Zachary Levi: “My Tony Nomination is Like a Tasty Piece of Cake!”

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By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)

Zachary Levi is a talker. Or more accurately, Zachary Levi is a storyteller. And telling stories is something he does well; after all, he is a Tony-nominated actor for his work in She Loves Me. He’s believable as Georg Nowack in the show and he makes him feel real. But off stage, Zac himself is just as real; he’s honest and open, which are qualities his fans admire, and he gives so much of himself, especially at the stage door after a performance, to thank them for their support.

In She Loves Me, he plays Georg, the lead clerk at a Maraczek’s Parfumerie in 1930s Budapest. When new employee, Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti), starts work there, she and Georg immediately butt heads. Unbeknownst to them, however, they’re pen pals as part of a Lonely Heart’s Club and are falling in love through their letters.

To celebrate his Tony nomination, he spoke with me about his life both on and off the stage and what’s next for him when the show wraps. Spoiler alert – you’re gonna say, “Awww!”

First of all, congratulations on your Tony nomination. It’s such an honor! How are you feeling about it now versus a month ago when the nominations came out? Has it sunk in yet that you can now have “Tony-nominated” in front of your name – you know, until you inevitably win one?

Well I don’t know about that! You know, somebody was just talking to me today about it saying, “Are you still over the moon?” And the truth is, I don’t know if I’ve really felt over the moon about it at all. Not that it’s not an incredible honor and very thrilling in certain ways, but I don’t know. It’s one of those things that when it first happened, it was really surreal, and it’s still pretty surreal. But the real reality is, it doesn’t really change your life except for the day you hear about it and then being at the Tonys and experiencing that. But my everyday life is still the same. It’s not like all of a sudden, my pants magically put themselves on my legs. It just doesn’t do that. Yeah, there have been some fun little cocktail things and whatever along the way, some Tony luncheons and yada yada, but other than that, life is normal, so I don’t really think about stuff like that too much. I’ve got a job to do. I have to go to the theater every night and do the show, whether I’m Tony-nominated or not, and do the best I can. So I don’t know that it’s sunk in, or rather, I don’t know that there’s much more to sink in. When we’re at the Tonys, it will be pretty surreal, and when it comes to my category and they call my name, that will be weird. Like if by some weird, crazy, outside chance I actually win this thing, that will probably feel pretty over the moon. But all in all, it’s still just real life. Real life doesn’t stop. I think that I’ve got a really tasty piece of cake getting nominated. And should I win, I get icing on my cake, but even if I don’t win, I still got a really tasty piece of cake!

She Loves Me and its various iterations have had some pretty notable actors in your role. What do you think you bring to the character that no one else has and what inspiration do you draw from those who have come before you?

I have no idea because I’ve never seen the previous iterations of She Loves Me. I’ve never seen the show done before.

Oh, I mean like Shop Around the Corner, You’ve Got Mail…

Ohhh, well I think that’s tough only because they’re different. It’s not the same material, but it is the same overall plot. You’ve Got Mail even, that was a little different because they didn’t even work together. They worked at opposing stores. So I don’t know. The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail weren’t musicals. You’ve Got Mail is a modern show and Shop Around the Corner are both period. I would say they’re probably most similar, but before I took the job, I researched the show and found out that they were all from the same source material and Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart have both played this role in their iterations and those are two guys that I idolize. I just love their work and always have and I find myself to kind of fit into the same world as an actor that I think they do, which is the every man actor. It’s not the hunky leading man Brad Pitt kind of dude and it’s not like a character actor necessarily, it’s kind of in between that. So I was stoked about that. I was like, look, if these guys do what I love and I would love to kind of follow in their footsteps and their careers and they’ve both played this archetype, then I want to do that too. And hopefully I can do a good job with it and of the three of us, I’m the only one who’s singin’! But again, it’s very difficult to see yourself from a third person perspective, so I don’t know what I’m doing similar or different. I know people have told me they feel a Jimmy Stewart vibe when I do it and the other night, somebody told me they felt like a Tom Hanks vibe and I’m like, “Well I’m not doing that on purpose for sure! I’m doing me, but the 1930s Budapest version of me in a musical.” Hopefully I’m bringing it to life as real and as best I can.

Being that Tom Hanks did play a version of Georg in You’ve Got Mail, is there a role that was once his that you would like to play?

Oh gosh, all of them? Yeah, all of them. All of them. Big, Joe vs. The Volcano, Sleepless in Seattle, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, Splash. He’s done so many great movies. But also, movies just aren’t the same anymore. I don’t know that a lot of those movies, if you remade them now, that they would have the same spirit. Yeah, casting is a big thing, but also, you’ve got to write it and shoot it in the right way to capture the magic that once was. And unfortunately, nowadays with peoples’ attention spans being zero, it used to be you could watch a movie and there would be a long shot where they were just establishing the place. Now people are talking all the way through it the whole time. There used to be beats and pauses in conversations between characters to have moments and now, executives are so afraid of all that downtime and they’re like, “Somebody’s gotta talk!” It’s just not the same anymore, you know? But look, there are so many roles I would love to play. But also, I don’t want to touch those roles. I’ve said it before, but I think my two criteria for remaking a film or TV show or whatever are 1.) Has it been long enough that there’s something new to be offered in telling that story now and 2.) Regardless of how long it’s been – though there still should be some time – is it something that’s like a cult thing that a remake could get eyeballs on a great story that just never got that shot. Sometimes that means it’s old. Sometimes it’s really old and it was only niche. It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie I’ve wanted to remake for a long time not because I don’t think it’s a freakin’ perfect movie – it is – but it’s in black and white and unfortunately a lot of younger audiences don’t care about or won’t go watch a black and white film because they’re like, “What is this thing that makes no sense to me?” And I think to bring that story, even though it’s kind of been done in other iterations, if I could go back and do It’s a Wonderful Life, no matter if it’s a period piece or you update it or whatever, I don’t know, but that’s an incredible movie. Jimmy Stewart and the rest of the cast were amazing and that movie, I think younger audiences deserve and should see that story, but unfortunately I don’t think that they will. Or even a movie like The Last Starfighter. I would love to remake The Last Starfighter because it was this crazy niche movie. There weren’t that many people that found it, but those that did find it loved it, but there are a lot of people that didn’t. And now the CGI is so antiquated.

So to that end, how do you choose your roles?

Well some of it is just natural selection. I’m not diCaprio. I don’t have my life and career on a scheduled-out, everybody-wants-me-to be-in-their-movies thing, A lot of times I’m just waiting to see what comes my way. And then I assess it based on its merits. What’s the story, who would I be working with, who’s directing it, where’s it shooting, is this something that’s right for me in my career right now and does it help give me a forward momentum, do I need the forward momentum. Then you kind of weigh it all out and go, “Is this right for me right now?” And this musical was right for me right now. And it’s proven to pay dividends where we are right now. But I’ve also tried to stay proactive and create my own content and my own ideas as much as I can, but those take a while. So you’re developing those and you’re kind of waiting to see which one hatches first, if it ever does hatch. And then you might have to go that way because even though you might not have planned on that one being the one to do next, that’s the one that’s ready to go and you’ve got people ready to go and they’re excited about it. You’ve just got to suss it out I think. I wish I had more time in life because there’s so many roles I’d like to play and you just age out of them so fast. Especially with television. With film, you can do multiple films a year and play all these different characters, but with a TV show, it’s different. I’ve now done two series. One lasted four years and one lasted five years. So if I go do another series right now, I’m 35, almost 36, and you have to plan on a show going at least five years. The next role I’ll be able to play on TV is a 40-year-old. So there’s only one shot at “what’s the character I can play at 35?” And then you have to figure it out at 40 and 50. As much as I wish I had 100 clones of myself and could just go do all the things I want to do all the time, you have to be specific and picky about it because sometime you only get that one shot at that age.

You’re known for being very generous with your fans and especially for your stage door dance parties. Because of that, people are always going to have expectations of you that are sometimes unrealistic or hard to meet. How does that affect you and how do you deal with that sort of reaction?

I think ultimately it all boils down to kindness. Just being a human being. I think that, unfortunately, with the arts and with entertainment and the fame that may or may not come with that, people start treating you differently. You know how people are like, “Don’t you go changing,” and you hear a lot of stories about that guy changed or that girl changed when she got famous, what I’ve actually noticed a whole lot of is the people around the famous person change first. Because all of a sudden, now they see this golden goose and they don’t want to lose the golden goose, they don’t want to lose the money and the perks and the things that all come with that, so they start changing and start being “yes men” a lot of times and stop treating their friend or family member like they used to, which is like a regular person. So in turn, the famous person reacts and I think there’s a whole bunch of different ways a person can react. They can react like “I don’t trust you anymore” and get paranoid, they can get closed off or they start believing this power so when nobody questions them, then they don’t question themselves and they feel like no one should question them. Some people feel like with that power, my time is more important than your time. There are all sorts of things that can happen. But I’ve always tried to maintain the best perspective that I can on all this stuff, and I think my faith has a lot to do with it on top of all of it – we’re all schmucks. All of us are schmucks. We’re all broken, we’re all faltered, we all need Jesus, we all need love. No matter how famous you get or how powerful or how much money you have, you’re still going to be worm food at the end of the day. That doesn’t matter. But that’s awesome that I’m blessed that I don’t have to worry about certain things, but I do have to worry about other things everybody worries about. The only way you’ll ever maintain feeling like a real person and maintain other people treating you like a real person is to just keep acting like a f****** real person. So when I meet fans that really want something from me and I don’t have the time, I actually just tell them that. I talk to them like a regular person. I don’t shoo them, I don’t hide my face, I don’t curse at them. I just say, “Hey, I’m so stoked that you like what I do and I’d love to take a picture with you, but I actually don’t have time and I’m sorry about that.” But some other time, I might be able to take a photo or sign something. And I also know what my boundaries are. You have to know your boundaries. I know the stage door is a perk. You don’t earn that with your ticket price and I don’t expect everyone on Broadway to do what I do, but it’s also something I feel led to do. Ever since I did community theater, we would go out in the foyer after every performance and we’d shake everybody’s hand. Granted, no one is asking for autographs and photos, you’re just shaking peoples’ hands as they walk out. But I really liked meeting the patrons of the arts. I felt grounded, I felt real, it felt real. It felt like these are the people that make this life possible. They came and spent their time and spent their money. And I’m an outgoing dude and I have a ton of energy after a show and if I have an opportunity to give someone a gift, even though unfortunately a lot of people feel entitled to it, I know what I do. I know that I’m giving them a gift. You didn’t earn it with buying a ticket and plenty of actors leave right after shows. They can do whatever they want. I know what I feel compelled and led to do, which is I want to go and look people in the eye, even if it’s ten seconds and say thank you for coming and I’ll sign your Playbill and I’ll take a photo with you. And most people are respectful of that. I wish people would be a little more mindful. Some people don’t realize that I’m trying to be as efficient as possible and they don’t have their cameras ready and I’ll give them shit about it, but I do it in fun and people laugh. We all laugh together. And then you get the stage door crashers and I call them vampires. They’re just people that want to take from you. They don’t come see your show; they just want something from you. And I can spot them pretty well. I think my track record for sniffing people out like that is like 99%. And I’ll very politely look at them and say, “I’m so sorry, did you come to the show?” And I would say 75% of the time, they lie to me. And I can tell they’re lying to me. And I go, “Well I don’t believe you. I need to see a Playbill or a ticket or tell me something about the show.” These people want a picture of me so bad that they’re willing to lie to my face and when I’m able to catch them, I tell them two things. Number one, if you come see the show, I’m here after every show and I’m happy to sign something and take a photo with you. Number two, it’s really, really disrespectful to lie to somebody’s face. It really sucks. I appreciate that you’re a fan, but if you actually cared about me, then you wouldn’t lie to me. That’s rude! And I’ll call them out in front of everybody because I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think it’s fair. And I’m very kind. I don’t yell at anybody and I’ll even make jokes about it, but you just have to have boundaries. If you have boundaries and you stick to your boundaries, even when somebody’s begging you, “Oh, can I get another photo,” or “Oh, I wanted to do a regular photo and a selfie,” I have to go, “I’m sorry, everybody gets one. But if you come back to the show, you get another.” And, when you maintain boundaries and you’re kind, you can prove you can have boundaries and still be a kind person. And I find that 99.99999% of the time, people respond just fine. And not only that, but they might walk away and go, “Wow, you know, I learned something there. I just learned that he doesn’t owe me – no celebrity owes me – and they’re doing me a solid if I approach them with kindness, maybe I’ll get a photo and maybe I won’t.” For me, one of the biggest things is breaking down these weird barriers and stigmas that somehow celebrities are not real people or that real people are all crazy. That’s unfortunately why a lot of celebrities are so scared to interact with real people because they just think that most superfans are crazy. But that doesn’t mean most people are crazy. At least for myself, I hope that I’ve built a kind of understanding that even when I’m at Comic-Con and people ask for something and I tell them, “I’m sorry, I can’t,” they say okay. It is what it is. But if I’m out at a restaurant or something…the other day, I was at a restaurant and I was walking in and a friend was holding our spot. And this family was like, “Oh my god, can we get a photo?” And I told them, “I gotta go eat right now, but let’s take one later,” and they said okay, great. Then I was sitting there at the bar and the waiter hands me a beer and I told him I didn’t order it and he said it was from their table. That was really sweet. I finished up and they were still there and so I went over to their table and told them thank you very much for the beer and asked if they wanted to take the photo. I took the photo and I walked out. It’s not rocket science! It’s not complicated. And by the way, had I told them thank you so much for the beer and I’d love to stay and take a photo, but this might generate a whole mob and I really have to go because I’m late for work or whatever, I would hope they would understand that, too. It’s just all about understanding and talking to people like they’re real people and people are real back with you.

On the flip side, there are also fans that admire you so much, they fly halfway across the world to see your show. What do you say to those fans that have traveled so far? Do you feel more responsibility/pressure to perform for far-traveling fans or for other celebrities?

Ummmmm, I don’t know! I think there’s definitely a pressure I feel sometimes when I know there’s a big celebrity in the audience, but on the other hand, not really. It’s more invigorating than pressure. I don’t think about anything other than being Georg. I really don’t. It’s like, the first thing I ever learned as an actor was to stay in character. Your job is to make the audience believe you are this person. And the best way you can make the audience believe you’re a different person is by being that different person as much as you possibly can. Stay in the moment. Stay present. Stay in character. So I’m thinking what Georg is thinking. When Maraczek’s yelling at me, I’m thinking, “Oh my God, this is horrible.” I’m not thinking, “Oh God, Bette Midler’s in the audience!” And I don’t know how far people travel until I’m at the stage door and they go, “I came from the Philippines,” or “I came from Australia,” or “I came from Germany,” or whatever. And the only thing I can say to them is the same thing I say to people who came from Jersey, which is thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for going out of your way. Thank you spending the money to come. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for supporting my career. The pressure that I feel is the same pressure I feel for anyone, which is go and do your job every night the best you can. Don’t get sick. [Laughs] Don’t miss a performance as best you can. Even when you’re feeling tired or you’re feeling uninspired or drained or not fresh, muster it. And go give that audience the best you can give.

Besides being nominated for a Tony, what’s been the coolest or most fun opportunity you’ve been involved in because of She Loves Me?

I guess all of the stuff that came with the nomination. Lighting the Empire State Building or going to these luncheons or meeting other Tony nominees. On top of that, other than the Tony-related stuff, getting to be a part of this show. This special show that people have really enjoyed and working with these great people. Audiences are really touched by it and as an entertainer, you can only hope that you’re doing stuff that will mean something to somebody and that moves them and that touches them and makes them happy. We’ve been able to do that.

I also want to talk about your previous role as Aaron in First Date on Broadway versus Georg and how the two compare, from a performance standpoint. Georg is obviously more physically demanding –

Yeahhh, I would say She Loves Me is more physically demanding. I’m moving a lot more on stage and also I’m wearing much warmer clothing, so it gets really hot up there! First, one’s a period piece and one’s a modern show. I have some similarities with both characters. They’re both good-hearted guys, but I think Georg is a little more sure of himself, even when his world is collapsing. First Date was a 90-minute, no intermission show and that had its pros and cons. She Loves Me is two-and-a-half hours with an intermission and I get some moments where I get to go off stage and take a breather. It’s nuts when you’re on stage for the whole night for 90 minutes and you don’t get to re-set anything. You don’t get to go get a drink of water or blow your nose or whatever; it’s a weird thing. And ultimately the audience reaction and critical reaction to this show has been overwhelmingly incredible and unfortunately for First Date, it wasn’t. I think the crowd reaction for First Date, at least for the first couple of months, was unreal. We were sold out for two months straight. And then Labor Day hit and we lost all the tourists and we were depending on the New York theater-going crowd who reads and listens and believes in reviews and we kind of got pretty hammered and so ticket sales were sparse for a while. And that’s hard. But, even with full houses sometimes at She Loves Me we can have a tough house. It’s a matinee or it’s quiet or whatever. Every time I do a show, I learn something. Or something I’ve already learned is reiterated and I’m not re-learning it, but learning it more deeply. Both shows are very different, but eight shows a week is eight shows a week! It’s gnarly.

Like we talked about before, you’re known for playing “the every man” – Chuck, Aaron, Georg. What do you think fans haven’t seen from you yet – what do you want to show them you can do?

Oh gosh! Everything. I don’t know that I’ve ever met an actor who doesn’t ultimately want to be so diverse where they can play everything. That’s kind of the DNA. Like, I can do that, and I can do that, and I can do that. But yeah, Heroes Reborn, even though I don’t think that really came out the way I think it could have or whatever, but I got to play someone a little more brooding, at least at the beginning, and then his life starts falling apart. But I’d like to play some more confident guys. Guys with all the answers. In the comedy world, maybe like a kind of Fletch-type guy. Those guys. I don’t know, I just want to play different flavors. We’ll see what comes along. I don’t know! I’d like to learn how to tap dance. Do a tap-heavy show or something. That would be fun.

Well I know there are plenty of people who want you to play a villain!

Playing a solid villain would be awesome!

So after you wrap She Loves Me, you’re doing Nerd HQ –

First I have to go be an uncle! My sister Shekinah is gonna have a baby! I’m gonna be an uncle first, and then I’m going to go be the host of my favorite event.

Is there anything you can tell me about this year’s event? And then what’s next for you? We’ve heard about the Tangled series, but after that, are you going to do more theater? Are you going blond?

[Laughs] The truth is, I don’t know! I really don’t know. I have a few things percolating, but nothing solid yet. Right now, the only two things I can say for sure are uncle and Nerd HQ. And then we’ll see how the rest of the year comes together. I’m prepared to go and travel. I had this crazy thought the other day that since I never go and do any conventions ever, why don’t I just go and pack a bag and I’ll backpack across the world going from convention to convention? Take a buddy and take a camera and document the whole thing. Call it the Con Tour.

That would be fun!

Yeah, I see people all the time on Twitter like, “Come to Denver,” “Come to Salt Lake,” “Come to Dragon Con,” “Come to New York,” “Come to Brazil.” What if I just took a year and literally did like every con in the world and got to go meet everybody and got to see the world? I think it could be an interesting thing.

Watch Zac and the cast of She Loves Me this Sunday on the Tony Awards on CBS at 8PM/7c.


    4 Comments

  1. JayneJune 10th, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    What a brilliant interview …thanks Haylee and Zac!!

  2. AndreaJune 10th, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    Wonderful interview. And Zac, yes, God yes, do this! Make the Con Tour! It would be amazing.

  3. PhyllisSJune 10th, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    Excited to see what the future holds! Great interview!

  4. Terry AnnJune 11th, 2016 at 6:45 am

    Always love reading your interviews, you have such a grounded moral center it’s so refreshing and endearing. The world Con tour sounds like a fantastic adventure for you and your fave crew. I would enjoy vicariously living thru a docuseries of that expedition. Do it now while you are still single, young and bursting with energy. It would be a great story to tell your children one day.

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