about what it’s been like working on the raucous undead series Z Nation. Beware spoilers past and upcoming episodes:
Why do you think zombie shows are so popular right now?
I don’t know. But you know what’s interesting, if you go to any major city, problems with drugs are out of control. There’s a lot of homeless, druggie people that kind of resemble zombies. And I was walking around downtown Spokane where we shoot, and I had this really weird experience just looking at things as an outsider, just “this looks like our show.” It’s sort of a reflection of what’s happening in current culture. And also vampires sort of ran their course. I think it’s zombies’ turn. You know what I mean?
All those romantic themed vampire movies I really just didn’t understand. Having sex with a vampire is probably not that fun. They’re cold. It’d be like, you know what I mean, getting stabbed with a popsicle. Okay, so, I probably shouldn’t talk about that anymore.
What was it like filming the scene where you and the dog fight a zombie dog and you were the only human in the scene?
You know, it’s interesting about this show for me. I don’t work with any of the other actors. I only recently met them all at the premiere of the show. So I’m talking to myself or to a blank computer screen most of the time. In Episode 8, I have an actor to play off of. It’s my favorite episode of the season. I can’t wait for it to air.
But the dog scene was interesting because we have budgetary constraints on our show. So, we’re not getting a dog who has played in a movie where he dunks a basketball or any of those kinds of dogs. These dogs don’t really want to be there. And actually, the dog that we used, his name is Wizard. He got a movie or a big TV show or something like after we shot the first three episodes. And he came back and now he hates us. The catering on that other show must be amazing.
But you know, the editing on this show is amazing. I really take my hat off to the editors to make it look like the dog likes me. I put peanut butter behind both ears. I put the peanut butter jar down my pants just to try to tempt him to come over and stand beside me. And he did it in one take and that’s the take that we used. So, they’re not kidding when they say don’t work with kids and animals. Because it’s a long day.
And also, it was like 90 degrees in Spokane when I was shooting that stuff, and I’m supposed to be in the Arctic. And I was wearing a snow suit that whole day while I was jumping from crate to crate chasing the zombie dog. And at about hour 14, I was in that snow suit with a hat and gloves and a scarf on and a big parka cooking steaks over an open fire. And I lost my mind and started crying, and the [director] had to talk me down off the ledge. As I’m going “This is abusive. This is abusive. Get me out of these clothes.” I’m standing there in my underwear with the snow suit around my ankles just crying from exhaustion. So I’m really digging the fact that people like the show so much because we bust our ass to make it.
Do you get along with the dog?
You know what? We actually have kind of a Bewitched situation on the show this year. You know how Darrin switched to another actor without explaining it? We couldn’t get Wizard the dog for like episodes, I think 6 and 7, so we have another dog that’s like 40 pounds lighter. And we made a mistake. We use a wolf pelt, like an actual wolf pelt, that’s been stuffed with plastic wrap as the dog, a lot of times, when he’s just chilling. And we made the mistake of letting that new dog smell the wolf pelt. And it’s smelling a dead animal. And so after that, he wouldn’t lay in the crate anymore. So, it has its challenges.
Will Citizen Z continue to suffer from that isolationism through the end of the season?
Yeah, that’s one of the fun things about the show for me. I mean, I don’t get to play with other actors, but I get to play the isolation. And he does start to crack after a while. He develops like multiple personalities that he uses to do different things on the air during broadcasts. Yeah, you definitely see the effects. I think, at this point, when the show starts, he’s been by himself for, I think he’s been isolated for a year, because they’re 2 years into the zombie apocalypse. And he hasn’t seen another human being for a year. The dog’s the first thing that he sees. And that’s why he tries so hard to save him in Episode 2. But yes, you definitely see that, the effects that it takes.
And also, I mean, one of the saddest moments to shoot for me, and when I watched it, it really drove it home, because I didn’t see the actress playing Daisy, but when he’s playing that video chat with his girlfriend and he realized that she’s probably dead and this is a recording that he talks to. We see a lot of that as the season goes on.
It should be fun! That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. This is a genre that’s ripe with humor. It should be. I mean, but we also play our dramatic moments honestly. Some pretty heavy stuff happens mid-season in the next 3 or 4 episodes that really, really affects not only the group of survivors but also Citizen Z in a really, fundamentally, sort of detrimental way. And he has to deal with that and he doesn’t have the — there’s no one around for him to hug. There’s no one around to really comfort him. So, you see him suffer that by himself. I take my hat off to the writers, too, on this show. They do a really good job of balancing the fun and the drama in this show a lot.
And also, as opposed to shows like, you know, the inevitable comparisons against Walking Dead are happening. And we’re not that show. We don’t strive to be that show. We are a fast-moving, popcorn show. And it’s really fun to be on one of those.
Do the end of episode speeches over the radio come from your own mind or are they all scripted out?
That’s a very good question. It’s a mix of both, because I have so much dialogue to memorize by myself. An average shooting day on a TV show is about 11, 12 pages and that’s split between multiple actors. I shoot about 30 pages a day by myself because I block shoot, and I’ll do maybe an episode in a day. So I’m shooting a lot of dialogue. So, it would be impossible for me to memorize it word-for-word. My brain sort of blanks about 14 pages into it. I can’t remember anything.
So, they’ve given me some license to really make it my own and find different voices to say things in and different cadences of speech and different accents. And that’s also playing some of that isolation madness that Citizen Z has. So, yeah, it’s a good mixture of them, the writers and myself just sort of coming up with stuff. I mean, I have to hit basic plot points. But how I say it is left up to me.
Anything else that you’ve added to an episode that you particularly liked?
In Episode 5, I think, it’s called Home, Sweet Zombie. We have a weather storm that moves in and that’s when I first started exploring the different characters that Citizen Z’s going to play. I mean, the innate two characters are Simon Cruller, who is the guy behind Citizen Z and sort of the “Wolfman Jack” character we explored a little bit. Which comes out of just frustration and he’s trying to pump up everybody to go out and kick some zombie ass and find a way, you know, to cure this thing.
But, in Episode 5, you really start to see the character explore sort of different ways of saying things, different ways of talking and also, his love for Addy (Anastasia Baranova) starts to grow.
How did you come to be a part of Z Nation?
That’s a good question. I was on my back porch and I’d just gotten a call that my show, Legit, on FX was cancelled. And I was pretty broken-hearted about it and I was outside just sort of thinking and then, the phone rang. And my manager called and said that I’d gotten offered this thing on SyFy and my initial, honest reaction was, no, I’m not doing it. Just because, you know, I was in that sort of thing where I just didn’t want to get emotionally attached to anything else so quickly.
And also, it just felt like I was cheating on my old cast and crew. Films have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s going to take, you know, one-to-three months of your life to shoot, and you may not see these people again, but television is open-ended. And you let your guard down in a way that you don’t in film. You become really close with your fellow crew, for example. And you know, I was mourning the loss of that.
And then, a couple of days later, I read the script and talked to Karl Schaeffer, our showrunner and co-creator just about the [creative side] and what they were seeing and what the demands would be of my time and all that stuff. And my heart started to open up to it and then I read the episode again. I was like, this is really good writing. And you know, it comes with its own set of challenges, the fact that I’m totally isolated. And I don’t get to work with other actors. So, I rely solely on myself.
And usually, when I have a reaction that I don’t want to do something, I try to question why and I think the reason why was it’s hard. This is a really hard thing I’m doing. And I needed to see if I could do it. And I’m glad for that reason alone that I took it. But also, I’ve fallen in love with our new crew. They bust their ass for us. And I couldn’t love them more.
Because of the zombie apocalypse, Citizen Z sort of in a way gets his dream job by using his skills to help save the world. Is this an example of “be careful what you wish for?”
That is so smart. Thank you for asking that, I’ve actually said this to the director. This is a prime example of be careful what you wish for.
He’s helping save the world. And just physically being this guy, I know what it’s like to [be] marginalized. You grow up and you sort of look like me. You have interests that aren’t sort of mainstream and people marginalize you. They don’t take you seriously. And this is a guy who’s really good at this one thing and this is a time in his life that it’s not only his biggest moment, it’s the world’s only hope.
As the season goes on, we see the isolation and loneliness that brings. And just to sort of equate that to my own life, I got successful really fast. I went to a one-line audition for my first movie. And wound up like 8 months later, I was on The Tonight Show. And it was so fast and I got exactly what I asked for, what I’d always wished for, which was to be a working actor. But, I was incredibly lonely. I’d done like 10 films without a break. And then, somewhere around 2004, I woke up one day and I was like, I can’t go to the grocery store by myself and feel safe.
And I was in Vegas once and these frat dudes were hugging me. You know, I had a security guard named Dicky when I first started, because you’re embarrassed about all these things that you need to live. And in Vegas, I do need security and these guys started hugging me and sort of passing me around. And later that night I went to my room and started getting sick to my stomach and they had cracked my collar-bone.
But then, I look at these moments. I’m like well, you got exactly what you wished for. You didn’t know what that entailed. You asked for this. And all the good stuff and all the bad stuff that accompanies that, is part of it. It’s part of the wish, even though you don’t know.
Will you be appearing as Garth on Supernatural this season?
You know, I’m not sure what they’re doing on the show. I really only know probably a few weeks to a month out if they’re planning to use me. But also, this year has been probably one of the busiest of my career. I was on Legit and that was cancelled. Legit hurt because I really loved doing that show. And I recur on Supernatural. I recur on Perception and now I’m doing Z Nation and I just did a pilot, too. So, it’s been a pretty busy year. I would love to go back to Supernatural but I don’t — like I say, I have no idea.
I’m headed to the UK in a couple of weeks to do a convention, so I’m sure I’m going to get that question a thousand times in the next few weeks.
Between the three characters of Kyle Edwards from Road Trip, Shelby from Hustle & Flow or Citizen Z, who would be the most likely to survive the zombie apocalypse?
Oh, that’s a really a good question. It’d probably be Shelby from Hustle and Flow. Have you been to Memphis? You’ve got to be buff to survive there, man. It is no joke. You just pull into the wrong driveway, you’ll be met with gunfire. I’m not even kidding. Yeah, Shelby definitely would survive the zombie apocalypse.
Citizen Z, you know, get back to me and ask me this same question when we do this again next year after Season 2. He’s acquiring a lot of skills. You have to think — I’m not in the military. I’m at a military outpost. I’m at the NSA outpost. But, I mean, he’s a computer hacker. He’s a computer guy. All of his life experience, basically takes place in front of a monitor. And you know, he reminds me of myself. I spent my whole life on a set, my whole adult life. I don’t know how to do anything.
I went to buy a curtain rod two years ago from Ikea and stayed there three hours and left empty-handed. I can’t do anything practical. I have no practical skills. Just last night, somebody had to help me use the valet ticket machine to get out of Hollywood and Highland. I went to a premier last night there and I could not figure out how to work the ticket machine. Out of the four of us, out of those three characters and me, I probably would die first.
Z Nation airs Fridays at 10pm, exclusively on SyFy.