Photographed by Randall Slavin at Beverly Hilton
Chris Zylka has a formula for making it in Hollywood. Sitting on the balcony of the Presidential Suite at the Beverly Hilton -- a balcony so big that when he first went outside, he mistakenly thought it must be communal -- the former model tugs at his knit cap, surveys the impressive view, takes a drag from his American Spirit, and says, "The first step is to try not to be homeless."
Coming from Zylka, 26, it sounds like a joke, since he's moving to Vancouver to start a regular gig on The Secret Circle, the CW's show about a group of terribly attractive witches, and will flash his toothy grin on screens later this year as Peter Parker's nemesis, Flash Thompson, in The Amazing Spider-Man reboot. Surely his all-American good looks and easy charm opened doors for him when he first hauled to L.A., right? Not quite.
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Zylka was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio--back then he was Chris Settlemire (Zylka is his mother's maiden name) and attended the University of Toledo as an art major and football player. Acting was never much on his mind, he says, until a conversation with his Ukrainian grandfather, who had studied theater.
"I had never really thought about acting as art," he says. "You know, growing up in Youngstown, the Rust Belt of the world, it was always just a form of entertainment. Finally seeing it as an art form, I fell in love with it. So I moved out to California, never having visited before."
The college dropout was homeless for a time. After earning enough from a job at a bar in Burbank to buy a car, he moved into that. Then lightning struck in the form of manager Jon Simmons.
"He was eating at the restaurant and asked me if I was an actor," recalls Zylka. "I said, 'No, I want to be, but I've never worked before.' From that moment on, he trained me and developed me, and one thing led to another."
By "one thing," he means a guest spot on 90210, modeling gigs, and roles in TV movies. By "another," he means bigger parts in movies like Shark Night 3D and Gregg Araki's darkly comic 2010 movie Kaboom, in which Zylka plays the male protagonist's seemingly dimwitted surfer-dude roommate and lust object.
"Kaboom was my favorite film to work on," he says. "We were in a ratty-ass, run-down studio with no air conditioners for a month and a half of shooting and not knowing what we were getting ourselves into, having so much fun along the way."
READ: INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS DEKKER OF KABOOM
Accommodations on his most recent project were surely more luxurious.
"Everyone in the world knows Spider-Man," he says. "And to be accepted into such a large franchise was overwhelming. You have to settle yourself down and realize it is a job and I have to work and I have to be good."
He says that the Marc Webb-helmed movie -- starring Andrew Garfield as the webslinger and Emma Stone as his love interest, Gwen Stacy -- will be more character-driven than the Sam Raimi-directed Spidey flicks from a few years back. And while Zylka won't spill the beans on what happens in the movie, he's pretty open about what the movie means for him. It means that his formula works.
"I feel like maybe I've made it," he says. "Kind of."
To view our slideshow of young Hollywood stars, click here.