Amidst all the hate-spewing trolls and alternative facts flooding the internet on a daily basis, there are people seeking to unify and uplift those lucky enough to come across their webpages. 18-year-old actress and ace YouTuber Alexis G. Zall is one of those people. Over the past five years, she has gained a devoted following with her weekly web series, where she uses humor and insight to demystify the strangeness of everyday life, from weird foods and awkward encounters to accidental trips to Singapore. Each episode is a microburst of adolescent euphoria fueled by Zall’s self-deprecating wit and infectious optimism, punctuated by her catchphrase, “Zall Good.” Her gift for in-depth interviews can be observed every week on her excellent Zall Good podcast at FullScreen.com. Yet my first encounter with Zall’s work was in Emily Hagins’ terrific film, “Coin Heist,” which was released on Netflix last month. She plays Alice, an expert hacker who hatches a plan to rob the U.S. Mint in order to save her school. Audiences who’ve seen Mike Flanagan’s hugely enjoyable “Ouija: Origin of Evil” may likely recall Zall’s delightful cameo as a jittery teen who earns one of the film’s biggest laughs.
Zall spoke with Indie Outlook about making both films, as well as her approach to editing, podcasting and connecting with viewers.
One of your earliest videos shows you performing a stand-up comedy routine based on your experiences in gymnastics. What drew you to the performing arts in general?
As a little kid, I would go out with my parents and just end up crying whenever I was in public. My parents were confused, so they asked their pediatrician about it. The pediatrician was like, “You should get her in an activity where she’s with other kids and interacting with them.” That’s how I got started in gymnastics, because it was a group activity. I eventually got really into it and I competed through level 8 and training level 9, but when I was 13 years old, I had to stop due to an injury. I’d always been kind of interested in acting, but I never really thought about it that seriously. Around that same time, I got cast as the lead in my sixth grade school play and that really culminated in how I started in acting. I took some local classes in the area, and through those classes, I found out about YouTube and then it all just sort of snowballed from there.
What YouTube videos served as an inspiration for you?
The first YouTuber I ever watched was Ryan Higa, who had videos like “How To Be a Ninja” and “How To Be a Gangster.” I thought they were so, so funny, and I started watching all the people connected to his channel. While watching these videos, I started thinking that this would be a good way for me to start practicing acting. That was kind of my mindset when I started on YouTube. It was just to practice, and then I fell in love with making my own stuff.
At what point did the show sort of come into its own, shifting from sketch comedy to segments where you are addressing the viewer?
I made a video when I was 15 called “15 Tips for 15 Years” and it looks at all of the things I’ve learned in my 15th year of life. Looking back, I think that was when I discovered the power of talking to a camera. A YouTuber who inspired my approach to it was Grace Helbig, who I’ve been fortunate enough to work with since. I started watching her videos, and I loved the way that she’d connect personally to an audience. I wanted to do that too.
Where did the “Zall Good” catchphrase come from?
My family had always just said “Zall good” because all our last names are “Zall.” I was looking for something on YouTube that would be mine, something I could use to brand myself, and I thought it would be a perfect fit.
It perfectly encapsulates the tone of your show in how you normalize and poke fun at potentially overwhelming aspects about your life.
Definitely. Throughout life, everyone is going through so much. Life feels so heavy, and if I can make it feel a little lighter for someone, that makes me feel good.
The jump cuts in your editing make us feel as if we’re hurtling headfirst through your thoughts.
I love the process of editing. I think it’s so cool to watch an episode you have in your brain come to life. Basically the way I figured it out was just by making videos. I started trying it and that’s usually the advice I give to someone if they want to be a YouTuber or want to get into editing. Just make whatever that thing is that you want to create, and then make another one and try to make each one a little bit better than the last. I kind of threw myself into it and had to figure it out.
You also display a great sense of comic timing in your edits, such as in the video where you’re wrestling with your cat.
Thank you! I never felt that I was particularly funny. Comedy wasn’t something that I was all that interested in, other than the times I would trip and my friends would always laugh. Something I started doing when I got into YouTube was when I watched a video and thought it was funny, I’d watch that same video like five times, and I’d figure out why I was laughing and why I thought it was funny. I think there is a lot more structure and math to comedy than you’d normally think of when you hear a joke and laugh. There’s a lot that goes behind it. Once you figure out the formula, the world is yours.
Some of the funniest moments in your videos are spawned from your interaction with other people, like your grandpa. Is there a video that you particularly like?
That’s a good question. I definitely like making videos with other people and getting a chance to interact with them in unique ways. I also enjoy making semi-scripted videos like “Don’t Touch Me I’m Famous,” which is one of my personal favorites. It has a lot of scripted comedy, but it also gives me the freedom to sort of see what happens in the moment, and I love that kind of mixture.
In some of your recent videos, you have taken the viewer along with you on trips to film sets and on vacation. How have you developed your comfort with the camera?
Honestly, it just takes practice. When you first sit down to talk to a camera, it’s more intimidating than you would imagine it being. But the more you do it, the more time you put into it, and even the more you get to know viewers on the other side as well, the more you develop that sense of comfort.
How do you make the people you’re filming comfortable?
I think the less prep time you give people to think about being on camera, the better. As a YouTuber, it’s your job to know how to be on camera and be comfortable. If you don’t warn people, a lot of times you can catch the most authentic moments of them just living their lives, as opposed to you going, “Okay, I’m going to put you on camera, and now I’m going to turn my camera on, and now I’m going to hit record.” That just gives people time to be nervous.
What is the greatest benefit of the show to you as a performer?
I definitely have more of an understanding than I did before of what it takes to put a production together. When I’m onset, I understand that the person in charge of the lighting is just as important as the person in charge of the camera and the person in charge of sound. I think it really helps give you an understanding of everything that is going on, and how helpful and valuable everyone’s job is.
Where do you see the show evolving from here?
I want to involve it more in my life, with more acting opportunities and other opportunities of getting outside of YouTube. I want to find a way to get my YouTube audience to be just as excited about these opportunities as I am. I want to take them behind the scenes, and I want to add another layer of familiarity and friendship, so my audience feels like they’re watching their friend do cool things. I’d rather do that instead of having two totally separate ventures.
In what ways has your Zall Good podcast enhanced your approach to YouTube videos?
Podcasting has affected what I do on my YouTube channel in a really positive way. With the Full Screen podcast, it’s just a great conversation that goes on for 25 to 40 minutes, and I put up a new episode every week. YouTube is all about quick cuts and making things happen faster. The nice thing about podcasting is you can really dive into the aspects of things and you can make it much more personal. It’s just far more intimate, and I’m really excited about it. YouTube is quippy and quick whereas podcasting is longer form, so they kind of go well together. I feel like in doing this podcast, it has made me a lot more comfortable and has made me better at talking to people on YouTube. They both help each other out in their own way.
Your hilarious role as the frightened teen in “Ouija: Origin of Evil” makes it seem as if your career has come full circle, since the first video on your channel is “The Attack of the Fluffy Orange Teddy-Demon.” Has the horror genre always appealed to you?
I was never that into watching horror until I started working on horror projects. The roommate I have right now is also really into horror, so I’ve gotten more into it the older I’ve gotten. I definitely love acting in horror films. Acting afraid is so much fun, because oftentimes in real life, you’re not running from a ouija board or a fluffy orange teddy-demon. [laughs] I loved making “Ouija,” I had the best time. We only shot for one day, and the shoot lasted through the night. The rest of the cast was so nice and just incredible. The director, Mike Flanagan, is honestly one of my favorite directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s so cool and genuine and really has a vision of everything, but we also got to improvise a lot, and some of the improv made it into the film. There is a moment where one of the teen friends pulls out the ouija board and asks, “You guys want to play a game?”, and my character goes, “Can we just have a conversation instead?” I actually improvised that line and they kept it in the movie. It was one of the most fun sets I’ve ever been on.
How did you get involved in “Coin Heist”?
I didn’t know too much about the project before I auditioned for it. I had read the script, and I went in and met with the director. A couple weeks later, they offered it to me, and then it was still a few more months before they got funding and were ready to make the film. I really like the story of “Coin Heist.” Anytime that a movie or a project is promoting the idea of friends coming together, I love that. The thing about my character of Alice that was really fun to play is that she is so different from me. I feel like so much of my job in terms of YouTube is being me, so it’s fun to take on an acting role where I’m able to step outside of that, and show a new side of myself as a performer.
What are your thoughts on the director, Emily Hagins, who I had the pleasure of interviewing a few years ago?
She is so interesting. I’ve never worked with anyone similar to her. Emily has a really distinct style of directing. She’s very thoughtful and has it all so thought-through that she knows exactly the final product that she wants to make, and I think that’s cool. She is so many steps ahead of me in terms of being creative at all times. When we were still in preproduction, the three other main cast members and I all went out and we each bought something that our character would wear throughout the entire movie. They were little tokens that we got to pick out as our characters, and I thought that was a really interesting way to prepare. It was also part of the fun of getting in character.
Jay Walker, who has made some very funny Vine videos, is also excellent in the film.
I didn’t know about him before the movie got started. I heard that he was going to be in it a couple days before, so I watched some of his Vine stuff. He’s so talented, so hard-working and just hilarious. I loved him.
What I liked most of all about the film is how it explores the younger generation’s response to adult authority figures who cheat the system while expecting everyone else to follow the rules.
That’s an interesting thought and something that is very important to think about. At the time I read the script, the world wasn’t quite where it is right at this moment. I think children and the youth of today and tomorrow have so much more power and so much louder of a voice than even they realize. It doesn’t matter your age. You can always make a difference and a positive impact. That’s one of my favorite parts about social media. It gives you the ability to share a positive message. You can show people that they’re not alone in the things they’re going through. None of us are ever alone because we’re all having the same human experiences together.
Check out the latest work of Alexis G. Zall every week by tuning in to her YouTube series and Zall Good podcast at FullScreen.com. “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is available on Blu-ray and DVD, and “Coin Heist” is currently available on Netflix. Click here to read my review of “Coin Heist” at RogerEbert.com.