Don’t believe the hype. Sometimes, leaving the US can do a world of good. For the talented Winter Ave Zoli, star of TNT’s rebooted crime drama Legends, spending her teens in Czechoslovakia was a period of self-discovery, both as a dancer and, ultimately, an actor. Best known for playing naughty types on shows like Sons of Anarchy, Winter is now a strong hero-type on her new series and she’s loving every moment of it. Paste caught up with Zoli to talk Legends, life in Czechoslovakia and more.
Paste Magazine: As a child, you grew up in the artsy town of New Hope, Pennsylvania. How did that background affect your life’s direction in later years?
Winter Ave Zoli: I don’t think it influenced me in my career choice. New Hope was definitely a cutting edge little town, but it was still that sort of small-town Americana, known for its artists and its gay community, and my parents were very much involved in that. They were in fashion, so they were sort of a big part of our community.
It definitely shaped me in the sense of having a very open-minded view of the world. I had very forward-thinking parents, and so in that way it was good for me.
Paste: You moved with your family to Czechoslovakia when you were 11. At that time, was it a hard sell for you?
Zoli: Yeah, it was shocking. I’m half-Czech, so I had been there. I used to go there for the summer to visit my grandparents, and I traveled a lot as a child with my parents around Europe, so it wasn’t such a massive shock to be there, but I kept thinking, “Well, we’re going to go back to New Hope soon. This is just temporary.” I don’t even know if my parents really knew what was going on yet. They were just kind of going day-by-day. They were starting a new business, and so, yeah, it was hard leaving friends, and going from the rural farmland of Bucks County to Medieval Gothic city. It was definitely shocking, but it ended up being one of the best things to happen to me. I can’t really complain about it.
Paste: Why did it end up being such a positive move for you, in the end?
Zoli: I was able to put my Czech roots down, which a lot of people who grew up in the States and have European heritage never really get to explore. They might have grandparents speak the language to them, but it was good for me to be able to actually live my heritage. I spoke the language, and it just gave me a different perspective on the world, as opposed to just growing up in America. Growing up in a different country is always going to give you a great perspective and different view on things for the rest of your life. Also, all my acting opportunities started there. There was a huge influx of American and British television and films, and it was a great place to be to get work, because they were always looking for English-speaking actors, and I just sort of naturally gravitated towards it from dance.
Paste: I wanted to ask you about that. I’ve interviewed few different people recently who have a heavy background in ballet as you do, and transitioned into acting from there. Do you feel like there’s a commonality between the two that makes it a natural move?
Zoli: Absolutely. When you dance, a lot of it is also acting. You’re telling a story through movement. Your expression and everything else is a huge part of it. I love dancing—I love the movement, the grace, the costumes and everything. But you are on a stage telling a story, so it’s essentially just another form of acting.
Paste: In prior interviews, you’ve spoken about how you tend to get cast in a lot of “ bad girl” roles—strippers and things like that.
Zoli: You hear it a lot in the acting world that you’re usually the best at playing your total opposite. If you’re a normal, nice girl, you’re usually really good at playing the bad girl. I think we like to gravitate away from who we are, and it’s fun to explore what’s different, and what’s not part of your normal life. I don’t want to play myself. I have no interest in doing that, or playing anything close to me. I want to do something completely different, and I think that’s just where I have the most success.
Sons of Anarchy is where many people know you from best. Now that the show’s run has ended and we’re able to appreciate the entire body of work for what it is, what do you think the show did for our perception of what television can be?
Zoli: Sons of Anarchy was one of a kind. There was nothing like it. There had never been a show about biker gangs, and it was this underground world that was all of a sudden uncovered. People had heard about Hell’s Angels, but it wasn’t part of pop culture, and Sons really brought it to light. It was exciting, and it was edgy, and it was dark. I think people were really drawn to it because it was different—not to mention the cast, which is great to watch. As far as changing television, it was definitely the grittiest show on TV, I’d have to say… hands down. I don’t think that can be duplicated, but I’m sure Kurt will try.
Paste: Was being a part of that show a game-changer for your career?
Zoli: Yeah, for sure. Just to be associated with the show, to have so much success and popularity, definitely is a game changer. It opens a lot of doors. It doesn’t get you a job, but it certainly puts you on people’s radar.
Paste: And you’re now a huge part of Legends on TNT. When you look at joining another show after being on one as highly regarded as Sons, what’s the thought process for you? Were you at all apprehensive about what you were going to do next?
Zoli: When Sons ended, I didn’t doubt that I would get a job, but you never know when. You never know what. Being on a show that was so popular and successful, you think, “Will I ever get that again?” Then Legends came around, and I was really excited. I really love working in television, especially today, since there’s such great television. The quality of the shows is exceptional, and I think this one is no different from that.
Paste: The new season is somewhat of an overhaul for the show, making it a great time to jump in and start watching. For SoA fans who have followed you to your new project, how is this show similar or different?
Zoli: This show fell into my lap. The role was a Czech detective. Right there I thought, “How often does that happen?” That was intriguing, and being in a show with Sean Bean, I thought, that’s amazing. He’s such a talented, fantastic actor. I didn’t know much of the show when I auditioned. Actually, I hadn’t heard of it, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they wanted to completely change it, just to start over, and give it a bigger push.
I was really excited to find a role, or that the role found me, where I was playing someone who was completely different from Sons’s Lyla. Lyla was strong in her own way, but this character Gabby, this Czech detective, it’s just a whole different level of strength and intelligence. And she’s clothed—it wasn’t a sexual role. It was really just about being a smart, strong woman, and that was really exciting for me.
It was also a really fun role to play because I did get to essentially play two different people. You’ve got this girl, still in 2001, and then how much she’s changed and her life has changed, and she’s grown and become this woman in 2015. So it was fun to have two slightly different personalities that I was playing.
Paste: A common link for all your characters is strength. More often than not, you get the chance to kick some ass, whether it be literally or metaphorically. Did you go through any sort of police training for Legends?
Zoli: I didn’t go through any police training. There was one shoot-out scene that was exciting, and I’d done a few films where I’ve been shooting and having martial arts fights.
This one isn’t so much about a physical strength, but she’s definitely a badass. She is a tough woman, very strong. I love that.