Words by Mr Sanjiv Bhattacharya
From a distance, at a glance, this scene is easy to comprehend - it's a reporter interviewing a movie star at a picnic table in the park, on a sleepy afternoon in south Los Angeles. The reporter is the older, shorter one with the paunch, checking his recorder. And the star is young and handsome, blond and tanned, with that airbrushed quality you find on billboards. In fact, it's Mr Chris Zylka, who plays Flash Thompson, Peter Parker's nemesis in The Amazing Spider-Man, which opens 3 July in the US and the UK.
But come a little closer, listen to what he's saying.
"I slept in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven for about three months when I first got here. All I had was a book bag and an army surplus bag full of my clothes, and I kept them in the corner behind the dumpster. Except on Thursdays, when the garbage man would come, and I had to move my stuff."
I was 19, totally naive, and I only had $300 in my pocket. I thought I could get a hotel for a while with that. I was comparing LA to the prices in Ohio
There's no question that Mr Zylka, at 27, has arrived - The Amazing Spider-Man may well be the biggest movie of the year. Nor that he looks the part. But his journey to this point is extraordinary. His parents aren't in the industry, there's no Mickey Mouse Club on his résumé, no home-schooling, no stage mom. Rather, his story has the kind of fairy-tale quality that inspires thousands of young people to come to Los Angeles each year with dreams of becoming stars - people such as Mr Zylka, in other words.
The story begins, traditionally enough, with "humble beginnings".
"I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in a small town, very simple," he says. "We were right in the Rust Belt, so you know - blue collar, hard workers."
His stepfather worked at DHL. Then there was his mother and his two younger siblings. And he didn't even think about acting until he dropped out of college after the first year. He was an art major, playing in the football team - "I thought I was going to play football for the rest of my life!" he laughs - but he wasn't happy, so he dropped out and went home to think things over.
It was his Ukrainian grandfather who planted the seed - he introduced Mr Zylka to the works of Stanislavsky and Chekhov. And a light bulb lit up. He took up acting classes, enjoyed them, and started watching what the actors were doing on the television shows he liked.
"I started thinking, 'I get this, I want to do it'," he says. "So I just moved to LA. I didn't know anyone. I was 19 years old and totally naive. I didn't have a car - I thought it was like New York, and I could walk around everywhere! And I only had $300 in my pocket. I thought I would actually be able to get a hotel for a little while with that. I was comparing it to the prices in Ohio."
From left: Mr Zylka and Mr Andrew Garfield starring in The Amazing Spider-Man, 2012
Mr Zylka appearing in teen supernatural television series The Secret Circle, 2011
Mr Zylka with his girlfriend, the actress Ms Lucy Hale, at the MTV Movie Awards, LA, June 2012
And so it was that he wound up homeless and alone, sleeping in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven in the San Fernando Valley.
"I didn't want my mother to think I was living that way, so I would sneak into this nearby apartment building called The Promenade and get a work out in and a shower. I'd put on a pair of clothes and charge my cellphone while I was working out, and then go on a job hunt."
He found a job eventually, as a waiter at a pizzeria called BJ's. When his co-workers found out how he was living, they let him crash on their couches. And along the way, he managed to buy a clapped-out car that lasted all of a month and a half. "It was a 1997 Ford Probe, a little go-kart basically. But it was OK to sleep in."
Then one day, one of the customers at BJ's asked him - "Are you an actor?" Mr Zylka replied: "No, but I want to be." And that was it - his life changed forever. That customer was Mr Jon Simmons, a talent manager. "He became not only a father figure, but a mentor and my voice of reason," he says. "If anyone has a Jiminy Cricket, it's me. For sure!"
Mr Simmons carved a path for Mr Zylka, of modelling gigs and TV roles, and sure enough his profile rose, and fast. Until recently, he was probably best known as a regular on a show about witches, called The Secret Circle for The CW network, the same people that made Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries. "It's about witches," he shrugs. "Enough said!" But it's immensely popular. Fan sites abound. The network evidently has a knack for making cult hits for teens.
Mr Zylka also has the rare distinction of having been torn to pieces by both small and large fish. In 2010 he made the movie Shark Night, and last year, he followed it with Piranha 3DD.
"Yeah, I've put it on my résumé - getting eaten by fish. I'm good at that," he laughs.
You know the sort of thing. Impossibly attractive young Americans flaunt their perfect happiness and catalogue lifestyles, until you can't wait to see them all get slaughtered in the most gruesome way. Killed to bits.
Yeah, I've put it on my résumé - getting eaten by fish. I'm good at that
"Absolutely. You're rooting for the shark. These people are having too good of a time," he laughs. "I got ripped off a Jet Ski actually."
And the "DD" in Piranha 3DD?
"Well that speaks for itself. And it shows a lot of them too - which is what you want in 3-D, let's be honest. They kind of pop out at you!"
His days of getting eaten by fish are over. He's onto spiders now. And he'll never forget the day he got the call that yes, he'd got the part in the next Spider-Man movie.
"I was driving my Nissan Altima down Highland - just past Hollywood Boulevard, actually. What a perfect place to get a call like that. And I was just - it was incredible. That was the first time that I called my mom and I told her, 'You don't have to worry about me anymore.' I was crying my eyes out. 'I did it, I did it. I'm OK now.'" He stops and smiles. "Man, I'm starting to cry right now."
As homeless people go, he's done pretty well. It's an epic story, by any standard. Sometimes celebrities say they are grateful because it's expected of them or because they need to remind themselves. But Mr Zylka feels it. He knows how far he has come.
Today, he lives with his girlfriend, Ms Lucy Hale, the star of television series Pretty Little Liars. They paint. They avoid the paparazzi. They have friends over all the time. It's a beautiful life. And Mr Zylka senses that a new chapter is opening up for him.
"When I walked out onto the set of Spider-Man, that was the first time that I felt as if, 'This is my job', you know? I can continue to do this." He breaks out into a smile. "You can act till you die, you know. You don't have to retire!"