"I don’t want to talk about anything more than mental health and therapy and self-love and self-care."
Zachary Levi speaks with even more enthusiasm than the words above might suggest. “I get more passionate about that than anything. I know how much I struggled with that, and with all the therapy and stuff I’ve gone through, I really feel that probably all of us, on some level, have a little bit that we need to go get healing from.”
The above might read a little in medias res, serving up the juicy stuff as a starter before the thin gruel of character motivation/studio fellation that makes up a typical interview, but it occurs no more than 90 seconds after we sit down. I’d mentioned how much I’d enjoyed the Inside of You podcast he recorded with former Smallville actor Michael Rosenbaum (who hosts a new episode each week), and after supplying a brief backstory – “Michael and I have known each other for a long time, but kind of in passing… He’d hit me up at this mutual friend’s party one night… I told him specifically, ‘I don’t want to know what you’re going to ask me…’” – Levi started waxing lyrical on the type of Big Issues an interviewer might broach near the end of the allotted time slot, only to be ever-so-politely stonewalled.
Not Levi. Discussing how therapy helped him forgive his now-deceased mother for an emotionally abusive childhood, and how reliving this experience on Rosenbaum’s podcast had provoked tears in both men, he spoke with the easy confidence of a man for whom speaking about such stuff had become a natural, perhaps vital, addition to life’s many conversations. There was no sense of ‘God, the drama!’, no implied celebration of his own bravery; he could have been chewing over last night’s ball game, albeit a ball game whose result mattered a lot to him.
More power to Zach. A world in which we can discuss the Big Issues as freely as the little ones is a better world than the world of today; it is also a world we’re moving towards, and people like Zachary Levi are showing us how to get there. As the man himself says, “it’s almost 2020, and it’s looking like mental health is really starting to be genuinely talked about.”
It was a really gnarly place in my life. I didn’t really want to live anymore
Levi kept silent for a long, long time before he finally forced himself to open up. What changed? The obvious catalyst would be 2015, the year he lost his mother and got divorced from his wife, the actress Missy Peregrym, but life is messy, and even that “crazy one-two punch” didn’t prompt an immediate reaction. “Ultimately I found myself with nothing left a year later. Just so gnarly. It was like, ‘I’ve got to go take care of myself.’”
Levi describes the decision to seek therapy as “basically 37 years of my life all catching up with me in one moment. And that was it. That was enough. That was enough to make me have to go and figure out why I was unhappy – and I was, I was super unhappy, and it was a really gnarly place in my life. I didn’t really want to live anymore. And [I had] to go and find that really, at the root of all of it, was that I never learned how to love myself. I never understood what it was to value my own life.”
Even the most obtuse now accept that money won’t always bring happiness, success doesn’t necessarily breed fulfilment, yet nonetheless it’s striking to hear that statement from someone whose life of two years prior appeared to contain so much value. Forget the career – which included two hit TV shows, stints on Broadway, a burgeoning cinematic CV – the whole Levi persona radiated good vibes. Funny, goofy, smart yet always willing for the joke to be at his expense: this was a dude you wanted to roll with. He’d josh with your friends; charm your mother; shoot the breeze with Dad; and should there be any intellectuals round the table, he’d be well equipped to handle them as well.
So how did he reach the state described above? Firstly, let’s establish the biographical stuff. Levi grew up in Ventura, California in a “household of basically all women.” Two sisters, two aunts, cousin, mother, grandmother – young Zach was surrounded by “a sea of estrogen.” His parents divorced early, and his dad was the one who left.
If I made somebody laugh it made them feel good, and that made me feel good
The desire to perform, to entertain, was present from the beginning. “I figured out early on, when I was like four years old, that if I made somebody laugh it made them feel good, and that made me feel good. And I didn’t ever want to change that – I wanted to keep doing that for the rest of my life.”
“As a kid, all I did was do impersonations and crack jokes. I had no off switch. I could make friends real fast, and I could lose them even faster, because I just wouldn’t shut up.”
Theatre offered an outlet. He walked on stage in middle school and stayed there throughout his adolescence and into early adulthood. A retired talent manager spotted him doing a community play; within six months he’d landed an agency and started to commute to Hollywood for auditions. He was 18, and it was April, 1999 – 20 years to the month before the release of Shazam!, the latest DC blockbuster, starring a 38-year-old Levi as its titular lead. In his own words, “Shazam! is the biggest that thing I’ve ever done and it hasn’t even come out yet.”
Shazam! has been touted as DC’s answer to Deadpool: the irreverent outsider ready to pull the rug beneath his more celebrated stablemates – men both Bat and Super – and turn a relatively unknown superhero into the hottest property in Hollywood. Even Levi – the man who founded the website Nerd HQ – only knew of Shazam! “peripherally” before his casting. (He was a Marvel kid.)
He’s fully informed now, as I discover when I seek to clarify the Shazam! origin story. “I’ll broad-strokes this,” he says, and proceeds to distill 80 years of comic-book history into a little under three minutes. (And if you aren’t impressed by this feat, you soon will be.)
I’m tempted to reproduce his words here and be done with it; but part of the joy of this job is pretending to know about stuff you know nothing about, and I’ll be damned if I let an afternoon on Google fall by the wayside when I can deliver a more long-winded version of a story my guy recited from memory. Skip ahead if you want: rejoin us at Taking Flight.
A Brief History Of Shazam!
Our tale begins at the dawning of the Golden Age Of Comic Books. June, 1938. DC has just published Action Comics #1, a seminal piece of literature heralding as it does the debut of a certain Superman. A print run of 200,000 copies rapidly sells out. Other publishing houses decide it might be time to move into comic books. Imaginations take flight. Soon the cultural horizons are crowded with beings neither bird nor plane.
Within two years, Fawcett Comics has introduced America to Billy Batson, an orphaned 12-year-old who can transform into the superhero Captain Marvel by speaking the name of an ancient wizard – Shazam! (A name which, handily, serves as an acronym for the Captain’s assorted 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.)
Captain Marvel proves a hit. He soon lands his own solo series, Captain Marvel Adventures, populated by various friends and foes from the ever-growing Marvel Family. These include three other boys named Billy Batson, known as ‘Tall Billy’, ‘Fat Billy’, and ‘Hill Billy’; Tawky Tawny, an anthropomorphic tiger; Mister Mind, a super-intelligent worm; Captain Nazi; and the evil Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana (played in the film by Mark Strong). Frank Miller it ain’t.
Kids can’t get enough. In its wartime pomp, Captain Marvel Adventures circulates at 1.3m copies for each bi-weekly issue, with 14m copies sold in 1944. The latter half of the decade sees a steady drop off, yet the numbers remain potent. Get this: Captain Marvel shifts more comic books in the 1940s than any other superhero – more than Batman, more than Wonder Woman, more than Superman.
Unsurprisingly, DC spends most of the 1940s suing Fawcett for copyright infringement. Litigation is filed in 1941, although it takes another seven years for the case to reach trial. That lasts another three years; the initial verdict favours Fawcett, only for DC to appeal and force a retrial.
Marvel Comics had created its own character called Captain Marvel, and made sure to trademark the name.
This brings us up to 1952. Declining sales, and perhaps a newfound appreciation for life’s brevity, prompts Fawcett to settle out-of-court for $400,000 and an agreement to retire Captain Marvel from his adventures.
The comics division closes a year later. Many of its staff move to DC, where they spread their considerable talents across a number of titles, including, of course, Superman.
Fast forward to 1972. Comic books have entered the Bronze Age. Looking to expand its stable, DC remembers the once-great superhero it forced out of business, a superhero who shares the name of its main rival. Licences for the Marvel Family are procured, and the Captain joins Superman et al under the DC umbrella.
Yet since his enforced retirement – enforced, needless to say, by his new owner – Marvel Comics had created its own character called Captain Marvel, and made sure to trademark the name. Therefore DC is forced to publish Captain Marvel’s return under the title Shazam!; even the caption ‘The Original Captain Marvel’ must be dropped following contact from Marvel’s lawyers. You hope somebody at DC had enough self-awareness to appreciate the irony.
Over the years, the Captain Marvel moniker is phased out altogether, and Billy Batson’s alter-ego becomes universally known as Shazam – as he will be in the upcoming DC movie, released a month after Marvel Studios’ own Captain Marvel flick hits cinemas around the world. And if you’re taking a date to either, and you definitely don’t want to get laid, simply memorise the above 500 words and introduce them with a “did you know…?”
Our hero gazes out across the city, or at least what little he can see of it through the mizzle. Let’s be honest: when you book a rooftop photoshoot in downtown LA, you envisage a backdrop of blue skies and boundless horizons rather than a passable imitation of a Welsh summer. Still, as every bartender and Uber driver delights in observing, I brought the weather with me.
Not that Levi complains. He’s the consummate pro throughout, cracking jokes with the photographer, pulling out the occasional impression (his Austin Powers is uncanny). In some ways it feels a little patronising to praise a grown man for coping with a spot of light rain. Nonetheless, there will be grown men, and women, in his position who would have refused to cope, or certainly not have done so with such good humour.
Anyway, as you can see the shoot came off spectacularly; the pervading greyness making the photos more wild than the standard #LivingMyBestLife sunshine snaps that might have been. The weather worked well with the man. Tall, dark and handsome, jaw squarely set, hair immaculately coiffured, it would have been no great surprise had he leaped from the building and swooped off into the clouds.
It took Shazam! for Levi to finally relax; no longer feel like an outsider, or even a fraud. Does he now feel like a movie star? That’s his name atop the posters, his face smiling down from the billboards. You’d forgive him for coming over a little Brando now and then.
Fame is bullshit! There’s no deep, lasting worth about it, because you’re forgotten
No, he tells me. Not even on the red carpet, the fans screaming his name, the paparazzi fighting for his picture, the giddy moments when he can’t help but “feel like a fucking million dollars.” Because even in those moments, “I’m still a schmuck like anybody else. I just happen to be so lucky that I have this job – but that doesn’t make me any more important. That doesn’t give me some rarified air that I breathe. You have to check yourself in those moments, otherwise you’ll lose touch with what’s really going on.”
He isn’t paying lip service, playing up to the image of Humble Ol’ Zach. Statements such as “some of the biggest stars that ever were, nobody even remembers anymore. There are actors from the 1980s, they were massive, massive stars, and nobody in the newest generation knows who they are”, strike far closer to home than many of his peers would allow. I doubt that the Levi household contains any gold toilet seats.
For Levi, “fame is bullshit! There’s no deep, lasting worth about it, because you’re forgotten. Appreciate what it is while you have it, and be able to let it go when it starts dissipating into the ether.” Whatever heights you reach, “eventually you always do come back to Earth – but is that because you remained there and kept yourself down there, or is it because something popped you out of the air and you fell to the ground?”
For the last 17 years Levi’s career has been in the ascendency; its trajectory a steady climb rather than warp drive to superstardom – Shazam! will see the gradient at its steepest – but always on the up and up.
Let us return to the callow teenager driving down to Hollywood, and pilot season. Auditions went well, and Levi landed a pilot. The show wasn’t picked up – most aren’t – but the fact he was booked first time round should have served as an affirmation. Instead, self-doubt. “I was like, ‘well, I don’t know if this is ever going to work out.’”
After a year of unsuccessful auditions, the process repeated itself. Another pilot season, another pilot booked. A second helping of the disappointment served up so often in this town. “I almost gave up on the whole thing entirely. I just felt, ‘what am I doing?’ One job a year is not enough to feel like you’re supposed to be doing this, but again all that was part of the journey… growing and learning…”
He persevered. “All of these auditions, I got really, really close, it was me and another guy, but I had no credits, literally no credits at all, no film, no television, no nothing. And then I got this little cable movie…”
Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie led to a third pilot, and liftoff. Less than Perfect ran for four seasons and Levi’s performance as the shallow Kipp Steadman proved the springboard to bigger things. A year after the sitcom finished, he landed the title role in action-comedy series Chuck, playing an intelligent slacker who becomes a super-spy. That lasted for five seasons, during which time Levi also voiced the dashing Flynn Ryder in Tangled, Disney’s wildly successful take on the Rapunzel fairytale.
Applause is the greatest drug in the world, it’s love, but it’s a temporary love
By 2013, life looked pretty sweet for Levi. A decade of continuous employment, a name made, leading man credentials established – at least on the small screen. The big one beckoned, with the role of Fandral in Marvel sequel Thor: The Dark World and later Thor: Ragnarok. Most thrillingly of all, the lifelong theatre nerd was taking the lead in an original Broadway musical, First Dates. (He would subsequently score a Tony nomination for the 2016 revival of She Loves Me.)
Yes, life was good, and yet he wasn’t happy. There was an emptiness that couldn’t be filled: not by partying, not by work, not even by the audience’s applause, the hit of instant gratification that briefly made everything OK.
“I go and do Broadway shows, and a thousand people are clapping their butts off for me. I feel amazing – but it’s temporary. It’s the greatest drug in the world, it’s love, but it’s a temporary love. Unless you can go home at the end of the night, and feel good about yourself and where you’re at, and spend time with yourself, it’s never gonna last.”
He couldn’t value what he had, and more importantly value who he was. Today, he traces many of these issues back to childhood – and his mother. On the Rosenbaum podcast – a must-listen – Levi describes his mother as, “a brilliant, vivacious tornado of a personality. Beautiful, charming, talented, very intelligent, and abusive… mentally and emotionally. She was a tortured person.”
It’s this alpha male kind of thing. We feel like we can’t emote, we feel like we can’t be vulnerable
I wonder, did the struggles of his upbringing inform his choice of career? “I didn’t have any parents,” he tells Rosenbaum. Did performance offer a means of escape?
“It’s so funny, somebody literally asked me that same question last night. I think going and being other people, maybe being a kid in a home that was an abusive home – not physically but psychologically abusive – maybe being a kid in that home, there was a lovely attraction to going and getting to be somebody else. Perhaps. But more than anything, I just liked entertaining people.”
Only through therapy was Levi able to forgive his mother and start the process of learning how to live with himself. He now preaches total openness on mental health, believing that visiting a therapist should be no more of an issue than visiting a doctor or a dentist. “We’re not ashamed to admit that our body has little bumps and bruises, but we haven’t been conditioned to understand that it’s totally OK to say, ‘oh no, I have a little cold up here right now, I have a cavity up here right now, and I need to go work through that.’
“Particularly as dudes – it’s this alpha male kind of thing. We feel like we can’t emote, we feel like we can’t be vulnerable because that’s weakness, but it’s absolutely not. Being vulnerable is actually super fucking strong and courageous; to say, ‘yo I’m struggling with this thing’. That takes a lot of balls.”
A higher power
Levi has spoken in the past about his belief in a creator – God, or some form thereof. Whereas mental health has become an increasingly trending topic in recent years, theism has long been moving in the opposite direction. An afternoon with your therapist is more relatable than a morning in church.
Not that this concerns Levi. His faith is real, and he discusses it as freely and candidly as he does therapy or celebrity or comic books.
He searches for the right words when asked to define his faith – “sometimes day-to-day my definition of it probably changes” – but this is due to the complexity of the subject rather than a reluctance to address it.
“I’ve been beat up enough in life and been wrong enough in life and been small enough in life to be humbled down. To be like, ‘you know what, Zach? You don’t know what you don’t know. Be open to learning.’ I just want to learn and continue on a journeyment – a ‘journeyment’? Is that even a word? It is now – a journey of enlightenment. Attempt to be humble enough to be like, ‘God, I want to know who you are, I want to know what you are, and be used in this world as an instrument of good. I want to be a conduit of love. And that, to me, that’s kind of the bedrock of my faith and spirituality.”
Despite strong Christian affiliations, Levi says his faith today isn’t tied to any religion. “I’ve seen religion be very helpful in some people’s lives, for sure. I’ve also seen it beat up a lot of people, and I feel I might have seen it beat up more people than it helps.”
There have been inevitable social media back-and-forths, notably with atheists who take umbrage with Levi’s view of atheism as a form of belief in itself – albeit the belief in nothing, distinctive from the ‘who knows?’ stylings of agnosticism. “Some people were saying, ‘I’m an agnostic atheist. I’m like, ‘isn’t that two different things?’ I don’t know…” he says, and he bursts out laughing.
He takes it all in good humour, welcomes the debate. “It’s unfortunate that for so long there’s been this pervading attitude of ‘let’s be polite and let’s never talk about politics and religion’. This has been a thing in Western culture for a really long time – I think we got it from you fucking Brits… On one level I totally understand, particularly in mixed company or whatever. But I think that’s led people to not discuss really important topics.”
If there is something that created all of this, clearly they know a thing or two about shit that we don’t
Whatever its daily definition, Levi’s faith unquestionably comes from a place of curiosity and inclusivity, rather than fire-and-brimstone dogma. (Anyone less fire and brimstone than Levi would be a cloud.)
In summary: “I want to continue to pursue the heart of God, and be the very best version of me that I can be. If there is something that created all of this, clearly they know a thing or two about shit that we don’t. So it’s like, ‘OK. Cool. Teach me, show me, guide me…’ I’m trying to approach that power with humility, gratitude and trust. That’s my constant prayer. And then hopefully go and do good shit in the world, and enjoy life while we’re at it.”
‘Do Good Shit and Enjoy Life’ is surely a creed we can all submit to. Whether you care how Levi interprets that creed, whether you decide his invocation of God to be problematic, almost certainly says more about you than it does about him.
Before we take leave, I can’t resist testing the limits of his goodwill toward his fellow man; especially as, like it or not, he’s now a fully paid-up member of the Hollywood Liberal Elite. You can’t headline a superhero film and not be part of the Hollywood Liberal Elite.
He wants to put politics and religion on the table – so what are his thoughts on Donald Trump? I would forgive him for deflecting this question – Republicans buy tickets too – but Levi doesn’t do deflection. However, it prompts the longest silence of the interview, as he marshals thoughts that I suspect he has wrestled with before.
Every single human being at some point was pretty good until they got messed up along the way
He starts his answer by invoking the subjects of self belief and self love that we touched upon earlier in the conversation. “There are a lot of people in the world who were never taught these concepts. And they have been trying to fill that gap, that hole, with power, with money, with influence – name it.”
Such people, argues Levi, are empty, not evil. They deserve empathy rather than contempt. “The older I’ve got the less I believe in the concept of ‘good and evil’; I believe in ‘lost and found’, in ‘enlightened and not enlightened’. And I have an empathy for Donald Trump, because I try to imagine when I look at that man, and all the things that I genuinely don’t agree with, and behaviours that I can be shocked by, the little Donald Trump – I try to see that little kid when he was growing up, and whatever messed up childhood I think he probably had.
“A lot of people want to point fingers at him with disgust, and despise him, and I think that’s also incredibly wrong because he’s still a human being – and every single human being at some point was pretty good until they got messed up along the way. That’s how we have to be able to see each other, and that’s how I try to see him. And I genuinely hope for the best, and have trust in a creator – that even that, even he, even all the things that are coming from that, will be used for some growth and some good somewhere down the line.”
And with that he rises from the sofa, off to spread his gospel of love, care and empathy – while not forgetting to have a little fun along the way. I hang behind to call the office, and therefore don’t actually see him enter the lift – maybe he departs via the window.
Later, walking down a deserted Venice Beach, our conversation rearranging itself in my mind, the perfect signoff to this interview flies into the middle of the brainstorm and refuses to be dislodged. Well, almost perfect: it’s too obvious, too cheesy, but it fits the man like Lycra bodysuit and I’m not sure I have the smarts to dream up something better.
Oh, you know the one. Heroes and capes.
Shazam! will be released in UK cinemas on 5 April