Zachary Levi talks Shazam!: “This was total wish fulfilment!”

We talk to Zachary Levi about starring in Shazam! and getting to play a superhero who loves being a superhero

Anyone who remembers Chuck knows what a great choice Zachary Levi is for Shazam!, as young orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) finds himself in the body of a grown-up musclebound superhero with all of the possibilities for adventure (and misadventure) that presents.

The film has received rave reviews (including our own), and we were thrilled to get the chance to talk to Levi about stepping into the super-suit and why he hopes he’s still talking about Shazam! when he’s in a rocking chair.

Was this a role that you campaigned for?

No, as a matter of fact I had an audition slip, my agency had set up an audition for me for the role of Shazam about two months prior to me getting the job and I passed on it because I genuinely didn’t think they were interested in someone like me, I thought it would be wasting everybody’s time. The Rock had been cast as Black Adam and I knew that I was half the size of The Rock, and also while I’ve had a pretty good career so far I know that a lot of times they’re looking for really big names for those types of roles.

So, initially I passed and then a couple of months later there was another role for a supporting character in the film and my agency asked if I could put myself on tape for that. The director and producer saw that tape and they said “Hey, we actually think he could be right for Shazam, we haven’t cast it yet.” And then I put myself on tape for Shazam and they flew me in for a camera test and then I did the camera test and it was essentially from Friday to Friday, from putting myself on tape for another character to the following character I had been cast as Shazam. So it was the last thing from a bunch of people sitting around going “I think that’s our guy” but ultimately they did believe that I was their guy and I am forever grateful that they thought that.

How much fun is it to be playing a superhero who is genuinely thrilled to be a superhero?

Oh my god, it’s the best, man! Playing a superhero is pretty awesome I would say, but as kind of an enthusiastic guy myself and somebody who certainly is super giddy about getting to play a superhero, I just got to channel all that into the character. There are very few of them, there are very few characters in all of comics, DC and Marvel alike, who aren’t feeling the pressure of “Oh, I’ve got to save the world again.” Billy Batson is like “What, I get to save the world?!? This is awesome!” There’s a lot of really fun energy that comes out of that so it’s a blast, it’s a blast to get to play this kind of character.

And that kind of wish fulfilment is something that everyone can identify with…

Yeah, oh absolutely. I think, look, in the same way that this role was total wish fulfilment for me, this movie is wish fulfilment as its core. It speaks to the little boy or little girl in all of us that was running around at some point and saying some word we magically believed gave us superpowers or made us extra fast or we pretend that we can fly. We’ve all done it on some level and this is that in movie form, it’s really fun.

Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy Batson and Freddy Freeman

Did you get the chance to work much with Asher Angel to develop Billy before shooting?

We did the best we could, for sure. Unfortunately Asher was still shooting his Disney television show all the way leading up to him coming up to Toronto to make the movie so we didn’t get that much time together. We did get some rehearsals together and tried to capture each other’s essences as best we could, and really for a lot of it we were relying on David Sandberg to splice all those pieces together because we’re never in the same place at the same time.

David Sandberg’s made a name for himself with horror movies like Annabelle: Creation and Lights Out. What do you think he brings to a film like this?

Well, I think that what he brings is the same types of tools and skillsets that help him to make a great horror film which is a good command of the camera and storytelling and he’s painting really beautiful frames. And also making sure that there’s a gravity to this film which is very much needed to balance out the levity of the film.

Inherently it’s a movie about a 14 year old that gets a superpower to become an adult superhero but he’s still 14 inside, I mean that is…there’s no way to do that movie without it being funny and heartfelt. In order for that to not just become silly, you need somebody like a David to come in and kind of ground it and give it some darkness and some grit and balance it out, and I think he’s done that in spades so we find a really nice sweet spot in the middle of it all.

Billy faces off with Dr Sivana (Mark Strong)

How did you find the experience of going up against Mark Strong as the villainous Dr Sivana?

Oh, awesome. It was so awesome. I’ve been a Mark Strong fan for so long and I just think he’s, I don’t want to say underrated because I think people that do know rate him very well, as they should, but he’s in some ways unrecognisable because he takes on roles that he transforms physically. So when you say Mark Strong I want that name to be more of a household name for people because he deserves it, he’s so talented. He’s also got such an incredible body of work. He’s done so many films! I’ve seen him on Broadway, I just think he’s such a talent and he’s such a delightful guy, he’s such a genuinely treat of a man. His family came out to visit while we were working in Toronto, he’s very gracious, he’s very giving, he’s very collaborative, it was a dream. It was really lovely getting to work with Mark.

There’s obviously a lot of action and stunt work, is that something you enjoy as an actor?

Oh yeah, I love it. It’s probably one of my favourite things that I get to do in this line of work because as an actor, you act every time but you don’t get to stunt every time, you know? And really the only people who do stunts like that, scaling the side of a building, are actual spies or the lucky actors who play those spies. Nobody gets to do that stuff! Hollywood gets away with all kinds of crazy shit! And so it’s really fun, there’s something very special and unique and different about it so I love getting to do it. I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie so getting to do anything that kind of puts me, even a little bit in the line of danger I think is a little fun.

What about the suit? It seems like no one ever actually enjoys wearing a superhero costume…

Well, I mean, physically the sensation does start becoming normal, thank god, because it’s very, very tight. The first time I put it on I started feeling the slightest bit of claustrophobia starting to set in and I was like “OK, OK, calm down, you’re going to have to get used to this, Zach, because you’re going to do this for hopefully quite some time.” And so immediately that started to dissipate but it can be a little restrictive for sure and certainly not the easiest thing to go to the bathroom in. It starts becoming like a second skin and you feel it less and less on a physical level, but on a mental, emotional level I hope I never get used to it.

I hope I’m always looking at it going “How cool is this?” How cool that I have been chosen to be this character and bring it to life, it’s quite an honour. There’s a lot of people that could have had this job and I’m the one who got it and there’s a lot of fans of this character and I want to do right by them and do right by the lineage of this franchise. So it’s very humbling to get this opportunity so I hope I never get used to it. I hope I’m 95, sitting on a rocking chair, and being like [adopts old-timer voice] “What the hell, I got to be Shazam, I can’t believe it!”

Shazam! is in cinemas 5 April. Read our review here.