Zachary Levi Is Really, Really Excited He Gets to Be 'Shazam!'
If you talk to actor Zachary Levi, as I did one Saturday in March, you'll realize he is extremely enthusiastic about getting to play superhero. Ask him about it, and you'll get a long answer filled with various moments of giddy emphasis. This glee is a trait he shares with his character in the DCEU's (very fun) Shazam! where he's Billy Batson -- well, a super-powered version of the 14-year-old Billy (played by Asher Angel), who is given the ability to perform incredible feats by a wizard. All he needs to do is say "Shazam!" and he gets a new, bulletproof body. Getting to punch hard and withstand fire gives Billy -- a somber foster kid looking for his mom -- a renewed sense of joy.
Levi broke out in the NBC series Chuck playing a super spy, but was most recently seen wooing the title character on Amazon's hit series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. He's flirted with comic book franchises before, thanks to a small role in the Thor movies, playing a character who unceremoniously bit the dust in Ragnarok. We talked with Levi about the difference between acting for DC and Marvel and peeing in a super suit.
Thrillist: There's a full circle moment for you here. You broke out with Chuck playing another regular guy--
Zachary Levi: Thrust into a supernatural situation.
What do you like about these stories?
Levi: What I personally love about them is their heart. Both characters are based on essentially a young man -- I mean, one younger than the other, I was 27 when I started Chuck -- but a young man who is kind of in the middle of trying to figure out life in some way shape or form but has a great heart. Loves his family. Billy literally hasn't seen his mom in 10 years and won't stop in trying to find her. I don't know if it's me finding the characters or the characters finding me but I'm grateful that we keep finding each other. I had done a few things before Chuck, but Chuck was the thing that put me into some public consciousness, I suppose. I've been able to build from that and the fanbase from that has been so incredible and also very much in line with the work that I've done and the Comic-Con world and nerd-dom and all that jazz. So the full circle that you are presuming is 100 percent correct. I am the kid that read the comics and played the video games and still does, and always dreamt about being a superhero when I was a kid, like we all do, and always dreamt about playing a superhero as a working actor so the whole damn thing is all wish fulfillment. I got to take all of my genuine joy and just general stokedness and not have to temper it at all. I just got to show up to set in my super suit and be like let's do it.
About that super suit. There's a funny joke in the movie where Billy cannot figure out how to pee in the super suit. What donning it like for you?
Levi: It was similar. I couldn't pee in it. Well, not without assistance anyway. There were like zippers in the nether regions and I needed assistance to get those done. And if I needed to go number two, I had to take the whole suit off. There's a dance. There's a tricky dance. And it's not the most comfortable of things. They are super super tight, but you sort of get used to that a little bit. It sort of ends up being a bit of second skin. Regardless of whatever inconveniences there were I knew whenever I put that on it's because I was chosen to be this guy, and I was like I want to own this entirely. I'll wear the uncomfortable harnesses for the flying. I'll do whatever I need to do to honor this character and this franchise, and have fun doing it.
There's a long history of kid trapped in adult body movies -- everything from Big, which gets referenced in the movie, to Freaky Friday. Did any of those performances come to mind when approaching your character?
Levi: Big was the pretty much the only one I was using anything to model after and that's not to disparage any of the other movies, but there are a couple of things at play. One of them, I think Tom Hanks is just the best and has been one of my idols for so long. The movie Big is such a masterpiece in so many ways. I think Penny Marshall just crushed that as did Tom as did the whole cast. The movie wasn't just, "Isn't this crazy that we swapped positions?" There was real gravity, life happening. Beyond all that, it's two actors that are playing the same role, albeit in that one you get a little bit of the kid in the beginning and then Tom got to do the whole movie, and we go back and forth. But a lot of those other Freaky Fridays or body swap movies, [the actors] are acting opposite each other so it's actually a very different dynamic. I didn't get to work with Asher [Angel] constantly and be mimicking him. It was more like we both had to trust what you were doing, that [director] David [F. Sandberg] was guiding, and that it all found balance along the way. It was a different kind of animal than a body swap.
The comic books are crazy. You have Tawky Tawny…
Levi: Talking tigers, pigs that can read.
Worms. It gets weird. As a comics fan, did you dig into any of that?
Levi: The majority of the film -- the film script, that our awesome writer Henry Gayden wrote and I'm sure other writers collaborated on -- that was pulled from the newest version of Shazam! This New 52 that Geoff Johns wrote for DC. So most of it ported from there. That was the kind of starting point, the foundation. I knew that we wanted to bring some of the kind of old school innocence and I don't know how else to say it other than the gee whiz of it all. I'm a big fan of that kind of stuff. I like that era. I like all that old, cool, classic stuff.
It's very Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Levi: Right, exactly. So I dove back and I kind of looked at various moments throughout the history because I wanted to pay homage to some of the nicknames like the Big Red Cheese and the holy molies and all of that. It's a really fun, charming way to portray the character. Obviously it's present day, and kids now are way more jaded than they were back then. So that was a very interesting challenge in trying to be honest with that portrayal and infuse it with that 1940s gee whizzedness.
You've been on both sides of the grand DC-Marvel…
Levi: The grand chasm as it were.
What is it like to be in these gigantic franchises that have basically been defining our cinema these days?
Levi: Very humbling to be trusted, first by Kevin Feige and the people at Marvel, and Kenneth Branagh, who originally did cast me [as Fandral in Thor], which Josh Dallas did excellently. For me to be part of that [in the sequels] was super cool. I feel like the Warriors Three weren't used all that much, or well to what I think they could have been. It could have been an amazing mini-Avengers right out of the gates. And then in the third movie I didn't even have a word before I was killed by Cate Blanchett.
But you got killed by Cate Blanchett!
Levi: But I got killed by Cate Blanchett! C'mon! For a moment, I was a little bummed, for sure. Because I was like, Aw man, I guess that was my moment. That was my superhero chip, I played, I got a spin at the wheel, I got on the board. Okay, we're done. Okay, cool, but at least I got that. I didn't want to feel like I wasn't being grateful for that but I wanted more, I always wanted more. We all want to be the star. You want to be the title of the movie. And now I get to be the title of the movie and I get to have my bubblegum-chewing face all over Times Square. It's so heady. It's so not normal. It's not real life. I don't take any of it for granted. I think it's important that while all this is entertainment and while we can take it for grant it means something to a lot of people, and we have the ability to infuse joy and light into people with the entertainment we bring them. I take that very seriously and I take very seriously with all the people they could have chosen to bring this character to life for the first time in its first feature film they said, "Hey, we're going to trust you with that." And that to me is a very humbling thing.