Zachary Levi Talks HEROES REBORN, the TANGLED TV Series, The Nerd Machine, Comic-Con & More
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Zachary Levi talked about how much NerdHQ has grown, in just a few short years, his desire to continue that growth, the challenges of finding financial support, what’s included in the NerdHQ experience, and the familiar faces that return, every year. He also talked about how excited he is to be playing such a different character on Heroes Reborn and that viewers who have never seen the series could jump into this new mini-series, but that they would also benefit from going back and watching the original, and how the Tangled TV series came about and what fans can expect.
Collider: When you first started doing NerdHQ, could you ever have imagined it would develop into what it’s become? Was that always the dream, or has it far surpassed any expectations you could have had?
ZACHARY LEVI: That’s always the dream, right? I went into it believing that it could be something awesome and cool, and that people responded to, and they have. You definitely have those moments of, “Wow!” To be honest, it hasn’t even really gotten to the place that I still want it to get to. We’re five years in and we’ve definitely created something that we are really proud of, and that a lot of fans and a lot of talent that comes from it walk away going, “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of. Thank you so much for doing it.” That’s awesome! But there are still so many more people that I hope to convert, or that finally get to be there that haven’t experienced it yet. And we want to work out all the kinks that come with putting on a massive event, which it is. It’s not as big as other events in the world, but it’s a big undertaking.
How challenging is it to get the financial support to do this?
LEVI: The Nerd Machine is a small company. There’s only a few of us. Every year, it tends to be a bit of an uphill battle securing partners, sponsors and venders, and wrangling all the talent and making sure we have panelists that the public really wants to see. We’ve gotten it, aesthetically and program wise, to a place that is pretty much there, but I hope that, in years to come, it’s less of a battle. I hope that, in years to come, it’s something that’s just push-button where there’s less work to do.
When I started The Nerd Machine, I didn’t have even an inkling of an idea that I would do NerdHQ. I wanted to start a lifestyle brand for nerd culture. I wanted to have a really deep community-based online resource for editorial, apparel, and content. In an attempt to activate the brand, that’s where NerdHQ was born. And then, NerdHQ became its own animal. It’s what most people know us for. That definitely was a surprise, for sure, but that’s just part of life. You set out to do something, and then that takes you somewhere else. So, you set out to do that well, and hopefully you end up in a position where people want it more. I’m glad that people do. We’re really excited to be coming back for our fifth year. Every year, it’s one of those things where we have to wait and see. We’ve gotta make sure that we can handle it financially.
That, alone, is a huge undertaking. Because I believe in it and because I know the joy that it’s brought to people and the impact that we’ve made in the non-profit world, where we’ve raised a bunch of money for Operation Smile, I wanna keep doing it, even if it means losing some money, here and there, trying to make it happen. But, you can’t do that forever. If I had all the money in the world, I’d be like, “Great, let’s just keep doing it!” I, unfortunately, have not won the lottery or found the magic genie lamp. Until that day, I have to keep trying to make sure we can always keep putting the pieces together and keep making something great. Oftentimes, people start with something, whatever it is, and it’s great, but over the years, it loses its focus or way and corners get cut. Some people are fine with that, but I’m not. I think everyone is their harshest critic, but I strive for excellence as much as I can because I think it shows. Hopefully, what resonates with people is that it feels like you actually are thinking of them.
How have you developed the NerdHQ experience?
LEVI: All of the choices that we’ve made at NerdHQ have all culminated from my various experiences at cons and events, as a celebrity or as a fan, and trying to put myself in other people’s shows to think about what would make it better. How do you reinvent these things that work, and make them work better? How do you turn it up to 11? That’s why we do the panels that we do, and do them how we do them. I’m a really big fan of the public. As artists, when you have people that care about what you do, I think you should care about those people who care about what you do, and give them really cool interactive experiences to make them feel appreciated. To do panels where you get to interact with your fans, in a really intimate, awesome way, and to let them ask all of the questions, is fun to me and it shows them that you care about their opinions, their thoughts, and their passion for your project. Doing photo booths and signings, and doing all of that for charity, and having dance parties every night, is so much fun. I like to dance, and I know other people that like to dance. It’s a great way to celebrate the time that we’re all down there together.
There are more celebrities in San Diego, during that weekend, than I would wager there even are in L.A. during the Oscars, and everyone is looking for something fun to do. It’s like a weird little summer camp sometimes. You’re in another city. You’re not going home. You’ve taken the train down, or driven down. It’s like, “Okay, let’s make the most of it.” I’m a firm believe in fun, and in trying to make things idealistically awesome. Because that weekend is, to me, so much about celebrity-fan interaction, and celebrating everyone’s favorite projects and learning more about them, I wanted to create a space where we could do that, safely and respectfully, but also super organically, and all for a bigger and greater purpose.
Why did you decide to mix in the video games and tech?
LEVI: I’d go to CES and to E3, and it was so awesome that I got to play with all this new tech and these games, but it’s for professionals and exhibitors only. The general public doesn’t get to do that. Looking at it, it’s the same demographic of people at Comic-Con, so I was like, “Why don’t we bring some of that to them, so they actually get to play with this new tech and these new games, all in one spot and for free?” All of that stuff is free. They can walk in the door, hang out, charge phone, eat, drink and be merry, and dance with us at night. The only thing they’re really paying for, aside from buying some of our merch, is all of the panels and the photos, and it’s all for charity. You walk away from something like that and you just feel good. I just feel like we’re having fun, with the smiles on people’s faces, from the volunteers to the employees at any one of the venues we’ve worked at to the celebrities and to the fans.
Do you recognize a lot of the same faces, every year?
LEVI: The people that keep coming back every year are diehards. I’ll go out there to host a panel and I know half of the audience. I see them, every year, and they come back for more because they believe in us. That’s one of the coolest things. When you go and create something, you want to believe in it. If they don’t, we’re barking up the wrong tree. But when you believe in something and you see other people believing in it too, it just feels like you’re doing something right in the world, and that feels good.
LEVI: Oh, absolutely! It was one of the reasons I wanted to do the show, to begin with. My fan base is very Chuck heavy, and therefore it’s very sci-fi/fantasy genre heavy. They like that world, and I like that world. I was a fan of the original series, and was friends with a lot of that cast. Even though I loved doing Chuck, I was always a little envious of the sandbox they all got to play in. Getting to teleport or time travel is awesome. So, when it came back around, and there was the announcement in the trades that they were doing Heroes Reborn and that it was a mini-series, I thought, “That’s really awesome!” When you’re weighing the decision of whether to do a full-blown series, that’s six or seven years of your life. But a mini-series is lean and mean, and five months of your life.
And we’ve got such a great cast and crew. Tim Kring was very cool. I got to sit down with him a couple of times, before I signed on, and told him my desires for the trajectory and wanting to play a very different character from Chuck. He totally understood that, and then came back to me and pitched me the role of Luke Collins. I was like, “Yeah, man, I’m in! Sign me up!” He’s a tortured guy. There’s a lot of darkness and sadness there. It’s grittier and dirtier and darker. I want to challenge myself, as an actor, but also challenge people’s perceptions of what it is that I do. I can keep playing the same Chuck archetype, but then everybody just goes, “Oh, yeah, that’s that Chuck guy.” But, who knows? People might watch Heroes Reborn and go, “Maybe you should stick to Chuck, buddy.” The original series was a big smash, at the time. This will be the first panel that I do in Hall H. We never did a Hall H panel with Chuck, so that’s really cool. And the fact that I get to bounce back and forth between doing a panel at the con, and doing all of my panels at NerdHQ, it will keep me very busy that weekend, but it’s good busy.
Are you still shooting Heroes Reborn?
LEVI: We’re still going, yeah. We’re shooting until September.
Does the series feel like it sets up a lot of possibilities for future seasons, or will it feel very contained?
LEVI: You know, I don’t know. I haven’t even read up to the end of the mini-series yet, so I don’t know what it will lead off on. They’re calling it a single-season mini-series, but I’m sure there’s a conversation going on, above my paygrade, about whether this could be anthological, like an American Horror Story type of thing. I don’t know. That could be very cool. I have no idea what characters would come back, if they did that, or wouldn’t come back. All I know is that I’m focusing on this one season and doing the best work that I can, and I hope that not just original Heroes returning fans are satisfied, but that new fans are satisfied. You just want to make something that’s awesome and that people dig, and I’m excited about it.
From what you’ve read and shot, is the show set up so that, if you’ve never seen it before, you can watch it and still get something out of it, or do you feel like people should be doing lots of binge-watching between now and the premiere?
LEVI: I think it’s definitely something where, if you didn’t watch the original series, you could still jump into it. There are returning characters, but most of us are all brand new, so there’s a lot of new storylines, a lot of new relationships, and a lot of new story to tell. I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt to go back and watch the original series, but I don’t think people will be stuck. I think they’ll be able to jump in and watch it, and appreciate it for what it is. And then, perhaps they’ll go, “Oh, that was awesome! Now, I want to go back and watch the original series.”
It was so exciting to hear about the Tangled TV series on Disney Channel in 2017. How did that come about?
LEVI: As far as how it came about, I got an email or call from my agency saying, “Hey Disney is ramping up to do an animated Tangled series, and they want you and Mandy [Moore] to come back and reprise your roles.” I was like, “What?! That’s awesome!” And then, I sat down with the writers and they gave me and Mandy this really big pitch about where the series was going to go and the storyline. It takes place between the end of the film and before the short film, Tangled Ever After, that was released about our wedding day. It’s that three years of adventure and journey of Flynn and Rapunzel, finding out who they are and finding out who one another are. It’s not going to be done in the same CG animation style. It’s going to be done in a really cool 2D stylized way. Mandy and I are back, with some of the other people who voiced the characters in the original film, and Alan Menken is coming back to do music. While it’s not a full-blown musical show, there will be some songs peppered throughout. It’s just really cool.
Are you surprised that it took so long for them to want to revisit those characters again?
LEVI: I don’t know why it took so long. I think after the film, there were probably conversations going on of, “Do we make a sequel? Do we make another film?” The development process is an interesting one. There’s a lot of voices and a lot of people who weigh in on the decision making for what’s best for a particular IP. I think they probably weighed doing the movie for awhile. By the way, this is all conjecture. I have no idea. I would wager that that was probably something that they were talking about, but they weren’t really sure. Plus, they had a slate of all the other films they were doing, so they probably talked about when were they going to slide it in, if they were going to. Ultimately, what they probably settled on was doing an animated series, and then they developed that idea for awhile and landed on what they landed on. I think that’s cool.
Netflix is awesome, and one of the reasons why that is, is because with Chuck or Tangled, or whatever, people who didn’t get a chance to see it, the first time around, now get the chance to see it, if it’s on right now. There are new Chuck converts watching Chuck, for the first time, and it’s as if they’re watching it like it’s a current show. And it’s the same with Tangled. One of the fun things about that is that there will be younger audiences who may have been too young to have watched the original movie, or maybe they weren’t even born, and now they get to watch a series that’s brand new for them. And kids or adults who saw the movie can now watch the series. The idea for the series is to have the same heart and world that the film was, which was something that was enjoyable for both adults and kids. Though it’s on the Disney Channel, it will be something that the whole family can enjoy. That’s exciting!
With all of these projects you’ve got going on now and all of the travel you’re doing for them, do you actually ever get any sleep anymore?
LEVI: I am afraid for my health. I’m definitely burning the candle a little, at both ends, and I have to be careful about that. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, which is such a huge blessing. It’s an embarrassment of riches, at this point, between Heroes, Tangled, The Nerd Machine, NerdHQ and Geeks who Drink, which is the pop trivia game show that we’re producing for Syfy and that I’m hosting, as well. That premieres on July 16th, right after Comic-Con, and we’re doing a lot of promotion for that. It’s crazy! Because I know I can get burnt fast, I’ll try to not load up my plate too much. But in this particular season of life, I was like, “You know what? Let’s just go for it!” I’m going to trust God that I’m not going to completely burn out, and that I’ll have the energy in me to stay in it. Fortunately, I have really excellent people around me that are helping me make all of this happen. My partner at The Nerd Machine, Dave Coleman, keeps that going, as does his wife, Courtney. I have my deal with NBCUniversal television now, and my development execs over at Little Man are trying to make some cool stuff there, but I couldn’t do it without those guys.
All of the actual shooting is spaced enough where I’m not having to overlap too much, but there’s always a little overlap. I had to fly back to do Geeks who Drink while I was in Toronto shooting Heroes. We had to carve out a couple of weekends for me to go and do that. And then, this fall, I have a four-episode arc that I’m doing on Eva Longoria’s show, Hot and Bothered, so we have to carve that out. But, it’s an embarrassment of riches. I’m so grateful that I get to do it. Ever since I was a kid, all I’ve ever wanted to do is be an actor and touch people’s lives, and make them laugh or cry, but move them and tell great stories. I get to do that, in spades. That’s pretty cool. But definitely send me a care package with some Emergen-C and 5-Hour Energy, and I’ll try to get as much sleep as I can.
You can get more information about The Nerd Machine and all of the events at NerdHQ at www.thenerdmachine.com. Geeks who Drink premieres on Syfy on July 16th, and Heroes Reborn premieres on NBC on September 24th. The Tangled TV series will debut on the Disney Channel in 2017.