Interview: ‘Shazam!’ Star Zachary Levi Talks the Rewards of Conventions & Importance of Mental Health
This year, Zachary Levi (Shazam!, Chuck, Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok) has been no stranger to the comic convention circuit. He’s visited numerous cities around the country, doing panels, photos, and autographs for fans, all while enjoying every minute of it. Nerds and Beyond had the opportunity to hear from Zachary via LeftField Media/Big Easy Con before his appearance at Big Easy Convention in New Orleans next weekend, where he talks about the most rewarding aspects of doing fan conventions, what it’s like being a DC hero, a Marvel hero, and a Disney prince, and the importance of mental health and self-love.
What authors did you read as a kid? What books inspired you, what kind of got your imagination going?
Zachary: Um, wow, that’s a really good question. You know [laughs] I’ve never really been a big reader. Even as a kid I was kinda outside playing, and doing stuff like that. Or then once video games came around, which was pretty quickly in my childhood, I was finding most of my, kind of, adventure story-telling through video games. But I don’t know, I’m sure there’s a good bit of some Dr. Suess that made its way into there. And then in high school, I think probably one of the most prolific books I ever read was Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which is not exactly children’s reading [laughs] but I don’t know, it rocked me. I thought “Wow, this guy’s writing from the 1930s and he’s writing about the future and he’s pegging it.” So that was a real stepping stone, I think, in my literary journey.
So you’re from Louisiana, what are you most looking forward to about the Big Easy Con?
Zachary: Well, I’m actually not from Louisiana. So I was born in Lake Charles (Louisiana), but I was only there for about two months before we moved away. My dad just happened to be working there when I popped out. I grew up in Southern California most of my life. That said, I’ve spent a really good amount of time in New Orleans and my sister even got married there, so I have a lot of love and affinity for NOLA, and the biggest thing I’m looking forward to is just the people. I just think the people in Louisiana, in the South, in New Orleans, you know, it’s just a groovy town full of really cool folks and it’s just an awesome town in general. Like I always have a good time in New Orleans.
You’re a Disney prince and a superhero, that’s gotta be a lot of pressure.
Zachary: No, no, it’s not. It’s like the coolest gift. I can’t believe that. Sometimes I’ll sit and think about my journey as an actor and the various things I’ve gotten to be a part of and I’m in a rare category. There are definitely other actors who have been in both Marvel and DC Universes, but I don’t know if any of them have also been a Disney prince, and I’ve gotten to do all three of those things. I don’t feel pressure, I feel very honored and very grateful for it all.
I’m not gonna lie it’s actually really cool. So many people, like you said, don’t get to have that sort of breadth of career.
I know we talked about your experience with Louisiana and NOLA and all of that. But in general, what do you enjoy most about these fan conventions? Because you’ve done them all over the place, including, most recently, Rose City Comic Con.
Zachary: Honestly, my favorite thing about conventions is the people. I really love people, I love love, I love that essentially I get paid to love on people. I get paid to sit there and meet with folks and acknowledge them and hopefully help them to feel seen and heard and valued. And I get paid to do it. I mean, it’s just the coolest. As an actor I get paid to bring joy to people, to entertain folks and hopefully give them some respite from, you know, a lot of the gnarly crap that goes on in life and this world. And at conventions, you really get to bring it full circle and you get to see the people who have been supporting you your whole career. And not only am I paid to love on people, I get paid to be loved on. People wait really long, oh not really long, but they’ll be very patient and queue up and wait to then pay me to eventually tell me how much they like me. It’s a weird life, but one that I just try to never take for granted at all. And I love the opportunity to meet all of the wonderful folks in all of the wonderful places that I get to go and do these conventions. The truth is, having gone to many different, not just corners of the U.S. but corners of the world, to do conventions we’re all very the same. I think it’s been a very incredible empathy building experience for me and being able to just learn more about how different parts of the world are but also how very similar we all are and how we all ultimately are looking for the same thing — to feel valued in this world and feel like we exist and that there’s some meaning behind that. And I love that I get to be a conduit to help people feel that.
We’ll touch on that here a little bit in a question that’s coming up, but I want to go into something that you have touched on in terms of fan conventions that I imagine spirals back into your work with comic franchises. So, what is it like, really, to be a part of truly the biggest comic franchises out there?
Zachary: Oh man, it’s a lot of pinch me moments. I’ve been very forward thinking always in my life, which is not always great, sometimes it keeps me from being very present or reflective in the moment, but I’m always kinda like “On to the next one.” I’m super grateful for what I’ve gotten to be a part of, but there’s so much more that I want to do. So I don’t really sit and rest on those laurels. But you know, the fact that I got to be Fandral in the Thor franchise and work with those incredible talented folks was awesome. The fact that now I get to be my own superhero in Shazam!, and a very different and fun type of a superhero that I think is a breath of fresh air for a lot of folks … it’s a gift. I couldn’t have written it better — this journey — I couldn’t have scripted my own journey better. And not that there haven’t been moments where it was really difficult and I lost jobs that I thought would have been incredible and that it really took a toll on me. But that’s why I think it’s important to trust in the overall plan and God’s got stuff in store that we’re kind of unaware of and it becomes really easy to get lost in the weeds of your own life sometimes instead of just trusting and knowing that there’s something around the corner and to keep loving yourself through that and be patient through it. Having done that and then gotten to be Shazam through all that is just so delightful.
That’s a brilliant answer. We know you can sing, if you were to do a musical on any of the movies or TV shows that you’ve been on, what would you choose and why would you choose it?
Zachary: [laughs] You know, I don’t know that I would turn any of them into musicals. People are always wondering “Why didn’t you do a musical episode of Chuck?” and I was like well, cause it doesn’t call for it I don’t think. Like it would have been completely outside of the universe of what Chuck was. Just because you can sing doesn’t mean you should sing [laughs], although I love singing all the time. I don’t know. What would have been an interesting thing to turn into a musical … I don’t know … I don’t think I’d turn any of them into a musical. I think a musical, you need to conceive it from the beginning and then it makes sense from the beginning so, none of the above [laughs].
If you could be reunited with your former Chuck costar Yvonne Strahovski, what project would you like to do together?
Zachary: I don’t know … something meaningful. I mean I always just want to do stuff that’s meaningful, whether its meaningfully entertaining or meaningfully powerful and poignant. I think … Yvonne, I just think the world of her. I think she’s a delightful and lovely person and incredible talent. Something dramatic I feel like could be a really cool thing to do with her. I don’t know what that story would be, but something that really gets into the fabric of human existence or something and us to be able to present something that has some deep philosophy behind it. I think that could be cool.
What has been the proudest moment of your entertainment career so far?
Zachary: I think probably the proudest moment is anytime anyone, and this happens at conventions probably more than anywhere else but, anytime anyone comes to me and very earnestly and very honestly looks me in the eye and tells me how much something that I’ve done has meant to them or meant to them and their family. As an actor, particularly with film and television, you’re kind of working in a vacuum. With theater you have immediate feedback of whether or not something is resonating with your audience, but with film and television you make something in a vacuum. You shoot it, it’s edited, it’s totally out of your hands and then it airs on TV or is in movie theaters and you don’t really know if it resonates with people, other than ratings or box office sales. But that still doesn’t tell you whether or not people ultimately enjoyed it at the end of the day or if it meant something to them. So being able to go to conventions and have people tell me that it meant something to them, that’s the proudest I ever feel about what I do. Being able to win awards, not that I’ve really won many of those [laughs], but doing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and winning a SAG award with them was so cool and that was like the first thing I’d ever won as an actor, I was very proud of that moment. But you know just doing good scene work, just working with good actors and with great writing and doing good work, I’m proud of that. And I’m proud of the ultimate outcome, if it meant something to somebody.
You touched on this earlier, you kept talking about the idea of making people feel seen. And I want to talk to you about using your platform to leverage messaging about mental health awareness and how you practice what you preach and how you manage that yourself, and how that maybe in turn helps other people. Do you find that conversation coming up a lot at comic cons?
Zachary: Oh yeah. People come to me quite often because of how vocal I’ve been on my social media about my own mental health journey and the struggles that I’ve gone through and continue to have to do work on. I try to liken it or use metaphors that make sense, or liken it to things like brushing your teeth, or flossing your teeth. It’s a daily practice. If you let your teeth go for a long time, then a lot of damage can set in and there’s a lot more heavy lifting to get them back to health. But if you do little bits of maintenance, then your teeth and gums stay healthy and strong, and your brain and your heart are very similar.
I try to practice daily pray and meditation, daily gratitude. I try to talk through things with those that I trust and that love me and I think it’s important that we — maybe of the most importance — that we talk about what we are struggling with. I think in the silence is where the lies really start to manifest in our heart and our mind and where we start feeling like there might be no hope or that we are irrevocably broken. But we are not. The darkness, the lies, our minds are super powerful things and they’re also not entirely us. There’s this great quote in this book called The Untethered Soul that basically says you are not the voice of your mind, you are the one who hears it. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that. It’s like why we can sit there and all of the sudden you have these weird thoughts that pop into your head, like why am I even thinking that? That’s not me. And our minds are very powerful things and we need to respect that, we need to respect the fact that they are very powerful and they can create narratives that may not be true at all, but seem very real to us.
We have to be able to talk through those things and be vulnerable with each other and share when we are struggling, because when we do we realize, oh, we’re not alone. That’s one of the biggest problems with mental illness, is that we very much feel like we’re the only ones struggling with whatever we’re struggling with, but it’s not true at all. Everyone is struggling with some bit of it; whether it’s anxiety or fear or stress or depression, you name it, everyone’s struggling with something. Some of us struggle only a little, teeny bit, and we’re able to maintain that and do daily care much easier. Some of us struggle much harder through that stuff, but it doesn’t mean that you are somehow going to be stuck in that for the rest of your life at all. You’ve got to clean and manicure away the weeds that can sprout up and grow in your mind and in your heart and talking about it is one of the first and strongest things that you can do, because it will help you to not feel alone.
So, I will never stop talking about mental health, I will never stop talking about self love. I mean unless we somehow eradicate it entirely, the problems that we have in my lifetime, but I don’t think we will. I don’t know that we ever will because we’re still humans. We will still dip down into these places, so I can’t stop talking about. After having gone through what I went through and basically not wanting to live after, you know, 37 years of life and quite a bit of accomplishment. But I couldn’t feel any of that accomplishment, I couldn’t see any of it, I still felt like a failure in my own life, and that was a lie. It was a lie I was telling myself and a lie that I believed other people believed of me and I think a lot of us struggle with that in feeling like we’re not worthy of living the life that we are living and that is a lie. And I will take every opportunity to remind people of that. I do it in my panels at conventions, I spend most of my time probably in the panel talking about things like this and when people come to my table and they open up to me and thank me for talking about mental health, I remind them that I will never stop talking about it and I will be there to always remind them that they are loved and they are worthy of that love.