20 Years of Tenacity

Actor-writer-director Zachary Ray Sherman, now starring in Under the Banner of Heaven, reexamines what creative success actually means.

A couple days ago, I was griping to my fiancée and it went a little something like, “It’s just … I’m a working actor … I mean, I should be acting right now. It’s frustrating. Six months ago, I was filming a Hulu show, and last week I was in Los Angeles at a screening for a film I play the lead in, but today I’m working in an Amazon warehouse?!” Naturally, she came back with some grounded wisdom that really gets at the heart of my situation: “Success is not synonymous with stability in acting and making movies, Zach.”

My fiancée is a wise woman. She’s an herb farmer and as I’ve been helping her with the plants over the past year, I’ve realized there’s a metaphor here. A lot like plants, our artistic endeavors and careers all grow at their own pace. Some take considerably longer to germinate than others. It’s reassuring to remember that we all grow and succeed at our own speed – and in the process of growing, at times there can be a lot of resistance.

Zachary Ray Sherman on the set of The Send Off, produced by Glenn Howerton.

In most other industries, success may mean a consistent paycheck and opportunities for growth, but when it comes to movies, acting, theatre … you really can’t count on that. I’ve been an actor and filmmaker for two decades, and I know from painful experience that the pursuit of doing what you love can be really tough at times. The journey toward creative success is full of uncertainty and there are not many people who get to create art or tell stories for a living, even inconsistently. For those of us that do, the “overnight success” many people perceive is often the result of 15 years of hard work. Yet even with this potential heartache, I find myself marveling when I step back and look at the beautiful mess that is my life as a storyteller.

A selfie of Zachary Ray Sherman taken during the making of Under the Banner of Heaven.

Last year, my fiancée and I moved from the West Coast to rural Missouri and bought a 17-acre farmhouse so we could grow the traditional medicinal botanicals she uses for her apothecary business, the Wilderness Maven. Ironically, since our move, I’ve been cast as the lead in two feature films, had a supporting role in another feature, and acted in a short film. I’ve also co-directed a Christmas movie with my sister, Sarah, played the lead in a crime-noir narrative podcast, and traveled to Calgary to act in three episodes of Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which has just been released. Even with all this “success,” in order to receive consistent paychecks in between paid filmmaking work, and to make sure I can pay off my credit-card debt and have money to live, I still find myself working for a company whose ethics I disagree with. (Have you seen Frances McDormand slog through these Amazon warehouses in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland? If so, you’ll know exactly what the endless rows of inventory and hundreds of workers wearing earplugs and neon vests avoiding the fleets of forklifts is like.) Working there feels a bit too much like being in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis for my liking. Just a fleshy cog in a warehouse.

Zach Sherman: Amazon warehouse employee.

But let me take you many years back before my employment at the Amazon distribution center. I moved from Portland, Oregon, down to L.A. to pursue my love of acting and film. After a few years in the Hollywood rat race, I’d starred in a B-movie thriller opposite Ron Perlman, had supporting roles on a couple CBS shows, and also played roles in some indie and short films. A few movies I’d acted in had even traveled the film festival circuit, some traversing around the world and receiving notoriety at Berlin and other prestigious festivals. All this seemed to add up to the idea that I was on track, inching toward my dreams and ever closer to my “big break.” I remember feeling uplifted when a Variety reviewer singled me out as having a “haunted turn” in Netflix’s My Suicide. I remember hoping I’d soon be like Mark Ruffalo, who had his breakout with You Can Count on Me after years of inept auditions and getting nowhere. Yet today as I work my shift at Amazon – a couple years after being recognized by The Guardian for my performance in an indie for which I also won the Seymour Cassel Acting Award, and as my acting and directing work is available on major streaming sites – I know something I couldn’t have when I first began: a lot like life in general, the path to “making it” is rarely going to be what you expect.

I’m certainly not the only artist who isn’t making a living exclusively with their art. I have numerous friends and peers who have strived as long and hard as I have and haven’t seen the results I have. I’ve heard the staggering statistic that only two percent of Screen Actors Guild members actually make a living from the profession, which should give you an idea how competitive, and often inequitable, this business is. Part of the problem is that a lot of the work you get while cutting your teeth is freebie jobs, and while they can help hone your skills and expand your network, they can make paying the bills almost impossible.

Shenae Grimes-Beech and Zachary Ray Sherman in an episode of 90210.

I’ve been privileged to have periods in my life when paychecks from filmmaking gave me financial security. In my twenties, I was making nearly $8,000 a week to act out soapy teen scenarios on a CW show, and that’s only middle-to-lower-tier movie income. The money in this business can be downright unbelievable and that’s one of the reasons why I think so many of us salivate at the idea of “success.” Not only can we share and express our artistic creative selves, but they’ll pay us incredibly for it??!! It’s quite enticing, especially when you’ve spent two decades working low-income jobs to supplement your passion pursuits.

To marry my professional direction with a creative outlet is definitely the ideal for someone like me, who yearns and probably even needs to express, create and communicate what it is to be alive. As I’ve met peers at Amazon, I’ve encountered people who, for all I know, experience that exact same creative burn and need – but have limited options for a paycheck due to various life circumstances that aren’t their fault. I thought my years as a younger struggling actor had taught me this, but lately I’m learning on a whole new level that there’s no shame in needing a job – sometimes, a job whose values you disagree with – to pay for life. So many artists struggle with this and we’re taught to believe that we haven’t made it until we’ve got Leonardo DiCaprio’s filmography and bank account. I want to say, loudly, that although working a full time job while pursuing acting, filmmaking, painting, playwriting, etc., may not feel ideal — (it’s hard!) – it’s more than OK and we shouldn’t feel embarrassed. Let’s remove the stigma and shame. If we luck out and get a break that makes us never have to work again, then excellent, throw a party and enjoy the fruits of our work. I feel – as the Duplass brothers and many others do – that when we reach success, we should turn around and help those who need a hand up.

Zachary Ray Sherman (right) directing his first feature, Barbie’s Kenny.

For where I am now – in aisle M127, P3, of the Amazon warehouse, with my little scanner gun’s screen saying I have 22 seconds to find and scan the next item on the list – I have to learn to be OK with where I am in this state of uncertainty, and decide that today, even in the face of societal standards and pressures, I can celebrate how far I’ve come.

I’ve always felt so restless and half crazy when I don’t have a character to obsess over and pour myself into exploring and performing. “When is the next job going to come?” is a question I am used to, just like so many other artists. I’ll admit delusion has sometimes been my best tool – “I can achieve this, I will.” But as I’ve learned over the past 20 years, you have to be patient for these miracles to occur.

Zachary Ray Sherman with his sister, Sarah Sherman, with whom he co-directed the 2020 feature Young Hearts.

When I self-funded (hence the credit-card debt) my first feature, Barbie’s Kenny, which I wrote and directed, I was inspired by the trailblazers who invented microbudget cinema, those who didn’t wait for Hollywood’s permission or blessing, but instead just grabbed cameras and a team of friends and decided to make movies their own way, with their own money. This is the life I signed up for. Committed to the art of performing, making movies, telling stories. And if I have to sell frozen yogurt (like I did for years) or schlep packages for a company I’m not a fan of, I’ll absolutely do it, because I’m so damn lucky to be able to – even, sometimes – do what I love.

Featured image shows Zachary Ray Sherman working for Amazon (left), and during the making of Under the Banner of Heaven. All images courtesy Zachary Ray Sherman.

Zachary Ray Sherman is an actor, director, writer, and producer from Portland, Oregon. After early success opposite Kirsten Dunst in Lifetime’s Fifteen and Pregnant, and as Jasper on the CW’s reboot of 90210, Sherman has gone on to build an impressive acting resume balancing television work (Netflix’s Everything Sucks!) with edgy roles in independent films (Archie’s Final Project, West Virginia Stories, Cuck). Sherman has also directed three feature films to date: Particular Crowd and Mar Vista’s upcoming Do You Hear What I Hear, the award-winning indie Barbie’s Kenny and HBO’s Young Hearts, a sweet and touching coming-of-age film executive-produced by the Duplass brothers. He will soon be seen in the indie dramas The Send-Off, produced by Glenn Howerton, and Can’t Seem to Make You Mine, opposite Lindsay Burdge, and is currently starring in Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven starring Andrew Garfield, created by Dustin Lance Black from the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, and executive-produced by Jason Bateman and Brian Grazer. (Photo by David Zaugh.)