With the new decade upon us, famed actor and acting coach, Zak Barnett, is using his talents to provide one of the best resources to the emerging acting and film industry hopefuls of L.A. The Zak Barnett Studio is officially open, giving young talent the opportunity to get a VIP learning experience from some of the industry’s top professionals. Check out our Q&A with Zak below on everything the membership has to offer.
Q: What first brought you to Hollywood / SoCal?
A: I came to L.A. in my late twenties. I had spent the decade previous teaching acting, as well as serving as the Artistic Director of a theater company where I wrote and directed plays. I had the opportunity to Co-direct and star in a feature film “Less” that was making the festival circuit–it seemed like it was time to make the move.
Q: How did you become an acting coach in Los Angeles and tell us about what your studio offers in terms of classes and coaching style?
A: How did I become an acting coach in LA?
I’ve been an actor, writer, director since I was a kid. I remember the first thing I ever said I wanted to be when I was a kid was a great poet. Never a fireman, or police officer– always a great poet. Although I’ve worked in many different art forms since I was a kid, including being a teacher, coach and business owner, being a poet has always been the throughline. To me, that means looking below the surface, and looking for the beauty, connection and meaning in all things.
When I was 17, I went to NYU, Tisch School of the Arts for Dramatic Writing. In my third semester, I suffered a traumatic incident, where I lost my proprioception-my mind’s ability to know where my body was in space. No one could explain to me what was happening, or how to fix it–I was deemed psychotic by a psychiatrist who never looked up from his prescription pad, and walked out into the world for the first time, without any roadmap, or path to healing.
Refusing the doctors diagnosis, I dropped out of school and moved to Japan in search of answers. At this point, the expression “wherever you go, there you are” comes to mind. Realizing I needed to find my own way through this, and running to some foreign land was not the answer, I moved to San Francisco and set up shop.
The only way I really had of putting the world together was acting, writing and directing, so I started a theater company with my late partner/creative genius, Dwayne Calizo, and attempted to put my mind, body and spirit, literally, back together again. Acting and creating new work, became a path to healing for me. The themes of spirituality and activism were steeped in my work and process, as they served as binding elements to my disassociated mind and body, and my creative and spiritual practices became my means of healing.
We performed one of our new works, at this radical college, New College of California, and the President and Dean of the school were so interested in the work we were doing, they asked us to create a BA, MA and MFA Performing Arts Program for them. I spent seven years Co-Chairing that program which was the first BA, MA and MFA program in the country that focussed on the themes of experimentation, activism and spirituality.
I then Co-directed and starred in a film called “Less”, which was about a man who gave up all of his worldly possessions, and “chose to be homeless” in search of meaning after losing his family in a rafting accident. The film brought me to LA.
While auditioning and getting to know the LA Market, I taught at one of the big acting studios in town. I worked there for nearly a decade with actors of all ages–taught 6 or 7 classes a week, coached literally thousands of actors, and got to know intimately the needs of auditioning and working in LA. It was a great Hollywood apprenticeship and I literally put in my second round of 10,000 hours.
In creating ZBS, I wanted to put together the focus on artistic process, healing, spirituality and activism from my healing and professor days, with the rigor and specificity of my Hollywood coaching days. The ZBS curriculum and culture focuses foremost on the art and craft of acting, while integrating deep personal development work drawing on the themes of activism and spirituality. We look at acting more as a martial art–a self study and application that is done in service to one’s spiritual balance as well as to the healing of the audience and society at large. This results in actors that are extremely connected themselves, know who they are, and how they want to influence the world. This kind of work breeds charisma, and a heightened presence, or as we say in Hollywood, “star quality”.
Q: What makes Southern California a unique place to pursue your acting career ? Are there any places that you recommend for students for motivation or inspiration (parks, museums, special resources.)
A: That’s such a cool question. The first answer is that LA is the entertainment capital of the world. It’s always been a huge part of my dream, and I think it is of many artists, to work with the most skilled, creative and accomplished artists there are. LA is the olympics. The place is overflowing with creativity and ambition, and that’s exhilerating. You can stay in a smaller market. You can be a big fish in a small pond, whether it’s Atlanta, or Chicago, or the small town you grew up in–OR, you can test your metal, and see how far you can go when you’re challenged far beyond what you think you’re capable of. Working as an actor in LA is a spiritual test. It forces you to let go, because the odds are just not rational, and you are forced to lead with your heart, your guts, and your faith in a destiny that you can only sense, and sometimes you can’t even do that.
In terms of sources of inspiration, they abound culturally and naturally. I’m someone that thrives in nature. At least once a week, I’m either wandering around Venice beach, on a hike in Malibu, or writing my book up in Ojai. I love that I am surrounded by all of these natural wonders. If it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure I could navigate the pressure and rigor of my career.
Q: Tell us about the new Membership Program and why it sets Zak Barnett Studios apart from other acting schools. What are the steps for joining?
I should start by saying that we will continue to offer classes, private coaching etc in the a la carte way we always have. Membership is simply a more economical way for committed actors to develop over a longer period of time.
Membership has been something we’ve wanted to do from the very beginning. As “A Whole Self Conservatory for the Working Actor”, we bring together many of the services and training an actor needs to be successful, with the practices that help an actor stay sane, grounded and connected to what makes them most unique and magnetic.
We offer two distinctive versions: one designed for actors that live in or around L.A., called the “L.A. Membership”, and one designed for actors that live outside of L.A., called the “Jetsetter Membership”.
Our “L.A. Membership” emphasizes weekly class as the primary component, accented with audition coaching, role prep, intensives, community events and mentorship. Our “Jetsetter Membership” is designed for actors that live outside of LA, that are either trying to transition into the LA Market, or have no intention of leaving where they are, but want quality, ongoing training. It’s primary component is Skype coaching, and it’s accented with our weeklong intensives, mentorship, classes and community/industry events when the student is in town.
We believe our membership programs are the answer to several ongoing struggles actors find themselves in:
1. It’s difficult for working actors to commit to a long term course of study, because of the unpredictability of bookings. We have created the memberships to have maximum flexibility for an actor’s busy life.
2. Aspiring and professional actors living outside of L.A. don’t have access to the quality of training they actually need to be competitive in the L.A. market. With our emphasis on individually tailored coaching and classes through SKype, as well as weeklong intensives thoughout the year, we bring LA training to the rest of the world.
3. L.A. can be a lonely place–add the extreme ups and downs of being an actor to the mix, and for many actors, it can just be too heavy of a burden to shoulder alone. In an industry that is so rife with ups and downs, knowing that you have a creative community where you can hang your hat, and will at the same time, challenge you to reach your greatest creative potential, is invaluable.
Q: What Sets ZBS Apart?
A: The ZBS curriculum focuses foremost on the art, craft and profession of acting, while integrating deep personal developmental work drawing on the themes of activism and spirituality. We look at acting more as a martial art–a self study and application that is done in service to one’s personal well being, as well as to the healing of the audience and society at large. This results in actors that are extremely connected themselves, know who they are, and how they want to influence the world. This kind of work breeds charisma, and a heightened presence, or as we say in Hollywood, “star quality”.
There are eleven teachers currently at the studio that come from very diverse backgrounds. Many acting studios are structured with one master teacher and then a series of “mini-me’s”. I was very clear in starting the studio that if this is my life’s purpose, which I believe it is, I want to be surrounded by the absolute best teachers I could find. All of us have at least twenty years of experience studying the craft of acting—many of us, including myself, have over twenty years teaching it. That said, the thing that unites us is the organizing principle of the studio, “The more connected you are to yourself, the more connected you are to any character”. There is a defined curriculum, with each class meeting an industry need, as well as a more artistic and personal development need.
I had a teacher once say, “If you know three things, you will see three things in a script. If you know a million, you will see a million, because essentially you are seeing yourself.” Our goal is to expand the student’s awareness in their life, so the characters they create are as complex, rich and layered as they are.
I think many acting studios may keep some of these elements as their goal, but none I’ve encountered give you the path to getting there. For instance, an actor may hear, “Just be yourself”. Problem is, telling someone to “be themselves” is like telling someone to “Just let go” when they’re stressed out. There is a “how” to learning to “just be yourself” and our curriculum, structures that out.
Q: How does someone enroll?
A: Most people come to us through industry referral. I’d say 80% come from agents and managers, which creates a natural vetting process. That said, it’s not a necessity. When someone calls, we’ll have a conversation about their experience, we’ll look at resumes, reels and recent self-tapes, etc. and find the right fit. If they are less experienced, they may need to start with private coaching before entering a class–it just depends. Ultimately, membership does get granted through industry referral, audition (via self tape or reel), or invitation.
Q. How did you select the panelists for the upcoming launch event and what can members look forward to for 2020?
A: We wanted to focus on tv writers, producers and showrunners from a variety of genres, with diverse backgrounds that work on diverse networks. We really wanted to look at a wide swath of the voices that comprise television today, in order to discuss its collective cultural and artistic impact, and discuss them in the context of the studios three themes: spirituality, entertainment and activism. We pulled from our colleagues and friends to bring together this incredible group.
Q: What advice do you have for actors going into pilot season which begins early 2020?
A: Be ready. Frankly, be in class and/or working on your craft every day. Do your own self-tapes. Have an accountability buddy, and send each other self tapes. Some pilot seasons people will have fifty auditions, sometimes one, sometimes none. The idea is that as soon as you get called into the game, you’re warmed up and ready to go.
The biggest issue for actors is navigating stress and fear. Someone could have all the talent in the world, but if fear has the better of them, that talent will go unseen. Typically, the more talent someone has, the more fear and stress they also experience. By walking towards that fear and learning to take it in hand on a daily basis, you learned how to harness its energy and it becomes the force behind your talent. On the other hand, if you’re out of practice, your fear becomes the force that obstructs your talent.
So my advice is stay ready. It is not yours to know what opportunities will come your way, and whether those opportunities are meant for you in the end–that is the workings of some larger plan. Your responsibility is to be ready.
Q. How can students who don’t live in SoCal be involved with you or the studio? Are there online courses or ways to connect in other cities?
A: Our “Jetsetter Membership” is designed for actors from out of town. It combines private coaching via Skype, which can be used for auditions, or ongoing weekly classes personalized to your needs, with weeklong intensives, such as our upcoming “pilot season intensive”, and a class pass while you’re in town, with ongoing mentorship/student assessments, etc. It’s a fantastic way for actors living in other markets to get the highest quality training LA has to offer from wherever they are in the world. All of those services (skype coaching, intensives, class packages, etc) are also offered on an a la carte basis for actors as well.
Q: You started as an actor. If you could tell your younger self 3 tips you’ve learned from now coaching all these years, what would those tips be?
You must be willing to know yourself, and heal the parts of yourself that are broken–these parts of you are not a distraction, or an obstacle. They are the key to your talent.
Find a community. You cannot do this alone. As Kermit the frog says, “Life is better shared”.
Think of your art and your career like surfing–you are in SoCal after all! You are learning to join your will with the momentum of something much larger and stronger than you. Whether that something is the entertainment industry, your destiny, or the mysterious craft of becoming another person, you must be willing to move with what is given on any given day, and in any given moment. Be humble and know that if you’re doing it right, you won’t know where it’s taking you, but you will simultaneously, experience indescribable freedom.
Q: Where can we catch some of your students on the big screen? Or you on the screen next?
A: Frankly, my students are everywhere. Last year alone we had 78 students working as series regulars. Some of our coaching clients have won both Oscars and Emmys. I can’t mention some of the most well known actors, but I will say some recent breakouts include longtime students Danielle Macdonald (Unbelievable, Birdbox, Dumplin) and Madelaine Petsch (Riverdale), as well as former students Storm Reid (Wrinkle in Time, Euphoria, When They See Us), Austin Abrams (Euphoria, Less Than Zero, Brad’s Status), and Rosa Salazar (Undone, Alita: Battle Angel, Maze Runner)—all of which are making huge strides in their careers right now. I also work with production companies and networks—sometimes coaching the lead in the show, other times working with the directors to get the most out of their actors (which I do privately with directors as well). Most recently, I was brought on by the production company to prepare the lead in Kenny Ortega’s new show, “Julie and the Phantoms”, set to premiere on Netflix.