I caught up with comedian, actress, writer and international woman of mystery Kristen Van Nest of Amazon's The Chunky Zeta for a chat on film, influences, what makes great comedy, women in film, #MeToo, comedy's role in the social discourse and ways we humans understand things like death, the absurdism of Donald Trump, the dark comedy of American politics today, and much, much more.

The Chunky Zeta follows the adventures of Brenda (played by Bradley Laborman, the creator, a director and writer of The Chunky Zeta) and Zeta sisters as they experience their time at Silver Lake University of Technology in LA. The show also stars Kristen Lucas (Gigahoes), Kidd Campbell, and David Eby.

Kristen first started her comedy career performing in Shanghai – having lived there, and traveled to over 40 countries as a Fulbright Scholar. She also speaks fluent French and basic Mandarin.

Kristen is an incredible, insightful talent both on her show and on Instagram (@kristenvannest, follow her here) where she writes and performs a variety of delightfully acerbic, funny, and at times scathingly satirical characters – a few of which are embedded below –  including the #pourdecisionsshow every Friday – a very funny look at wine from Kristen (who has a professional background in it) and her colleague Gabby Raquel Rapp. Kristen's profile is way worth a view and a follow for those reasons – she WILL keep you entertained and make you think.  

I hope you enjoy Kristen's insights below as much as I did. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Medium – the work she does is well worth it. Don't forget to check out The Chunky Zeta on Amazon too.

Hello Kristen and welcome to The 405! To start things off, I was hoping to give our readers a look at your history: what got you into comedy and acting?

I'd always enjoyed making people laugh, but never really thought of pursuing it. I was living in Shanghai, China, working in the wine industry. For work, I'd travel all over China hosting wine dinners, educating Chinese customers on wine, and someone told me: "You connect with people through humor."

"I do?"

[Laughs] I'd agree with that observation.

Luckily by chance, Charna Halpern, co-founder of the ImprovOlympic and arguably one of the founders of modern day improv, was visiting Shanghai to host a workshop. Most comedians only dream of training under Charna. I hadn't completed improv 101, but signed up anyway, didn't tell anyone I was a beginner, and just pretended I knew what I was doing.

I admire that boldness.

My first performance ever was in front of Charna on stage with professional performers who had flown in from all over Asia. It was exhilarating and I was hooked. Next, I started doing stand-up and improv and was onstage 4 to 5 nights a week, performing in front of international audiences.

Although I loved Shanghai, I visited LA and took an intro improv class at Upright Citizens Brigade. I realized if I wanted to get to the next level of my craft, I needed to be in LA. Within a month, I left Shanghai, ending my 3.5 years living there.

Definitely.

For how I approach my craft, comedy and acting are about the human experience. As an improviser, I am trained to invoke an emotion on the spot. To do so, I draw on my life experience – from when I felt fear walking back from the metro at night alone as a woman in Paris or New York, or through the streets of Athens during their banking shutdown.

If it's a rush of excitement, it's relating to tightening the sails on a boat in the Mediterranean, watching fireworks on a rooftop in Berlin on New Year's Eve, or stepping off a plane, having decided to move to China, having never been there, no place to live, no job, and no idea what's next. I've taken big risks in life; I've felt extreme emotions that I bring to the characters I play.

Fascinating window into your process and your incredible history. What films and performances have really stuck with you over the years and influenced you as an artist?

As I've traveled to over 40 countries and lived in Paris, New York, Luxembourg (as a Fulbright Scholar), Shanghai, and now LA, and speak French and Mandarin, I love foreign film and the dramatics of physical comedy. As someone who built their craft in front of international audiences while in Shanghai, the physicality of comedy transcends language barriers.

That it does. One reason I've always liked Charlie Chaplin – aside from the raw satirical power and courage of The Great Dictator.

Absolutely. The Swedes are particularly good at it, my favorite shows right now being Fallet (Netflix - Lisa Henni is a physical comedy genius) and Swedish Dicks (Pop TV).

My favorite French film is The Bride Wore Black, about a bride who revenges the death of her husband, and current favorite French show is Dix Pour Cent (Netflix – Camille Cottin being an inspiration in mixing sexy and powerful) about theatrical agents in Paris. It's basically Hollywood with a Parisian twist.

Nice. Cornell Woolrich (who also did the source story of Hitchcock's Rear Window) wrote the source novel with The Bride Wore Black – need to watch that again. He also wrote an interesting – but overlooked noir released in 1944 called Phantom Lady which has an incredible Buddy Rich-esque drum solo (it was actually rumored he did the solo, although he denied that) – but I digress.

When I was a theater critic in New York, my favorite performance ever was "Be the Death of Me", an interactive experience in an old church in Greenpoint. Actors recreated interviews with people who'd worked in the death industry or experienced death.

Wow.

One was a fisherman who was dragged underwater, his foot caught in a rope, who saw the light but survived. Another was someone who worked in a morgue and discussed how sometimes bodies explode after being buried. Very dark stuff, but fascinating to hear how every individual processes death differently. On that note, maybe all comedians are obsessed with death? I feel like this is a common trope...

Credit: KFK Standup in Shanghai: http://www.freealejandro.com

That absolutely may be. Especially considering the very sad fates of some comedians – say Robin Williams. Humor as a way to deal with what is otherwise existentially absurd and kinda nihilistic I suppose.

Comedy is one of the most therapeutic tools of entertainment. A lot of comedians use it to process difficulties they have dealt with and the audience watches it to heal themselves. Comedy is about connecting over shared experiences.

I couldn't agree more. Suppose I share those tendencies in using humor to process. Switching gears just a bit to a question I ask most everyone, what makes a great film?

People are controlled by two things: hope and fear. Obama led with hope. Trump leads with fear. The most fascinating characters are driven by their insecurities/fear and the most saddening and/or inspiring characters are driven by hope. A good hero has a tug of war between these two emotions as they combat antagonists who are all-consumed by one or the other. A great film has characters that you can deeply empathize with, set in a esoteric world that's captivating.

Great summation.

I love films made by the same writer, actor, and director because you fully enter their world – some of my inspirations being Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), Issa Rae (Insecure), Aziz Ansari (Master of None), Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco, Metropolitan), Donald Glover (Atlanta), Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum), and of course, Bradley Laborman (The Chunky Zeta - the show I'm on now on Amazon Prime). As someone who has spent their life adapting to foreign cultures, I love shows that teach us about people we may not know in the little bubbles in which we find ourselves in everyday life.

I enjoy that too. It stimulates the intellect to be exposed to different cultures and people that way. What makes great comedy?

For me, great comedy changes your perspective. Good comedy makes you laugh over and over again, but great comedy makes you think about the world differently.

People are most comfortable surrounded by their own views, so it's hard to get them to listen to other perspectives. But when they're watching comedy, they're more willing to listen. And in those moments of listening, comedians educate people on how other people live.

Makes me think of how the greats like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin did that so perfectly. Bruce especially because of his fight with the US government over the content of his act. Your sentiment there really reflected what Lenny Bruce's daughter Kitty Bruce said on this when I interviewed her here too I think.

Getting into your role as Nikki on The Chunky Zeta, what attracted you to the role and the project?

The creator - Bradley Laborman - writes, acts and produces the show and he is a tour de force. He lives in the world of the show and has thought up every little nuance. He started his character, Brenda, on YouTube and has now created an entire world that she calls home.

Like Veep, The Chunky Zeta is one of those shows where every single line is offensive. And in a world where the majority of things our President says are offensive and yet everyone else seems terrified of saying something politically incorrect (God forbid you use a straw in public!), it is refreshing being on a show where nothing is off-limits. I think that's how the show attracts its cult following and has become the #3 most popular dark comedy on Amazon Prime.

Absolutely. PC is happening really on both sides too. And people like you said I think are flocking to shows and pieces of art that stand as a bulwark against that. Which The Chunky Zeta does. I also think Trump in some ways is a misguided product of the effects of political correctness. A reaction to it if you will – albeit a wrong reaction.

Everything Trump says is absurdist and so it all drowns itself out.

An absurdist black hole indeed. I rather liked John Oliver's moniker for him when he called him "Twitter's id made manifest" on Last Week Tonight.

[Laughs]

I love dark comedy because as a viewer, you suddenly feel empathy for complete monsters until they do something terrible and you remember you hate them again. Dark comedy pulls at a viewer's emotions and stabs at the nuances between right and wrong. Morality is not black or white.

Couldn't agree more.

I love playing Nikki because she doesn't fully support all the crazy shenanigans around her, which means I get to use a lot of physical comedy. She is well-versed in the art of persuasion and coyly clever.

What is it like really getting into the headspace of Nikki?

She has a lot of layers that we'll learn about as the series goes on. She's always developing and changing and skilled at adapting to her environment or making her environment adapt to her.

What can audiences expect going forward with Nikki and the series?

We'll learn more as the series goes on. Stay tuned!

Cool. You also have the writing credit for Twas Only a Matter of Time in 2017. Will we be seeing more in the way of screenwriting from you?

My end goal is to write, act, and direct. I am pragmatically building each skill. I also founded and run Binders Full of Screenwriters, a group of over 1,000 women screenwriters on Facebook; we all help each other hustle in a male-dominated industry (#MeToo). On Instagram, I write and perform all of my characters.

Credit: THE CHUNKY ZETA. Amazon.

I really hope our readers will check out your Instagram in particular because I know they'll really dig the content. What is next for you?

Having spent the last 12+ years traveling and living all over the world, this has shaped me into this weird cultural mix where I hand business cards over with two hands and a bow, use the phrases "CV" and "queue", and yet have adapted a heightened fear of gluten from living in Los Angeles. Leaving the state of forever in transit from traveling so much, I am a year into settling into Los Angeles and pursuing my creative endeavors full-time. My full focus is on writing (both prose and screenwriting), acting, and directing. I love breathing life into complex characters, both serious and comedic, and am lucky to attract very passionate creatives with whom I collaborate. My favorite roles are playing strong, clever women.

Credit: Greggy Wawa Photography https://www.instagram.com/greggywawaphotography

I have some exciting writing and acting projects coming up as well as shooting the rest of Season 2 of The Chunky Zeta. In between these big projects, I will continue to create characters on Instagram and translate all of my experiences into both serious and comedic writing and acting.