This winter's blockbuster success of Aquaman proved there was more than enough room for levity in the grim and gritty DC Extended Universe. On top of the stunning visuals and epic battles, audiences responded favorably to the movie's lighter tone and campy dialogue. Comedy worked for Aquaman. Will lightning strike twice with Shazam!?
Based on the comic book property of the same name, Shazam! finds an ancient wizard bestowing godly powers on teenage orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel). As soon as Billy shouts the word "Shazam!" he changes into an adult superhero with super-strength, speed, and endurance. But with great powers come great responsibilities… and a load of fun. A giddy Billy along with his best friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) have a blast testing the limits of his new abilities. However, they must master them quickly to stop Sivana (Mark Strong), a brilliant mastermind who possesses special powers of his own.
Last April, SYFY WIRE and a group of journalists visited Toronto's Pinewood Studios where the majority of Shazam! was filmed. Its outer grounds had been transformed into a carnival; a wrecked Ferris wheel hinted at a clash between Billy and Sivana. Meanwhile, one soundstage inside had been converted into a set piece that ties into Shazam's origin, but also constitutes as a major spoiler.
Soon enough, Chuck alum Zachary Levi, who plays the grown-up Shazam, joined the press to talk about landing this role, embracing his inner child, which comic books inspired him, and having his Marvel character Fandral killed off in Thor: Ragnarok.
You are a huge nerd, so when you get a script that has "Shazam" at the top, what was your reaction? Did you think, "This was made for me?"
No, as a matter of fact. I guess I can go into this first because you guys are the audiences to start this with. The truth is, I had an appointment slip set up about two months before I got the job. My agency sent me an appointment slip for the role of Shazam in the movie Shazam!. I knew that the Rock had been cast as Black Adam, and, so my first reaction is, "Why the hell are they sending me this right now?"
I emailed them, and I said, "Hey, aren't they looking for a) massive stars, or, at the very least, b) someone who is a massive person?" Even as a cursory [Shazam] person, who knew very little, quite honestly, about the character at that point, I knew enough to know that. So, I emailed them back and I said, "Aren't they looking for big stars or big guys?" There was kind of a non-committal, "We're not really sure." So, I said, "Well, I think I'm going to pass because I think that might be a waste of time. This doesn't seem like I've got a shot at getting this job, to be perfectly honest."
Then some time went by. I was reading other things or looking at other things. It came back around. I got another audition for a completely different role. I had no idea exactly what the role was, but they were sides that were written specifically for auditions. I was like, "OK, there's one scene where I felt I could probably portray this character." I put myself on tape. That was sent to the creative team. Then, I get a call from my agent and they said, "Hey, so, what about that role of Shazam that you passed on two months ago because they think you actually might be very right for this?"
Then, at that point, I got very happy. But I was also still kind of confused. I camera tested probably five or six days later. Then, the next day, I found out that director David Sandberg called me. I was at the gym... I got a call from David, who said, "You are my Shazam."
It was gnarly. It was insane. It was oddly, or ironically, reminiscent of when I was camera testing for Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy. I knew that Chris Pratt had also passed on that role. I wanted it so bad. There was definitely a strange thing of, "Wow. When you are not holding on to something so tightly, if it's not something you're dying for, but you can have an unbiased, somewhat clear idea of what you are trying to go after and know that you are just being you, you are bringing your essence…"
Ultimately, that's what I think got me this job. It's what New Line saw. It's what Warner Bros. saw. It's what David saw, and [producer] Peter Safran saw. They knew they needed to cast someone that could be as exuberant or optimistic or sassy as a 14-year-old boy and, dammit, that's me in a nutshell.
It's odd, too, because I've done so many things. My particular energy has gotten me into a lot of incredible jobs like Chuck, like Tangled, like Alvin and the Chipmunks or whatever. It's always something that's got a lot of heart to these characters. There was definitely a part of me that felt like, "Oh, maybe I'm never really going to have my shot at something like this because you need to be, I don't know, one of the Chrises." I don't know, either starting super-ripped or super-moody or super-sexy, whatever that is.
I always felt like I was more of an every-guy. I felt like I was following in a Tom Hanks kind of trajectory. But then when I realized that we genuinely were making something between Superman and Big, I was like, "Damn, this is a dream job." I couldn't have prayed or thought about this more. So, there, that's how I became me... in this.
Can you talk about getting to play the superhero that actually loves being a hero?
It's the best. Following up on what I was saying, I've been a comic fan since I was a little kid, but I don't know it nearly as well as probably everyone sitting in these chairs.
There are two characters that I can think of in all of comic-dom, including DC and Marvel, and it's Billy Batson and Peter Parker. Those two to me, at least that I know, you get to go on this journey. Instead of it being, "Oh, I have to save the world again" [begrudgingly voice] or whatever that is. It's like, [hyper-enthusiastic voice] "I get to save the world again!" It's that.
As a nerd who loved and lived this world for so long, and still do to some level, that I don't have to restrain myself with the fucking coolness factor, is so great. I have to act so little. I just get to be me on so many levels. It's great. It's really, really fun. It's a pain in the ass doing some of this shit. It's painstaking. It's little by little, and little by little, and all the action and how it's all put together.
The suit is very, very tight. To be perfectly honest, I can only do number one in it. They have to take the whole thing off to drop a deuce and that's a pain in the ass. But [if] these are the prices you pay to be a superhero? F***ing sign me up. It's great. It's great.
You share this character with another actor. So how much do you talk to Asher and how do you line that up so it works all the way through?
We were having conversations very early on, as soon as I got cast, obviously a whole slew of different meetings and conversations and fittings and all those kinds of stuff. And one of those things was, "When can Asher and I get some time to just hang out, and also time with David all together going through scenes?"
We got as much as we possibly could. He was still shooting Andi Mack... but was able to come up a little bit and we were able to hang out. Fortunately, he's just a really good, cool kid who also really loves life and video games and sings and dances and things I can relate to. And I go, "Oh, wow. Cool." So, we hit it off immediately and he's got a lovely family.
Because you are shooting out of order, it's not like I could really watch him do all of his stuff. I started off in one of my scenes and I was like, "OK. I think this is the choice I am going to make," and then once you do, you just have to commit to that choice. Otherwise, your performance is all over the place throughout the movie. I think everything has been going. Everybody seems to be happy. When everybody is happy, I am happy.
How do you balance playing a 14-year-old with the wisdom of Solomon?
I asked this question of David at the camera test, or maybe right before it. Having done the research on the character and being like, "How is this going to work?" If you have read The New 52 [DC Comics reboot], it does take a little license with that. In fact, I don't think it's the only version of Captain Marvel or Shazam that's taken license with this paradox. Essentially, what was settled on is the idea that while some of these powers, or these namesakes and powers — be it Hercules or Atlas or what have you — are a little more evident as Billy is becoming Captain Marvel/Shazam. You guys all know when I say Shazam, I mean Captain Marvel and vice-versa.
Anyway... I think some of those are more evident. With the wisdom, it's not quite as evident. He's growing into that, I think, a little bit. It's magic. But he does show his wisdom, I think, in certain areas throughout the movie where you see him make a decisive move or he does something where you go, "Oh, that would be a more Wisdom of Solomon-type of thing."
Was there any other touchstone in the comics that you looked at to inspire your performance?
No, no. As soon as I got the job, Geoff Johns sent me a whole bunch of stuff, and some other friends recommended stuff. I wanted to read those to kind of familiarize myself, but, also, see if there were little nuggets or little things. But the truth is The New 52 is really not canon for this because this is even different than what The New 52 is.
I did quite like "Kingdom Come." Even though that's a completely different situation, it shows... the innocence. He's an adult and he still has that heart. I thought, "That's such a cool thing to be able to take that in and is ultimately a sacrificial move at the end and all of that." I just found that was more inspiration for me than even The New 52 in a lot of ways because we get away with a lot in comics. You get to draw whatever the hell you want and you, as the reader, get to put a real voice in your head to those characters.
But in the movies, as an actor, you really have to try and bring that to life in the most realistic way possible. That's a really weird thing to do when you shoot lightning from your hands. That's a weird thing to do. Mark and I joke back and forth like, "I guess that's what it is like to shoot lightning," when we are acting out because you are making it up as you go. But, how do you balance that with being a real person? And more than that, you are supposed to buy that I'm a 14-year-old inside.
Shazam! takes place after the Justice League film. How much is Billy/Shazam aware of those characters and does he try to embody any of that as he's being his own superhero?
We are definitely within the DCEU world.
I think since Man of Steel, all of that has really happened in our world. Freddy is more... the superhero aficionado. That guy is all about it. All of that stuff, theoretically, we could have been watching on the news as it was going down.
Yeah, but also, does that ever influence him? Is Shazam ever, "Oh, now I'm going to be like Superman. Now I'm going to be like Batman."
Umm. No, because oddly enough, Billy isn't a big superhero aficionado. Billy's been so obsessed with trying to find his parents, trying to find his family. And he's lived on the streets quite a few times in between all that. To him, that stuff is going on, but he's not caring so much about that.
Did the way you were unceremoniously killed off in Ragnarok maybe make you hesitate about signing on for another superhero gig where that might happen again?
No, because I'm the Earth's Mightiest Mortal. What the hell are they going to do to me?
No. I knew when I got cast as Fandral in the first one, though I wasn't able to do it, I knew that the Warriors Three could be really fun characters if they ever developed them. They just didn't. They didn't in the first one. They didn't really in Dark World. That's not to say there weren't some moments that were shot that weren't used ultimately in the movie. Even when I got killed, there was more to that scene. Granted, maybe 30 seconds more of a line here, a line there. Kill, kill, you're dead. I knew Fandral could be fodder, would be fodder. I don't know, unless Marvel really wanted to be like, "We want every single character we've ever seen, particularly demi-gods, to be able to be a part of Avengers."
But then the truth is… to be honest... let's say Fandral was still alive and let's say they tapped me to be in Avengers, I'd probably be sitting in Atlanta for three months doing almost nothing and then they'd be, "OK, now we're ready for you. You guys go in," and then we'd get killed then. The way it all worked out is exactly the way it was supposed to. Certainly, in the moment, would it have been cool if Fandral got more to do? Dude, what a fun character. Errol Flynn. Viking. Space God. Like, c'mon. Ladies man. C'mon! That's all fun.
So, that was a little bit of a bummer, but looking back, if I didn't die, I might still be under contract with Marvel and I never would have been able to get this job. And I say, "F*** that." This is the coolest thing ever. I'm so happy. And, literally to be able to jumpstart my life. I'm healthier and stronger and happier than I've ever been in my life. The people I get to work with, on and offscreen here, have been tremendous.
Also, going back to your question, if you are looking at the titular role of a movie, I don't think you're as afraid you are as dispensable. You know what I mean?
Tell that to Henry Cavill.
Well, but he's still Superman. He's still Superman. Just because they haven't gotten around to making another standalone Superman movie, doesn't mean he's still not Superman and doesn't mean he's still not killing it as Superman. Doesn't mean everybody doesn't still love him as Superman, right?
Shazam! opens on April 5.