LIVE FROM NERD HQ: GEEKING OUT WITH ZACHARY LEVI
[San Diego Exclusive] by Jedd Jong
[San Diego Exclusive] by Jedd Jong
It’s that time of the year again, with the city of San Diego bracing itself for an influx of over 150 000 geeks, all here for the pop culture mega-event that is Comic-Con. For the fifth year running, actor Zachary Levi is hosting Nerd HQ, the “mini-con” complementary to the main event and part of his Nerd Machine lifestyle brand. Levi is best-known for such geek-friendly roles as the likeable title character on the NBC action comedy series Chuck, and Thor’s swashbuckling ally Fandral the Dashing in Thor: The Dark World. He can also be heard as the voice of Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled (a role he will reprise in the upcoming Tangled cartoon series) and is set to return to the small screen with a leading role as vengeful father Luke Collins in Heroes Reborn, the 13 episode spin-off of Heroes.
Nerd HQ, which has been held at different locations over its history, is intended as a hangout spot where like-minded fans can chill out, play demos of games, rock out at dance parties and try out new tech. There are also the “Conversations for a Cause” panels, with past guests including such fan-favourites as Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Stan Lee and the casts of shows such as Sherlock, Doctor Who and Supernatural. These ticketed events sell out faster and faster each year and benefit the cleft palette surgery charity Operation Smile. Fans can also make donations to the charity to get their photos taken with celebrities in the Smiles for Smiles photo booth.
This year, Nerd HQ’s home base is the New San Diego Children’s Museum, across the way from the sprawling Convention Centre. It is a Wednesday afternoon, just before the madness kicks into high gear, when this writer arrives at the Children’s Museum. Levi is dressed casually, clad in a shirt, shorts, a cap and slippers as he greets and high-fives the personnel putting the finishing touches on the museum’s transformation into Nerd HQ. Charming, laid-back and with no airs about him, Levi is extremely approachable throughout one of the breeziest interviews this writer has ever participated in. There are no minders hovering over his shoulder and while attending the hectic Comic-Con may be a chore for some actors, Levi seems right at home. He shares his personal definition of what it means to be a “nerd”, speaks fondly of the iconic guest stars who graced Chuck and enthuses about getting to play in the sandbox that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So here we are at the very centre of geekdom. Would you say geeks rule the world now?
[Laughs] You know, they do, right? I feel like the world that we live in now is far less of a manual labour world, not too long ago there were a lot of jobs where you’d be a farmer ploughing fields. Now there’s so many jobs in tech and using your mind and using computers so yeah, geeks do rule the world!
What has your journey been like as a champion of nerdiness in Hollywood?
Well, it’s been interesting. First of all, I definitely am trying to redefine what it means being a “nerd” because being nerdy just means you’re passionate. I’ve said that a lot; it’s kind of one of our mantras at The Nerd Machine. They’re synonymous, “nerdy” and “passionate”. You can be a fashion nerd, you can be a food nerd, you can more of a traditional, stereotypical nerd and be nerdy about comic books, videogames, I’m nerdy about all those things too. Technology, [I’m] probably most nerdy about technology. The future, how technology and entertainment work together…I like that though.
I’m a firm believer that when people speak about things that they’re passionate about, that’s what means the most and that’s when you’re trying to convey something to somebody, they can feel your passion for your nerdiness about it and it’s infectious and it really means a lot. When I first started the Nerd Machine and when I first started playing Chuck, people had a hard time going “that guy, he doesn’t seem like a nerd” or whatever. And I’d say “clearly, you don’t know me very well” because I was made fun of [for] incessantly playing video games and doing lots of theatre. I was a theatre nerd. It’s fun to be able to challenge people’s stereotypes and challenge their ideals of what it all means. It can be difficult too.
Do you find yourself missing the character of Chuck since the show’s conclusion?
Um, I miss our cast and I miss our crew. I was so much playing a lot of myself in Chuck so I feel like I’m still playing Chuck every day in a lot of ways [Laughs]. So I don’t miss it as much I guess, but I do miss the family that we have and creating television together, that was really excellent. I hope that I can get to doing like a Chuck movie a year. I think that would be a lot of fun.
What was it like working with geek icon guest stars such as Linda Hamilton, Scott Bakula, Mark Hamill and Christopher Lloyd on Chuck? Did you get star-struck often on the set?
Oh man [Laughs]. It was awesome. Every single one of them was excellent, they were really sweet people, very talented people and very iconic. It’s very cool to say that Scott Bakula is my dad or Linda Hamilton is my mum. Or even Timothy Dalton was just so incredible to work with, he was such a great villain and a great actor and I learned a lot from him. I learned from all of them, really. When you have seasoned, veteran actors like that who have already done this and been in this world, there’s a lot to glean from them so I was really blessed to be able to work alongside all of them.
Tell our readers about how Nerd HQ and the Nerd Machine came to be.
I had been coming to Comic-Con for a while, doing Chuck panels at the convention centre and we would have a great time, but there were always a few things about my experience while I was here that I felt “if I did my own thing one day, how would I do it differently?” One of those things was dance parties, there were never really any dance parties so I wanted to do that for sure [Laughs]. I guess it even started before that because I was looking around and to me it seemed that there was no one unifying brand for nerd culture, in the same way that athletes have Nike or Adidas or Reebok, you can go and get shirts and shorts and hoodies and all that stuff. There are a lot of little one-off apparel things if you’re a Doctor Who fan or an Avengers fan but there was never one brand that all people who congregated in a place like this could wear and say “regardless of whatever your niche or your fandom is, we’re all in this together.” So I wanted to create that lifestyle brand for nerd culture and that’s how The Nerd Machine came about.
And then, when I was figuring out how we activate that brand, how we get people to know it, how we succeed as a business, merchandise, all that stuff, it seemed to be that the best place to activate the brand would be at San Diego during Comic-Con, it’s Nerd Mecca. Then I started applying all the things that I thought “what can we give to fans and what can we give to celebrities that will be really special?” And hopefully by giving that to them, we’ll build brand awareness and we’ll build brand loyalty. People will look at us and say “I like what you do as a company, I like your spirit, your passion, I like your product and you’re not forcing anyone to buy it, it’s totally up to them.” That’s why we make the event for free: the parties are free, the gaming is free, the tech is free, the only thing you really have to pay for are the celebrity interactions, the Conversations for a Cause or the Smiles for Smiles photo booth. I didn’t want to make money off of that, I just wanted to bring people together and make it about a bigger thing than all of us, which is the non-profit world, particularly Operation Smile, which I am an ambassador for.
Personally, what are some of the most memorable moments during the Conversations for a Cause panels? Tom Hiddleston doing an impression of a Velociraptor ranks pretty high up there for me; missed opportunity that he wasn’t cast in Jurassic World.
[Laughs] Absolutely! God, so many. Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan all just breaking out into Bohemian Rhapsody was incredible, Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman just busting into Richard Madden’s panel a couple of years ago in 2013, Joss Whedon Skyping into his panel actually because he had injured himself in London and we had him on a giant screen and he was puppeteering all of his former employees on the stage! There are so many moments because it’s all unscripted, nobody knows what’s going to happen, you don’t know the audience is going to ask and you don’t know what the panelist is going to answer with. A lot of magic comes from that. Nathan Fillion just doing impromptu auctions with a bag of s**t, it’s those things. The mystery panel every year, we don’t know who’s going to be on until the last second and then it’s “I hope everybody likes them, here we go!” It’s just those magical moments that are organic, they’re completely off the cuff, you don’t know what’s going to happen and when they happen, it’s so much fun.
Do you think it’s difficult to preserve that sense of spontaneity given how crazy everything is and given that the schedules are tight?
Um, no, because…the questions and answers are always going to spontaneous so you’ll always have that, and because we allow our panelists to do or say whatever they want, they’ll often surprise their audiences with a surprise guest that we might not even know about sometimes, we just say “sure, do it!” And sometimes, you never know, because schedules are so tight, you think you might not be able to get a panelist and then all of a sudden they go “hey, it worked out,” and that’s very spontaneous. So much of the Smiles for Smiles is spontaneous, you never know what’s going to happen on the dance floor, it’s all those things, it’s fun.
What do you think of the notion that San Diego Comic-Con has become too commercialised and harder to get enjoyment out of in recent years?
Well, I don’t think that’s fair to San Diego Comic-Con. I say that because we’ve sat down with those guys and it’s a very, very difficult thing to create this, it’s a behemoth. In a lot of ways, they just responded to the desires of the people. The people want bigger and bigger stars and more of them every year, it’s a supply and demand world and they’re trying to do what they can over there and we’re trying to do what we can over here. It’s like apples and oranges sometimes, it’s a pretty massive undertaking for us but we’re still a very small company and we want it to be small, we never wanted to compete, we wanted to be a complement to what they’re doing over there. I think Comic-Con has smartly just kind of gone with the flow of how pop culture and nerd culture are very much intertwined now. Whereas before, you might have a few people who were very into Avengers comic books, now there’s Avengers movies, so you have a lot of people who want those panels. How do you do that, how do you that while pleasing everyone? You’re not going to be able to.
In order to pay for it all, you need the corporate side – we have a corporate side of things, I hope that nobody thinks we’re a sell-out because we’ve got AMD or Sony PlayStation 4 or IGN…you need corporate help in order to make these things a reality so I don’ think it’s fair to say that San Diego Comic-Con has sold out in any way. I think that they’re doing the best they can to facilitate the desires of everyone and unfortunately, we know this very well, you’re not going to be able to make everyone happy. We hope that people take a second to step back and say “well, what am I really upset about? Am I upset that I couldn’t get into the panel or am I upset that they have lost touch with who we are?” Look, what they do over there has provided the landscape for us and so many other pop-ups to exist, so we’re grateful for it.
What is it like being a part the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how awesome a compliment is it that you’re playing a character called “The Dashing”?
[Laughs] Well, it’s a dream come true, I’m a big Marvel fan. Playing Fandral the Dashing is awesome, I love that I got to be blonde, I love that I got to speak in a British accent…
You got to swash and buckle?
I got to swash and buckle, he’s very Errol Flynn, and that’s just fun, it’s just fun! Being an actor, this world of Hollywood is all just playing dress-up and make-believe anyway, so to do that in a really big and splashy way, it’s nothing but awesome.
Is there anything you can tell us about Thor: Ragnarok without getting into trouble with Kevin Feige?
The truth is, I don’t know anything. I even talked to Chris Yost, who’s writing it with Craig Kyle, they both worked on the last Thor, they’re hard at work. There’s a lot of things that are under wraps but I know that they’re going to shoot next year because they already have the release date for 2017, November 2017, so here’s hoping that I get a call in the next four months saying “pack your bags, because wherever we’re shooting, you’re invited.” And I certainly hope that Fandral and Volstagg, the Warriors Three and Lady Sif and Hogun have a little bit more to do. Tadanobu [Asano], Ray [Stevenson] and Jaimie [Alexander], it was just a really fun experience and I’d like to do more, I want to do more.
What was it like working with the other actors who make up the Warriors Three and Lady Sif seeing as you were replacing a different actor from the first Thor film?
Yeah, it was very strange because they had all built relationships and friendships on the first film but it was also a really crazy story because I was originally cast as Fandral and I couldn’t do it because of Chuck and then Josh [Dallas] ended up doing it and he couldn’t do it [the sequel] because of Once Upon a Time, so it was this very strange changing of the guard but Josh was very cool about it, the cast embraced me with open arms and we had a blast!
Heroes was kind of ahead of the superhero TV show curve when it came out. What can we look forward to in Heroes Reborn and what is the nature of its connection to the original show?
Hopefully what people are going to find in Heroes Reborn is a really cool new set of characters and new storylines but that’s very tied to the original show in tone, feel. Jack Coleman is obviously back as HRG and he’s the glue that holds the old series and the new [together]. There are also some great cameos from Masi Oka, from Greg Grunberg, Jimmy Jean-Louis and a lot of references back to…and also Sendhil [Ramamurthy], Sendhil’s back as well. There’s a lot of nods to the original series, specifically what happened at the end of the original series so I think that what’s nice is that if you’ve never watched Heroes before, you can jump into it, but if you’ve watched Heroes before, you’ve also got some of those cool Easter Eggs from the original series.
Would you say you’re an athletic person and what has it been like learning stunt choreography for projects like Chuck, Thor and Heroes Reborn?
I think I’m a pretty athletic person but I think I’m not nearly as athletic as other people, but I love that stuff. Fight choreography is almost like dance choreography because you’re almost dancing with whoever you’re fighting with. They’re gonna throw this punch, you’re gonna block it, it’s really this interesting kind of fight dance. Especially when you get to use weapons, swords and guns, things like that, I mean I love it, I love it. It’s the kind of stuff that you only get to do…it’s the only job in the world where you get to do the things that nobody else gets to do other than the real people. The only people that get to go on spy missions are real spies and the actors that play spies. The only people that get to have swordfights are real people…I mean, not that there’s a lot of people having swordfights anymore, but people who actually did that stuff and actors who are now portraying it. So, it’s a really fun job to be an actor and get to do those things because you wouldn’t normally get to do those things in everyday life.
There is a swordfight club, but the first rule of swordfight club is you do not talk about swordfight club.
You do not talk about swordfight club, yeah [Laughs].
Providing the voice for an animated Disney hero was a long-time dream come true for you with Tangled. Were you caught up in Frozen fever and what did you think of Flynn and Rapunzel’s cameo in Frozen, during Elsa’s coronation?
I saw Frozen and I was so happy for them, for Disney for making such a giant success in that, I thought it was really fun seeing Flynn and Rapunzel make that little cameo. I didn’t see it [at first] while watching the movie, I wasn’t even thinking to look, it was online that people were like “check this out!” and I went “oh, that’s fun, that’s fun!” Yeah, Kristen Bell, Josh Gad and Idina Menzel, I know them all, they’re all lovely and talented people. I was just happy for them and the success of that and now they’re making a sequel which is awesome and there’s going to be a Tangled animated series, which is awesome, and Mandy and I are both back for that. It really was a dream come true. Like singing at the Oscars, I was like “what is happening?” It was so weird, so surreal.
Do you enjoy singing and pursuing the musical side of your career?
Oh yeah, I love singing man. I’ve sung since I was a little kid, it brings me a lot of joy and happiness. I’d like to incorporate it more in my career in the future. It’s always a matter of finding that right project, whatever fits correctly.
What was it like debuting on Broadway in First Dates the Musical?
It was amazing, it was amazing. I started my acting life doing nothing but theatre and it’s a great training ground, it’s a great place to find and refine your craft. Television and film are amazing also but they’re very different animals, you’re fulfilled in different ways and I was longing to get back to stage and do it live. No safety net, you can’t cut, you can’t try again. And to sing as well, to have a connection with an audience, it’s very symbiotic: they feed you energy, you feed them energy, they feed you energy, it’s very cyclical, very symbiotic. The theatre we did First Dates at sat about a thousand people and on a packed night, making a thousand people laugh or cheer, it’s the greatest joy in the world, nothing beats it.
What was it like being in Tomb Raider as a DLC playable character, and are you looking forward to the sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider?
Yeah, definitely. I’m a big fan of the Tomb Raider series and to be able to do that lead-up docu-series for it was really cool. I already knew a lot about how games come together but I learned even more doing that. And that they gave me that as kind of a fun gift to me, a DLC playable character with my “Nerd” shirt on, talk about being immortalized in fun ways, that’s a fun way to be immortalized for sure.