The new ‘Kissing Booth’ star on ‘Cats,’ Selena and greased abs
By Nancy Coleman
Taylor Zakhar Perez usually only gets a taste of fame at Home Depot.
He’s been spotted four times, in four different Home Depot stores around Los Angeles: once at customer service, twice in various aisles and again as he was walking out. Each time, employees or shoppers have recognized him from a 2015 episode of Freeform’s “Young and Hungry.” (Why so many fans of the show frequent the hardware store is unclear. As for Zakhar Perez: “I’m a handy guy,” he said in a Zoom interview.)
His reach is likely to expand past the lighting aisle fairly soon: Zakhar Perez stars as the new love interest, Marco, in “The Kissing Booth 2,” Netflix’s sequel to the 2018 high school rom-com, released Friday. Marco is a bit of a Renaissance man in the film — athletic, musically inclined, adept in dance — or as Elle (Joey King) and perhaps a decent portion of the internet prefer to call him: a “snack.”
This is one of the first big projects for Zakhar Perez, 28, who got an early start performing in regional musicals while growing up in northwest Indiana. On Tuesday, he spoke about the film, his family and Marco’s first (greased up, clothing-optional) scene. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: What did you know about “The Kissing Booth” before you got involved? Had you seen the movie?
A: I knew nothing. Nothing. It was kind of crazy. It was my first audition of the year, in January 2019. I got this email, and I’m like, oh, a YA film, high school — and I didn’t love high school, so any time I get high school projects, I have to ask my sister for advice. I’m like, “Hey, so when you’re a cool kid, does this happen? How does this work?”
I had no idea of the magnitude of this project and how many fans were already down for this movie. I had my first audition, and the room was just full of guys that probably could be related to me. It was like five or six auditions later that I finally got it.
Q: How old is your sister? Is she in high school?
A: No, none of my siblings are in high school anymore, but I have seven siblings. I’m number six.
My sister is actually the one who got me into acting. She did like 40 performances of “Annie” one winter — you know, that’s like the go-to play in community theater. I went with my parents, and I was watching it like, “OK, this is fun, I could do this.” So then they asked if I wanted to get involved ushering and just handing out the playbills, and I’m a 12-, 13-year-old kid, why not?
That following summer, my mom enrolled the youngest three into this theater program at the same theater that “Annie” was at, and I did all behind-the-scenes stuff: I did sound, I did lighting, I was a stagehand. My brother would be sweeping in between sets; he’s four years younger than me. After that I kind of just fell in love with it.
Q: Were you a fan of rom-coms before this?
A: I didn’t grow up being a rom-com guy, but I love Matthew McConaughey. I just thought he was so magnetic and fun and carefree.
Q: In this movie, your character has such a wide array of artistic hobbies — there’s singing in English and Spanish, there’s guitar, there’s dance. How much of that was built into Marco’s character before you came on?
A: Man, it was all prebuilt. When I got the breakdown, it was looking for guys that were on “Eurovision,” “American Idol,” Latin “America’s Got Talent” kind of stuff. I was definitely nervous.
When I got to the callback, Vince [Marcello, the director] and I had really in-depth conversations of like, “Oh, you did ‘West Side Story’ back in your musical theater days,” or, “Oh, you did ‘Music Man,’ that’s a good show,” or, “‘On the Town,’ that’s a fun one.” He was just so well versed in musical theater.
So we talked about dancing, talked about how well I took on choreography — and I was like, “Vince, I’m going to be honest with you. I’m the hardest worker out there. I may not be the best dancer. I’m not going to go audition for ‘A Chorus Line’ tomorrow and do that entire opening scene. I’m not that guy. But if you give me the time and the support, I will be freaking fantastic.” And he’s like, “OK. That’s all I needed to hear, that I can count on you.” Then we had the chemistry read, and the rest is history.
Q: Did you grow up singing in Spanish?
A: That was a newer thing. I mean growing up, Selena [Quintanilla-Pérez] was my family’s heart and soul. My mom is Mexican, and I didn’t really see women on TV that looked like her. When I saw J-Lo bring Selena to life as a kid, we watched it as a family. Any time there was a Latin-based project that came out, my mom would usually put us in front of it. We grew up singing Selena, Gloria Estefan and Celia Cruz, but this is my first time actually being able to sing it and really get involved with it, which was awesome.
Q: I’m curious, hearing you throw out “A Chorus Line” references: Were there certain musicals growing up that were really important for you?
A: The first show I saw was “Cats,” because it was the first project that my parents brought home that was on DVD or VHS or something. My siblings and I used to reenact those scenes. My cousin was Macavity. I was, I don’t know, Rum Tum Tugger. And “West Side Story,” because Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno in that film kind of reminded me of my mom.
“Rent” and “Wicked” were also huge for me. I was into “The Wizard of Oz” growing up, and I loved “Wicked” because Elphaba; she thinks that maybe she can meet this wizard that can change her life — if she just would accept herself and know that she’s powerful. And I definitely thought that there was a huge LGBTQ undertone in that. I didn’t realize that until kind of later in life, about the representation in these musicals, but “Rent” was my first introduction to the LGBTQ community.
Q: I have to ask, mostly on behalf of everyone who is going to watch the film Friday: We’re introduced to your character in the film through this semi-viral video that’s just … mostly abs. Was that you?
A: That was me. I will take that one. When I finally did my deep dive into everything, and I was reading this introduction of me — it’s all Elle’s dialogue like, “I don’t know, was that sweat or glitter? Oh, my God, those abs should have an Instagram.”
When we were shooting it, we couldn’t find the wardrobe woman, but we had double-stick tape. So Vince and I just start double-sticking my shorts up, because he wanted to hem them just slightly so you can see a little bit more skin for the purpose of the scene. So we’re both double-sticking them and just laughing, and then we’re back to shooting, and we’re spraying me with oil and water. Vince had to be very serious because he’s seeing the cut in his head, but we would cut and then just start laughing. I’m like, I can’t even look at this. This is so embarrassing.
Q: There’s been a bit of a pattern so far with the men of Netflix’s teen rom-coms — Jacob Elordi blew up after the first “Kissing Booth,” and same with Noah Centineo after “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Is that something you were aware of or thinking about when you took the role? And is it something you’re prepared for?
A: I didn’t think past learning lyrics, guitar, dance and lines, and just not getting fired. But I got to experience it firsthand because I traveled internationally with Joey and Joel [Courtney, who plays Lee], and people came up to them and were like, “Oh, my God, are you guys from ‘The Kissing Booth’? Oh, my God. Are you Joey King? Are you Joel?”
I’m definitely ready to use what’s going to become my platform for good and for advocacy, and I’m very excited about that. But I don’t know, it’s a little nerve-wracking.