Actor Zachary Levi amassed a loyal following by 2012 after the success of his spy comedy series ‘Chuck’, which ran for five seasons on NBC before being cancelled. But it was this year that Levi’s face started popping up on billboards globally. He was the central character in DC’s ‘Shazam!’ — the orphaned teenager Billy Batson who turns into a lovable adult superhero. On June 17, Levi will continue his Hollywood moment as the host of the 2019 MTV Movie and TV Awards.
But behind the scenes, the actor been fighting a battle of his own. Just last year, Levi says he wasn’t certain he wanted to live anymore. In a sit-down with Gulf News tabloid! at the Middle East Film and Comic Con earlier, the 38-year-old shared his journey of having an abusive parent, going to therapy and learning to love himself and others.
How are you feeling?
My body clock’s on the moon right now. Super jet lagged.
Tell us about the success of Shazam!. Did you know it was in the bag?
No, no ... I felt like we had all the ingredients, but [it was about] how well we bake that cake, and then even if you bake a great cake, it’s still completely subjective as to [whether] people want to eat that kind of cake right now. I don’t know why baking is the metaphor that I like to use, but I think it tracks.
I was just telling somebody earlier, this whole process I’ve felt a tremendous amount of peace — which doesn’t guarantee success, but I did feel like after having gone and done a bunch of personal work on myself and therapy and learning how to love myself — mental health is like, all I ever want to talk about now — but that really freed me up. And then, literally on the heels of doing this very important self-work, I got ‘Shazam!’.
What has been your [mental health] journey so far?
Basically, I got to the age of 37 and I just fell through the door. I had gone to some therapy prior to that, going through couples counselling in my previous marriage and trying to get to the bottom root of things that were going on in my life that were making me unhappy. And I had a really gnarly childhood growing up, and my mom was psychologically abusive. But that’s because she was psychologically abused, and so on and so forth.
I think one of the things we all need to accept is that most of the problems that we have in this world are generationally handed down, and in order to accept that, we also need to accept that our parents, or not even just our parents, but anyone who’s abused us... Abusers were abused, abusers are clearly not seeing or feeling right, and something happened to them to tweak them, and we have to be able to have grace and empathy with them, as well…
But anyway, I got to about 37, and I genuinely wasn’t sure I wanted to live anymore. I found this incredible place and, for three weeks straight, I did all of the therapy. I was like, ‘Give me everything.’ I want to know who I am and how I ended up here. And through that process, I was able to genuinely kind of help save my life… I’ve been comparing myself [to others] since I was a kid, because I always wanted to fit in, I always wanted to be cool, I wanted to be talented and successful and all the things that we all feel like we need to do, right?
And we’re all on Instagram, and social media is just compounding that problem times a billion, because now, it’s not like you’re just looking at your other friends and family, or people that you might see on the street and going, ‘Oh, they look like they have a good life!’ Now you’re looking at a bunch of strangers, and all those strangers are curating that experience.
And by the way, I’m a reasonably successful person, who’s still looking at these other people going, [pretends to cry], ‘I wish I was there, I wish I had that.’ Like, what the [expletive] is wrong with me? What is wrong with us? It’s hard, because we’ve been conditioned societally, we’ve been conditioned to think these things, and I think we have to start reprogramming. We’ve all gotten a lot of bad programming ... We’ve been working on an old operating system as human beings and we need an upgrade. We all need to collectively come to the table and say, hey, what’s baseline truth? Let’s figure out what is baseline truth, and how do we treat ourselves and each other in that baseline truth, in respect and kindness and grace and mercy and understanding and love. And I think that if we can do that, genuinely, our world is gonna be so groovy. That’s when we’re finally going to start going to other planets and doing all the cool stuff and we’re going to have flying cars; it’s gonna be great… I have always been a big lover of people, [but] I am on a whole ‘nother level of wanting to love people, now that I finally love myself.
[Do you feel] there’s so much more room?
There’s so much more, because now you’re not trying to fill your cistern ... We’re all trying to figure out if we have worth, and where we fit in, and are we deserving of, quite literally, the life that we’re living. And the truth is by just being here, you are deserving of a life that you are living…
Some of the richest people in the world are some of the unhappiest people in the world, because they think that it was all the money that was going to make them finally feel like they deserve to live their life and they still don’t feel it… When, if they just literally learn how to love themselves and be content regardless of how much money they had, then imagine the outpouring when they can take all those finances and go, ‘Oh, I’m good now.’ How do we [go and help] make everybody else better? … And I’m not saying like, let’s have some major upheaval and redistribute all the wealth. I do believe that if you work hard you should get paid … But there’s so many things that we can do in that mental health space and I really do think it’s the most important thing we need to be working on right now.
I believe in lost and found. I believe in broken and healed. I believe in enlightened and yet to be enlightened… And by the way, we’re never gonna hate somebody in to change… You’re never gonna hate someone into healing. But you can love somebody there. I believe it with everything in me.
‘Shazam!’ seems like the perfect superhero movie for you, since it touched on so much of the trauma of growing up and losing your family and finding your family...
Yes, yes, oh my God, yes! That’s not even irony. It’s not coincidence. As a spiritual person, I believe that I got this job at this time for this reason, for these purposes. I mean, I’ve always been this big kid [and] that has gotten me some jobs. And I’ve not gotten other jobs because maybe I was a little too energetic or a little too jovial or a little too silly in moments. And now all of that worked in my favour, to allow me to play this character that somehow never got made before, in all the 80 years of it being around. And also, even aside from actual Billy Batson, Captain Marvel, Shazam, why did no one in the history of film go, ‘What if we made ‘Big’, but with superpowers?’ Why didn’t anybody do that?
So that you can do that.
But this is what I’m saying! Like, there’s a good chance that any number of Hollywood executives could have been like, ‘Let’s go do that.’ Because that’s a total easy elevator pitch, right? And yet nobody did… And [now] of all the [actors] that they saw, who were more famous or more jacked [than I was], ultimately, they saw in me what the wizard sees in Billy that Billy doesn’t even know. And I get to bring that to life. And I get to now have more of a platform to go and tell people to love themselves... Like, man, it just makes me cry.