Although Appelman is relatively compact in stature, size is what he has. Where does it come from? No one seems to know, not even Appelman. “Zach had the twinkle in his eye” is how Janet Griffin, Folger’s artistic producer, describes it. “He’s youthful for his years, and we were all struck by his ability to hold attention, to get you to really listen to him.” At his audition, he delivered the “Save ceremony” speech in the army’s encampment at Agincourt, “which is just a really tough speech,” Griffin says, “and he just went to a different place than the other actors.”
As Griffin indicates, it’s a know-it-when-you-see-it sort of quality. Appelman, who graduated from Yale Drama School in 2010 and spent a year on Broadway playing soldiers and other small roles in “War Horse,” couches it in terms of raw desire. “I don’t know how much of it is an innate skill, but I have an appetite for it,” he says, allowing himself on this Sunday afternoon to speak more than he normally would before a matinee.
That appetite developed fairly slowly. He grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., the son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher. “The arts are incredibly important to them,” he says. While athletics occupied him way more than plays, he found that he loved performing in the dramatic reenactments arranged by his world history teacher, Mike McGovern, at Palo Alto High. “He sparked a love of history in me,” Appelman says. “I didn’t think I was doing theater.”
It was at the University of California at Santa Barbara that he began to suspect he might be an actor. “It felt out of left field, and it made sense,” he said of his decision, auditioning to be a theater major in the bachelor of fine arts program, and getting in. Even then, classical roles were not a path. “It’s not like the first time I was doing a Shakespeare monologue it was the goal,” he says.
But he listened to recordings of the likes of Judi Dench and Ian McKellen and paid closer attention to Shakespeare’s words, and an affinity grew. Of course at both Santa Barbara and later at Yale, there would be a tremendous amount of contemporary work, too. (Appelman recently filmed a small role opposite Daniel Radcliffe in “Kill Your Darlings,” about the poet Allen Ginsberg.) Still, he has carved a trail in the classics: His first role out of drama school was Tybalt, for director Gale Edwards’s “Romeo and Juliet” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.