Zachary Levi on being destined to play the lead in Shazam!
You’re a self-professed nerd, so what’s this journey, playing Shazam, been like for you? The wish fulfillment that the movie is about is the same wish fulfillment that’s been in my own life. It’s so incredible. It’s so incredible to have loved superheroes and comics and videogames and all that stuff for so long, always dreaming like, “Oh, you know, maybe I’ll get a shot at playing a bona fide superhero one day.” And then being 37 and being like, “I don’t know. Maybe I missed my shot.” And now getting to do that. There were a couple of roles over the years that I wished I auditioned for, or that I came close to and I didn’t get. Then having gotten this role and having played this 14-year-old inside? I wouldn’t change it for anything. I feel like it was destined to be, because I’m just kind of a big man-child [Laughs] in a lot of ways. So, it worked out perfectly for me, and yeah, it’s just been very dreamy.
What parts of Shazam’s personality are you inspired by? His heart. Ultimately the Wizard chooses Billy Batson to be Earth’s mightiest mortal, Shazam, because of his heart, because of the strength and purity and depth of his heart, traits that even Billy doesn’t know he has. I love characters like that. I think we need more of them. I think we need to be inspiring people to be more selfless and more thoughtful of their fellow man. And I just really love being able to bring those types of characters to life. I try to walk as upright as I can in life and try to do as much good in life as I can, and so I love that about him. But also, that he’s 14 and just gets to be kind of silly and young at heart. And then of course all of the actual superhero stuff, like super strength, and super speed, and flying and shooting electricity out of my hands. He has a lot of cool powers. Yeah, he’s stacked! There are so many really fun things that – when you’re making the movie – require a lot of visual effects, which are done later. But just to imagine it, just in the moment when I was doing it, it was a lot of fun.
One of the things that’s unusual about this film is that there are two actors playing one character. How did you work that out with Asher Angel, who plays Billy, and your director David F. Sandberg? It was mostly with David because Asher was still shooting his television show when we were starting production on the movie. So, Ash and I got a couple of days of some meetings, having a meal, getting to know each other, and some rehearsals with David. And then he had to go and was shooting the show and I was making the movie, and then we were never really on set together. So then you’re trusting your director to be the connective tissue, to make sure it’s all there.
But that’s what you’re doing with the director any time, because they’re the ones seeing all the pieces. We’re just there to provide our services at any given point. And Asher is such a great kid. So was Jack. I was so grateful to go and work with genuinely good, talented kids who’ve got good families, too. That was really a treat.
Jack Dylan Grazer plays your sidekick Freddy, who is really the only way your character is going to learn about being Shazam. Oh, yeah, he’s like, you know, my little Yoda almost. He’s the real superhero aficionado, so he’s the one who knows about all of them and their powers. He has studied them. He’s enthralled with it all, whereas Billy’s sole purpose and drive in life is find my parents, find my parents, find my parents, and just surviving on the streets. He’s not tracking the superhero world as much as Freddy is, so to have that coach, that guy in my corner, teaching me the ropes and telling me about all the various things that these superheroes can do, or testing out different powers… I mean, there’s so much comedy in all of it and so much fun in all of that stuff. It was one of my favourite parts of doing the movie. And Freddy is his first real friend, isn’t he? Yeah, basically, because Billy’s been kicking around in and out of foster care in different homes, running away and on the street. And this is the first family that he’s really kind of sticking around in a little bit and finding somebody who’s of the same age and a peer, and that they can bond over this thing, for sure.
Every superhero has to look like that they can kick anyone’s butt, so what was your training regimen like to look the part and to do all the stunts, too? I’m really grateful that nobody at Warner Bros., DC, New Line said you’ve got to be in a certain shape to do this, as far as physical appearance. But they did say they wanted to make sure that I could physically do all the things that they were going to need me to do, to which I was like, “Yeah, yeah, me too.” But beyond that, I also wanted to look as much the part as I could for just my own confidence and my own kind of journey as a man, and as an actor filling the shoes of this character. I wanted to go and have a transformation. So, I’ve been in the gym basically six days a week for certainly the last year, maybe even a little bit longer, 14 months or so, eating thousands and thousands of calories a day. That’s actually the hardest part of it. The gym I’m addicted to and I love, and I can’t wait to get to the gym every day. I just feel, even from a mental health perspective, it’s so healthy for you. I’m stronger and healthier than I’ve ever been in my life, lifting more and more, and getting more and more definition in my body. Going to the gym literally releases so many healthy endorphins and makes your head and your heart feel so much better. The entire transformation has been really, really awesome, and I keep going.
I probably weigh about 220 pounds now, and I was 200 pounds when I started, so I put on about 20 pounds. Somehow, in the back of my mind, I always believed that I was going to get a job one day and they were going to pay me to get into the best shape of my life...
Shazam is not only the name of the character and the title of the film, but it’s the magic word that makes that transformation happen. If you could say a magic word in your real life, what would you want to happen? Oh gosh. I always take these questions too seriously. But literally, if I could say a magic word and anything could happen, I would say a magic word and we would legitimately be at peace as human beings and we would feel love and empathy for one another all around the world. We would be free of our fears and our insecurities and not be dealing with the anger and the hate that comes from the fears that we deal with. I think that’s why we have all the problems that we have in the world now, there’s just a lot of fear. And that fear is used by certain people to wield power, and even that comes out of their own insecurities and fears. If I could snap my fingers or say a word, I would erase all of that.
That actually plays into the film’s storyline, with the Seven Deadly Sins and the villainous Dr Sivana and what he wants.
Oh, yeah. The depth of the themes in this movie were one of the things that I loved the most about it. As a spiritual person, getting to play a hero with a pure heart who is tasked with defeating sin is like, “Let’s do it! Let’s go take down Sloth and Greed and Envy and Pride and all of these things that are screwing with our heads and our hearts.” And what if we did that? What if we could do that? In a movie context, it’s great to be able to tell stories like that, but I want to be able to use this and the platform that comes with this movie to genuinely talk about that and to keep building empathy with people. If nothing else, I hope my life’s work is building bridges and building empathy and having people love more, because it’s pertinent and applicable all through time. It’s the human condition.
You have a unique connection to the people who love movies like this, because you are one of them. So, when you’re sitting in the audience with the fanboys, what do you want them to experience as they watch this movie? As the person who’s playing Shazam, but also as the guy who knows what fans want when they come to these movies?
It’s pretty simple. I want them, and everyone, to walk away from this movie feeling joy. I want them to walk away from this movie going, “That was so fun and well-executed, and just a good – nay, not good, great – movie.” But from a very specific fanboy perspective, I want all those fanboys and fangirls to have felt considered and thought of and respected in how we tackle the source material and how we honour that source material. It’s a difficult thing to do, and I’ve had some social media conversations with some folks about some of this stuff. The character has been around for a really long time and it’s gone through many different iterations. You’ve got old-school fans of a somewhat different character than what Shazam is now. The original Billy would say “Shazam!” and literally turn into a man –he wasn’t a kid inside anymore. The wisdom of Solomon overtook all of that and he spoke like a man and he walked like a man and he was a man.
Now, to me it’s a much more interesting and dynamic character when he’s still a kid inside, and certainly a lot of fun to play.
So, trying to get all of those different fans from many different generations all to be able to see what we’ve given them and say, “You know what? For all intents and purposes, they hit as many notes as they could for us, because they cared about us and they cared about the canon.”
As a fan of a lot of different IPs or universes, when I go to a movie and I feel like they have just not cared at all about what the source was, I feel disrespected. So, I really hope that all the fanboys and fangirls will walk away from this going, “They busted their butts to try and make this as true to the heart of the character that we all liked and fell in love with.” Because we did.