'We were special, but we were special in a special way,' he tells EW
Let’s call it “Chuck Versus the 10th Anniversary.” It’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade since Chuck premiered, giving us our introduction to the lovable geek next door, Chuck Bartowski, memorably played by Zachary Levi. Early in the promising pilot episode, an email from a former friend-turned-government agent transformed this underachieving Stanford dropout from a Buy More employee to a Buy More employee who was also the world’s most dangerous spy.
Alongside his bombshell CIA handler/love interest Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), gruff NSA partner Casey (Adam Baldwin), and clingy best friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez), Chuck spent five seasons and 91 episodes facing off against Superman, Chevy Chase, ex-girlfriends, rival intersects, amnesia, and cancellation. Despite living on the bubble every year, the little NBC series managed to survive with the help of Subway sandwiches and a passionate fanbase.
To celebrate Chuck‘s 10th anniversary, EW talked to Levi about playing the “goofy American Bond,” becoming a “geek” icon, and his continued efforts to make the Chuck movie a reality.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Starting from the beginning, what first appealed to you about playing Chuck Bartowski?
ZACHARY LEVI: I mean, aside from the fact that I really needed a job? [Laughs] I read it and I saw myself in the character, I related to him. Growing up, I was a little bit of an outcast socially, and a drama nerd, and didn’t feel like I could fit in with the cool kids or get the hot girl — I still carry a lot of that with me. But this guy had a good heart and just kind of kept getting s– on and found himself in the doldrums of life and not really knowing what to do. Even in my career at that point, I felt that way a little. I found the pilot to be so entertaining and a cornucopia of genres. It was action, comedy, drama, romance, mystery, and sci-fi. Of all the things I was reading that pilot season, this seemed to have the most life to it and I wanted to take a shot on it.
How quickly did you realize that you guys had something special?
To be honest, we were special, but we were special in a special way. We weren’t really a ratings juggernaut, we barely survived every season, and it wasn’t really an industry darling. It was a cult following that built and grew and grew even more on Netflix. But I think the first time I realized that it was something that at least a certain demographic of fans really loved was our first Comic-Con. It was before we had premiered, we were down in San Diego in one of the ballrooms, and thank God for Adam Baldwin and his sci-fi cult following from Firefly. Because me, Yvonne, Sarah [Lancaster], Josh, the rest of the cast, none of us really had that type of super passionate fanbase like Adam had. The entire ballroom was filled and I guarantee they were all just Firefly fans. And they showed the pilot and there was a standing ovation. I couldn’t believe it, I was like, “What is happening? This is amazing.” Then, over the years, all the Chuck fan meet-ups and getting into bigger ballrooms and halls at San Diego Comic-Con, and all of the fun that we got to have together onset was a ball. It was a really hard-fought show. It was crazy hours and not enough time and not enough money to pull off a show like that, but we squeezed it out. And the fans were just so incredible and supportive. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. The Chucksters, as we affectionally call them, are just awesome people. Every time I meet one of them, it helps me believe in myself and believe in what the show accomplished, particularly when it’s someone who tells me their entire family watched it together. It’s kind of what entertainment used to be. That really means a lot to me. And they got a lot of it and that really warms my heart.
Because of Chuck, you became this sort of geek icon. Just like you related to the character, I feel like a lot of other people saw themselves in Chuck. What was it like to all of a sudden be a symbol for this passionate group?
In some ways, it was awesome because it was a world I knew already. Like I said, I grew up playing a lot video games, reading comic books and graphic novels, and still do a bit of all that, so I felt honored. When people lift you up as a kind of representation for them, you become a voice for them and I didn’t and still don’t take that lightly. I wanted to go create things for this world, like the Nerd Machine and Nerd HQ, which is the event I’ve done during San Diego Comic-Con for many years, because I want to stand for them. Whether you like it or not, if you’re given a platform in this business, you have to identify what that platform allows for and what you can positively accomplish with it. Since Chuck was in the geek world, that’s where I wanted to start and want to continue to build on that. But, there’s also part of that that’s made it difficult in my career. As with anyone, you play someone who becomes iconic and then everyone wants to keep hiring you for that character, and that’s been tough. I don’t want to turn down work, but I also don’t want to just keep playing the nerd every single time, because there’s more to me — at least I hope there’s more to me — than just that.
I was recently talking to Jason Alexander and he mentioned how playing George Costanza was such a great experience for him, but it also probably cost him opportunities after Seinfeld, because many producers didn’t want to deal with the George comparison.
And they can’t get it out of their heads. Look at everybody from Friends. They were the biggest stars in the world and I’m sure they continue to feel very typecast in the exact roles that they played in Friends. And look, also, actors have a wheelhouse, so sometimes we typecast ourselves, sometimes we don’t step out of what we’ve done because it’s very comfortable to stay where you were and keep making money from that. But you’ve got to try.
You mentioned it earlier, but what was it like having to worry every season that this one could be your last? It’s still wild that Subway, a sandwich company known for $5 footlongs, had to step in and save a network drama.
It was tough. My personal feeling on television is it’s better to be hot or cold, but never tepid. Either give it everything you’ve got and go out in one season or be a smash and find traction and go forever. But if you find yourself in the middle, then you’re constantly wondering if that’s going to be your future or not. And in our case, budgets got cut everywhere and it was made more affordable for NBC, so we were still able to do the show, but it made it more difficult to do the show. We’d finish every year and I didn’t know if I was saying goodbye to everyone or saying see you next year. And that sucks. That’s a very kind of limbo way to live. It does screw with your head and heart a good bit, but I tried to have as much peace about it as I could. And Subway, that was an interesting thing for sure. Doing product placement is one thing, but when you have to do it a lot and the audience knows that, we just leaned into it with a little wink to the audience and I think that helped a lot. The truth is the fans really came up with the whole “Footlong Finale” campaign. I don’t know that Subway really was the knight in shining armor or that the fan campaign is really what turned the tide, but it was something; it definitely got the attention of the press and the executives at Warner Bros. and NBC. To this day, it’s still the smartest fan campaign I’ve ever heard of. Because it wasn’t a fan campaign to just annoy the network or the studio with tons of letters. This was, “Let’s patronize a sponsor. If Subway is a sponsor, let’s go spend money and let them know that we appreciate that they are a sponsor.” So it was very smart, very savvy, and definitely moved the needle on some level. And again, it even more galvanized our relationship with the fans. I love them and I really do believe that they truly are the patrons of the arts, they are the producers. If they want a TV show to stay on the air, then they have to watch it. If they want more of a movie or a movie franchise, they have to buy tickets. We can’t just say, “My vote doesn’t count, it’s just one vote.” No, if enough people believe that their one vote counts, then that’s enough votes. We have to believe in the collective power of our voice and fans need to be reminded about that.
Considering you did five seasons and 91 episodes, it might be tough to pick one, but what were some of your favorite memories from the show?
The last episode we shot was so intense because Chuck was saying goodbye to all the characters, while Zach was saying goodbye to all of the people. I am a pretty weepy softie when it comes to those sort of things, so there were a lot of tears shed that day and week. But if I had to pick one episode, it would be “Chuck Versus the Beard,” which was the first episode I directed and when Morgan found out Chuck’s secret. It was just a thrill and an honor that I got to direct my first episode, but one of the things that was so frustrating on the show was constantly having to hold onto these secrets and lie to my best friend and family. Even from a Zach point of view, I hated it because I didn’t want the two worlds to be separate; I wanted to include Ellie [Lancaster], Awesome [Ryan McPartlin], Morgan, and everyone on these missions. I kind of felt like I was a broken record all of the time. Helicopters were hovering over our apartment complex and I’m like, “I don’t know what that is.” When Morgan got brought into the fold, that was just a lot of fun to finally bring those worlds together.
No Chuck interview would be complete without asking about a possible movie. Any update on where that stands?
I’d love to do it. As far as I know, I’m the only person who’s affiliated with the show that’s been trying to make it happen on some level. I’ve had meetings with various people. There’s just so many moving parts. The answer is I’d love to still make it happen, even if it’s 10 years down the line. Because of the world, it could still be plausible. It’s just difficult. Warner Bros. has the rights to it, I don’t have a script. And in order to get the rights, I need to probably get a script, but in order to get the script, I need to pay a writer, but if I’ve got to find the money then in order to get the money, I need to make sure I have the rights. It’s like a Catch-44. [Laughs] I went to the whole cast years ago and said, “If I ever get a movie together, would you do it?” And everyone was like, “We’re totally in.” A lot of people have asked if we could do another season and there’s no way we could do another season. But I think that Chuck as a premise totally works to go do movies here and there. It’s a goofy American Bond. We had our baddies of the week, we can have baddies of the movie. You add a little bit more money, a little bit more time, maybe go shoot in some actual international destinations, you make a fun 90-minute movie, and release it online. I think we can do that, but there’s a lot of moving parts and I’m the only one who’s trying to get all the moving parts together. So, we’ll see.