Emily S. Whitten: Zachary Levi– Thor 2, First Date & Nerd Machine
I’ve always been a fan of musicals and have seen a fair few on Broadway – from the musical that was an actual yearly field trip for eight graders in my New Jersey school, Cats, to that great production of Les Miserables with the rotating stage. I’ve also been a fan of the TV show Chuck from its debut all the way through the final season. So when Zachary Levi mentioned during the Nerd HQ panel I attended at SDCC that he was going to be starring in a musical on Broadway, First Date, I knew I had to see it.
Fortunately, the New York Comic Con was already on my calendar, so before the con I went to see First Date – and boy, am I glad I did! I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard throughout a live show in… well, maybe ever. And yet there was also substance and seriousness to the plot and characterization that balanced out the humor, a perfect blend of entertainment and wry and wise observations about life, human nature, and the modern dating world.
The premise of the show is pretty simple – it’s about a blind first date, and all of the things that might go wrong or right in that situation. But it’s not just about the couple on the blind date, Aaron and Casey. As the website says, during the date “Casey and Aaron’s inner critics take on a life of their own when other restaurant patrons transform into supportive best friends, manipulative exes and protective parents, who sing and dance them through ice-breakers, appetizers and potential conversational land mines.” Is that as awesome and hilarious as it sounds? Yes, yes it is; and the cast portraying those characters, from Zac Levi and Krysta Rodriguez as the main couple, to the other five actors who are often playing more than one character, is stellar, and gave an energetic and engaging performance.
The main couple are a hoot to watch, being quirky and many-faceted all on their own; but the supporting cast is what really allows this musical to explore so many perspectives. From the “perfect” older sister who has the married life that Casey says she wants, to Aaron’s manipulative ex, to Casey’s flamboyant best friend who is also her designated “bail out call” person for if the date isn’t going well. The other characters in the main couple’s life do a great job embodying the pressures and influences people can experience while they’re out dating and trying to find “The One.” And while the premise is simple, the territory explored by the plot is broad, and ranges over everything from potential religious differences to how our online footprint might affect us in real life.
Broad as it may be, though, the plot flows easily and the production is well-designed and choreographed. Overall, the musical is clever, witty, and frequently hilarious. It’s insightful and endearing; if you’ve ever been a single person trying to do the dating thing, it’s also very easy to identify with… and maybe even learn from. The only other thing I can say about it is: Go see it! You won’t regret it.
You also won’t regret reading on, because after seeing First Date, I was fortunate to also be able to talk to Zac Levi about it and the rest of his career at The Nerd Machine booth at NYCC. Here’s the interview!
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Let’s first talk about the Broadway musical you’re currently starring in, First Date, because I just saw it, and I loved it – especially the song about the ex; you knocked that out of the park.
Thank you! Yeah, that’s a fun song.
So how did you get involved in that production, and can you talk about your previous stage experience?
Well, I grew up doing a lot of theater when I was a kid. The last show I did was about twelve years ago; and I always dreamt about doing Broadway one day. Fortunately, I’ve been really blessed, and I’ve been able to do film and television for the last dozen years; but I was just kind of waiting for the right opportunity, and then this show came along and I just felt like, “you know, this could be really fun.” It’s an hour and a half, no intermission, it’s a comedy, there are only seven people in the cast – it’s lean and mean and I thought “I think people might really enjoy this.” And people have, and so it’s been great.
Great; and I know it’s running now. For people who want to see it, how long will it run?
Well, the idea is for the show to run indefinitely. My contract for the show is up the first week of January. There’s a possibility that I could extend, but I don’t know that for sure – it just depends on what work looks like at that time. So I would say that if you really want to see me in the show, you should come before the beginning of January. But I would tell anybody – you never know with Broadway stuff, the show could close so fast. So if you want to come see the show, come see the show now!
Yes! It looked like you were having a lot of fun in the show, and I know you’ve done TV, movies, voice acting and stage. Do you have any thoughts about those different experiences?
They’re all very different. I don’t know that I like any one more than the others. They all have their unique set of challenges and fun that can be had.
Did you come to the stage first?
Yes; I mean, as a kid, that’s what you do. There are not a lot of kids doing, like, community voiceover work. You have community theater and school theater. So stage was definitely where I started.
What was your first ever role?
Of an actual production? I think it was Sonny, one of the T-Birds in Grease. I think I was about eleven.
That’s pretty cool! So I have to ask, with First Date – do you identify with the musical at all? Because I was watching it and thinking, “I’ve so been there.” Or, “My friend has been there.”
Sure, yeah. I think that’s part of the reason why I wanted to do it, and why I think a lot of people enjoy it, is because it’s very relatable. So definitely I do. In fact, in some ways I almost didn’t do the show, because I felt like the character was so similar to Chuck, and I was like, “I’ve already played that character” but then I thought, “Well, yeah, but it’s just a fun way to do it – on stage, with some music.”
I was actually thinking that – it’s a little bit like Chuck, but I think you brought enough to the character that they had written that it wasn’t Chuck – it was Aaron.
Right, it’s not – it was similar, but they’re not the same.
Well I really enjoyed it! Now, I know that you are in Thor: The Dark World, which is coming out really soon, and I’m super excited. Every time I see the trailer on TV I clap. So tell us about being Fandral the Dashing.
Well, Fandral is this Errol Flynn-Lothario type who’s a ladies man, but also arguably the best swordsman in Asgard – or the Nine Realms, I think he would argue. And I mean, the movie is really still Thor and Jane; it’s their movie.
How much do we get of you and the other Warriors Three and Sif?
I really don’t know, because you never know how much of what you shot ends up in it; but I hope there are at least a few cool moments where people go, “Yeah! That kicked ass!” That’s all I’m hoping.
You were originally cast in that and then you were replaced by Josh Dallas due to your schedule; and now you’ve replaced him due to his schedule.
Yeah, it was very, very strange how that all worked. We’ve definitely joked about it – I’ve met Josh before, and he’s just a sweetheart of a guy and super talented, and it was very funny how all of that ended up panning out. But I was grateful that ultimately – after having completely let go of the job, because I thought “this is never happening” – then it came back around. That was kind of like, “Wow, this is very strange.”
Totally. Now I know you’re a comics fan; are you a fan of Thor comics? Had you read about your character before the movie role?
I was definitely familiar with Fandral to an extent, but I really got to know him actually when the first movie came around and I was getting cast; and then a little bit more for this one. But honestly, there’s not that much to find in the comics. The Warriors Three are definitely within Thor mythology, but there’s not that much.
Yes – they help with things but aren’t really the focus.
Yes; but in some ways that’s kind of fun, because it allows you to put your own mark on something, where fanboys and fangirls aren’t like, “Waitaminute! That’s not Fandral!”
Definitely! Do you think it’s still true to the character that you’ve seen in the comics?
I think so. It’s funny, Thor was never really my steez, necessarily. Like, I had Thor comics, and particularly with the Avengers.
I have to admit, I’m the same way. I love the movie, but Thor was always the guy I was sort of reading about on the side, because he was on the periphery of a story or part of a team.
Yeah, and I don’t know, for me – because everybody’s got their flavor of what entices them the most in the comic world –I really liked the mutant world probably the most.
Yeah! The X-Men and all that.
And X-Factor, and X-Force.
And actually, on that note, my favorite character is Deadpool; and I heard you mention that he’s your favorite character.
He’s my favorite villain, yeah.
Well he’s not always a villain! He did save the world…
Well – when I grew up reading him, in the beginning, he was a villain, through and through.
Yeah, in the beginning he was. So do you have a favorite writer or storyline or anything?
Oh, gosh! I don’t know that I could speak to that. I’m mostly nerdy about video games and technology…
What are you playing right now, video game-wise?
I’m actually not really playing anything right now. I left my Xbox back in L.A., because I really wanted to focus on doing the play, and I knew that the new Xbox was coming out in November, so I was like, “I’m just going to wait for that.” And then I’ll probably get lost in Call of Duty: Ghosts. I’ll be lost in that for months and months and months and months.
I bet. So we talked a bit about your voiceover work. You were one of the leads in Tangled. What was your experience like, doing that? Was that your first real big voiceover work?
Oh, yeah! Pretty much my first and only voiceover work. It was amazing. Ever since I was a little kid, I was a giant Disney fan, so to be able to get to do a Disney animated musical – what I’d dreamt about doing my whole life – was like, “Wow, this is really happening.” And singing Alan Menken’s music and everything.
Do you want to do more voiceover?
Oh, totally; I’d love to.
And some of the voice acting greats were in Tangled – like Frank Welker… did you get to work directly with Frank, or John DiMaggio, or some of the other career voice actors?
No; in fact, I didn’t get to work with any of them! I didn’t even get to work with Mandy (Moore). The only time Mandy and I ever worked together is when we recorded the song. But all of the dialogue is all recorded totally separately.
Let’s talk about The Nerd Machine, now, because we’re standing here in your awesome place with phone chargers and photo ops and everything–
In mah booth!
Yeah! Now when did you start The Nerd Machine?
The Nerd Machine started… I think maybe it was 2011. We started the company about a year before we had the first actual Nerd HQ. We launched with just one t-shirt. With just the classic “NERD.” And the idea was just, “I wanted to make a Nike for nerds.” Because there are so many different nerd-doms, right? And if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you can get a Doctor Who shirt. And if you’re a Star Wars fan, you can get a Star Wars shirt; and that’s great. But I really wanted to have one brand that unified all of them, so no matter what you’re nerdy about, you can just represent it very simply, very clearly: “I’m a nerd; that’s what I’m about.” So that’s what we’ve built on through the years, and our branding is simple, and it’s straight. It’s like “We’re a brand for you.”
Yes – so I have to ask, why “nerd” and not “geek”?
A couple of reasons. One, phonetically I like how nerd sounds more than I like geek. Geek is a little too hard consonant. And there was just a lot of wordplay that I was thinking about, like “Nerd is the word” and all that kind of stuff. But honestly, one of the biggest was, the first shirt that I had ever thought of was the original NERD shirt; and the reason why it works so well is because it’s the Nintendo sort of font… so it’s funny, the reason why you end up deciding what something is going to ultimately be. And the other reason, too, was that I felt like “geek” was being used a lot online with Geekology and Geek Chic, and all that, and I wanted to get away from that and do my own thing. By the way – I was totally unaware of Nerdist at the time! I knew Chris (Hardwick), but I wasn’t even thinking about it.
Well, and his brand has gotten exponentially bigger since then.
Oh, yeah. He’s a friggin’ empire!
Yeah. Now, The Nerd Machine benefits Operation Smile, which I think is great. What drew you to that particular charity?
I really think God kind of spoke to me. I was trying to find a charity that I could be an ambassador for. You know, as a celebrity, you do a lot of non-profit stuff, and you’re always asked, “What’s your charity of choice?” and I never really had one. So I was about to do another singing engagement/charity benefit thing, and I was like, “What could be a cool charity to benefit?” and I was praying about it, and thinking about it, and then in one week I saw about five commercials and five billboards. And I was like, “Oh – I believe this is what I’m supposed to cling to.”
That’s great. So tell me, what is the future of The Nerd Machine? I know that it’s gotten a little bigger since 2011, and I like the fact that it’s still being kept to a smaller scale.
Yeah, we’re always going to maintain the intimacy of our activations. The company will continue to grow, and we’ll continue to do more things, but the idea is to always keep those events as things that are special.
Are you planning to do what you did at San Diego at one of the future New York cons?
Yeah, in fact the original idea was that we were going to do a Nerd HQ out here in New York. It’s difficult. San Diego Comic Con brings every star in the world. And so it’s easy then to be like, “Hey, would you mind popping by for an hour and doing a panel?” NYCC is getting there. NYCC has a lot of talent now, and is growing more and more every year… But it doesn’t quite have the same; so in order for us to get the sponsorship money to put on our own little con like that – you really need to be able to bring the talent. So maybe in the future.
Great! Well I look forward to that future, and thank you so much for your time.
Hope you all enjoyed the interview! And if you’re a New Yorker or heading to New York City sometime soon, don’t forget to get tickets to First Date. Trust me, you’ll love it.
And until next time, Servo Lectio!
SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman!
SUNDAY: John Ostrander!