Zachary Levi seems tailor-made for the role of Billy Batson, a 14-year-old boy who turns into a superhero by saying a magic word in Shazam! At least, that’s how it appears now that fans have seen his performance in the trailer and an extended TV spot. Levi wasn’t an obvious choice from the very beginning, however, as even he felt his odds of landing the title role were too low to even bother with an audition.
“My agency sent me an appointment slip for the role of Shazam in the movie Shazam!,” Levi told Superhero News and several other outlets on the Shazam! set last year. “I knew that the Rock had been cast as Black Adam, and, so my first reaction is, ‘Why the hell are they sending me this right now?’ I emailed them, and I said, ‘Hey, aren’t they looking for a) massive stars, or, at the very least, b) someone who is a massive person?’ Even as a cursory Captain Marvel person, who knew very little, quite honestly, about the character at that point, I knew enough to know that.
“So, I emailed them back and I said, ‘Aren’t they looking for big stars or big guys?’ There was kind of a non-committal, ‘We’re not really sure.’ So, I said, ‘Well, I think I’m going to pass because I think that might be a waste of time. This doesn’t seem like I’ve got a shot at getting this job, to be perfectly honest.’”
Levi had been through the process numerous times before. He tested for the role of Star-Lord in Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy, which ultimately went to Chris Pratt. “I wanted it so bad,” Levi said, though his experience in finally landing his superhero role shared an interesting similarity with Pratt’s path to GotG.
“It came back around,” Levi recalled. “I got another audition for a completely different role. I had no idea exactly what the role was, but they were sides that were written specifically for auditions. I was like, ‘OK, there’s one scene where I felt I could probably portray this character.’ I put myself on tape. That was sent to the creative team. Then, I get a call from my agent and they said, ‘Hey, so, what about that role of Shazam that you passed on two months ago because they think you actually might be very right for this?’ Then, at that point, I got very happy. But I was also still kind of confused.
“I camera tested probably five days later, or six days later. Then, the next day, I got a call from [director] David [Sandberg], who said, ‘You are my Shazam.’ It was gnarly. It was insane. It was oddly, or ironically, reminiscent of when I was camera testing for Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy. I knew that Chris Pratt had also passed on that role. There was definitely a strange thing of, ‘Wow. When you are not holding on to something so tightly, if it’s not something you’re dying and dying for, but you can have an unbiased, somewhat clear idea of what you are trying to go after and know that you are just being you, you are bringing your essence.”
Believing he had nothing to lose, and perhaps little to gain, freed Levi up to just bring what he felt was right for the role into his audition. “Ultimately, that’s what I think got me this job,” he said. “They knew they needed to cast someone that could be as exuberant or optimistic or sassy as a 14-year-old boy and dammit, that’s me in a nutshell.”
Levi doesn’t expect to be confused with “one of the Chrises” any time soon, but for Shazam!, he doesn’t need to be. He got the job based on his own instincts and he loves playing a superhero who loves being a superhero.
“It’s the best,” Levi said of playing a character who is more excited than burdened by super heroics. “There are two characters that I can think of in all of comic-dom, including DC and Marvel, and it’s Billy Batson and Peter Parker. Those two to me, at least that I know, you get to go on this journey of like, instead of it being, ‘Oh, I have to save the world again’ or whatever that is. It’s like, ‘I get to save the world again!’” It’s that. As a nerd who loved and lived this world for so long, and still do to some level, that I don’t have to restrain myself with the fucking coolness factor, is so great. I have to act so little. I just get to be me on so many levels.”
Getting to be a heightened version of himself as a superhero makes the long days worth it. Superhero costumes are notoriously uncomfortable for actors and Levi’s is no different. Even so, he has no regrets. “It’s a pain in the ass doing some of this shit,” he said. “It’s painstaking. It’s little by little, and little by little, and all the action and how it’s all put together. The suit is very very tight. To be perfectly honest, I can only do #1 in it. They have to take the whole thing off to drop a deuce and that’s a pain in the ass. But these are the prices you pay to be a superhero? Fucking sign me up! It’s great.”