Zachary Booth wants to do it all. “I’d like to do one of each,” the young actor says, “have a good show, jump to a good film, start rehearsing a play, then get back into the show.” This year, he has. January saw Booth at Sundance, where his breakout film Keep the Lights On, Ira Sachs’ semi-autobiographical examination of his relationship with literary agent and former crack addict Bill Clegg, was a festival favorite. He spent the spring wrapping the final season of Damages with Glenn Close. Summer found him performing in an all-male production of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid opposite Peter Dinklage at Bard College upstate. And the day after the New York première of Keep the Lights On last week, Booth left for California to begin work on his next film, a family drama with Patricia Clarkson. As for the last few months of the year? “We’ll see what happens,” he laughs.
What attracted Booth most to Keep the Lights On—in which he plays Paul, a fictionalized version of Clegg—was the writing. “It’s really honest and raw and straightforward,” he explains. “I could see myself saying the words, and that’s rare.” The role itself, which required him to sympathetically portray a crack addict who destroys a deep and intensely meaningful romantic relationship, also offered up challenges that Booth says he relished facing in his still-burgeoning career. “The risks that the actor has to take to play that role were risks I wanted to take,” he says. “A lot of the subject matter is pretty dark, and we went to some interesting places while we were shooting.”
The soft-spoken Booth says he made an effort to avoid trying to imitate Clegg too closely in his performance, despite the powerful effect the latter’s 2010 memoir, Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man, had on him. “I have a lot of respect for him completely separate from this film,” Booth notes. “I think he’s a wonderful person who took a great risk in revealing his personal details and I think it was a selfless act and one that helped a lot of people. I admire him a great deal for that, but I tried to keep my respect for him and admiration for him completely separate from this role. I wasn’t trying to be Bill Clegg, and that was something that Ira was comfortable with. I was trying to create a fictional character that had some similarities to the life that they lived, but there’s no way that I could have accurately depicted that.”
Keep the Lights On is a stark film run through with a quiet intimacy, candid and gentle as it traces the rise and crumble of a long and tumultuous love affair. Erik, played by the Danish actor Thure Lindhardt, is Sachs’ stand-in and the soul of the movie, but Booth’s Paul is its heart. Even as he becomes increasingly ravaged by his addiction, it remains potently clear throughout why Erik can’t give up on him. “I think that Ira really trusted me once he gave me the role to figure it out,” Booth says about Sachs’ generous directing approach. “There were some notes he would give me about the energy or his controlling nature—which I always took more as comment than direction because he’s looking at it from the other side of the table—but I always tried to internalize it and make it as real as I could.” And though Paul and Erik eventually part ways, Booth says he sees a measure of solace and peace in the resolution. “At the end of the film, what you see is somebody who really took stock of who he was and what he was left with without the drugs,” he explains, “and then started to actually live his life as he believed he was supposed to live it, as opposed to living it as a victim of the circumstances he was in.”
Booth, now thirty, first found his way to acting in high school, where the theater department was, as he puts it, “a place for all the broken toys.” “It was a bunch of people that I felt like I could be free in front of and that I felt like I could take risks in front of, and it felt good,” he says. He went on to study theater at the University of Michigan, where he put his diligent and studious nature to work. “When I took my first acting class, it was really fun to see that there was a process and that you could put effort into it and it would become better,” he explains. “I was really into math and science, I was intellectual, I was a bit of a nerd, and when I saw that I could apply that to performance, I was thrilled.”
After moving to New York upon graduation in 2004, he landed a series of small television and film roles, but he made his biggest impact on the Off Broadway scene, appearing in 2008 in Prayer for My Enemy by Craig Lucas—of whom Booth notes, “I would love to speak his words again”—and as one half of a pair of identical twins in Edward Albee’s Me, Myself & I in 2010. “I find most of the roles in theater are better,” he explains, “because Off Broadway plays in New York tend to be smaller, with fewer people and more meat to each character. You get to live the life of the character every night.” He compares his stage experience to his work on Damages, where, in the recurring role of the troubled son of Glenn Close’s tightly-wound lawyer Patty Hewes, he admits humbly that he has not been the focus of the show, although his role has expanded across its five seasons. “When I first got it, it was just stringing together a sequence of moments, but as the show progressed I think I was given more responsibility and more respect from the people who work on it,” he says. “I feel like I was really able to draw an entire person out of something and become what I think was a pretty important part of the show, and that was certainly an honor and a privilege.”
As a theater major new to television work, Booth, who was first drawn to theater for the visceral response from the audience, says what struck him as the strangest aspect of filming was its detachment from the final product. “There are moments when that sense of not knowing right away that what you’re doing is affecting people can feel really awkward,” he says, “but what happens in film is that you learn that you really need to rely on the other actors. You’re no longer doing it for your own benefit, but you’re actually doing it for the benefit of the other characters, the other people you’re performing with, and that’s something that has taught me a lot about theater. If you bring that attitude into the theater, then you have a much more humble performance.” For the selfless Booth, it’s all about giving yourself up for others, whether they are your fellow performers or members of the audience. “When it really comes down to it, I think acting is acting. You just try to be in the moment as honestly as you can be, and allow people to see what’s happening to you in as subtle a way possible.”
Keep the Lights On is out now.
Styling by Zara Zachrisson. Grooming by Georgi Sandev.