Amazon’s newest period piece, ten-episode “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” is definitely the Zelda Fitzgerald show — but Zelda Fitzgerald was shaped in so many ways — for better or worse — by the relationship with her famous, famously difficult husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Australian actor David Hoflin stepped into the American literary giant’s Jazz Age tux for “Z,” and spoke with us at length about his experience on the show. Edited for clarity and length.
Anything surprising you learned in the process of preparing for and filming “Z”?
I mean, obviously doing research for a character like F. Scott, I think it can be a very good friend — but it can also be an enemy of sorts. You can do research until you go crazy, on someone like him. And we’re sort of erring on the side of Zelda’s view of their life, not necessarily F. Scott’s, so there is going to be an obvious bias towards the account of their history to Zelda’s side. You have to take that into account when filming — that we are telling her story. So that’s something that I had to be aware of, that it was not all about me.
I did a fair bit of research before his fame, but to be honest I haven’t done a lot of work past, let’s say, 1922 — past his first success with “This Side of Paradise,” like to Paris, or with the Lost Generation, because that hadn’t happened yet — in the season, in the series — and I didn’t want to preempt what was happening for us.
Also, there is a fine line to tread between telling a story and also making sure there is light and dark between characters. It’s easy to fall into the trap that F. Scott is a bad guy; hopefully we’ve shown a redeeming side to him.
I’m no expert of American literature, but Fitzgerald does cast a long shadow — even still, I was personally surprised to learn that he had been in the military at any point in his life…
It was all news to me, as well! You know, growing up in Australia we read “The Great Gatsby” and knew who F. Scott was, but beyond that we didn’t know much. I didn’t know he was in the Army, I think maybe because he never saw action. I guess it was never really talked about a lot because of that.
In a way I think that was good for him, but in a way I do think it was a bit of a disappointment for him, because he only wrote about what he knew — so if he had fought, he would have written a book about that experience.
I also didn’t know he was so young. I mean we’re talking about people — Zelda was seventeen when they first met, F. Scott was maybe twenty? A young man, with a young wife: It puts perspective on their immaturity. We’ve seen through history that young people don’t always make the best decisions.
That detail, about his disappointment in not having seen action in the war — we definitely feel that come through in the series. Every time any of his friends make a joke that relates in any way to his not having seen any action, it clearly needles him more than any of their other jokes or mocking.
From all accounts, he had a large ego that served him to… Well, anything that takes a jab to his ego, on anything, he doesn’t handle very well. He didn’t handle criticism of his book very well, he didn’t handle reviews very well. So I think the fact that he didn’t see any action… I think it’s sort of the romanticized notion that people who go to war come back a war hero, and through no fault of his own he had nothing to show.
I actually think he would have written a very, very good book had he gone to war — and I think he thought so, too. And one of his main things was leaving a legacy, so maybe that, for him, was a missed opportunity.
On that note, at Screener we’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘genius’ here, and how Fitzgerald related to it. Did you have any specific conception of ‘genius’ before you took on this role? Or would you argue with using ‘genius’ to refer to Fitzgerald in the first place?
I wouldn’t, to be honest — I wouldn’t call him a genius. I think it would be quite difficult in literature to call anyone a genius, because it is an art and everyone has such different opinions of what is good and what isn’t.
He certainly had a gift for writing, and I think what makes him prolific was he was able to paint a picture with his words very well, very eloquently, and I think that was what was appealing. I think “This Side of Paradise,” that if you look at it in terms of story and arc — at least, from my limited experience — it isn’t anything novel or genius to me. But the way he described the snippets of people’s lives, he was able to do succinctly and eloquently. It was so attainable that people gravitated towards that.
Even if we wouldn’t classify him as a genius, it seems like a concept Fitzgerald himself would have bought into…
I think that’s accurate. He was very driven to be a Great American Novelist, hungry to leave a legacy, to leave behind something that was special. I think perhaps he may have thought his writing was exemplary and on the verge of being classified as “genius.”
It’s one of those things with him… A fine line between arrogance and confidence. I don’t think he struggled with his self-confidence and self-belief, but at the same time I think he struggled with what people thought about him.
That sounds like such a miserable way to live. It certainly came off that way onscreen.
I would say so! And that’s so much of what leads to his and Zelda’s demise, and that’s what I think ultimately what made him die at such an early age — and also affected how he died, and where he died, and where he was in his life at the time. It goes to show it doesn’t matter how successful you are or how much money you can make… If you’re not well within yourself, that stuff is all secondary.
One of the most interesting things I found about this season of “Z” was how, even though their romance was fairly central, your arc was almost a reverse of the traditional romantic hero’s arc.
I keep on using the words “tumultuous romance,” because they didn’t really have a successful relationship — but they did start out with a huge amount of passion. Certainly he used Zelda as his muse, his inspiration for a lot of his writing. And people are going to argue forever about how much of her material he used — some will say he didn’t; some will say, well, he did a little; some will say a lot — but certainly without Zelda in his life, his writing would have suffered.
I think on a romantic level there was a deep love between them, but there was also a destructive need. At least, that’s what we’re playing with. F. Scott needed Zelda on many levels that came more out of desperation rather than want, and I think that’s where we’re kind of heading with it. Their lives moving forward — it was not a typical romance, where they lived happily ever after. But at the same time, they never divorced, and we’ve only sort of scratched the surface of what their relationship is in this first season.
Despite everything we associate with the Jazz Age, and how glitzy and fast the ad spots made the series look, the bulk of the action is so contained. The first three of, really, a very small number of episodes, were dedicated to just the quietness of Zelda’s life in Montgomery before even marrying Scott.
So, part of it was to show the glitz and glamour of the 1920s Jazz Age, but I think at the heart of it, really, they were trying to tell the story of two young people in the midst of that world. The party aspect [of the era], I do agree, that’s the romantic, nostalgic part of watching a show like this. But I also feel like sometimes if you rely on that too much, that gets old really quickly. And really, the heart of our whole show is two people who are trying to deal with success and relationships and their own addictions. I do think, especially when it comes to portraying Zelda’s side of it, there has to a sort of grounded aspect to portraying that.
At the heart of it, to establish a bond between Scott and Zelda was the most important thing. You certainly could have gone with they met, they went to New York, but perhaps the creators wanted to get to the quiet within the craziness of the world they are living in, which would also be why so much time was spent with Zelda before Scott in those first three episodes.
From a craft perspective, is that stillness something that you aimed for intentionally? Or was it something that came more from the direction?
When you get the script, you’ll get these notes that describe, “suddenly she blows up” or whatever, and we try to adhere to those — but there were a lot of conversations we had while shooting where we were kind of like, this doesn’t feel realistic to us, couples in these situations don’t tend to argue that way, trying to make it be relatively realistic. And you know there’s always sort of light and shade to characters, and if everything was just sort of blown up, you can’t catch that.
I think also there was a lot of internal miscommunication between Zelda and Scott — like in Episode 9, I think, F. Scott says something like, “This is how we work, even if we’ve never spoken about it, you’ve always been fine with it,” and Zelda is just on a totally different page. That sort of thing is kind of normal in a young relationship to begin with — when you have an argument with a loved one and you are pissed off at them to begin with, you don’t want to talk to them, and eventually as time goes on you start to nag at each other instead — and Scott and Zelda’s personalities just put it into overdrive.
I didn’t think about how these moments would affect the whole season, but focused more so on the time and the place, and what had just happened in the scene, to make it as true as possible.
There is a lot of general knowledge out there, particularly about the famous authors and artists the Fitzgeralds became friends with in Paris, like Ernest Hemingway. If “Z” were to get picked up for more seasons, is there a particular figure or friendship from that time period that you would be particularly excited to see play out?
Oh, obviously Hemingway — not only the relationship he and Scott had, but the relationship he had with Zelda, as well.
When it comes to specifics — I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but for me — that time period, in Paris, is the most interesting. Certainly just the idea of it, the idea of Paris in the mid-twenties, with all these artists who ended up being heroes to so many people all gathered in one place… It certainly does have a romantic appeal!
What about in this early New York period? Scott and Zelda definitely hung around with a bunch of famous people there, too — we got to see a lot of them onscreen. Was there any character you particularly enjoyed getting to interact with in this season?
There were a lot, but I think for me it would be H. L. Mencken, who only showed up briefly in episode four or five, I think? I’ve been able to read a few articles and a few letters that Mencken and Fitzgerald wrote to each other throughout their lives, and that was very, very interesting to see their correspondences with each other. F. Scott confided in Mencken, they were good friends. It was actually right after we shot that episode that I found those.
I hadn’t even noticed him this season!
They interacted more with each other later in their lives, I think. Hopefully he will be a character who we get to bring back for future seasons and get to know more.
Anything funny that comes to mind behind-the-scenes? We love those stories…
Well, we had a 3-month shoot, which is pretty quick when it comes to TV, so it was very much a whirlwind kind of shoot where we started, and then suddenly we were done. So the challenge was, obviously, to get to know Christina as well as possible. She’s lovely, and we got on very, very well, which was good — as we kind of needed to, you know, get know each quite well, very quickly! I think the second or third day was a sex scene.
Shooting the Princeton scene [where Scott screams at the lecture hall], my wife was in labor at that time, and that was the last scene we shot that day before I shot off to be with her. Needless to say, my focus wasn’t a hundred percent on shooting that day. I think they edited it okay, but apparently it was the only time I forgot to speak American and I was speaking Australian instead. I was checking in at the hospital in between takes, and they were asking me how long the contractions were, and I said “4 minutes,” and Christina said, “Uhhh, you should probably go!” But I didn’t want to ruin filming! And then we got into shooting, and I suddenly think, “Oh, wait, F. Scott isn’t Australian!” I don’t think I did it while I was shooting, but I can’t say for sure. Luckily, if I did, they edited it out nicely.
I am sure that you are asking this question yourself everyday, but — any whisperings through the grapevine about a second season?
From what we’ve heard, there’s always good news and interesting news. I certainly feel that Amazon is behind the show — from the get-go they’ve been great. But it is a fickle business.
I hope we get it. [Season 1] is certainly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these two. And I think they’ve done that on purpose! You could have a rip-roaring adventure, but they are taking their time. And I think that is sort of in our favor, how much there still is to tell. So, hopefully. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
Any chance they’d send you off to Paris for some of that shoot?
They’d bloody better!
To film in New York, with such history, was a great experience this season, and one I’m surprised we got. So many shows just shoot New York on a soundstage in LA, but we got to be in New York, with all those historic buildings that have hardly changed since the 1920s. So to top that off, if we were able to actually shoot in Paris? Especially from a performance point, that would be fantastic! You could… feel history there.
Thank you, David, for such a lovely conversation! They’d bloody better get you to Paris soon, because we’re ready for Season 2.
The first season of “Z: The Beginning of Everything” is currently streaming on Amazon.