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TV's Chuck on becoming a star

2007 BREAKOUTS Q&A: Zachary Levi talks about seeing his face on billboards, worrying over the strike, and more

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Zachary Levi
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES DIMMOCK

Production on the set of Chuck may have stalled, thanks to the ongoing writers’ strike, but that hasn’t kept its star Zachary Levi from setting some lofty goals during its hiatus: Namely, working his way into a rock & roll hall of fame — through the videogame Rock Band, of course. Yep, seems TV’s newest Everyman actually is more like his geeky character than you might think (minus that whole computer-for-a-brain thing, of course). Taking some time away from his Xbox to talk to EW.com, Levi tells us about life in the spotlight, the next project from his production company Coattails Entertainment, and how it felt to get a standing-O at Comic-Con.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how has this year been for you, being thrust into the spotlight and all?
ZACHARY LEVI: You know, Less Than Perfect, even after four years, never really opened any doors in my career or built that big of a fan base, at least not one that I know of — they might be in the Midwest or [exist] internationally. But with Chuck, it’s definitely been this kind of overnight change in my life, where everyone recognizes you. I [also] don’t have a life. That’s probably the biggest thing: I don’t have any time to do anything. With Less Than Perfect, with a sitcom, you can still hold down a regular life, but with Chuck, [I’m] working all day every day trying to figure out how to get everything else done. .

Not to mention figuring out how to maintain your anonymity. It must have been really weird to see your face everywhere, what with NBC’s aggressive marketing campaign for Chuck.
Oh yeah… But it’s not like Friends in its third and fourth season. It’s still on a level where it’s manageable, and people come up and want to say hi. I think you should always say, ”Yeah. Hi. How are you? You like the show? That’s great.” But it’s really surreal to be plastered over billboards and bus stops and stuff. .

Any other moments that made you feel like you hit the big time?
Something that I realized that made me feel like, ”Oh my gosh, this thing is bigger than I expected it to be,” [is when] I would be hanging out with friends, having a drink somewhere, having some food somewhere, and out of the corner of my eye, notice that people are looking at me and pointing at me and possibly even taking pictures of me. I’ll be in the middle of taking a bite of food, and I see some guy’s got his camera phone up on me. That is so weird. What is that? Why do you want to do that? So it’s that kind of thing: People just randomly wanting to take pictures like that, and not just take a picture with you but pictures of you. .

Have you been getting more scripts for other shows or projects now that you’re more recognizable?
Kind of. I’ve gotten some meetings here and there that I’ve been taking now that we’re shut down because of the strike…. You know, you never know. We’ve only aired 11 episodes. There hasn’t been that much Chuck awareness. There’s been a lot, but not as much as some other guys. .

But Chuck‘s full-season pickup shows that the network has faith in the show.
The problem is the strike. It’s nice to have a back nine, but you don’t really know what that means at the end of the day. You don’t know when you can go back to work. If they were to resolve the strike today, then they’d have to start writing, and the writing would take them through the rest of January, and we stop production in February. But I don’t know if they’re going to resolve the strike before the holidays. So [even though] we have a back nine, we don’t know when we’re going to shoot, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the network says [those] nine episodes will be the beginning of the second season. .

So what are you working on while you wait out the strike?
I’ve got my own production company [Coattails Entertainment] — we produced this film Spiral coming out on DVD in February…. We’ve been getting a lot of good buzz on the film. Amber Tamblyn is in it, and Tricia Helfer from Battlestar Galactica, and Joel David Moore, who is in James Cameron’s Avatar right now, shooting in New Zealand. He’s my best friend and business partner. So that’s been kind of a big deal, and we’ve been trying to get back on, and we’re pretty proud of that. .

NEXT PAGE: ”There are fans that come up to me and say, ‘I hate television, but I love Chuck.’ That just floors me.”

Getting back to Chuck: Looking back at the pilot, did you know that it was going to be as successful as it is upon first glance?
You never know. Television especially is so fickle, and pilots, some are the greatest things in the world that are ever shot [and they] never see the light of day. But I had every faith in the world that this could be exactly what it’s turning out to be. I read the script and I loved every second of it and was so excited that they cast me in the role, and when we were shooting the pilot, it was fun and exciting every day, getting to do a comedy, drama, action, romance, mystery… It’s literally wearing every hat as an actor. I can totally believe that the media would respond to it and appreciate it, but it’s also tough because it’s a brand-new genre. It’s not an action show, it’s not a comedy, it’s not a drama, it’s not even really an action-dramedy — it’s so much more layered than that. It’s really like watching a mini-movie every week. And I feel like audiences are starting to understand that now, and starting to stay with it. People are starting to say, ”You know what? I used to watch Prison Break, and now I want to watch Chuck.” Or, ”I used to watching Dancing With the Stars, and now I’ll watch Chuck.” I’m just hoping that continues to happen. And who knows, maybe the strike could end up being a good thing. Maybe in this downtime when nobody has any new episodes, people will go and say, ”You know that show Chuck? I never gave it a chance, or I never had the time to give it a chance, so I’m going to go online and grab those episodes now, and check it out.” And maybe by the time the strike’s over, they’re all caught up and they’re in love with it and they want to stay with it..

Even before the new episodes stopped airing, there were tons of hard-core fans of Chuck that became so deeply invested in it. Do you think this could get to, say, Comic-Con levels?
I absolutely think that it can. We were at Comic-Con this year, before the premiere. They showed our pilot, even [before] any [advertisements began airing]. [People] packed the room. There were about 2,000 people in there. There were no more seats. We got a standing ovation for the pilot — it was incredible. So I can only assume from that, and all the bloggers and all the fans that have continued to stay with us, by next year, if Comic-Con has us back, I’m hoping to make an even bigger presence and give love back to those fans and thank them for their support. .

Have you found yourself having any fans you haven’t expected? Are they all geeks?
I will say that it is a huge cross-section of fans. I’ve had moms, dads, kids, young guys, young cool guys, young geek guys, young geek girls, young cool girls, some elderly folk. The thing about it, first of all, is that we’re an 8 o’clock show, and we’re not really racy. So we’ve got the family-friendly feel before the show even started, which surprised me, because I didn’t even really think about that. I was thinking about ”Yeah, this is kind of a cool, hip, blowing-cars-up, making-people-laugh kind of show,” and not realizing that the concept really is something that parents would be fine with their kids taking in every Monday. And so what I’ve found so often are entire families are sitting around watching it together. And if it’s not entire families, it’s a bunch of roommates that will sit around and watch it together. People that I know, and people that I don’t know, have just told me, ”We all sit around on Mondays and we watch Chuck. That’s what we do together.” And I’m like, ”Wow, that’s awesome.” I have a whole group of friends that watched Lost when it was on. It wraps you up and takes you in like that. And [knowing that] people are doing that with Chuck, it’s the most incredible thing. And I’m so touched by it. I’m just so appreciative of every fan out there. There are fans that come up to me and say, ”I hate television, but I love Chuck.” That just floors me. .

Since you play a geek so convincingly, I have to ask you one more question: Are you, in fact, a geek in real life, or do you just play one on TV?
I’m totally a geek. People don’t realize. Let me just put it this way: I got the videogame Rock Band like four days ago, and I haven’t left the house. I’ve had a group of buddies over for like four days, and [it’s] all we’ve been doing. We’re up to about 300,000 fans. I’m not going to lie. We’re touring all over the world right now. We’ve got our jet, we’ve got our roadies and a PR firm. We’re just trying to make it into the hall of fame right now. That’s where we’re at. Am I a geek? Absolutely. .

Need to catch up on Chuck? Watch full episodes online at NBC.com.

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