Zachary Levi, who stars as the titular magical superhero “Shazam!,” is very familiar to the geek-y ecosystem, having starred for many years on the celebratory “Chuck” (in which an everyday nerd becomes a secret agent) and, as a secondary cast member of the latter two “Thor” films. Talking to him, you get the sense that he knows that world really well, which is good because after “Shazam!” opens, he’s going to be a household name (not just a Hall H superstar).
His performance in “Shazam!” is so wonderful, so warm and human, that it stands out against most of his super-heroic ilk (even more impressive is the fact that he’s playing a teenage boy who transforms into Shazam); with characters like Tony Stark you wonder if he even has a heart underneath all that armor. And you feel that compassion while talking to Levi, who has been really good about cooling the temperature of the internet, especially when it comes to the very dumb rivalry between “Shazam!” (whose main character was originally named Captain Marvel) and Marvel’s “Captain Marvel.”
We also talked about his love of comic books, crossing the aisle from Marvel to DC, and where he’d like to see the character go next. It’s an unusually thoughtful and heartfelt conversation and, just like the movie, a total surprise.
Moviefone: What was your relationship to this property and this character before you signed on to do the movie?
Levi: Well, I hadn't known … I mean I wasn't, I grew up reading a lot of comics but I was more of a, like an X-Men fan. I was super deep into X-Men, X-Factor, X-Force, all that kind of stuff. And I knew of the character of Captain Marvel/Shazam back then. But the only thing I really knew about it was the iconic [concept], it's a young boy who can say a magic word and become a superhero. Of course when I started auditioning for the role, I dug far deeper into it and started falling more in love with the concept and the character and everything. “Big” is one of my favorite movies I've ever seen in my life. And this gave me the opportunity to basically do “Big” with superpowers. And that is just so groovy.
You were also a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Was there any trepidation about crossing the aisle?
Not particularly, no. Certainly there are fans that are bigger DC fans and fans that are bigger Marvel fans. But I think a lot of fans are just fans of quality content. I was super stoked that Marvel saw fit to trust me to bring Fandral or life, but I didn't really have all that much to do in those movies. The Warriors Three weren't really utilized that much. And then ultimately, you know, we all live very quickly in “Thor Ragnarok.” So no, I wasn't like, Oh no, I hope the DC fans araren't angry with me that I was with Marvel. I've never once felt any of that. In fact, if anything, I like it was a nod that there that we're all good because, you know, it's not like DC looked at me and said, “Oh, he's already been used by Marvel. No, we're not going to use him.” They said, “No, he's the right guy for the job and that's what we want.” So, uh, you know, it was all peachy.
You’ve also been very good about sort of squashing beef online, with the Captain Marvel versus Captain Marvel debate. How important is it to you to keep that discourse civil and how much responsibility do you think you have in terms of having to jump in and tell these people to knock it off?
To be perfectly honest, it's all of our responsibility. I don't see it so much as me, but needing to squash some rivalry. What I saw was lies. What I saw were defamatory, fabricated messages. I was aware of them because they were, they were tagging me as if they were like doing me and the movie a favor. Like, “We're not going to go see that ‘Captain Marvel’ movie, we’re going to go see ‘Shazam.’” It was like, Whoa, Whoa, whoa. Don't loop us into whatever toxicity you're doing. First of all, that's not okay. We're not asking for that. You're not helping us or anyone for that matter. This is all destructive.
But I think all of us have the responsibility to speak what is true. And then beyond that, we have a responsibility to point out when we think something is untrue and not vilify. I have no intention of ever vilifying or dehumanizing even the trolliest of trolls or people who are doing bad in the world. I see all of us as in some form of either enlightened or not. A lot of people are just lost. A lot of people are hurting. A lot of people are afraid. A lot of people are misinformed. A lot of people are ignorant. And fear comes from ignorance. And then anger comes from that fear. And then hate comes from that anger. And I think we need to stop. We need to stop that that process. We need to keep people from going all the way down that line and in order to do that it's not going to be pointing fingers at them and saying that they’re trolls, it's a matter of opening your arms to them and giving them a big old bear hug and saying, “Hey, and what you're doing right now isn't helping anybody and it's not good. But I want you to know that I see you and I appreciate you and I recognize that you are alive and you are worthy of the life that you're living.” And speak truth to all of that. And if we can do that then I think we're all going to have a really good chance that at having a real dope future that's Star and Trek-y we'll go to other planets get to do all the cool shit. If we don't get along then when they're going to go to another plant and that's really gonna suck.
Can you talk about your relationship with Jack Dylan Grazer because your chemistry is one of the joys of this movie. What was your relationship with him on set? I mean, was there anything that you guys did to kind of build up this rapport?
Fortunately for me, he's just an insanely talented young man whose innate personality is so much of what his talent is. When you see him in interviews, you realize that Jack isn’t acting that much, he’s going to be himself. And a lot of that is because I think he’s been protected and encouraged by his mom to be unique and be himself and allows himself to be vulnerable. And he is funny and whip smart. We got to riff a lot. David, our director, give us some long leash, often and we got to play and inhabit these characters and bring them to life what was given to us on the page by our awesome writer Henry Gayden but also what was not on the page and what we just got to bring in that David ended up using in the film.
Jack and I would definitely be cracking each other up here and there. It was all really dependent on the situation. I mean it was really cold when we were making this movie. We were in Toronto in the middle of winter and we were shooting outside at night, all the time. So it’s difficult to be cracking jokes when you’re shivering and can barely say your dialogue because your tongue is numb. But we had a lovely time and continue to. Him and Asher, who is also so stupid talented. I think part of it is I'm kind of a big kid anyway. So we would talk about video games and sports and all kinds of stuff. But I was also seeing myself in these boys. I was some version of them for sure when I was their age. And I became very protective of that. I want them be protected in ways that I feel like maybe I wasn't even. Getting in this business can really chew you up if you don't have people around you to remind you of what is real and what is not.
We’ve heard that your suit was somewhat problematic. What was your favorite story about the costume?
What David and our DP Maxime concocted and came up with, I think it was novel and awesome in a lot of ways -- having a practical light-up chest and light-up gauntlets. But as you can imagine, between the wiring, the connectors, the receivers, the wireless receivers and the batteries and we were shooting in really, really cold weather so the batteries wouldn't work as well. The trial and error of the electronics in the suit was an epic in and of itself -- really, really interesting and frustrating. Because we might not be able to use a take because all of a sudden, the chest started flickering because there was a problem with a connector. So we lose that. We lose that time entirely. But the costume department was incredible and they put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into refining all of that stuff along the way. So eventually we got it down pretty pat; it was pretty bulletproof by the end.
What would you like to see next for Shazam?
Oh man. I don't know. I just want to keep making it. I mean I think this movie that we made is so full of joy and fun and heart and wish-fulfillment and just straight-up entertaining. You know, that's the kind of movie that feels like a real movie. Like the kinds of things I watched when I was a kid in the movie theater and all the smells of the popcorn and the, and the shuffling of feet and the theater getting dark -- it feels that kind of experience. I just want to keep making movies like that. I love that we have an incredibly different cast when it comes to racial diversity, as well as a handicapped kid and they're all foster kids. We get to represent them on screen in ways that they have never been represented. I just want to keep making movies that give people about really cool respite, that hour-and-a-half to two-hour escapism from the world we live in right now. Because it's pretty gnarly. There's a lot of gnarly stuff. And I think movies like this can hopefull, empower people in positive ways and give them hope. And hopefully that will bleed into all of us loving each other a little bit more.
“Shazam!” blasts into theaters this Friday.