With ‘Shazam!’, Zachary Levi Gets the Best Revenge on His Middle School Bullies

In 'Shazam!', Zachary Levi fights bullies. In middle school, he was just their target.

by Donna Freydkin
Originally Published: 

Before you knew him as a slacker-turned-secret agent on Chuck and an earnest doctor on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — decades before he spent six days a week in the gym to buff up to play DC superhero Shazam! — Zachary Levi was a dorky California middle school student named Zachary Pugh. This went about as well for him as one would expect. “In middle school, other boys used me as a bit of a punching bag,” the 38-year-old actor says with the confidence of the guy who got the last laugh.

In Shazam!, Levi plays the superhero version of a foster kid turned one-man anti-bullying campaign. He’s Superman to a pre-pubescent Clark Kent. The way he does it, with a smile broader than his shoulders, it’s clear that there’s some wish fulfillment going on. The dude is having a great time. With Levi, that enthusiasm isn’t a put-on. Consider this: At the tail-end of a press tour that’s had him criss-crossing timezones to promote the film, he’s basically giddy, brimming with energy and eager to talk about how lucky he feels. His enthusiasm is actually the product of an acute emotional self-awareness, which is, in turn, a product of years of therapy. And, sure, Levi is happy to talk about all that.

He’s also happy to talk about Griffin. That’s his nephew, the kid he really wants to like the movie. He’s two. “I aspire to be the best uncle,” Levi says, hype-genuine. “That kid inspires me — it’s that innocence, that love.” This feels like an accomplishable goal for the actor, who can light up a room even without glowing superhero get-up.

Fatherly spoke to Levi about future fatherhood, finding self-acceptance, stepping into sizable superhero shoes, and whether Chuck will ever make a comeback.

My son, and my son’s friends have been hounding me to see Shazam! for months. So… thanks for that.

Sorry but not sorry. I love hearing that. I’m really excited for everyone to see this movie. It’s a movie for everyone.

This film deals with bullying in a very non-clichéd sort of way. You’ve said you were bullied as a kid. What was that like? How do you think about that experience now?

I was bullied relentlessly as a kid. The bullies in the film reminded me of the people who treated me like shit back in the day. Growing up, in elementary school, it’s not too bad. But in middle school, cliques start. It’s a whole other level. Zachary Levi is my stage name. Growing up, my name was Pugh. That was not an easy thing. I remember I was walking from one class to another and someone spit a massive loogie on my backpack.

That sounds horrific. Do you have a sense of why you were targeted? I know it’s not the victim’s fault, but it can be interesting to look back as adult and inspect what motivates kids to be jerks.

I wore my heart on my sleeve. I’m a lover not a fighter. I wanted to entertain folks. I had no off switch when I was a kid so I’m sure I annoyed other kids.

What do you think non-superhero adults can do to help?

I want us collectively as possible take a hard long look at what bullying has become particularly online. I was getting bullied enough offline without having to deal with it online. We should not dehumanize bullies. We should find what’s going on with them.

I will say that it feels a bit funny to have this conversation now. No one is bullying you today. You got absolutely huge for this role. Are you just standing in front of a mirror and flexing every morning?

Actually … one of the things that my trainers told me was that part of building physique is flexing and holding those muscles. It helps to give much more definition and form. You need to understand how each muscle flexes. Yeah, I flexed in front of the mirror. I felt an incredible amount of self-confidence. I’ve been in the gym five-to-six days a week for the last 18 months. I ate 3500-4000 calories a day.

That’s intense. What about now?

Right now, I’m at about 3000 calories just to hold the mass. I brought a buddy on this press tour to keep on me with nutrition and workouts. I’m addicted to it. I’m healthier and stronger than I‘ve ever been in my life.

Cheat meal?

My cheat meal is tequila. We laugh about it, but it’s the truth.

Now that you are the total superhero in real life, are the ladies lining up?

There’s plenty of women who have resisted me quite well over the years. All of this stuff, this is a new chapter or phase of my life, committing to the health and wellness and strength of my body and this incredible opportunity to my career. I went through a ton of therapy and learned to love myself, which has been life-changing. I hope this is creating the best me I can be. I’m just trying to find that one person out there. I’m trying to be as patient as I can. If I’m attractive to the ladyfolk, that’s always an honor.

So are you the world’s coolest uncle?

I aspire to be. That kid inspires me. I very much am looking forward to being a dad one day. Right now I get a learning experience with my nephew. My nephew is the best. He’s light. He’s so funny and so endearing. He’s so delightful to just watch. He’s so smart. My sister texts me things. A week after he saw a screening, my sister said out of nowhere Griffin was talking about the scene in the movie where I caught the bus, where I saved the bus. I lost it. He’s such a fan of my work. He has that kind of presence of mind.

Are we going to see more of Shazam!?

I have no idea. That’s above my pay grade. The only objective I have is to open the movie. I if the movie does well enough, I hope we can make more Shazam!. The sequel should be Shazam! 2: Electric Boogaloo. That’s a no brainer.

Chuck was canceled in 2012. Are we ever gonna have a movie? Yes, I realize you’ve never been asked this before.

As far as I’m concerned, fuck yeah. I want to make a Chuck movie so bad. I’m now a WB superhero and it’s a WB property and I’m hoping if this movie is successful I can parlay that into a Chuck movie. The whole cast is into it. Chuck is perfectly poised for a comeback. We continue to build new viewership thanks to Netflix and Amazon.

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