Talking to Zach Woods About Bringing Improv to TV and Film Acting

There’s a growing flock of people in TV and movies whose primary training is improv comedy. On one hand, it makes sense: these people have proven they have the chops to entertain live audiences, so it makes sense to try and harness that in another medium. On the other hand, you’re asking people who are used to performing without a script for a live audience to be good without that audience and with a script. To learn about how one makes that transition, I talked to Zach Woods. Zach performed improv for 10 years at the UCB Theatre in NY. For the last two years or so, he’s been performing in TV and film, most prominently as Gabe on The Office, and Chad in the Armando Ianucci film In The Loop. When I asked him to do this, Zach asked me “So you WANT some dry analytical talk about acting and stuff?” And I said “Yes.”

So you have been and still are deeply immersed in improv, like countless rehearsals and shows for 10 years — your whole performing life was at UCB.

I remember having a conversation with Katie Dippold [writer for Parks & Recreation, longtime UCB performer] over IM, which I guess kind of dates the conversation, but we were talking about what our aspirations were and I remember I was teching for The Swarm [an amazing improv team that performed weekly at UCBT in NY from 2000-2005] at that point and I remember saying in that conversation, “If I could be on a team like that, I think that I would be content to just temp during the day doing some menial job that I hated, well I didn’t really hate it but just felt ambivalent about it, and then be able to do that at night.” I remember that being my only goal. I didn’t really have any aspirations outside of that or for years.

I think that’s common for people who get into improv, like they just love it for itself, there’s no goal other than enjoying the shows you’ re doing and hoping to be on good teams and good shows. It fills you up, it fills everybody up.

I mean it’s wonderful, it’s one of my favorite things and it’s interesting to me too because when we started, UCB was not a reliable path to professional opportunities. Some people there were getting jobs but it didn’t feel like a surefire or even a likely path to employment.

So having been involved in improv for so many years how does that  affect you when your doing acting not in an improv environment. Like let’s talk about auditions.

Well I feel like every audition that I did well in or thought I did well in, from commercials all the way to In The Loop, was because I improvised and I sort of feel like that’s what I have to offer. Every commercial I would just sort of improvise, every single one. And in the case of commercials, I think people are very very impressed if you can improve upon their copy. So I think it really ups your stock if you can improvise because people are really desperate for content and it’s really the writing aspect of it that really helps you.

And in terms of like TV and film I just felt like I haven’t really trained as an actor, so the only really acting training that I have are things that I’ve adapted from improv or whatever intuitive acting skills I have so I better improvise because that’s what I’ve spent ten years honing, that’s my commodity to market in an audition, so I would try to do it as much as possible. And in instances where improv was inappropriate, for years, I felt tremendously uncomfortable. I would work so hard on them because I just felt, “There’s gonna be some guy from Carnegie Mellon and he’s worked on like The Cherry Orchard and fucking done Alexander body classes and knows how to like, adapt himself to be.” People who had done equivalent work that I had done in improv just on scripts, on animating scripts. So I felt really intimidated by it and I kind of hated it.

How do you work on getting over that?

I’ve taken a lot of acting classes. I have an acting coach named Anya Saffir who teaches at the Atlantic Theater Company and is a director in New York, and she’s really an exceptionally talented director and teacher. And she has an acting method that is really…because acting teachers are sort of like therapists, you can really be a charlatan and snake oil salesman and no one will really call you out because it’s this sort of amorphous world. It’s not like if you see a therapist and they’re bad at their job it’s not like a rash, it’s not like a physical ailment that goes away. You’re sort of in a funk still and it takes a while to figure out if your therapist is actually full of shit. And I think similarly with acting teachers it’s this sort of murky, artsy, fartsy territory and people can camouflage their own incompetence using that, you know what I mean? They’ll just sort of have this weird, mystical, effect and they’ll say these kinds of cryptic little gems that are really not useful in any way and it just sort of leaves you more dependent on them because you’re not doing a good job but they seem like they know what they’re talking about.

Anyway, I took acting classes at Atlantic when I was 16 for a summer intensive and Anya really stood out as a terrific teacher. So I pursued training with her and I took other classes with people that she had recommended and then slowly with that I started to slowly build my confidence to, without embellishing on a script, use scripted material.

But it takes a lot of time to feel that. It’s taken me a long time just to get to the basic thoughts that I’m trying to express. I’m not by nature a terribly confident person, like even getting on a Harold team [house improv team at UCB] for many years I just remember feeling so fraudulent and terrified and I remember I felt guilty because I was like, “I’m the guy on the team whose undermining all the cool shit that everybody else is doing.”

I think that’s common. Because there’s no objective measure of if you’re good or not.

Yeah, yeah! I mean all this stuff is surrounded by insecurity. But even as a player on a team I had done so many hours in improv and I still felt precarious. It was probably only after I’d been doing it for eight years that I felt like, “OK, I know what I’m doing.” Not that I’ve “arrived”, but just that I’m tested in my own abilities, so I feel like confidence is sort of hard won, for me at least. And I feel like in acting now I’m sort of getting into the practice of working really hard on getting into scripted material. And I have been but I don’t feel the same sort of bedrock self-assurance after doing ten years of improv, it’s just a new sort of thing for me.

I think it’s interesting because your initial training was in an improv setting where there’s tons of reps and tons of classes and tons of shows and now that you’re getting the opportunity to do TV and film acting you’re still hungry for those reps.

Yeah, well that’s what’s interesting is when your learning to improvise you can literally do improv every night for five years and it’s not hard because there’s no script. But with practicing acting there’s no acting practice groups. I guess there’s like little theater companies and theater school, but I didn’t do that so I just want those reps because like I said I feel sort of like confidence is hard won so I want as many reps as possible to visualize. I don’t have to think that much how to Yes, And and how to If, That in improv, you know what I mean. It’s become muscle memory and that’s what I want with acting, I want to habitualize the techniques so that it becomes second nature. So when I’m not working I always try to get in a class so that I can get in reps and reps and reps.

So much of your training has been in front of an audience, so much of your improv shows have been in front of an audience, and then you have to go into either an audition or a studio room and you’re performing with no one, is that disorienting? Like a part of your radar, is gone.

Oh yeah, to like a huge degree. I never realized how much you depend on an audience. I really do think it is a skill that you learn from doing improv, you just learn how to listen to an audience and they really do guide you. And energize you; it’s just like a huge engine of performance, you know? I think you don’t want to just be pandering or trying to suss out what the audience wants and then giving it to them, but they are certainly one of the strongest voices in the conversation. So when you’re in a studio or in an audition it’s really unsettling. Or at least it was, I feel really comfortable with it now, but it can really feel disorienting, because so many of your cues and so much of your energy is deriving from the audience so it can be tough.

When you did In The Loop, were you allowed to improvise your dialogue in that?

Yeah, Armando Iannucci is the guy who directed that and he is phenomenal. Because he has this script and he has a ton of writers on that with these amazing, hilarious scripts, and then you would do twenty minute improvised takes sometimes so you could just do whatever you wanted. And he would use a lot of it. I mean a lot of that movie is scripted but he would use improvised things as well. Particularly with me and Anna Chlumsky, we didn’t have to get out that much exposition for out part, like it wasn’t like we were moving the story ahead that that much.

Yeah you guys were like chatty rivals, just putting each other down a lot.

Exactly. So I think that’s the kind of thing where in our case in particular you could allow, because we weren’t specific story points, I think he would just allow us to insult each other for twenty minutes and take what he wanted, a mix of scripted stuff and improvised stuff. Because it’s more of a flavor, it’s more of filling out that world than like punting the narrative forward.

Yeah almost any catty remark would do as well as others.

It’s my favorite kind of thing any time I get any kind of job where I get to do that. Where they’re like, “This is kind of the neighborhood we need you to be in” and then you can improvise your way through it. And even if it’s tightly scripted I always enjoy it when you’re allowed to do improvised takes because I think that the enemy of a scene, for me at least, and this is something that Anya has talked about, is your notion of how the scene should go. Like if you have this rigid map of how everything is supposed to go and how you’re supposed to feel moment-by-moment and you go through it, it just sort of saps it of any kind of spontaneity or surprise. And you certainly do a lot of acting like that, and I’ve seen a lot of acting like that and it’s boring, you know.

So if you can do a couple of improvised takes it can get you to stop from thinking ahead.

Exactly. It roots you in that moment. If you’re improvising you don’t know you literally don’t know what the person is going to say next, you can’t be too brittle about your performance. You can’t be locked in to your preconceived notions. And the same with improv, like you see a lot of young improv students they sort of get their idea of what the scene has to be and they’re so freaked out and the possibility for error and embarrassment is so provocative. It’s so pointed at fear, that in response to it, young improvisers will arm themselves with preconceived notions of how the scene should go and will not let go of it, even if it means inviting the humiliation and the failure that was meant to prevent. And I think the same can happen with acting. Like you go in and you’re like, “Well I don’t want to fuck this up and this has to go this way and hit this moment at this point” and I think ultimately it’s just to protect yourself from that threatening uncertainty, but then if you do that it’s sort of this paradoxical thing that exists in both improv and acting I think, you’re fucked because you’re just the dead eyed weirdo just hitting your choreography and not existing in the moment.

Now The Office, I assume that a TV show must be more restrictive, right because it’s and ensemble where you don’t have long blocks of dialogue or long scenes, no one does. So I assume it’s more tightly scripted than In The Loop was, is that right?

It is, although I sort of have gingerly tried to improvise. Like my first season I would sort of gingerly try to do some improv, it’s was a little intimating too because you have these people who created this hit TV show with these people who know their characters intimately and you don’t want to be the new twenty-six-year-old who comes in and starts making up his own stuff. So I feel like slowly over time I have sort of done it and have been reassured by the actors and the writers that it’s welcome to a point. So I’ll always try to a do a take or two where I’ll fuck around a little bit and it really helps me out as an actor and sometimes they use it. By in large the show is scripted, but sometimes they’ll use improvised material. And it sort of loosens me up and gets me in this playful mood.

[Though] I make sure that I have it word perfect the first take, like I’m kind of always a hard ass on myself about memorization because I really really want those improvised takes at the end. So I feel like to earn that you have to have the writer’s stuff word perfect so that you don’t have to waste takes. Like I don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t know his lines and then improvises because I just feel like that’s hugely disrespectful to the people who wrote the script.

It also feels like you sort of take it as a challenge. Like even though it’s a challenge to take somebody else’s words and be in the moment, that’s your job.

In acting because it’s scripted, sometimes it’s harder to feel how it went. It’s the same lines every time; the sort of success or failure of the performance is sort of rooted in the moment-to-moment stuff. Like an improv scene it’s sort of undeniable, you can feel it if it fell flat or if it was funny. It’s a little more subtle in acting, you can feel it still, but I guess I feel like I have a less honed or reliable sense of success or failure with that, and I’m trying to develop that.

Is there any moment on The Office that you’re particularly proud of? Is there any moment or scene that was a big breakthrough for you?

Well I don’t watch the show because I hate watching myself, it makes me tense. So I don’t really know how stuff turns out. So maybe I should watch it. I feel like I can improve without watching myself. But I guess the thing that I feel best about is if it’s a scripted scene and if I don’t improvise and I feel like I make it funny, like bring the comedy out of it without using my own words. Or there was one little scene like last season, and for people who watch The Office it probably wouldn’t stick out to them, but I’m in this conversation with Jenna Fischer, who is really just an astounding actress, and I’m trying to get her to admit that she committed this professional misdeed, that she basically invented a job for herself and I’m trying to get her to own up to it and she wont. And we did do scripts that were improvised in that, but I feel like we did a few takes where I felt like I was having fun and we didn’t deviate from the script at all. So it’s just tiny little moments like that where I feel engaged and something approaching the spontaneity I feel when I’m improvising.

Even though it’s scripted.

Yeah. Can I say just another thing? This acting class that I’ve been doing, I’ve been doing some scenes with John Gemberling [UCBT performer who takes acting workshops / practices with Zach] now and the goal is to a degree of responsiveness that feels like improv. Like you have to show up at every moment and be available to let it actually happen. And it’s so new that I feel about the script the same way that I did when I started doing improv for the first time. You just feel completely where you are. Like when you’re improvising it’s sort of self-forgetful and you sort of feel lost in it and there’s just an exciting feeling of just being there with the audience. When it’s going really when I’m working on scenes, like in the acting class, it feels that way and it’s interesting to me how similar those feelings are and it’s really depending on your ability to transcend your own terror at what is happening enough to be active and reactive.

Like it’s a whole different set of muscles but then ironically, if you feel like you’re doing it right then it feels like you’re doing improv.

Yeah, it’s interesting because I feel like everything feels good in the same way. In a weird way, you know how I really like playing ping-pong?


This is probably a weird point, but anything that’s pleasurable you’re sort of just in it to win it and you’re not thinking about yourself too much. And I feel like that’s true of improv and I feel like that’s true of acting because you’re just outwardly engaged. And that’s a really pleasurable thing. So I think the experience of doing them is very similar and the things that make them good, like spontaneity and engagement and all that stuff, are the same. But I think the path to those things are a little different. Not for everyone, but for me it feels like significantly different. And I just need practice in it.

You love doing drills of things, practicing.

Yeah of course. I mean here’s the other thing; I think having done those years of improv certainly speeds up the process. Like it definitely would have taken me longer if I didn’t already understand what being responsive in the moment meant…I mean you’ve done improv and have now gone into standup somewhat. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same there where you have a sense of what you have to offer in what you think is funny but it’s a different medium so there’s a sort of necessary and uncomfortable translation.

Yeah I think it’s very similar. I’m ahead in standup of anybody whose never done any performing but I’m far behind people who have done a lot of stand-up.

And doesn’t that make you hungry? Like I’m seeing so many plays while I’m in New York and once in a while you’ll see a performance, I just saw Tribes, there’s this woman in Tribes, and the whole cast is amazing, but there’s this one woman and it’s kind of this one part where this woman Susan Pourfar does this performance and it’s just like amazing and it’s just like, I want to do that. It’s that same hungry excited feeling you felt when you started doing improv. Like god, how did they do that, how do they do that. It just seemed so meaningful.

I also think part of it’s being in LA. It’s such an industry-oriented city, so many conversations are about not the work you’re doing, but the work you’re getting. And I think that makes me feel very, I don’t know I just find it very depressing. I understand why people talk about it and I feel the same urge to talk about it but it makes me feel insecure and tired. I think that re-orienting yourself to do stuff that you find interesting and exciting for me is what saves me from sinking into a total funk in LA. If I can go to work and feel like I’m going to go work on acting and feeling like I’m getting better at this thing, and you can still be patient with yourself like you say, “OK well I’m just gonna try and be a little bit better at acting every week.” I just feel like the career stuff is just scary to me and I’m not good at it. The only way I can be happy is focusing on the things that I like.

That makes sense. You cant control what work you get or even the pressure of the work that you get, but you can control going to see plays and going into a room with acting teachers. That’s what makes you feel good.

And it makes you feel good, it fills you up.

I hope within three years you will have completely changed into a 1000% Machiavellian opportunist. There’ll be no more acting training, you’ll just be smoking a big cigar, posturing at every lunch.

[Laughs] I know it sounds smug and masturbatory to say “Oh I’m just in it for the art, man,” but I just see it as a matter of self-preservation.

You just see it as this area I have power over that, which is something to put your energy in.

And I don’t really think I’m talented. Like I have something to offer improv-wise but talent wise I don’t really have anything to offer. Like some people are talented and they have careers but I think I’m just lucky. And I’m just pretty good at improv and I think that I could be pretty good at acting if I tried at it, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Will Hines is an actor and writer at the UCB Theatre in New York.

Talking to Zach Woods About Bringing Improv to TV and […]