The breakout star of the rom-com of the summer delves into the age-old pressures of adapting a book for the screen, finding an acting method that allows him to protect his peace and playing Uma Thurman’s on-screen son.
Words SOPHIE WANG
*This interview and shoot were conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.
“I seriously could film in London for the rest of my life,” Taylor Zakhar Perez tells me. He pauses: “Let me say that again. I could film in London from April until October for the rest of my life.” Starring in Matthew Lopez’s big-screen adaptation of Red, White & Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston’s New York Times Bestseller set primarily between the English capital and Washington DC, gave Zakhar Perez an optimum vantage point to assess the pros of filming in London vs Stateside.
The enemies–to–lovers rom-com is centred around Zakhar Perez’s Alex Claremont Diaz, a fictional First Son of the United States, and British Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) as they fumble from foes to boyfriends under the constant glare of their respective countries’ media. From the second that Zakhar Perez logs onto our Zoom call, a couple of months before the film’s release, there is no doubt in my mind that he was the right fit for the charismatic, witty Alex. With an energy so contagious that my face aches from smiling, the Midwestern native speaks quickly yet intentionally, going on tangents but always seamlessly finding his way back to his original point.
Prior to trying for the role of Alex, he admits to not actually having read the 2019 book, however he did so, swiftly, before his audition. “I downloaded it on my Kindle and read it in three days,” he says. “I was on the plane and — I mean, the altitude does something to you — but I was just crying.”
McQuiston’s literary universe hints at what an alternate, diverse and progressive parallel world might look like – notwithstanding a serpentine path to public acceptance that sees Alex and Henry grapple with their respective sexualities, high-profile lives and the growing entanglement between their separate realities, against a backdrop of ever-present, real-world discourse on the privacy of public figures. However, it also sees the US with its first female president, played by Uma Thurman no less, and a love story between a biracial, bisexual First Son and gay prince that seems equally as romanticised and fantastical as possible.
Since the book’s release, readers have fallen in love with the characters and eagerly anticipated a film adaptation, with speculation rife in anticipation of Zakhar Perez and Galitzine’s casting on who would play the starring roles. “It's so difficult because you want to please everybody,” he says. Finding the balance between drawing inspiration from the book and letting the script be “Bible”, as Zakhar Perez calls it, was a delicate game he and his cast mates aimed to master. “I tried just getting as much of the backstory as possible to understand how the characters work, as opposed to trying to recreate the book,” he explains. “I was really thinking about the character and their journey as opposed to anything else, because if I understood the character's journey and how he responded to different situations, I'd understand how to play him and what his inner monologue and thought processes were.”
“But sometimes when you adapt to the screen, when you remove characters from a project that are beloved or are an integral part of the story, people get up in arms,” he acknowledges. He relates it to his own feelings around the Harry Potter series, which I quickly grasp was a favourite franchise of Zakhar Perez’s. “I was so mad in the ‘Sorcerer’s Stone when [Peeves the Poltergeist] wasn’t in there. But when I watched it, I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t need it. This is a different version.’ And I was quickly okay with it. And so I know that is a concern, and there was a lot of weight on our shoulders going into it.”
However, for a book like McQuiston’s which made so many people feel seen, represented and hopeful, the pressure of translating that magic to the screen could naturally prove even greater. “I got into acting to showcase characters that people can see in themselves or that can help them get through something,” Zakhar Perez explains. “It's amazing that somebody could see this as a kid and think, ‘Wow, there's a Mexican-American congressman in this film, and I'm a young Mexican-American kid, and I want to get into politics.’”
Whilst sadly Uma Thurman as President might not be on the cards in our reality, part of the appeal of the world McQuiston and now Lopez present is that many other aspects of it feel entirely plausible for a younger generation watching.“ The way I thought about it was, the reality of this film is a possibility. It's not far from something that could happen. These are possibilities: having a female president, having a queer son [of the president], having a queer Prince, having a transgender bodyguard. Why not? It doesn't seem far-fetched.”
And Zakhar Perez has seen the book’s effects first-hand. His 14-year-old niece and her friends read and adored it, he tells me, lighting up with the optimism it inspires in them for a changing landscape. “I wish I had this as a kid. I wish everybody had this book. It’s incredible that at a [young age], this [love story] is normalised. Anytime something comes up in the world, you can read a book and relate to it and find acceptance.”
Growing up without these kinds of books (with the exception of Harry Potter, which made him “want to be a wizard”) has not made his faith in their impact any weaker. “It is amazing that this book could have the power to educate young minds and make people less ignorant when they get older. It’s really exciting and I feel that weight on my shoulders in portraying this role accurately, and what Alex represents to a lot of people around the world. It's a film that has something on its mind. You leave and you feel different. That's the reason that I was so attracted to this. It changes people's perceptions of others who they maybe never had the chance to experience. It brings compassion.”
Bringing compassion and chemistry to the screen would appear to have been effortless for Zakhar Perez and Galitzine, whose on-screen dynamic was so compelling it’s no surprise when he shares that they became close friends in real life as well. “Doing the intimacy stuff brought us closer because you just have to have such a high level of trust with your co-worker,” he tells me. “We were really lucky. Maybe it was because we had to lean into the humour and quick banter with each other on set, it just bled over into how we were in real life. I don’t know, but we became friends very fast and I’m grateful that we did.”
“The whole cast is incredible,” he continues, before jumping into the story of first meeting Thurman in rehearsals. “She walked in and I was like, ‘Hey Uma, I’m Taylor. I’m playing your son.’ She high-fived me, and I was like, ‘Can I have a hug?’”
“For me, my way in with actors is that tactile touch. It grounds me and centres me and reminds me that this is a real person and that in this moment, this is real. And she was so giving. Sometimes when you work with actors. you don’t have giving scene partners and with Uma, she was so giving. I just wanted to rise to the occasion every time I was there. I wanted to be as good as Uma Thurman and I wanted to make sure that she knew that I wasn’t taking this moment for granted. I have watched her in multiple films and she is such a transformative actress that you just know you can’t mess around. And she’s so grounded and strong. I’ve had great experiences with other actors like that as well, but she…” he pauses and laughs knowingly, about to quote his own line from the film, “...definitely takes the cake.”
Delving deeper into his process, I ask if he drew on experiences of being in the public eye to relate to the scrutiny his character faces. “Alex and Henry exist in this on a different level, right? You know, there are millions of voters that vote for Alex’s parents and they're under public scrutiny at all times. And as an actor that's playing make-believe. I don't have that same level of scrutiny. It is similar, but those two are just on a different level. You know, they're like, Prince Harry, Prince William status.”
“I think I just went straight into the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘as ifs’. In acting, there's people that do the method acting, but I'm an ‘as if-er’.” A device utilised to dig deeper into a character, pushing the actor to ask ‘what if?’ or ‘as if?, building a story around the actions and words on a script. It’s a favourite tool of Zakhar Perez’s who learned the technique from acting coach Lesly Kahn.
After a childhood of recreating SNL sketches with his siblings, performing in theatre productions and trying his shot at Hollywood, Zakhar Perez expanded his craft considerably upon moving to Los Angeles, under the guidance of Kahn. “When I first got to LA as this little theatre kid, I was not ready to go into [audition] rooms. I feel so bad for every casting director that brought me in to watch me just crash and burn. And then going to Lesly's, I learned about genre, given circumstances, how to analyse scenes and the inner monologue. Honestly, I never really understood the inner monologue. I don't know why, I just think nobody ever explained it properly. With Lesly, she taught us that your inner monologue is just a thought train. And it was almost remedial. We’d sit in class and she would stop us in the middle of a monologue and say, ‘I don't believe that. What's your thought? What do you think?’ And sometimes, most times, I would go, ‘I don't know. I don't know.’ And she'd be like, ‘Taaaylor, you need to know what you’re thinking. We are not memorising lines.’ He laughs, “People hate it, because actors love to sit in their feelings. That's cathartic for them. They're like, ‘Let me be emotional,’ but emotion without direction is chaos.”
For Red, White & Royal Blue, understanding the specificities of the part came in extensive research and character mapping. Diving headfirst into the mind of Alex, Zakhar Perez read Presidents’ biographies that his character would have read and stories from White House staff. He watched The West Wing and exhausted every avenue of Alex’s potential interests and psyche to build a “fully fledged, fully fleshed out character.” To keep his perception of the narrative coherent, amidst overlapping arcs and dynamic character development, he came up with an annotation method. With the help of Lopez, he charted Alex’s timeline in terms of his relationships with Henry and his parents, the campaign trail and his discovery of his sexuality. “Filming out of order is incredibly difficult when your character has such a big arc. And so through my script, I would have to annotate the varying levels of his relationships and journeys. There were so many layers to this guy. I had to keep referencing it.”
While the ‘as if’ method helps Zakhar Perez get into character, it also helps him get out, protecting his inner self and emotional state from becoming muddled with that of his characters. “[In contrast with method acting], I have just always found that the ‘as if’ method helped me not bring back old trauma. I never want to sacrifice my happiness for a role. And I never want to put people around me in a weird space if I’m in a bad mood because the character that I’m auditioning for that day is in a bad mood. I never want to bring that into my day to day life because I've met actors like that and honestly, it’s so unattractive to me. I chose this profession and it's not worth losing your friends over. I have nothing against anyone's method but don’t bring it into my trailer. Don’t bring that into my life. I protect my peace at all costs.”
It is rare to meet someone so pragmatic yet optimistic, down to earth but excited about his accelerating trajectory, and so capable of giving his entire self to a project, cast and crew yet equally able to leave work at the door and prioritise the people he loves. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between Zakhar Perez and his interpretation of the affable and propulsive journey of Alex. In offering a fresh dimension to the beloved novel and lead role, he honours its influence by making it his own and bringing it to a new audience who will take comfort and inspiration in its power. “I think we nailed it,” he tells me of one scene, but I think such an evaluation could apply to the film as a whole. “I hope we nailed it,” he continues, but with characteristic humility, “You can be the judge,” he concludes.
Red, White & Royal Blue out now on Prime Video