Interview: 'Chuck' star Zachary Levi on Comic-Con, fans and saying goodbye
One of the most memorable moments from Comic-Con came at the end of the last-ever "Chuck" panel. The moderator asked if any of the panelists had final words for the fans, and after producer Chris Fedak gave a speech, he passed the baton to leading man Zachary Levi, who needed a moment to compose himself, then thanked the fans one last time, his voice breaking as he got to the end. (You can watch it here.) And the crowd responded with a prolonged standing ovation.
Goodbyes like that are rare at Comic-Con, as few shows go into a season knowing it's the end the way "Chuck" will. But also there aren't a lot of stars who feed off the love of their fans quite the way Levi does. During the unfortunate end of last year's Comic-Con panel, when we ran out of time without a single fan question, everyone was surprised, but Levi was genuinely hurt, because interacting with the audience is something he so clearly enjoys.
After that farewell panel, I interviewed most of the show's cast (Vik Sahay and Scott Krinsky never made it down to my end of the line, unfortunately) for a series of quick-hit videos that I'm going to be posting through the blog tonight and tomorrow. By the time Levi and Josh Gomez made it to me, time was running particularly short, so Levi agreed to sit down with me some more later in the day at Nerd HQ, the off-site location Levi and his Nerd Machine company set up for this Con. You can watch the Levi/Gomez video here, and after the jump, my conversation with Levi, starting with a bit of discussion about the origin of Nerd HQ...
For the benefit of people who are not here, can you explain what this is about?
I just really love the world of Comic-Con, and what they do and how they bring all these wonderful people together. 200,000 genuine people who love what they're into. That's been the lifeblood of our show for so many years. If not for Comic-Con, we would not have the show we have. And over the years, I've been a little bummed out, like last year when we have awesome moderators like yourself, but we also have 4,000 fans who are dying to ask a question. For me, I'd rather just have an hour of fan Q&A. But that's me. Not everybody's the same. Maybe in a giant hall, that doesn't work. But what I really wanted to do was create a place that was a one-stop shop for the nerd triple crown. Mostly Comic-Con with a little bit of E3 and a little bit of CES all mixed in. For me it's all the same world. Nerd HQ allows fans to come in for free, and hang out and eat and drink and play video games that aren't on the market yet. While at the same time giving celebrities a place to come and chill in between the business that they're doing.
The thing that I'm most proud of is these Conversations for a Cause, which are our version of a panel, but it's a very different experience. Very intimate, 200 people, and offering them panels, some that coincide with Comic-Con, but we did a "Firefly" panel. There are no "Firefly" panels. It's been off the air for several years, but there are still thousands of Browncoats milling around Comic-Con hoping they could have time with Alan (Tudyk) and Adam (Baldwin) and Nathan (Fillion) and Jewel (Staite) and Morena (Baccarin). That was one of the biggest catalysts. I went to Nathan Fillion first and asked if he'd be into the idea, and he said yeah. We're giving fans an intimate experience: an hour Q&A, and often an hour signing afterwards. And to get to come, you just make a minimum donation of 20 bucks, it secures a seat, don't have to wait in line all day long, and all that money - every penny - goes to Operation Smile.
Is the plan to expand it beyond the world of Comic-Con, or to just make it a Comic-Con tradition and be back doing it next year?
Certainly make it a Comic-Con tradition, if Comic-Con is cool with it. I don't want to step on anybody's toes. I had heard that maybe they weren't so stoked with me wearing some of my Nerd HQ gear when I did the TV Guide Fan Favorites panel, which was really a bummer for me. I really do love Comic-Con. They had already sold all their passes before we had sold one panel. To me, I felt like I don't want to poach their business; I want to complement it. Give people a reason to keep coming down, have the business spill out, give it a whole South-by-Southwest feel. So as long as it's all simpatico, I'd love to keep coming back. And there are so many awesome cons we could go to, but also maybe doing a Nerd HQ at E3, and maybe having celebrity panels there. I honestly wanted to do something that would be good for our brand at The Nerd Machine. I wanted to throw a kick-ass party again, because we did that last year, and we wanted to have a booth at the convention, but then SDCC said they'd love to have us but the waiting list is three years. And we said, "Oh, geez, so sorry, we were unawares." And they suggested we find an off-site location. And as I started to investigate about having a party and a booth, we thought we might as well do it for all four days. I called every friend I had. I called Nathan, Adam, Jorge Garcia, Dominic Monaghan, Zach Quinto, Seth Green, Felicia Day - people I know that are in and of this world and really care about their fans. That's what it takes to be a part of this is to see how special it is.
I want to talk about what happened at the end of the panel, which was special in and of itself. You're an emotional guy in general, but were you expecting to have that reaction?
I was afraid that it might happen. And I say that somewhat jokingly, "afraid," because I'm not afraid to be transparent and be myself. But I don't want to put across like, "Oh, God, every time he talks, he's tearing up." But I have in the past at a couple of panels for the show. The first year, it was while we were off to the side watching the fan reaction to the pilot. And then after we had been saved after the footlong campaign, I teared up a little bit. I think if you are conscious of how privileged you are to have fans like that, you can't help but be moved. You can't help it. As a kid, you grow up and you want to be an actor, but you want to be an actor that people respond to, and support and believe in. So when people do, I can't not be touched. I can't not be, like, "Wow, they get me." They don't think we're collectively some crap show. They're with us, and they fight for us, and that's not easy. To fight for a show means taking out time from their day, and they have a life, they have a job, they have a family. So, to me, it's just a very personal thing - to know that it was our last panel, and that it was goodbye.
Barring some ridiculous miracle that's not likely to happen, the show's going away 13 episodes from now. You're not going to stop working, but your career may go in different areas. So how do you maintain that relationship with these fans?
There's a couple of things I take comfort in in being able to stay connected. One of them is being able to go do another show, sci-fi/fantasy genre, whatever, that would be really fun. Probably sci-fi; I want to go into space. I don't think I'd be a great vampire. I'd love to kill zombies, though; that'd be fun.
And if not that, the interesting thing is that in the last 10 years, Hollywood has really infused itself into Comic-Con, and that's a double-edged sword. It's become an entertainment con, and I think while the super hardcore purists are like, "What is this?" - and, trust me, when we first went down to Comic-Con, I was asking, "What are we doing at Comic-Con?" - I think that most fans are kind of stoked about it. They get to go to panels with shows that might not have been brought down before, but they're still with celebrities they know and love. Nerds don't just watch sci-fi. Nerds watch single-camera comedies, nerds watch dramas. I've got friends on "Shameless" and "Community," and it's awesome to see them down here - if it's awesome for the fans. That's the rudder. If your fans aren't okay with it, then you need to make adjustments. And if it's not as "pure" as what it once was, then okay. It should be organic, be able to breathe a little bit.
So if I go on to do a single-camera comedy, which I think would be a lot of fun to do, and fans want me to come down for Comic-Con, I'd love to do it. Or else I'll just come down to moderate something. And if nothing else, I'll keep coming down and doing HQ's if people are into it and they still want me to do 'em. I just like doing stuff that's fun, man. I believe that we're all capable of doing awesome stuff, and we're called to bring awesomeness into the world. Being able to put a smile on someone's face - a kid who didn't have 150 bucks to scrape together for a Comic-Con ticket, or did but didn't buy it fast enough, to give them an alternate, and say, "Hey, it's cool, you can come here" - I think that's special.
Fedak and I have talked over the years about how he's a nerd, I'm a nerd, you're a nerd, and there's all these things on the show he can't believe he gets to do. Like the super-bike sequence in the season 4 finale, which was his version of "Street Hawk." As a nerd yourself, I'm wondering if there have been moments where you've had that reaction: "I can't believe I get to do this."
Oh, dude, all the time.
I think the Intersect is one of the coolest things in any television show. I know I'm biased, but your brain being programmed like a computer and allowing a normal - sometimes even sub-normal - guy to now be able to do incredible things, the information and then the physical powers? I've always wanted to be an action hero, I've always wanted to do kung fu and shoot guns and ride motorcycles and do car chases, so all that is awesome. And aside from that, just the whole undercover aspect of it: getting to speak different languages or dialects, that's a lot of fun.
And totally separate from "Chuck," I'm a huge Disney nerd - a DisNerd - and to be able to be in a Disney musical?
On the action hero thing, I remember seeing a bit of B-roll footage from the first season from when you and Yvonne were filming "Chuck vs. the Wookiee." You're at poolside and trading fan-kicks, and I thought, "What if he ever does become an action guy?" When you got to season 3, how much work was that for you, to do the Chuck Fu?
It's a lot of work, whether you're doing the physical stuff or not. It's a long schedule, not easy to do, but our cast and crew are awesome and put forth everything every day. Adding on the fight stuff is a little bit more work. Fortunately or unfortunately, we normally learn those the day before we do the scene. So it's not like I'm laboring over it for weeks at a time. I'm only laboring over it for a couple of days. I can pick up the choreography - it's like a dance, and I've done a lot of musical theater stuff growing up. The hardest thing for me is just making it look as snappy as I can possibly make it. I've never taken martial arts in my life, and I'm a long, lean guy. You want it to look like Bruce Lee, but I'm a 6'4" white dude. It's not always as straight-up cool, but that's fine. That lends itself to the premise of the show and who "Chuck" is, anyway.
One of the things that's special about the show is that it's so many things in this one package. It's a comedy, it's a spy show, it's a romantic drama. Some people only do one part of it - Vic and Scott are pretty much only doing the comedy - and you have to do all of it. Is that hard, or is it fun because it's more?
I love it. What other show allows you that opportunity? I've done straight comedy with "Less Than Perfect," had an amazing time doing it. From an acting standpoint, you might come to the end of that going, "I have to show audiences that I can do drama. So I need to go do a drama now." Or vice versa. For me, I feel like I've been able to show people I can do comedy, drama, romance, action - at least to some extent on any one of those. And it does keep you on your toes, but I hope that at the end of the day, it's something that opens the door hopefully in cool ways in the future. People might go, "Oh, I've seen 'Chuck,' so I saw you do that."
Our show itself is very special in that regard. I've said this before: we're not as consistently as funny as a comedy, we're not as consistently dramatic as a drama, not as consistently action-packed as a "24" or whatever. So if you're looking for specifically any one of those genres, I don't know if "Chuck" is your style. But if you're looking for something that combines all of it, there's only one show, and that's ours. I don't know of any other one.
I think that's what made it so special for our fans. They get it, and they respond to it. There's plenty of shows, comedies and dramas, that get tons and tons of viewers, but maybe they're not quite as die-hard. And our fans are just die-hard, just awesome.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com