Michael Zegen, wearing seasonally appropriate cut-off gloves, sips a soy chai latte in the kind of busy café that would feel right at home on Girls. “I like to think I fit right into that world,” Zegen say, smiling. That’s fortunate, since as of last night he joined the hit HBO series as Joe, Hannah’s charming coworker in GQ‘s advertorial department. Zegen’s casting made headlines last spring, partially due to how closely timed it was to the exit of Christopher Abbot (who played Charlie), which led many to falsely brand him “the Charlie replacement,” something the veteran actor laughs off. Zegen’s no stranger to strong ensembles, with memorable turns on Rescue Me, How to Make It in America, The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire, not to mention an impressive list theater credits including the recent hit show Bad Jews. Rolling Stone chatted with the New Yorker about landing his Girls role, how Lena Dunham reminds him of Denis Leary and why you’ll recognize his shirt from last night’s episode.
Tell us – are you prepared to become the obsession of hipsters across America?
[Laughs] I don’t know about that. Who knows? People might be sending me hate mail instead. I’m being warned that I should be prepared for that, but I haven’t had to change my number – yet.
Were you a fan of the show? Did you ever imagine you’d end up on it?
I am, and my parents love it, too. They were ecstatic when I got the audition. I thought I’d have fun, but after I did [Noah Baumbach’s] Frances Ha, I thought they were too similar – that I might not get on the show because of that. I guess I was wrong. But I really identify with Joe: he’ s funny, he’s quick. And he hit a chord with me. I thought, “I could play this.”
It seems like the casting was a quick process.
Actually, it was an emotional roller coaster. The day after I auditioned, I got a call saying they wanted me to do a table read with the full cast. They didn’t say I had the role, though. So I went in and I was incredibly nervous. And I had no idea that everyone was going to be there – the cast, the crew, people from HBO. Everyone. Afterwards people kept coming up and thanking me for being there, which I thought was a sign that I didn’t get it. I kept thinking, “Am I just keeping the seat warm? Is Shia LaBeouf getting the job?” Then I didn’t hear anything for two days. Finally I got the call. And that was a good call to get.
What do you think of your wardrobe on the show?
Those plaid shirts with bright colored pants? It’s not my thing, but it’s right for the character. Actually, the shirt that they had me wear in my first episode is the same one that Lena wore in the pilot, which is an inside joke.
Does the Girls set feel particularly different than other ones you’ve worked on?
The great thing about Lena is that her brain is constantly working. It reminds me of how Denis Leary worked when we were shooting Rescue Me, because he was also the show runner, writer and star. When she’s not in a scene, they’re showing her pictures of locations for the next episode or having her check out wardrobe that Marnie might wear in another scene. I don’t know how she does it, but it’s amazing to watch.
Has she shared where your character is going?
I’m pretty in the dark. I’ve only seen until the fifth episode, and I don’t get pages for the scenes I don’t have lines in. On this show things go out the window sometimes. It can change completely.
I’m sure you know Christopher Abbott, being a New York actor. Did you talk to him before you took the job?
I know Chris but I haven’t talked to him about it. I’ve seen him since I got the role but I don’t know if he’s aware I’m working on the show. He’s a great actor. And our characters have nothing to do with each other. If he had stayed, who knows – at one point we may have both have been on the show.
So will we see you next season too?
All I can say is I know I don’t die – yet. But I seem to do a lot of that, like on Rescue Me and The Walking Dead. So we’ll see what happens.