Tongayi Chirisa – iZombie
By: Jamie Steinberg
Q) What are the recent projects that you are working on?
A) Nothing at the moment in terms of being on set, but there are a couple of projects that I am currently gearing towards. One we have just gotten the final kinks out of the way so now we are looking to start production sometime in August.
Q) How was your character Justin on “iZombie” originally described to you?
A) The breakdown described him as a fun character who was warm. He was the everyday, next door dude. They said something to do with how his likability makes him charming. They were like he’s not all the way handsome, but his charming ways makes up for that. I’m just paraphrasing, but I was like, “That definitely sounds like me. So, I’m going to roll with that.” [laughs]
Q) Did you have to do anything special in order to prepare for the role?
A) Not so much. This is the first time that I have had to play a more contemporary character on TV, especially on American TV. Like my character on “Sleepy Hollow” and “American Horror Story,” these were very specific characters. Justin is your more contemporary, average African American. So, there wasn’t much I had to do other than just deliver a very normal performance. But, you know, like most actors a lot of our time we have to spend in the gym just in case because you never know what your next project will look like. I was lucky enough that I am constantly just keeping myself in shape and fit. So, when you have those scenes where you have to be in towels I’m like, “Okay.” I am not going to be covering my eyes and saying, “Is that a pot belly?!” Once I got on set, it was just maintaining my workout machine.
Q) Were you a fan of “iZombie” before joining the show?
A) I remember I bumped into an episode. I don’t really watch TV. But I think I actually caught it on Netflix. I saw one episode and it intrigued me what the storyline was about. I think the episode I saw was the finale of Season Two where the zombies attack and they are dressed like SWAT. I saw that and thought, “Oh wow! This looks like fun!” They don’t take themselves too seriously, but I never thought I’d be on the show. I saw the show and thought, “This is funny! It looks like a great cast.” Obviously when I auditioned for it and then eventually got on set, it was like déjà vu. I don’t know for anyone else, but for myself just being a kid from Zimbabwe who had aspirations of coming to Hollywood I still had these geeked out moments on set where I had seen someone on TV before actually meeting them in real life. So, I was beside myself seeing these guys for the first time in real life. I was like, “Oh my gosh! You are real! Oh, that’s a wig that you wear!” It’s something out of a fairytale book. I still get giddy every time I get on set. I feel blessed and just really humbled by constantly being afforded these opportunities that I get to showcase what can do – a kid from Zimbabwe who had dreams of coming to Hollywood. Here we are! Go figure!
Q) Justin and Major have quite a bromance going on. Was there instant chemistry when you and Robert Buckley began working together?
A) Yeah! I think the key to any good scenes or chemistry on set is just getting to know the person. Like, I talk to you now like I would talk to any of my friends. I don’t see it as an interview because I think there are certain limitations or connotations that people might have because this is an interview or are working on set and have to portray this certain energy. But I’m the type of fellow when I get on set I want to know who you are. Do you have a dog? What is your dog’s name? What does your mom do? What was your favorite thing she cooks for you? I want to get to know you. I think the quicker we can get to that place of familiarity it bodes well for anything that is on screen because there is nothing worse than not liking your costar and yet you have to act like best friends. It’s just the worst feeling, for me personally. I have a tough time with that. Thankfully, the cast has just been like old friends. It makes it easier to portray that bromance that we have going on.
Q) Were you always aware that Justin and Liv would get romantically involved?
A) No, I wasn’t! I wasn’t originally expected to be in as many episodes that I’m in! When I first read the breakdown, it was just a reoccurring for a couple of episodes, but nothing was ever divulged to me as to where it was going. I think with every episode that I got it started to become very clear that something was happening between Justin and Liv.
Q) Who haven’t you worked with yet that you would love to share some screen time with?
A) I feel like I’ve just gotten to the party and there is like a buffet and I’m trying to eat everything! So, I’d love to have a scene or two with all the main characters. I’d like to see what that might look like in regards to the storylines and what role Justin plays. I’ve had a swell time with my scenes with Robert and Rose [McIver.] I have one with Ravi, but I would like to explore the other characters and see how those dynamics would play out.
Q) How long does it take for you to become zombie Justin?
A) There is not a lot of preparation – just a lot of screaming and angry faces. [laughs] A lot of it is done in post-production so I just have to put on my meanest face, growl a little bit and that’s it. Thankfully, it is not a show where we have to put on prosthetic and all of that stuff. So, it makes it easier for us to perform without worrying about what our facial expressions look like.
Q) What have been some of your most memorable moments from behind the scenes of filming “iZombie?”
A) Again, I just think it is a bonding with the cast and the crew. Like I said, it always bodes well for just a healthy relationship and a healthy performance. I think for me that’s really special and what you see as the end product is just the result of people who trust each other and learning not to take things too seriously. Sometimes sets can be very serious, but because there is that dynamic bond where people trust each other – that’s obviously built from off set and the interactions that happen during lunch or breakfast. I think those are the highlights because you find out a lot of fascinating things about people’s lives and their journeys. It intrigues you to want to know more so it keeps the fire burning. It gives us the product that we all enjoy week after week.
Q) You are a part of social media. What kind of fan reaction have you received to your role?
A) Just from what I’ve seen on Twitter, I think everybody is really excited. I feel like I’m an anomaly because nobody really knows me to some degree. So, it’s like people are discovering who the character is and they kind of probe on social media for who Tongayi is. So, it will be interesting to see how they perceive my character and anything else they find on social media how they perceive the man behind the character. I think from my perspective it hasn’t been a massive influx of people trying to discover or finding out who I am. I guess that question will be answered in the near future.
Q) What have you taken away from your time working on “iZombie?”
A) Hard work! [laughs] It’s hard work, but I think the most important thing is that what I have observed with my own two eyes…Again, I come back to the trust element the cast has with the crew and the production and executives. It’s as if you are coming home to family. Even if the chips are down and people are fighting against time or light, it’s a family effort. So, I think that’s the one thing that I have taken. And everybody is very chill. There are very little moments where I saw any elements of tension on set because it was always defused by someone cracking a joke. Then, everybody laughs and is like, “Okay, it’s not a big of a deal as I thought it would be.” That’s the one thing I’ve definitely taken away from working on “iZombie.”
Q) Is there anything else you want to be sure fans know about Justin?
A) Continue to watch him evolve. I’m excited to hear what people might think of the character. But everything is on the table, as far as I’m concerned. I think we see him for his love for Liv and just wanting to do right. So, anything else we will discover that as the season progresses.