Rachel Zegler talks to Glass on the art of self love

After a whirlwind 18 months, RACHEL ZEGLER talks to Glass about playing a goddess, befriending insecurities and lifting others up on her ascent to stardom

From Spring Issue 53

On the morning of my Zoom call with Rachel Zegler, sirens wail, children scream, garbage trucks honk and jackhammers rumble, but Zegler barely hears a peep because she sleeps with earplugs in. “That’s the reality of being a New Yorker,” she laughs.

There’s no shortage of things to discuss – a handful of new films, a year and a half marked by transience and travel, and the long-awaited release of Shazam! Fury of the Gods – but within the first 16 minutes, we’re talking about battling imposter syndrome.

Photographer: Ssam Kim

I am initially surprised by the 21-year- old’s comfort with vulnerability. As we chat, I quickly realise it is more than just comfort – Zegler has found an unlikely friend in her greatest fears and most invasive thoughts.

She slips seamlessly into an interior monologue, role-playing her therapist whom she affectionately dubs “my girl, Nancy.” I listen as the hybrid Nancy- Zegler delivers sage advice: “Here’s the intrusive thought – you don’t belong. But how do we know that’s not true? Remember who got picked out of 30,000 people to play Maria in West Side Story? That was you. Who was on the poster of the best picture nominee, West Side Story? That was you. You deserve to be in places that celebrate the work that you do.”

Three words stay with me long after Zegler steps out of her girl Nancy’s shoes – “that was you”. She repeats it like a mantra. I am a spectator to an epic mental game of tennis as she rallies with an inner voice that makes her feel placeless in places she deserves to be.

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Amid the skirmish, Zegler lets me in on her secret. It is only by inviting those unpleasant thoughts in and cosying up to them that they can be disarmed.

Of course, no one can blame Zegler for needing the odd reminder that her surreal pipeline from New Jersey high-schooler to starring in a Spielberg is, in fact, real. Her trajectory has only gone from impressive to stupendous.

Before Spielberg’s West Side Story had premiered, she landed two more roles with Hollywood behemoths (one as a goddess in the pantheon of DC’s Extended Universe and another as the lead in Disney’s live-action remake of Snow White). I’m told that having a group chat with Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu is not great for imposter syndrome either.

Zegler met Mirren and Liu while working on the anticipated sequel to David Sandberg’s Shazam!. The film continues the tale of Billy Batson, a teenager bestowed with the power to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi).

Enter the three daughters of Atlas – Mirren, Liu and Zegler – a vengeful trio of ancient goddesses who come up against Billy and his friends to steal back the magic taken from them aeons ago.

It’s clear she feels blessed to be considered worthy of this cinematic sisterhood: “I got out of the shower when I was still in Jersey and they had made the announcement that Helen Mirren is joining the cast and I was, like, ‘oh my god, she’s going to be my big sister’. A week later it was Lucy Liu and I’m, like, ‘what have I done?’”

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Although Zegler didn’t know it at the time, she had gained two mentors and friends. For her, Mirren and Liu form somewhat of a gold standard on how to treat others with kindness, personally but also professionally: “Shazam! was not an easy movie to make. It’s an incredible feat with a lot of moving pieces and Lucy and Helen are there making sure everybody is taken care of … That’s what it’s supposed to be like.”

Now I’m curious – what were some of those moving pieces? Zegler begins to talk with her hands (think flying fists and make-shift flames from fingertips). The room I’m in feels hotter as she conjures up images of extras running around in extravagant costumes, the daily three hours in makeup and heat radiating from explosions.

While I start to get a good feel for the dynamism of life on this set, the intricacies of Zegler’s part, Anthea, will have to stay locked away in the DCEU vault “until god knows when”. I’m reminded that such is life for characters in sci-fi epics who are shrouded in a level of secrecy fit for the Vatican Archives.

Luckily, Zegler does not come across as a stickler for the rules. She reveals to me the joy of playing a character with such an “intense arc”. Zegler explains, “Anthea has a lot of layers, and not only to her costume … You have a woman who is very strong in her personal beliefs and what she will do to express them to the world.”

Photographer: Ssam Kim

As we begin to chat about the reality of moving to Atlanta by herself for filming, Zegler admits, “I was really struggling with the first two months away.” Here it is again, her signature move – an unashamed capacity to be candid about her fragility.

I ask Zegler where she feels most at home but her answer hinges on people, not places: “It’s really just where my loved ones are. My family could pick up and move somewhere else and I would just feel very comfortable being wherever they are.”

We riff about dreamy destinations the Colombian- American family could relocate to, as she jokes, “Why haven’t they moved to the Bahamas yet? You mean I’ve got to go back to suburban New Jersey every couple of months to say hi? Where’s the beach?”

Zegler’s last question becomes a fair one when I consider the corners of the globe she has found herself filming in over the past 18 months. Atlanta, London, Wrocław and Berlin don’t exactly bring to mind palm trees and sandy shores (a quick Google search confirms there are no beaches in Wrocław, the landlocked Polish city where Zegler has been shooting her lead role as Lucy Gray Baird in The Hunger Games prequel).

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Liminal spaces have dominated the actress’s life for the last year and a half, from airport terminals to hotel rooms with half-unpacked suitcases. Zegler’s work schedule sounds exhausting but there is not the slightest suggestion of complaint in her voice. She’s grounded, grateful and aware of the silver linings: “I’ve developed an insane ability to make a home wherever I go.”

Zegler likes to acknowledge her privilege and shine a light on those who “have fought way harder to be seen and represented”. She explains that as a white Latina, the colour of her skin affords her particular freedoms, like the ability to play roles that are simply not available to others: “If I did feel cornered into a box, I would not be playing an ethnicity-less goddess in a major superhero franchise or Snow White.”

She laments the lack of Afro-Latinx representation in Hollywood, using her time with me to celebrate the incredible talents that are Jharrel Jerome and Ariana DeBose (Zegler reminds me that DeBose won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in West Side Story).

I notice a shift in tone to reflect the reverence she feels for her former castmate. What comes next is a pointed call to action to those in power, “Buck up and be the allies that [you] claim [you] are.”

Zegler loathes phrases like “the first ever” because of the eerie absence it implies – no one has come before. It’s February and we happen to be chatting during that annual limbo in awards season where Oscars categories have nominees but no winners.

We discuss Michelle Yeoh’s phenomenal performance in A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once which has made her – here comes that troubling phrase – “the first ever” Asian-identifying person in the running to win best actress.

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Zegler is quick to add another example: Halle Berry is the only Black woman to have won the category for Monster’s Ball. I deduce that those three words upset Zegler because they are an emblem of erasure, pregnant with stories that are not told, voices that are not heard and doors that are not open.

Her frustration is palpable: “How many [versions of] Everything Everywhere All at Once do we need to show you that Asian people belong at the forefront of Hollywood? How many [versions of] West Side Story and In the Heights’ do we need to show you that Latin representation is an amazing thing? We belong at the table.”

Each blow is delivered with a laser-sharp diction and lyricism that can only come from her roots in musical theatre. For someone who would like to be remembered for “lifting up everyone I could”, the depth of our discussion tells me she has already begun fulfilling that vision.

As we wrap up, New York is well and truly awake and Zegler’s earplugs won’t save her now. It’s approaching 3:45am in Sydney and the last thing I see before ending the call is Zegler’s broad smile. The last thing I hear is her yelling “go to sleep please!”

by Christina Alexakis

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Stylist: Aryeh Lappin

Make up: Kale Teter at THE WALL GROUP using DIOR Forever Collection and Capture Totale Le Serum

Hair: David Von Cannon at A-FRAME AGENCY

Manicurist: Jini Lim using DIOR Manicure Collection and Miss DIOR Hand Cream

Photography assistant: Sangwoo Suh

Styling assistant: Jesse Leonard

Special thanks to ST. REGIS NEW YORK

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