Zakhar Perez, who is of Middle Eastern and Mexican descent, was born in Chicago, but went on to spend his childhood in Indiana alongside his seven siblings, he revealed in a recent appearance on the Khanversations Podcast. After one of his sisters starred in a stage production of Annie, Zakhar Perez was inspired to get involved in community theater. However, he also explored other interests, like business, modeling and athletics.
It was Zakhar Perez's skills as a swimmer that earned him a scholarship to Fordham University -- though he eventually turned it down in favor of attending UCLA, where he planned to pursue a degree in political science and economics. The actor later changed his focus, studying Spanish, Culture and Community to learn about how different Latinx communities live throughout the world. While Zakhar Perez changed his major a few times, he was sure about his minor -- TV and Film.
Zakhar Perez continued to be drawn to film and TV throughout his college career and afterwards, as he modeled and auditioned for acting roles. He went on to land guest spots on shows including iCarly, Suburgatory, Awkward, Young & Hungry and Scandal.
In an exclusive interview with ET, Zakhar Perez opened up about his Hollywood journey and what his background has taught him about his goals to change Latinx stereotypes in Hollywood. He also discussed the importance of giving back, his off-screen relationship with Joey King, and his hopes for The Kissing Booth 3.
HE'S PROUD TO REPRESENT THE LATINX COMMUNITY ONSCREEN
Ever since he was little, Zakhar Perez wanted to see himself and his family represented onscreen. Growing up, there were two artists who he identified with.
"For me growing up, [the movie] Selena was my family’s cultural enjoyment. We watched it probably once, twice a month, even if it was just in the background. We just loved it, loved it. Selena [Quintanilla] always reminded me of my mom because I never really saw women of color that looked like her on television," he told ET. "And honestly I think the nearest one next was Eva Longoria on Desperate Housewives. That was the next strong, leading, Latina woman that we watched in the household."
Now that he's a working actor, Zakhar Perez is eager to take on roles that "depict the Latinx community in a positive light."
"I just want to see less drug dealers, less gang members, less violence, [have] them less criminalized than a guy that plays guitar at school that has his Mexican swag on," he said, referencing his Kissing Booth 2 character. "Just like we normalize all different types of communities -- LGBTQ, Black, Asian -- we have to normalize Latinx characters as well. I’m looking forward to that."
"And more Latinx writers!" he added. "They’re the ones who know firsthand what it’s like to be Latin."
HE GIVES BACK AND SUPPORTS THIS ONE SPECIAL ORGANIZATION
While acting is an important way to shine a spotlight on his community, Zakhar Perez is taking it a step further through his charitable work. The actor, along with his Kissing Booth 2 castmates, recently teamed up with Variant Malibu to sell masks they designed amid the coronavirus pandemic. Each actor chose a charity for their mask to support, with Zakhar Perez picking El Valor, a Chicago-based organization that supports children and people with disabilities and their families.
"They serve the Hispanic community. My aunt actually worked there for, like, 32 years and my cousins used to go and help clean the toys... I’ve had a lot of my older siblings go through there and help my aunt work in the community," he said. "It’s near and dear to me, just to give back to where I’m from and have a family member involved."
"They gave so much to my aunt, they gave so much to the community. I have a couple disabled family members, younger and older, and I just see how hard it is. We’re so lucky to be able-bodied," he added. "If there’s something I can do to make someone’s life a little easier and more enjoyable for the kids, we should just do it."
Though Zakhar Perez didn't know he was auditioning for Kissing Booth 2 when he auditioned, when he found out, there were definitely "high expectations." He didn't let those get in the way, though, instead choosing to thrive under the pressure of stepping into the franchise.
"It was intimidating. I’m one of those guys that can rise to the occasion. I’m high functioning under pressure. My whole life I’ve been that way. Whether it be fashion shows or live stage productions… I just thrive," he said. "So when I was cast with singing, dancing and playing guitar, I felt like I just rose to the occasion. I put 110% in every day. I said no a lot to my friends and new castmates because they wanted to go out and have some fun, I was like, 'This is my fun. This is my fun right now.'"
It also helped that his castmates welcomed him into the fold with open arms.
"Joey and Joel were just so amazing to step on to the set with. We had about two weeks of dance rehearsal before. We traveled through the Middle East together. We traveled to South Africa. We just became very close very quickly," he explained. "I was definitely a little intimidated when I finally found out the magnitude of this film, but they never made me feel like an other, which doesn’t happen often."
HE LOVES HIS CO-STAR JOEY KING...BUT THEY'RE NOT DATING
While fans are rooting for Zakhar Perez and King to get together off screen, the actor told ET they're just friends. That fact doesn't diminish Zakhar Perez's love for the 21-year-old, though.
"We just kind of hit it off. When we were in South Africa we had dinner together. I cooked for her, she cooked for me. We just became kind of like the best of friends," he said. "And then when we got back to Los Angeles, we just kept hanging out. We live really near each other. And then the quarantine hit and we kinda just needed someone to trust during that time, like, 'OK, I know you’re not going out. I know who you’re seeing.' So we just became really close."
"I love her. I love her dearly. I’d do anything for her," he added, before stating, "We’re not dating. I’ll end it with that."
Though an off-screen romance doesn't seem to be in the cards for the pair, Zakhar Perez is all for his and King's Kissing Booth 2 characters to get together in the film franchise.
"Marco doesn’t really judge Elle and he doesn’t let her get away with some of the crap she tries to pull. If she has an attitude or a harsh POV on something, Marco kinda puts up with it for a second, but [eventually calls her out]," he praised of his character, before briefly touching on Noah's positive attributes.
"With Noah, it’s her first love… She grew up at the Flynn house, so she was always kind of tangentially connected to Noah. There’s a familiarity, a type of closeness. People like that comfort," he said. "I remember falling in love for the first time and I still have thoughts about the girl that I fell in love with. There’s still a place in my heart. I feel like you always remember your first."
Despite Elle's comfort with Noah, Zakhar Perez thinks Marco is the right choice for the teen.
"I would say Marco is the guy that always gets shafted because he’s the nice guy. I feel like people don’t realize what they have or what they could’ve had until years into a relationship that was not incredibly supportive and selfless," he said. "I feel like Marco’s a bit more selfless than Noah. I feel like Noah wants to be in control a bit more."
HE FELT GUILTY ABOUT HAVING TO LIE ABOUT KISSING BOOTH 3
When Kissing Booth 2 ended with multiple cliffhangers, fans were left to wonder if they'd ever know the answers to their many questions -- Why did Elle lie about getting wait-listed at Berkeley and Harvard? Will she follow Noah or Lee? Does Marco have a chance with Elle?
Zakhar Perez and others in the cast repeatedly said they were unsure if a third movie would be made. Just two days later, though, Netflix announced that not only had it ordered a follow-up film, but it had already been shot.
"Let me just tell you how bad I felt that I had to pretend that there was no third movie," Zakhar Perez said. "I adore all of this attention -- for the movie, not for myself. I grew up watching High School Musical with my siblings -- 1, 2 and 3. How fun it was when Disney was like, 'We’re dropping this movie!' We were like, 'Oh my God! It’s a summer movie!' And those are just fun projects."
While Zakhar Perez said it was "really hard" to keep the third movie under wraps, he wanted to give fans a chance to feel the anticipation and desire for another flick.
"You wanted them at the end of 2 to be like, 'Oh, she can do Berkeley or she can go to Harvard! Is she going to choose Lee? Is she going to choose Noah? Is she going to choose Marco?'" he explained. "I think if you knew there was going to be a third movie you’d go, 'Oh OK. She’s gonna choose something and I know it’s gonna happen.' And there’s kind of no build up. So it’s nice that they gave that 48-hour window of everyone going crazy."
HE TEASED THAT THE THIRD MOVIE IS FULL OF 'DRAMA' AND 'PINING'
While Zakhar Perez remained largely tight-lipped about the third film, which is due out next year, he did confirm that it's "safe to assume" that Marco plans to pursue Elle.
"There’s going to be a lot more Marco pining over Elle. I don’t know how Elle’s going to feel about it," he said. "I don’t know how Noah’s going to feel about it. I feel like this is his last chance before they all go their own ways, so he kinda has to put up a really good fight if he wants to prove to her that he is the one and she shouldn’t let him get away."
As for three words that describe the third flick, Zakhar Perez said simply, "Post-high school. Summer. Drama."