Shazam!’s Zachary Levi on how he went from mega nerd to The Rock’s nemesis

Dominic Corry sat down with the titular Shazam! himself, Zachary Levi, ahead of this relatively light-hearted and playful DC adaptation.

Although he acquitted himself just fine as the Asgardian warrior Fandral in the second and third Thor movies, and demonstrated considerable kung fu dexterity in the nerd/spy TV action-comedy Chuck, Zachary Levi wasn’t on anybody’s list of superhero leading men when it was announced he was the playing the title character in the DC Extended Universe movie Shazam!

The first trailer for the film silenced any naysayers, with audiences lapping up the ‘Big meets Superman‘ vibe, and Levi very much looking the part in red spandex.

Shazam’s backstory as a piece of intellectual property is complicated, to say the least. Originally known as Captain Marvel and once more popular than Superman, he was sued out of existence by DC Comics, who subsequently went on to acquire and absorb the character, changing the name so as not to confuse matters with their main comic book rivals.

As with many superhero characters, the specifics have evolved over the years, but the general gist is that when a young boy named Billy Batson (Asher Angel in the film) says ‘Shazam!’, he turns into a (grown-up) red-suited superhero whose name is an acronym for the Greek gods from whom he derives his powers: he possesses the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. I’ve always wanted super stamina.

There are some horror-ish elements present, but Shazam!‘s light-hearted, playful tone is very much set by Levi, who steps into superhero boots with ease, bringing an appealing child-like enthusiasm to the role and the film.

It’s an enthusiasm that a lively, quick-talking Levi exudes in spades when Flicks recently sat down with the actor in New York to discuss Shazam!

Flicks: How did you feel about the reaction to your casting announcement?

Zachary Levi: I feel like the majority of it was positive. There were still a lot of people that were, you know, cynical fans and I understand that. With every casting of every superhero, there’s a lot of people who have loved that superhero for a very long time and they all have very specific ideas of who that superhero is supposed to be. And the reality of it when you think about it, psychologically, we all want that person to be us, so we’re already having to be okay with the fact that it’s [not]. And people knew me from Chuck primarily before, so some people were like ‘How’s this guy supposed to be that guy?’.

I saw a lot of ‘Where’s John Cena when you need him?’. That was like, well okay, but I think one of the beautiful things about that is if you can believe in yourself and stay the course and have the incredible support that I’ve had from New Line and Warner Bros. and going and doing work and being in the gym and yadda yadda yadda, and you go make a movie, and then the first trailer drops, the vast majority of any of the negative stuff that we were hearing just went away, ’cause people saw [what we were doing] and they felt good. They were like: oh, they’re not screwing this up, they’re actually making something that’s very special.

It felt like your casting was something of a statement of intent about the tone of the film—that it was going to be more fun and light-hearted. Did it feel like you were carrying the weight of the film’s tone on your shoulders?

Well, to be given this opportunity is a huge honour. These superhero characters, these titular franchise deals, they come around not as often as you would think or hope as an actor. You think, they must be handing them out on street corners, like no, it’s very rare. So they chose me to do that, that’s a very kind of humbling thing, and knowing there’s a responsibility that comes with that, and wanting to be the best leader that I can be on a set and to sell this movie and all that.

But as far as the responsibility of the tone of the movie: no. I got into this business because when I was four, I figured out that making people laugh made them feel good, and that made me feel good and I didn’t ever want to stop doing that for the rest of my life. So the fact that they gave me the opportunity to go be this fourteen-year-old inside a man’s body, and me to get to have my Tom Hanks Big dreams coming true, with superpowers—which is also dreams coming true, because I’ve always wanted to be a superhero—all of that stuff just…I don’t feel the responsibility. That’ll all work for exactly what this is supposed to be, hopefully.

What was it like the first time you tried on the suit?

It was crazy. It was all of my dreams coming true and I’m literally staring at them. At myself. I’m wearing my dreams. It’s a very surreal moment. And again, it’s very humbling. Because I know my journey. I know all the things I’ve gone through in my life, the dark moments, almost giving up and retiring from the business. There’s been a lot of different things that could’ve gone a different way and I didn’t end up in that suit. And so for all of that to happen…

I was putting it on, it was a really cool day, I had just gotten the job, I think it was maybe two days later, I was now getting fitted with the costume. And I knew that I had been hired, clearly, that’s why I’m putting the suit on, but still in the back of my mind, it’s kinda like: ‘They’re not gonna change their minds…please don’t change your minds! I’ve put it on now, it’s mine.’ I peed in it to mark my territory [N.B. This is a joke].

So it was all of that, it so many emotions, but honestly the thing I feel the most consistently is just gratitude. To get the opportunity to be in a movie like this. That it turned out the way it did. That people feel the joy and they feel the heart and they feel the fun, which is I think unfortunately lacking in a lot of entertainment that we could use in the world right now.

You have pretty decent nerd credentials, having done a lot of stuff at Comic Con over the years. Do you consider yourself a nerd?

I am a nerd. I created a company called the Nerd Machine. I host events called Nerd HQ. I very much embrace that moniker. But I also believe that we’re all nerds. I believe that nerd just means passionate, so you could be a Beethoven nerd because you’re super into Beethoven. You could be a fitness nerd or a fashion nerd or a car nerd or a sports nerd. That’s how I see that, you know, traditionally nerd has been associated with horn-rimmed glasses and pocket protectors, and being very passionate about science and technology and comic books and video games. Which yes, I am all of those things too. Well, I never wore horn-rimmed glasses or had a pocket protector, but I love video games.

Years before this film was made, all we heard about was that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson was attached to play Black Adam, Shazam’s mortal nemesis. Obviously, he’s not in this film, but did that factor into your thinking?

I was supposed to audition to play Shazam two months before I got the job, and I turned it down. I knew that The Rock had been cast as Black Adam, and I knew that Shazam and Black Adam are supposed to be doppelgangers, we’re supposed to look exactly the same, except one of us wears red and one of us wears black. And one of us is more moody, apparently. I had an audition slip saying: ‘Do you want to audition for the guy who looks just like The Rock.’ And I thought, I’m never getting this job, so I said no. And then down the road I auditioned for another role in the film, a supporting role, they saw my tape, they believed from that audition that I could be Shazam, and a week later I was.

I say all that to answer your question: yes, I am aware that The Rock is attached to be Black Adam, and I really hope that we’re blessed enough to make enough of these movies to get to that big fight that I think all of us want to do, and hopefully that’s in about—checking my watch—three and half more years. And many thousands of calories later, where I’ll dwarf him. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Was it tough getting into superhero shape for the film?

I have not had a week where I wasn’t in the gym at least five or six days a week in a year and a half. But-but-but, that’s not me complaining. I love it, I’m addicted to it, I think we should all be doing it. For real. It helps you not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally, you become a stronger healthier person by doing that sort of stuff. That’s part of the reason why [I’m still doing it]. Maybe we’ll get to do sequels. I knew that I was gonna be doing a press tour like this and I wanted to be in tip top shape to be able to fly all over the world and do that. Other roles that I might get that come from this movie being successful, I want to step into those types of roles. And I do wanna put on another ten pounds or so. I’m 6’4”, I have a big frame, and I wanna feel that whatever muscle on my body is proportionate.

What do you think sets Shazam apart from other superheroes?

He’s the kid in all of us that gets to say the word. It’s me living out my wish fulfillment. And I get to have fun. I don’t have to be brooding, I don’t have to hold in all the enthusiasm that a lot of other actors have to hold in when they get cast in these roles. They’re meant to be cool. I don’t have to do that, I get to genuinely take all that enthusiasm and do it and then also by the way like Freddy points out [in the movie], he’s stacked as a superhero. He’s got so many cool things that he does.

The Flash is cool, but he just runs real fast. Guys. I can run real fast and be super strong and shoot electricity and have the wisdom of Solomon. I got it all.