Zach Woods, the beanpole American known for roles in the NBC sitcom The Office and the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, was in a car full of actors at the Sundance Film Festival when the conversation turned to Billy Crudup. It was agreed that Crudup was enjoying an enviable career, with four Tony nominations and numerous supporting roles in memorable films such as Almost Famous and Big Fish. “He does really good work and gets to work with interesting people,” Woods says, speaking from Los Angeles. “I was thinking how appealing that sounded to me, being a one-man industry.”
Crudup is a character actor, one of the better ones. Woods, 35, is nowhere near as established, but he’s quickly building up a fine filmography. In the ski-slope comedy-drama Downhill, he supports Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who play a husband and wife on a tense Austrian holiday with their two boys. The film, which opens Friday, is an English language remake of Ruben Ostlund’s well-regarded Force Majeure from 2014.
In Silicon Valley, which finished its sixth and final season in 2019, Woods was Jared Dunn, a self-abdicating den mother to a house of erratic tech nerds. “There’s something about Jared that I find incredibly touching, and it was inspired by my mother,” the New Jersey native says. “She’s the type of person who if she had a fever, she’d bring you chicken soup.”
In Downhill, Woods plays a business associate of Ferrell’s character. It won’t be talked about as much as the climactic fight scene between Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story, but there’s a standout few minutes in Downhill every bit as riveting. Louis-Dreyfus unloads on a sheepish Ferrell, as a shocked younger couple takes in the action. Woods, mostly a bystander in the scene, was fascinated by the process.
“It was an 11-page scene, almost like a one-man play,” he says. “As we did it again and again, it kept gathering momentum. It was thrilling and exhausting, and one of the most fun acting experiences I’ve ever had."
Trembling with anger, Louis-Dreyfus avalanches her husband for cowardly abandoning his family in the face of danger. Wood describes the performance by the Veep star as “spectacular.” What was going through his mind as the scene unfolded?
“All you do is pay attention in those situations, and the force of the other actor’s performance will engender whatever appropriate response you’re going to have,” he says. “And even though that particular scene is funny and interesting from an audience’s perspective, in the moment, as an actor, it’s mortifying and it’s heartbreaking. It’s a couple being ripped apart at the seams by their lack of communication and the fact that the husband has done something terrible that he has yet to acknowledge.”
A nice benefit of being a character actor: A courtside seat for the magic.
Androidal with an awkward angularity – he reminds me of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation – the 6- foot-4 actor is built for supporting roles. And although his relaxed Downhill character is a departure from the jittery, subservient people he’s played previously, there’s probably a limit to his range. “Nobody’s leaving me multiple voice mails asking me to play Thor,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to not be blessed by an overly symmetrical face or an unusually muscular body.”
Is he okay with not being featured? “I’ve always thought that was a nice term, character actor. I feel it’s someone who doesn’t have a six-pack abdomen or a million Instagram followers.”
(Woods has zero Instagram fans. He’s avoided social media after one online meanie described his face as a “combination of sadness and food poisoning.”)
Asked about his body, Woods is quick to bring up acting heroes more familiar with bars than barbells. “John Cazale was a weird looking guy, and I love that when Al Pacino takes off his shirt in a film like Serpico, he doesn’t look like he spends time in a gym,” the actor says. “I just like it when the people on my TV screen or on my movie theatre screen look like people I know.”
But what about Crudup? A handsome dude, no?
“Yes, but he’s probably not walking down the street being mauled by adolescents," says Woods, who is, in fact, a former high-school homecoming king. “I really like getting to play different types of people, and it’s also a lot of fun to be able to be in things without the responsibility of the project’s success or failure. So, I’m happy to gift audiences with my very regrettable physique.”
Woods, then, satisfied to be almost famous, with no desire to be the big fish.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.