Imagine being a comics head and self-professed nerd, only to age into a good-looking 6-foot-4 tall dude being paid to wear literal spandex and capes. This is actor Zachary Levi in 2019, and he’s living his best life now.
“The whole time I was really hoping they wouldn’t change their minds,” he told VICE when speaking of his role as DC’s Shazam!, which opens today. “It’s probably why I peed in the suit, to mark my territory.”
The comedic actor best known for his role as the titular character in Chuck, joins the whole superhero cape squad playing a character once famous for standing toe to toe with Supes in the 1940s. In terms of an origin, it’s your basic 1940s comic plot—a young Billy Batson basically comes across an Egyptian wizard who gifts him with the transformative power and wisdom of the gods. From there, all it takes is a shout of “Shazam!” to turn a kid into a grown adult with a thunder signia.
Like I said, 1940s.
It’s been an up-and-down ride for DC since Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies wrapped up, especially compared to the mammoth success of Marvel. Wonder Woman set a critically beloved tone, Aquaman made a billion dollars, but there’s also been terrible movies like Justice League and Suicide Squad. Currently, Shazam!—modern DC’s most kid friendly movie to date—is holding a 92% Rotten Tomato score, so things could be looking up for DC in 2019, especially given the anticipation over the Joker film.
Either way, it’s all exciting stuff and VICE had a chance to talk to Zachary Levi about his ideas around heroism, and why he sees it as important to eliminate the toxicity around the term “nerd.”
VICE: Given how much you’ve professed to being a nerd, It’s gotta be an exciting moment for you right now.
Zachary Levi: Oh dude, it’s such an exciting moment right now, and surreal if I’m going to be honest. I keep trying to explain it to family and friends and the words always fail me. It’s just groovy I’m super grateful.
I feel like you’ve been campaigning to be a superhero for a while though.
I don’t know if I’ve campaigned that much, but I’ll say that it’s not lost on anyone that I find that whole superhero world to be delightful. Many know that I grew up reading comic books playing video-games, and still do. So I guess I was lucky enough to have gravitated towards those worlds, whether it was the Thor franchise or the Heroes series. I often thought that it wouldn’t go beyond that. It would be my one play and that superhero comic book moment I did that one time. But here I am, essentially reborn into the DC universe, wearing the whole spandex and cape deal.
But tell me how you really feel as a regular guy. How does it feel to take on this character?
It’s really a mix of feelings. There’s the elation I felt as the kid in me, where I was like holy shit, this is so cool. But then there was the actor in me, who’s been doing this for 20 years while being blessed to be kicking around auditioning rooms in Hollywood, TV and film for a while. That was a real sobering moment. I didn’t think it was going to happen. And I suppose the irony of life is that things happen when you least expect them to.
When I took the time to really think about it all with a clear and sober head, I realized how a role like this was something that was very rare to land in my lap. There are a ton of actors constantly vying for this. And sure, I’ve been very successful by some people’s measurements, but I didn’t think I was that successful to be honest. I wasn’t that famous guy who was going to lead anything, especially as a superhero in a movie of this calibre. For the longest time, I’ve been a journeyman actor, but DC still believed in me. I wanted to honor that along with the character. Shazam’s been around for 80 years. That’s 80 years of fans going out of their way to support a guy once known as Captain Marvel who couldn’t sell like his Batman and Superman counterparts. That’s an incredibly deep, cool, and rich lineage. The whole time I was really hoping they wouldn’t change their minds. It’s probably why I peed in the suit to mark my territory.
What do you draw from when you have to play a hero that’s a 14-year-old kid with the wisdom of an elder like Shazam ?
Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for my parents and the girls I dated in the past, I’ve refused to grow up, I’m guessing that was a part of the ingredients. I’ve definitely tried to embrace the actual unit of responsibility and accountability which is important as you mature. But I’ve also tried to maintain the things that keep me young. My imagination, humour, heart and wonder. Beyond the role, these are the joys I genuinely try to practice and that I believe in. Whether it be video games, comic books, movies or just being silly with friends. I could only assume that it was the special sauce that DC needed to give me the job. A grown ass man who was believably young at heart.
I kept having to remind myself not to overthink moments. We as adults overthink constantly, but kids are just feeling their way through life. They’re kind of reactionary, and very in the moment. They’re totally free to be silly. I was reminded of that every day through working with kids in this movie. It’s like, just have fun with it, and be silly with them. Hell, I brought my Nintendo Switch and hooked it up for some multiplayer, those little things helped. As far as the wisdom, when you think about it, intellect and wisdom are two very different things. There are kids who may not be informed, but they display wisdom in other ways and through their perspectives. It’s not mutually exclusive.
What’s our definition of a nerd in 2019? Because there’s a lot of negative connotations being associated with it on a more toxic fandom level.
There’s a lot of really cool momentum with the term. For the longest time, there was a derogatory connotation around it that had more to do with appearances. The stereotypical horn rimmed glasses, pocket detectors who were super into science, technology, video games and all that, which by the way, I am all of those things minus the glasses and pocket detector. If we're being honest, it’s fictitious term. It was made up by Dr. Seuss and it has nothing to do with any of the things I just mentioned. Either way, one of the things I’ve tried to do with my former company Nerd Machine, and event company, Nerd HQ, is find ways to foster conversations that re-examine the word.
As far as I’m concerned, being nerdy means you’re passionate. You could be a cards, fashion, makeup, sports, or gym nerd. It’s whatever. I just use it synonymously with passion. I think it helps by making it a more inclusive term and one that embraces nerdiness through whatever you’re passionate about. It’s such a joke with you’ve got these stereotypical nerds attending comic-con or cosplaying, and then you’ve got the average jock who's prone to making fun of these people for dressing up as cartoon, video game or anime character. These are the same sports fans that go to a football game without a shirt on while dosing themselves with colours and random headgear. That’s fucking cosplay too. It’s the same thing (laughs). Let’s just be honest about it and not yuck each other up. Let everyone embrace what they love as long as it isn’t a negative to others.
You’re also some who grew up reading about heroes as you’ve already mentioned in this interview. What does it mean to be a hero in 2019 with your adult lens?
My idea of what a hero is, is pretty much what I always thought I hero was. It’s something that any one of us can be, and all of us have been one at some point in our lives. It’s a moment when a person can see clearly enough to know what’s true and feel deeply enough about that truth to fight for it. All of us have different platforms to do that, and we have the ability to dig at what’s real and fact rather than opinion driven by bias and fear. We need to really distill what’s actually right and fight for it. All of us can do that. It’s just a matter of feeling that conviction.
I’m glad you said that. Because I thought it was unselfish of you to defend Brie Larson when she was being unfairly attacked leading up to the Captain Marvel release.
Thanks man, and that directly ties to what I was saying. I’ve known Brie Larson for a long time, and we have mutual friends, so I’m so stoked for her success and everything that she’s doing, but for me, it was just a matter of standing up for what was true. It wasn’t about coming to the rescue of Brie Larson or Captain Marvel as if she needed rescuing, it was a scenario where a lie was being spoken. I knew they were lies and I had the ability to speak the truth in love, so the people spreading those lies wouldn't feel attacked in a cycle. They weren't taking the right path and we need to be able to call that out.
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