Getting her start at the “boot camp” that is daytime-TV, Zea played Gwen Hotchkiss Winthrop on the NBC soap, a “difficult” role in that “she was this kind of inbetweener — she wasn't a villain, but she wasn't a good guy either,” the actress recalls. “She was just this sort of spineless amoeba. I could never quite figure out her point of view.” That was in part because “the writing was so terrible,” Zea opines. “And that's not telling tales out of school!” The one bright side? The fictional burg of Harmony was where she met future husband Travis Schuldt!
One of Zea’s first primetime roles was a Season 1 episode of the hallmark CBS procedural — “before it became the juggernaut that it was” — playing “the one that you think did it in Act I, but then in Act II it turns out she didn’t. I was that girl — surely she’s guilty, and then da-da-daaa, she’s not.” Zea’s lingering memory from that experience was an unnamed director of photography, “because I have never looked worse! Even my manager was like, ‘What did you do to that guy?!’ And I was like, “I don't know!'”
Zea’s first post-Passions gig was playing “Vic Mackey’s love interest for a second” on the acclaimed cable drama. Specially, she played a K9 officer — no small feat in that at the time “I wasn't necessarily a dog person, in terms of I never had one growing up.” Luckily she was paired with “the sweetest animal I’ve ever encountered” — and series lead Michael Chiklis wasn't so bad, either. “I was Michael’s first love scene, but he handled himself like a pro,” Zea relates. “There’s always that moment like, ‘Hey, I’ve never done this before. It’s weird, right?’ and my job is to say, ‘Yes, it’s weird.’ That's all that people want to hear doing a love scene, is that you feel as funky as they do.”
That this Tim Daly-led ABC drama about a team of investigators was unceremoniously pulled after just five episodes “was a really disappointing thing for me in my career,” Zea shares. “I was devastated, because it was my first series [as a regular] and I truly thought, ‘This is a turning point. I’m going to be able to enjoy the fruits of my labor.'” Instead, ‘I turned on the TV one night and there was Dancing With the Stars” bumping the twice-rescheduled Episode 6. “Maybe it was just ahead of its time,” the actress now muses. “But I really didn't get a lot of closure, and it took me a long time to get a job after that. That was a tough time for me.”
DIRTY SEXY MONEY
More than two years after Eyes was shut, Zea returned to ABC on this multigenerational sudser as Karen Darling, a rich bitch whose only weak spot was the family attorney played by Peter Krause. “This was the big one for me, the one that got me to a different level in terms of the attention that I had been getting,” Zea remembers. Landing on a buzzy show with a cast she regarded as family “was lightning in a bottle, the kind of experience you don't appreciate as much until you look back and realize it was sort of a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” she says. As for its run of two short seasons, “I think if it had gone on longer, it may have started spiraling out of control. The window for it was perfect in hindsight.”
Zea says that her Season 1 arc on the HBO drama “got me more critical acclaim than anything I’d done prior,” playing a client of well-endowed Ray’s who seeks out “the boyfriend experience,” albeit with a hidden, dark-ish agenda. “I mean, she was just out of her f—king mind,” the actress recalls. “She was crazy pants, but Ray ends up falling for her because she’s so good at the role-playing. People really, really connected with that character.”
“I have such a soft spot in my heart for that show,” Zea warmly notes. But because lawman Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant) was not one to settle down nor able to keep loved ones out of harm’s way, it became problematic to keep Winona, his ex-wife/girlfriend/baby mama, around. “If my relationship with The Following was ‘complicated,’ my relationship with Justified was ‘complex,’ because we weren't able to make it work so that I could be there full-time in terms of the story,” Zea explains. “The creators wanted [Winona around], we all wanted it, but at the end of the day we agreed that this is not part of the show.” Even so, Zea “ended up falling in love with Winona,” and thus was delighted to recur during the show’s later seasons — including that series-ending coda (detailed in Slide 12).
PERSON OF INTEREST
While still on contract with Justified, Zea in between Seasons 2 and 3 found time to guest-star as the very first POI on the CBS pilot. “That offer came in on my birthday,” she notes. “I got a call saying, ‘They want you to do this pilot. It shoots in New York, you’ll be there for a month and it’s going to be great,’ and I was like, ‘That couldn’t be more perfect for me right now.'” Remembering the initial, ultimately groundbreaking premise as “really out there,” Zea was thrilled to see it turn into “a pretty big deal! People really love that show.”
Zea says that her Season 5 turn as Hank’s unshakeable ex-girlfriend Carrie “was one of my favorite jobs” — and her first on a show that she was already a (huge) fan of. “I’m friends with [casting director] Felicia Fasano, and I told her early on how I would even do a walk-on — anything. After I finished Person of Interest, I did an episode of Royal Pains, and the weekend in between Felicia called up, like, ‘There’s this great part but it’s just one day, and it’s New York.’ I was like, ‘I’m in New York, babe!’ And it ended up being several more episodes because I begged, I’m not going to lie! [Series creator] Tom Kapinos was like, “You burned down Hank’s house! I can’t write more for you’ — and yet he did.”
UNDER THE DOME
“I was getting engaged [to Travis Schuldt] in Hawaii when I got the call from my manager, who was like, ‘You don't get a lot of opportunities to play the bad girl, not like this, anyway.'” Cue Zea’s debut as Chester’s Mill’s “unapologetically naughty” drug kingpin, Maxine Seagrave. “I liked the writing, I liked the character, and Travis joined me in North Carolina for half of it. It was a really easy job, the people were nice, and there was no, like, ‘hands-tied-behind-my-back crying stuff going on.” Which can only be an allusion to….
As mentioned a few slides back, Zea had a “complicated relationship” with Fox’s horror-thriller, where she played serial killer Joe Carroll’s ex-wife. “I’m so grateful for the experience — for that team, that cast and that crew, especially Kevin Bacon, and how great they were to me,” she notes. “But that was a very hard, very draining character to play.” Especially for someone whose mindset needed to be in a happier place. “I was trying to get pregnant at the time, and when your husband is 3,000 miles away…. the distance combined with the dark subject matter made for a very hard time in my life. It’s hard to say that when you’re also grateful for it, but you can’t deny when you’re going through some s—t that you’re going through some s—t.”
JUSTIFIED (Series Finale)
One of the things Zea is most proud of from her time on the FX series “was that they gave [Winona and Raylan] a girl child. I thought that was such a beautifully complicated choice” for a testosterone-driven drama. And viewers got to see a slightly aged Willa when the series ended with a four-year time jump, where Raylan and Winona were… not back together after all. Though fans were quick to hypothesize otherwise! “A lot of people I’ve talked to are convinced that are having a little thing on the side,” Zea reports with a chuckle. “I know that most people are not crazy about [Winona cheating on her husband], but I like the idea that she and Raylan can’t quit each other. It’s a testament to their relationship.”