ENTERTAINMENT
07/05/2018 05:46 am ET Updated Jul 05, 2018

The Time Proto Zoa From 'Zenon' Was More Popular Than William F**king Shakespeare

In 2018, Phillip Rhys stars in Syfy’s “Nightflyers,” based on a George R.R. Martin novella. But he’ll never leave “Zenon” fans behind him.

Last year Phillip Rhys was touring William Shakespeare’s former residence outside London when he spotted a huddle of whispering girls, but he thought nothing of it.

“Sometimes you kind of know when you’re being recognized,” the former Disney actor admitted, “but because I was in the home of the greatest playwright of all time, I was mildly distracted ― more interested in that.”

By the time he reached the exit, the murmuring was impossible to ignore. “Oh, my God, are you Proto Zoa?” one of the girls asked

He replied “yes,” and “these young American girls” started screaming, he said. “I thought, ‘We’re in the home of William fucking Shakespeare! Let’s honor this moment. Forget Proto Zoa. This is what we should be pulling our hair about.’”

Instead, hair was pulled over a star of “Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century,” a 1999 movie about teens who live on a space station orbiting Earth in 2049. “I go, ‘Oh, isn’t that funny?’” Rhys recalled. “Popular culture trumps the Bard.”

Even after almost two decades, Proto Zoa could still make hearts go boom boom.

Phillip Rhys as Proto Zoa in 1999’s “Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century” and in 2011.
Disney; Getty
Phillip Rhys as Proto Zoa in 1999’s “Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century” and in 2011.

So, yes, fans regularly recognize Rhys, who rode a Disney Channel wave to fame like his colleagues Hilary Duff, Bella Thorne and Zac Efron. Playing the movie’s intergalactic rock star character made him, as he put it in an interview with HuffPost, a ”prepubescent Bradley Pitt for the mid-’90s.”

Twenty years later, the mania persists. Ikea cashiers have been known to spontaneously jump over registers to hug him. 

In the time since “Zenon,” Rhys has appeared in roles for TV shows such as “Nip/Tuck” and “24,” has had parts in Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and Al Pacino’s “Salome” and directed a short film starring Sandra Oh called “The Scarecrow.”

Now Rhys is starring in Syfy’s upcoming series “Nightflyers,” based on George R.R. Martin’s novella about an ill-fated space voyage. Rhys joins the series as Murphy, a systems engineer who is said to be very busy in the premiere. 

“[Proto Zoa} is back in space years later!” Rhys joked.

His perspective on acting has changed since his Disney days, when screaming fans were the sign of a job well done. “Jobs I get now feel earned, and they seem to fit better with the richer and more diverse life I try and live,” he said. “A life that isn’t about just acting. It’s a much healthier place to come from.”

Part of that more diverse, healthier outlook comes from what has happened in his personal life. He is now married with a son. So you could say Rhys is done looking for his supernova girl. At least he would.

“I found her,” he said with a laugh. “Oh, my God, she chuckles with that.”

During our conversation, Rhys divulged as much as he could about “Nightflyers,” graciously looked back on the “Zenon” franchise and (zetus lapetus!) teased a possible Proto Zoa return. 

What is it like being in space again?

The ship’s a lot bigger. The craft services is healthier, maybe? No, it’s great. You know, this production, it feels very special. There’s a certain energy on the set where we all feel like we’re involved in something that people are engaged in, excited to see. We’re doing a lot of firsts. We’re using augmented reality, which I had no idea what it was at the time ― deals with depths of field. There’s all sorts of fancy perspective where we can look outside the ship and see Earth going by. We’re using these lenses Ridley Scott used back in the day, [with] this dirty sci-fi feel to it. [It’s a] much more real, grittier vibe. Everything is anamorphic lenses. It’s like you’re getting a 10-hour movie.

Why were you interested in “Nightflyers”? What makes it so special?

They’re pushing certain boundaries ... The guys who are running that, they’re about story. It’s not about what’s cool. We all love a cool shot. We all love a cool image, but at the end of the day, if the story sucks, you’ll get the kids for a moment, and they won’t be coming back. The story has to sustain, and they’re coming from that place. When you’re working with a George R.R. Martin, he knows story.

How involved was George R.R. Martin? Was he able to be on set, or was it just kind of approving things from behind the scenes?

I believe it’s the latter. Yes, they’ve taken the novella, and they’ve gone at it. I don’t know how much material was there for a 10-episode season for the first season or even subsequent seasons, but they’ve used that as a launching pad, a jumping-off point. Much to his blessing, he’s endorsed it all. He’s been very positive about what he’s seen, and I think due to contractual reasons with HBO, he can’t be a creative on this, but we’re at least allowed to say “from the mind of George R.R. Martin.” 

Of course, your first foray into space was in “Zenon.” What’s it like looking back on it? 

I’m incredibly proud of it because, by all accounts, it should’ve just been another kids’ TV movie. Even when I read it, I said, “This is good. This is really good.” I went in with a specific thing. I said, “If I’m going to play this role, I’m going to do it like this.” I think I was doing a play at that time ... so this was an amalgamation of this character I’d done in a play ... [Proto Zoa] wasn’t written English, and it wasn’t written with blond hair [or with] that swagger ... I went in, and I did it, and they were incredibly open to it.

We had a screening a few months later. It was really well received. I watched it with my adult friends at the time, and they thought nothing of it. Just, “What the fuck are you doing wiggling your hips around?” It was lost on us. It was lost on kids in their 20s. It wasn’t for them. It was for a generation before us and even younger than that, and it clicked. It really clicked, and I can’t believe it. 

It still comes up, especially on social media. Have you seen the comparisons to Guy Fieri? People say that’s what Proto Zoa looks like today.

Oh, yes. I have seen this. I’m fine [with it]. I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea who he was, not until that moment. So the first time I saw it, I said, “Who is this guy?” So I looked him up. OK, I’m fine. It’s all, you know, if people are looking and talking about your work in a reasonably positive way, I’m fine with it. And Guy, I’m sure, is great at what he does. He’s a cook, right?

Yeah, he’s a celebrity chef.

OK, so I don’t really watch those programs, but God bless him. God bless him if I could one day be Mr. Guy Fieri. I probably should watch the shows, and I could learn from him if we ever did a 20-year reunion, a “Zenon” reunion. I could bring some of his flair. Maybe he’s a chef now, Proto Zoa.

I mean, the 20th anniversary is next year.

Crikey! Really?

Where do you see Proto Zoa 20 years later?

He’d be a manager for the next hot band, selling the next boy group or something to the world. And living off-world, probably because the polar ice caps have melted and all of it. It’d be a bit of a downer. It’d be a post-apocalyptic “Zenon.” Everyone would be in boats.

Boats that could go in space, I hope.

Exactly.

What about the hair?

Oh, my goodness. That immediately is the second thought you go to. Could my hair sustain all that peroxide? Jeez. That was a summer I was playing a lot of musicians, and I shot the first “Zenon” in September, so I just did a whole summer of various degrees of musicians, successful and otherwise, so I had let the peroxide grow out. I went and auditioned like that, and they were like, “We love it. We love the hair,” and I was like, “Oh, Christ.” I was actually going to dye it back normal, and they’re like, “No, keep it. Keep it.”

Does Billy Idol still wear [his hair with] the peroxide?

Actually, yeah, he does. I saw him with it on “The Voice.”

Does he? He’s still rocking that hairdo? I need to Google him. What about Bowie? He was a dirty brunet always going around as blond.

Yeah, I mean, David Bowie changed his look a lot.

I took a bit from Bowie, a bit from Elvis, a bit from Liberace, I think. That’s “Zenon.”

Are you still friends with Zenon?

I haven’t seen Zenon [Kirsten Storms] in a while, no. Holly Fulger, who plays Judy, I see her every now and then for a coffee. We catch up.

When I think about “Zenon,” obviously one of the most memorable things was your song.

Zoom, zoom, zoom. Make my heart go boom, boom, boom.

Yeah, that’s the one.

With that, we had Michael Jackson’s choreographer come up to Vancouver. Suzanne de Passe managed the Jackson 5, and she produced “Zenon,” so it was heavy. This gentlemen came up and was like, “OK, let’s do it. Let’s do this choreography dance number,” and I was like, “I have two left feet.” I was like, “Hold on, hold on, hold on.” It was kind of like the day before we were going to shoot, and ... [the choreographer] does this, “You gotta go left, right, chassé, twirl with the guitar, play the song, and go!” I did it, I fell over myself, and it was ridiculous, and seeing the producer’s face, they were like, “What the fuck have we got here?” Because every actor says they can do everything, right? Until you’re on set. The band were much better than I, so if you look, the band was doing most of the dancing, and I was just doing two steps to the left and two steps to the right. 

Wow, and that was Michael Jackson’s choreographer?

Yeah, one of the guys at the time, whoever that was. Yep, so when we did the second [movie], they were aware of my limitations as a dancer. I did a lot more pointing in the sequel. Just put your feet on the ground, just start pointing to the stars and the galaxy.

How do you feel about the aliens basically using Proto Zoa to get to Zenon in the “Zequel”?

Bastards! Right? I know, they used me as this conduit. I was used and abused.

Why weren’t you in the third one, “Z3”?

I was shooting “Nip/Tuck” at the time, and ... I was committed to it. It was Ryan Murphy’s first big thing, and I just couldn’t leave, really. I actually know the gentleman who played Proto Zoa [in the third], though, bizarrely enough. After a few months, he came into my world. I met him via a friend, and he’s a lovely guy. That’s not easy taking over the role. He’s American. He had to do an English accent as well. That’s tough, just not fair.

So you approve?

For sure. Nathan Anderson is his name. He’s a lovely guy.

I’ve seen this debated, but was it “zetus lapetus” or “cetus lapetus”?

Didn’t she go “zetus lapetus”? It’s a Z. But she’s pronouncing it with an S ... “cetus lapetus,” right? Yeah, when I hear it. What’s the Earth translation?

“Holy shit”?

Holy crap.

“Crap” is probably better for Disney. The movie also predicted Chelsea Clinton would be president.

More of her discussions in the media have been politically skewed, I think. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, right? And maybe she’ll want to right the wrong of whatever happened at the last election. I wouldn’t bet against them, but what happened with Ivanka Trump? Wasn’t part of her agreement with daddy that she would also run at some point and they would get behind her?

So you think it could be Clinton vs. Trump again?

Because they were friends pre–this nonsense? Maybe a Clinton-Trump showdown.

Possibly in a new “Zenon.”

A new “Zenon” would be perfect, right?

Rhys attending the Tribeca Film Festival Shorts in New York City in 2016, with stars of his short film “The Scarecrow,&
Brad Barket / Getty Images
Rhys attending the Tribeca Film Festival Shorts in New York City in 2016, with stars of his short film “The Scarecrow,” Sandra Seacat and Darren Pettie.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve overcome since “Zenon”? What have you learned in that time?

What I learned from 20 years as an actor? The obstacle is the path. When you’re denied the roles and jobs you think you want, it forces you to get even clearer on what you really want and why. It forces you to be at peace with the outcome and look for other things in life to fulfill you creatively. By doing this, you discover your unique truth and what’s valuable to you ... so when a job does come along you want, you can basically take it or leave it ... There’s less fear or desperation in and around the work. 

So what’s next? You directed “The Scarecrow.” Do you want to direct a feature, or are you planning on focusing more on acting? 

None of it is mutually exclusive. I’d like to direct a feature. I’d like to continue very much on “Nightflyers” and other shows of comparable quality, stuff that’s good stuff, that challenges me in front of or behind the camera. I mean, if you’d asked me a week before I’m shooting this pilot, I never thought I’d be on a George R.R. Martin show. These things happen, they present themselves, and you grab them when they’re good.

And there’s always the possibility for another “Zenon.” Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, even said there could even be a “Zenon” TV show. Would you be into that?

Yes, I read that. I heard about it too. We’ll see. Maybe they’ll commission the writers and stuff. I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything. Actors are usually the last people to hear. I would be open to it, of course. Of course.

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