Shazam! Zachary Levi Beefs Up for His Break Out Role in the DCU

March 21, 2019
FilmInk chats with Zachary Levi about Shazam! and the possibility of a role in Justice League 2

This film adaptation marks the first live-action appearance of Shazam, and fans are counting the days until the movie hits cinemas on April 4, 2019, almost 40 years since the character’s first appearance in comic books.

Shazam! stars Zachary Levi as the titular DC Super Hero, Asher Angel as Billy Batson and Mark Strong as Super-Villain Dr Thaddeus Sivana. The film was directed by David F. Sandberg, and written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke.

Shazam! Centres on Billy Batson, a young, troubled orphan who is chosen to be a ‘champion of good’ by the wizard Shazam (it happens to the best of us). Whenever Billy speaks the word ‘Shazam’ he is instantly transformed into an adult superhero (Levi) that has the powers of six mythical figures: S for the wisdom of Solomon, H for the strength of Hercules, A for the stamina of Atlas, Z the power of Zeus, A for the courage of Achilles and M for the speed of Mercury.

Shit gets real when Shazam has to face up against Dr Thaddeus Sivana and demons inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins. According to the producers, there is the chance of a crossover interaction between Shazam and the Justice League in future DC Universe films. But more about that later.

Zachary is a man-child (his words), so scoring the role of Shazam was a dream come true. However, he almost refused to audition for the part. “When my agent first emailed me about auditioning, I politely declined. I thought they’d be looking for someone much bigger – physically and in terms of their career. I’d had some great roles, but I felt like they’d be looking for a bigger name – I just didn’t think it was worth auditioning for. So, a couple of months went by, and then they were looking to cast other roles in the film. I put an audition for a smaller role on tape, did some screen tests, and then a week later they had cast me… As Shazam [laughs]! It was a whirlwind experience. My life literally changed in that moment, and I’m still celebrating. I’m honoured that I’m one of the lucky actors who get to be part of the Marvel and DC universes!”

Shazam! marks Zachary’s second role as a comic book figure, after he played Fandral in Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok. Zachary was grateful that he had the chance to play the small role of Fandral before being cast as Shazam, because it gave him an understanding and an appreciation of what to expect on a major film.

“Like Shazam!, Thor was stunt-heavy and shot in a different country. Typically, the bigger the movie, the slower the workflow goes, because you have so many people and so many moving parts. Working on a network television show, you are moving so fast. So, I went from shooting eight pages per day on Chuck to shooting one page per day, and I was just like ‘what are we doing?’ [laughs] But it just gives you more empathy and understanding of what’s going on. It’s been so cool to be introduced into comic book fandom – I really appreciate the fans who support my part in Shazam! – and even in Thor as the sacrificial lamb [laughs].”

This role will take Zachary’s career to the next level, and he is prepared to accept the responsibility that comes with this change. “Everyone has a platform,” he remarks, “and some of us – whether we like it or not – are put on a really powerful platform. I think people can either choose to ignore this – be selfish and do nothing with it – or they can see it as a gift and think ‘how can I use this platform to make the world a better place?’ And I want to do that every single day, and I mean that. There’s actually a comic book where Shazam visits kids in hospitals, and I can’t wait to recreate that. I want to dress up in the suit and visit. I’ve been so jealous watching people like Chris Pratt and Chris Evans dressing up as their characters and going to hospitals. Prior to now, when I rocked up to hospitals, kids were like ‘who the fuck are you?’ And I’d be like ‘Um… You didn’t see Chuck?’ [laughs]. I’m delighted that my visits might mean something to them now.”

Roles like Shazam are coveted by actors – partly because they are fun, and also because they are backed by decades of history and mean so much to people all over the world. “People have their own ideas about who their favourite superheroes are, so there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with the role too.”

To prepare for the role and gain a better understanding of the Shazam character, the actor did a deep-dive into comic books and online research. He also drew inspiration from Tom Hanks in the film Big. “In Big, Tom Hanks plays a 12-year-old boy in a 30-year-old man’s body, and I just love that movie and what Tom did with the role. In that film though, I feel like the 12-year-old is a little more innocent than kids are these days. Billy Batson is a foster child who’s spent years on the street – he’s been kicked around and gone through multiple foster families, so he’s pretty mature. Big didn’t directly inspire my character, but in a philosophical sense, every actor that I admire is part of making me the actor I am right now. I mean, I’ve watched Meryl Streep play so many incredible characters – she’s an absolute chameleon, she really deserves every award she’s ever won. She goes in and out of roles so effortlessly. So do Gary Oldman and Sam Rockwell. They’re able to jump into their roles so completely. From what I’ve heard, they’re able to just switch it on and off too, they’re not like method actors who are brooding all the time or actors who bring their roles home. I definitely internalise all of this respect that I have for them when it comes to my roles.”

Another one of Zachary’s favourite actors is Mark Strong, who he gets to face up against in Shazam! “Going up against Mark was pretty dreamy [laughs]. He’s a fantastic actor and an all-round lovely guy. He’s an actor’s actor – the Brits tend to breed those – and it’s been great getting to know him. His character is fantastic, and the approach that the film takes to the Seven Deadly Sins is so cool. They are genuine monsters – they really bring a sense of fear and darkness to the film.”

A large part of this “fear and darkness” is also thanks to David F. Sandberg, the filmmaker best known for his work on horror movies Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. “It’s been great working with David,” Zachary states. “He’s got a really keen eye and good taste and great instincts. To be able to learn all that and cut your teeth in the horror world is actually not just really helpful for being a filmmaker in general, but specifically for making a movie like this, which had the potential to be really low-brow family entertainment. This isn’t the Scooby Doo version of Shazam! Although there’s a dark tone to David’s work, he’s also really funny. I mean, if you follow him on Instagram or anything, you’ll see that he’s got dry wit and plenty of comedic sensibilities. We had heaps of fun joking around. This movie was so fun to make, because Shazam is pretty unique in the whole comic book world. There are very few heroes that are really willing and excited heroes. I’m such a child when it comes to all this stuff, and it’s so cool that I get to play a role that incorporates my own genuine excitement.”

According to Zachary, this sense of childlike excitement is what scored him the role in the first place. “I think the producers really wanted to find an actor with a child-like essence to them, and I think ultimately that’s why they chose me. They trusted that I could put on the weight by going to the gym, that I could wear the suit and bring this 14-year-old to life.”

Although Zachary tries his best to be responsible, his life has always been focused on joy. “I love to bring people joy. I have ‘80s dance parties all the time at my house, and I also have an open door policy. I still play video games, I still read graphic novels, I love movies, I’ve got shit-tons of energy. On set, I’m the weirdo who’s walking around with a boombox, singing songs. I just think music makes life better, I really do. I try to be as respectful as I can – I know not everyone likes music blaring when they’re working [laughs], but most people that I’ve come across do appreciate it. Even just having a little beat makes a long day feel shorter, makes hard work easier, puts a little bounce in your step.”

He also tries to be as inclusive as possible on set, especially when he’s working with younger actors. “I think there’s something really lovely about kid actors, because they haven’t gone through the wringer of Hollywood yet. They’re just being kids and living these interesting lives. One of my main concerns on set was to make sure that they all felt like part of the family. From the top down, everyone who made this film was so lovely. It was so nice. We all just hung out together, did fun stuff – we did an escape room the other day.”

Before you let the talk of fun and joking around get you down, Zachary assures us that the role also came with its fair share of mundanity. “Every job comes with a bit of bullshit. I mean, the Shazam suit is awesome, but it’s also really uncomfortable – it’s really hard to go to the toilet in it [laughs]. Harnesses also suck. They’re really uncomfortable, especially for a guy. I spent five days a week for a month doing stunt training with the fight choreographer, going over everything I’d need to do in the harness – you know, me flying around and fighting, me flying through the mall, me landing and taking off and catching a bus, me getting dragged across the ground because I’d been punched. It’s totally uncomfortable and a literal pain in the ass. I also wonder if I’ll ever be able to have children [laughs].”

He also had to endure a year of a strict diet and exercise regime. “I had to eat roughly 4000 calories a day and take a bunch of supplements, vitamins and minerals. I’ve come to learn that you basically have to force feed yourself if you want to gain mass. I mean, I’ve worked out throughout my life, but I’ve never really gotten bigger. I always thought it was because I had a high metabolism or something, but no, I just had to eat a lot in order to feed my muscles. I basically just ate some form of chicken and broccoli five times a day, and then I’d have what’s called green eggs and yam for breakfast, which is just scrambled eggs with pesto and sweet potato. It was tonnes of protein and a tiny amount of carbs. Sometimes I’d have steak and quinoa. I’m a creature of habit though, so as long as the meal is good, I will happily eat the same thing every day.”

Zachary successfully beefed up so much that fans have been questioning whether or not his suit is padded (this photo makes us think otherwise). The main question on their minds, however, is whether Shazam will have a role in future Justice League films. “To be honest, the answer to this question is kind of above my pay grade [laughs]. I don’t really know much about the Justice League world – I’m tending to my garden, which is playing the role of Shazam. Having said that, I think Justice League, as a film, had a really nice balance of light and dark, drama and humour. I think Shazam could definitely fit into that, because he has a sense of humour and he has something to offer. There are also some really awesome interactions between Shazam and Superman in the comics – I’d love to do that stuff. And hey, it’s already laid out for us.”

We’ll leave you with Zachary’s wholesome answer to our question of what or who he would turn into if he could say ‘Shazam’ and transform. “Hmm… This sounds cheesy, but I’d probably just want to turn into the best version of myself. I mean, I think that’s what life is all about – that’s the journey we’re all on, so if I could just say a word and be there, that’d be great [laughs].”

Shazam! Is in cinemas April 5, 2019

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