See the exclusive trailer for his new film, 'Dixieland'

By Jeff Labrecque
Updated November 24, 2015 at 06:29 PM EST

Chris Zylka has knocked around the business long enough to be a little philosophical about it. He was Jake in the short-lived TV series The Secret Circle; he went one-on-one against Peter Parker as Flash Thompson in The Amazing Spider-Man; and he’s part of the terrific ensemble on HBO’s The Leftovers. But in Dixieland, a gritty Southern trailer-park drama from writer/director Hank Bedford, Zylka is the unquestioned star. “You can’t really be picky and choosy for your first lead role,” says Zylka, 30. “I just happened to get lucky. It was something that was hard to not do, you know?

Zylka plays Kermit, a well-intentioned good ol’ boy who stumbles back on bad habits when he falls for a pretty stripper (Riley Keough) just days after he’s released from prison. They live in a dead-end Mississippi town where the most boys and girls can dream of is growing up to be petty dealers and dancers. “Believe it or not, it was very similar to the city I grew up in,” says Zylka, who was raised in Warren, Ohio. “If you don’t know there’s something better out there, you don’t realize that you have it bad. I think that’s why I kept Kermit as naive to the outside world as possible. So the smallest decisions [he has to make] weren’t small decisions — they were large.”

Dixieland is the feature debut for Bedford, who’s worked as a director’s assistant for such auteurs as Bennett Miller, Scott Cooper, and David O. Russell. The film premiered at Tribeca in April and opens in theaters and VOD on Dec. 11. EW has the exclusive trailer (above) and it captures the film’s raw and potent story.

Zylka, whose next movie will be Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, co-starring Jessica Chastain and Kit Harington, is currently enjoying the growing hum around The Leftovers, which has been one of the season’s most fascinating dramas, with oodles of twists and tantalizing mysteries. His character, Tommy, has gone missing after trying his hand at being a false prophet and drawing the unwanted attention of the Guilty Remnant cult’s ruthless new leader, Meg (Liv Tyler). HBO’s most recent promo teased the two of them driving a car together, with Meg saying to him, “This is hard, huh? Not knowing what’s going to happen.”

Good luck getting Zylka to spill some details about the season’s final two episodes. He knows the routine, after two seasons of working with producer Damon Lindelof. “I wish you could see the next two at the same time, instead of one at a time,” he says. As for his character’s reunion with Meg, who essentially raped him during their terrifying first encounter… “You have to wait and see. But you won’t be disappointed.”