After being introduced to acting by chance, Zachary Ray Sherman truly fell in love with the craft after watching a performance Cyrano de Bergerac. Years later, an old friend approached him with his toughest role to date: playing a young man radicalized into the alt-right. Sherman hesitated at first, disgusted by the terrible hate spewed by his prospective character, but ultimately chose to move forward and endeavor to dissect the man beneath the monster. Cuck, directed by Rob Lambert, is an unblinking examination of bigotry, racism, and increasing violence of the alt-right. Sherman hopes that this timely film can spark conversation about how we can go about fixing the deeply broken aspects of our society that allow such bigotry and divisions to fester.
Cliché: When was the first moment you knew you wanted to act?
Zachary Ray Sherman: There were a few moments that added up to the realization that acting was for me. When I was thirteen, I randomly attended an acting class and was amazed by what I saw there, I didn’t know it was a thing, that you could do this, make-believe in this formal way. A year later I was cast in a TV movie playing Kirsten Dunst’s little brother, which filmed in my hometown, and on that set I was enamored with the whole shebang. I fell in love and the feeling has never left me. A year or so later I saw a high school production of Cyrano de Bergerac and the lead actor knocked my socks off. Seeing that performance had me thinking, ‘I want to do that’ and I’ve never really looked back.
How did you first hear about your new film, Cuck? What sparked your interest in the project?
Casting reached out to me and sent the script. Kara Sullivan cast the movie and we’d worked together many years ago. She said that when she read the script, I was the first person that came to mind. I read it and took a while deliberating if I wanted to pursue the role or not, because it was such an ugly guy on the page. Eventually my interest was sparked and I followed it when the clues into the role started coming to me and I became excited with how I would approach him.
Talk about the actual meaning of the word cuck and its context within alt-right circles, for those who are unaware.
Basically, it’s an insult meant to mock another man’s masculinity. That’s the most broad way to describe it. The word derives from cuckold which first had to do with the cuckoo bird laying its eggs in other bird’s nests. Shakespeare used the term for a man whose wife is cheating on him. Today it’s used in ways to mock men whose beliefs you don’t share, most notably by the far right. The intent is the same but it’s main purpose is to describe liberals and political moderates. It’s a slang put down used by the alt-right. There is a genre of pornography that has spun from the term as well, dealing heavy in emasculation, degradation and humiliation. Racial components are added to increase perceived humiliation. It’s very popular among men over 55.
Why did you want to portray such a controversial character?
Well, people are people, we’re all made up of the same stuff so you’ve always got that base to start with and frankly that’s a lot of why I decided to dive in with Ronnie. To find the human and not the monster. We’ve all seen the version of the monster but that’s not as interesting to me. What makes this guy tick? Why’s he so locked off? Why’s he doing these things? Why why why? These are the questions that become the reasons to play the part. You slowly figure it out and put it in action.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you do a lot of research into the alt-right?
Benecio Del Toro talked about preparation as this kind of exploration where you end up following a bunch of different paths and it all ends up adding up to the final thing. I’m very much the same way in that I approach the prep slowly and do my best to remain open and follow whatever bubbles up. I was lucky to have two months prep on this role and hope I’m afforded such a luxury in the future, it’s the best way to work for me. It’s a lot of thinking, day dreaming and of course the actual physical acting stuff, the lines, etc. The preparation is this big process made up of a bunch of tiny pieces and a large part of why I love acting. I did more ruminating on Ronnie than obsessive work researching the alt-right. All the stuff that was needed was in the script.
What forces do you think are fueling the rise of the alt-right?
Boy, that’s a big question and I’m by no means the expert to answer it, but I’ll just say I don’t think it helps that we have a president that calls racists flooding the streets, terrorizing and killing people in Charlottesville, ‘good people’ or whatever the hell he said. This reality star con man certainly doesn’t help. He empowers the hate and bigotry people typically suppress because we can all feel its wrong. What other forces fuel this hateful rise? Fear. People reacting to their fears.
What can we do as a society to address these elements?
I just watched Terrence Malick’s newest movie at the Nashville Film Festival, it’s beautiful, A Hidden Life and there’s a character who stands up for what he believes in. I think that’s something individuals can do to improve substandard realities. It all starts with and from the people. Stand for equality, stand for what you believe in … yet that’s where it gets scary because some people believe this hateful nonsense as their credo … but if we look at it simply, look at ‘equality’ I don’t see how you can disagree with it. We’re all made up of the same stuff, so we’re all equal, it’s that easy. Lets quit with this separation, division and hate. It’s easier said than done, but as Malick’s movie presents via its poem, we can do more.
What commentary do you think the film has to offer in the context of today’s incredibly polarized political climate and the increasing celebration of open, proud bigotry?
If there’s any commentary it’s what does this guy’s life look like, feel like, where is he coming from? Why does he feel alone? Why does he feel voiceless? Let’s observe his actions and make our own mind up about what’s going on in there. These are the things I think the film looks at from an fly on the wall vantage.
How would you respond to those who might worry that the film presents a sympathetic portrait of radicalization and bigotry?
I think we need to have sympathy with each other to get past these lines drawn in the sand. Take care of each other, maybe that’ll deter the horrible, tragic, drastic actions we see day after day here in the States by these guys who are clearly acting off of some crossed wiring. I don’t know all the answers, but maybe a little sympathy leads to less devastation and tragedy, I don’t know. But I don’t think our film is going to have some crazy reaction, by putting a ‘sympathetic portrait’ on screen, I don’t think we’re being irresponsible … it’s a story about a guy, a human and if someone’s worried I’d say watch the movie and see what you think. I’ve heard people view the film as entirely unsympathetic too, so I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder.
What do you want your audience to walk away thinking about?
I don’t know … I feel that’s for the audiences members themselves to feel and think on their own. I’ve been asked what I’d want this film to achieve and I don’t know that I exactly see it that way, but I can say by putting this topical timely movie out there that, if it engaged people to talk further on the matter, hey, job well done. By conversations we can begin to see what needs fixing and find ways to do so.
In your personal opinion, what small changes can we as individuals make to take steps towards eliminating hatred?
I, along with the majority of the country, think we need reasonable gun laws. Yesterday. We should have Red Flag Laws across the entire nation. Anything else is irresponsible and promoting violence and death and that blood is on our corrupt politicians and the NRA, but we can’t excuse ourselves as it takes the people to enact change. Small changes are sharing your voice, be a part of the conversation, this all starts from the ground up not the other way around. We can’t let these leaders off the hook and must demand these laws be put in place. People over profits. Right now its the other way around and we shouldn’t accept it.
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Zachary Ray Sherman Examines a Loner’s Descent into The Alt-Right in His New Film, “Cuck.” Photo Credit: David Zaugh.