When Mark-Paul Gosselaar began shooting the pilot for Fox’s new thriller series The Passage with 12-year-old actress Saniyya Sidney, she had no idea who this “Zack” was that everyone kept speaking of. In what might have been a first for the veteran actor, his co-star had never seen Saved by the Bell and didn’t know her Zack Morris from her A.C. Slater.
All that has now changed, of course. After nearly a year passed between shooting the pilot and beginning production on the rest of the series, Sidney returned to set geeked out: “You’re Zack Morris!” She had caught up on the classic ’90s series and become such a fan that she’d regularly burn Gosselaar with references to the show, dramatically making a T with her hands and screaming, “Time out!” when she needed a break, much like Gosselaar’s character would do to freeze time.
A bit of escapism back to the wholesome, halcyon halls of Bayside High may have been necessary during the intense shoot for the pair’s new series, which premieres Monday on Fox.
Based on the hit book series by Justin Cronin, The Passage is an apocalyptic sci-fi government vampire thriller—seriously—in which death row inmates and young orphans are recruited for (aka forced into) a top-secret medical project. As part of the experiment, doctors inject them with a dangerous virus that may also have the potential to cure a global infectious outbreak. The one caveat: the virus has had the unfortunate side effect of turning people into bloodsucking monsters.
Gosselaar plays FBI agent Brad Wolgast, who is tasked with securing the project’s recruits, including young Amy Bellafonte (Sidney), an orphan whom doctors believe may be the perfect test patient. But after growing attached to her and questioning the morals of subjecting the innocent girl to the potentially depraved side effects of the testing, Wolgast goes rogue and the pair, developing a father-daughter bond, go on the lam.
When we meet with Gosselaar to discuss the series, he talks about, for all the far-fetched sci-fi themes, how resonant it all is. The threat of a global pandemic is very real, he says, wondering if there is a division at the CDC that does similar work to the research in The Passage. Plus, we venture, it’s hard not to recognize—and fear—the show’s depiction of how a government justifies playing with the lives of citizens deemed expendable in the name of a proverbial “greater good.”
At the risk of wading into controversial waters, he gives a sly grin and nods his head emphatically. “A lot of parallels…” he begins, internally debating whether to expound before sighing and smiling again: “Yeah…”
That smile is a recognizable one, the mischievous smirk that tends to curl up the right side of his face at a slightly steeper pitch than the left, creating a pathway uphill to the slightest dimple at its peak. It’s hardly changed from the expression that Sidney was swooning over after finally catching up on Saved By the Bell.
Gosselaar is 44 years old now and has worked almost constantly on TV over the last three decades. But that familiarity—not to mention a surge in content trading in nostalgia—is likely why still, after all this time has passed, most headlines from interviews with him sell some new factoid the reporter learned about his Saved by the Bell days and most conversations inevitably find their way back to the beloved show.
(The bounty from this press tour: due to “bad deals,” the cast doesn’t see much in the way of royalties from the show, and the news that Gosselaar hasn’t spoken to Dustin Diamond, who plays Screech, in 25 years.)
We joke that it must be surreal that the people who approach him gushing about growing up with the series are now in their thirties and forties, but he says it’s actually when people Sidney’s age say they watch and find the show relatable that’s the most shocking. “That it can generate a new audience every couple of years is mind-boggling.”
Gosselaar is remarkably good-natured about it all, and seems actually eager to deliver on those SBTB conversations and curiosities. When we talk, he’s the first to bring the series up, and engages in a discussion about his relationship to it with remarkable clarity. We talk about the impact it has had on his career—in good and bad ways—and how it has affected audiences’ relationship to him as an actor over the years.
As one TV critic friend tweeted after Gosselaar spoke at a press conference over the summer, “If you had told me during Zack Morris times that this dude would one day be quite charming as an adult actor who is self-deprecating, but not insulting about his past, I’d have been really surprised.”
We can attest to that reality.
When Saved by the Bell ended, “I had a real low point in my career,” Gosselaar says. He contrasts the experience with that of child actors working today, who may have easier paths to work as adults, while his time as Zack Morris became a liability in casting sessions. He didn’t work for three years. “I had this moment of, oh my God, what am I going to become? What am I going to do? I think I have a talent to be in this business but I’m not getting the opportunities. So when the opportunities started coming this way again I had a completely different perspective.”
Those opportunities included some forgettable TV movies, the cult black comedy Dead Man on Campus, and the short-lived WB drama series Hyperion Bay. But the turn of the millennium brought with it a string of regular TV gigs that have amounted to one of the most consistent and diverse bodies of work in television.
There was his image-reinventing work on NYPD Blue, of course. He co-starred with Geena Davis on Commander in Chief, co-headlined a 40-episode run on TNT’s Franklin & Bash, and popped up season after season in both sitcoms (Truth Be Told, Nobodies) and dramas (Raising the Bar, CSI) with remarkable versatility.
In 2016, he received the best reviews of his career playing a veteran Major League Baseball catcher near the end of his Hall of Fame career in the canceled-too-soon Fox drama Pitch, a role he loved so much, he says, “If I had retired on that character I would have been happy.”
He was gutted when Pitch was canceled, but was weathered enough in the industry to steel himself for it. Few actors are as candid about the experience of being in a business where the deranged flurry of excitement when a project is announced and the gasping confusion that comes when it is all abruptly extinguished is the cruel normal.
“It’s unfortunate, but I’ve been in this business long enough to become jaded in certain aspects of the process,” he says. Twenty years ago, if he was cast in a pilot he’d throw a party. Now he won’t tell anyone that he’s booked a show—let alone just a pilot—until it is about to air. So with The Passage about to premiere, he tells me, “deep inside, I’m very proud of where we’re at. But in the back of your head, you’re also saying, well, this could be taken away from me just as easily.”
He doles out learned wisdom like a father having a heart-to-heart about life’s big lessons—which, candidly, is highly enjoyable to bear witness to in person. The slight, boyish frame that featured on so many Tiger Beat tear-out posters has now given way to a stockier build of a father of four. It’s not a “dad bod” by any means, lest it be by the Hollywood definition where the father practices jiu jitsu and is currently on TV playing an FBI agent vampire slayer.
But flexing his action-hero muscle on The Passage is not as big a stretch as one might think.
Growing up in southern California, he thought he was going to be a professional motocross racer. His brother, who is 16 years older, is one of the most prolific mechanics in the sport’s history, and Gosselaar himself was on the bike training from just three years old.
“I was a normal kid into a lot of different sports, and, oh yeah, I also did Saved by the Bell,” he says. “I had normal friends. I went to a normal-ish high school.” Because it was hard for him to find other acting gigs after Saved by the Bell, he always had other activities to keep him occupied, which he lists out as if reading the résumé of the Most Interesting Man in the World: motorcycles, car racing, flying airplanes, boxing, and then jiu jitsu once boxing became “too boring.”
Some former child stars spend their lives trying to prove they’re not the characters we so closely associate them with. But over the last 20 years, especially, Gosselaar has worked so regularly in such varied projects that nothing could even be ruled a “departure” from his Saved by the Bell days anymore. It’s the normal. And yet…
“I do read comments. I’m only human,” he says. “I don’t know if they mean it in a bad way or not, but they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s really good in that but I’ll always see him as Zack.’ I don’t know if it’s meant to put me in my place, or if it’s a compliment. I don’t take it any other way because I’m still given the opportunity to take these roles and, like I said, I feel fortunate to be in that position.”
“I’m not trying to run away from something that was in the past,” he continues. “That was a great time in my career. That was a great time in my life. So that’s not a negative I’m running away from. I understand when people say, ‘Oh you probably did that so that people wouldn’t think of you as Zack.’ But I’m an actor. I just play a role.”