Chris Zylka has played a wide range of characters, from school bullies (The Amazing Spider-Man) to witches (The Secret Circle). In his current role as Tom Garvey on HBO’s The Leftovers, he plays a college dropout who is more than a little mixed-up. In Season 1, Tom Garvey was the Jon Snow of the show, related to the main family but isolated in location and plotline. He returns in Season 2 more rooted in the central narrative but more lost than ever — which makes him a lot more interesting, as we saw in that game-changing ending to “Off Ramp.” Zylka talked to Inverse about Tom’s evolution from regular guy to (maybe) con man, magical hugs, and what the hell was going on in that sex scene.

Warning for those who haven’t watched Season 2 episode 3, “Off Ramp” — this contains spoilers.

This episode is a real turning point for Tom. We know from Season 1’s flashback episode (“The Garveys At Their Best”) that before the Departure, he used to be a relatively cheerful guy. We’ve seen brief glimpses of that guy since then, when he interacts with Jill. But by the end of “Off Ramp”, that guy seems to be completely gone. Is he gone for good?

You know, people always comment on that flashback episode — that he was this happy guy. And I actually disagree with them in the sense that it’s post-adolescence: He was in college, and he’s learned how to put on a fake smile. Then, by the time the Departure happened, he’s putting on a fake smile and trying to find his way. [In “The Garveys At Their Best”], when he goes and meets his biological father and he has to face Kevin, his stepdad – those are pretty emotional scenes.

He clearly doesn’t like to let his family see him struggle. We saw him teasing Jill at the beginning of last week’s episode, “A Matter of Geography,” and in “Off Ramp” we learned that his smile was very much put on for her.

It all comes back to that he’s happy with his mom and he’s especially happy with his sister. She’s the only one that he’s in contact with. There’s a really strong bond there that I can’t wait to see what happens.

Going back to what you said about Tom faking it, let’s talk about that closing monologue. Not just anyone can pull off smiling and saying, “who wants a hug?” into a chilling “holy shit” moment — That really shifted how we see Tom.

Oh thank you – I actually haven’t seen it yet. It was so much fun to film.

Great monologues are compelling because they’re game-changing for our understanding of the character and their place in the story. What was most interesting about yours is that Tom is so convincing as he’s telling his heavily edited Holy Wayne story. It’s hard to tell if he’s an unexpectedly good actor, or if he’s starting to believe his own lies as he’s talking. What are your thoughts on his transformation?

You’ll have to figure that out later down the line! That’s something we wanted to do. If it’s giving people hope, it almost doesn’t matter if he has [the magic hug powers] or if he doesn’t. But that’s going to be a surprise later down, does he have it or does he not? I think the best way to keep viewers guessing is to just be honest no matter what — even if you’re lying or telling the truth.

Early in the episode, we see that Tom has fallen asleep watching a video of Holy Wayne, even though Season 1 lead us to believe he had written him off as a fraud…

I think, going back to Tom’s internal struggle — he’s looking for something to bring him hope; he’s trying to find his way. That’s always what he’s doing. It goes back to that post- adolescence: it’s a kid who just graduated high school and is in college and doesn’t know what he wants his major to be. That’s what’s happening inside Tom, in my opinion. He’s forced to try to find something instead of just taking a deep breath. He’s always pretty intense; you never see Tom just take a deep breath.

In “Off Ramp,” that slow-burn of Tom’s emotional state is rapidly accelerating. Out of all the characters on the show, Tom is the one with the most dramatic response to The Departure who hasn’t directly lost someone.

Everyone’s kind of lost someone, and none of us have lost anyone, but we’ve lost everyone. Margaret [Qualley] and Justin [Theroux] are together, but I’m gone, and the mom’s gone. We’ve all lost each other completely. And that’s the unexplained, wonderful thing about our show. If we all took a deep breath and just came together — family is everything.

Do you think Laurie knows that? Going undercover in the Guilty Remnant this season is clearly putting a strain on Tom — do you think that’s fair of Laurie to ask of him?

I don’t think she realizes. She has a motive and she’s trying to get what she wants, which she feels like is what he wants. We kind of become a team. Someone has to be the pawn on the team. I think if she noticed it, she would never really go through with it. You see that in episode 3 when she’s like “nope, you’re done.”

Speaking of that part when Laurie says, ‘nope, you’re done’ — she says it in response to Tom’s changed demeanor after his experience with Meg, when she captures, threatens, and has sex with him. Even in a show that’s regularly filled with strange moments, that was a big one. There’s a lot to unpack there…

Yeah, that scene is intense. Meg is so captivating and it’s the first time Tom feels anything for anyone in a substantial way. I think it’s a completely endearing moment, even with him being handcuffed. It was a real moment — and Tom hasn’t had too many real moments with anyone.

And as far as the full-frontal nudity there — we’re in a cultural moment now where critics, viewers, and actors alike are having more conversations about who is being show in these instances and how it’s being shown.The Leftovers handled it in one of the best ways I’ve seen. It didn’t feel gratuitous and it’s one of the only instances where it’s equal-opportunity for both genders. Was it always that way in the script, or was there discussion of it?

Not at all. If it serves a purpose to the story, it serves a purpose to the story. Tom’s handcuffed, and I doubt the guys that come in the truck would pull up my pants — they’re just trying to get me out of the truck. It serves a purpose to the script and Damon [Lindelof’s] writing, and you have to be willing to do things that scare you or things that are uncomfortable in our line of work. There was no discussion. It’s more uncomfortable to the crew then it is for you.

And unless I seriously missed something, there’s no full frontal in Spider-Man, so I assume it’s a new experience. Since you’re the one being shown here, and it’s obviously not for titillating purposes but for the purpose of making Tom extremely vulnerable — was that particularly challenging?

Everything is a nice challenge, you know? Whether it’s a dinner scene or whether it’s a full frontal nudity scene. Every scene is a challenge you have to be willing to tackle.