Zachary Levi: The Shazam! Star's Fantastical Path To Hollywood

Zachary Levi has carved out an acting career that's about as broad as it gets. The talented performer landed his big break in 2007, playing a tech nerd turned accidental government spy on NBC's fan-favorite comedy, "Chuck," a role he played for five seasons. In 2010, the actor displayed his vocal chops, joining Mandy Moore for a retelling of the Rapunzel story in Disney's animated movie musical "Tangled."

Levi received rave reviews for his Broadway debut in "First Date," and earned a Tony nomination in 2016 for his portrayal of hopeful romantic Georg Nowack in the beloved musical, "She Loves Me." In 2015, the actor ventured into the dark side, taking on the role of Luke Collins, a vigilante hitman in NBC's "Heroes Reborn" miniseries. Levi then joined the cast of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," in its second season as Benjamin, a new love interest for Rachel Brosnahan's character, and shared a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series.

In 2019, the comic book junkie found his dream role in the film "Shazam!," based on the DC comics superhero. The movie was a box office hit, and the titular star is set to reprise his character in the highly-anticipated "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" in March, 2023. As for Levi's off-camera life, it hasn't always read like a fairy tale romance or a lighthearted comedy. He has no qualms about sharing the worst and best moments of his life and career. Here is everything you need to know.

He had a difficult childhood

Zachary Levi grew up in Southern California, and when he was six, his parents split. He and his two sisters ended up moving several times with his alcoholic mother and stepfather. Being shuttled around so much, Levi learned pretty quickly how to get people's attention. "When I was around 4, I figured out a simple thing: If I made someone laugh, they smiled, and that made me feel good," he recalled to Men's Journal. "I wanted to do it all the time. And I wouldn't shut the f*** up. I would lose friends just as fast as I made them."

He made it through elementary school unscathed, but was bullied later on. "In middle school, other boys used me as a bit of a punching bag," the "Thor: Ragnarok" actor told Fatherly. Levi found his calling early on, acting in community theater productions of "Grease," "The Wizard of Oz," and "Big River" before graduating from Buena High School, per IMDb. His performance as Jesus in Ojai Art Center's production of "Godspell" helped launch his Hollywood career.

Levi's first on-screen role was in the 2002 film, "Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie." Starring alongside "The Deuce" actor David Krumholtz and "House" alum Jennifer Morrison, he played Adam, one of the guys associated with a college football gambling operation. The actor also made his sitcom debut that year, playing Kipp Steadman, Sara Rue's sarcastic co-worker in "Less Than Perfect."

Zachary Levi unleashed his inner nerd on Chuck

"Chuck" premiered on NBC in 2007, and ran for five seasons, despite nearly getting canceled after Season 2, per CBR. Zachary Levi played the titular role in the cult favorite action comedy, a computer geek turned accidental superspy working on top-secret missions with a CIA agent, played by Yvonne Strahovski, per Comic Book. "I love playing that role, and I love that entire cast and crew," the actor said at Wizard World Chicago in 2019 per Telltale TV.

With "Chuck," Levi found his breakout role, but he also discovered a new way to connect with fans, while celebrating his own nerdiness. A regular at Comic-Con, he co-founded Nerd Machine, a culture brand that engages his fanbase of self-proclaimed nerds. "Nerd is a really operative word in my life," Levi told Collider in 2012. "We're all nerds because we're all passionate about something. I love that people are able to embrace that and bridge the gap between people who might not necessarily consider themself a nerd."

Before the NBC series ended, Levi was already lobbying for a feature film sequel. "I've joked that even if I'm a geriatric Chuck, we're gonna do it one day," he told the crowd at Wizard World. "But I think we're close to making something happen," Levi added. In a 2021 interview on the Inside of You podcast, the actor said he remains committed to the project, stating he had "promising conversations" with series creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak.

He lied to get his part in Disney's Tangled

In 2010, Zachary Levi landed a plum role in Disney's animated movie musical, "Tangled." He voices the character of Flynn Rider, a thief with questionable motives and fabulous hair who embarks upon an unforgettable journey with Rapunzel. For the audition, casting directors were looking for English actors, and knowing his knack for accents, his agent confirmed the fact that he was British. Appearing on "The Late Late Show with James Corden," Levi recalled, "I might've been one of the only Americans to get in there, and then they gave me the job."

"Tangled," which also stars Mandy Moore, was a critical and box-office success, bringing in more than $591 million, per Screen Rant. Matthew Lucas of The Dispatch called the flick, "A glorious throwback, a toe-tapping, swoon-worthy fairy tale extravaganza the likes of which we haven't seen in a long time." In an interview with the San Diego Tribune, Levi noted the significance of the movie. "This is Disney's 50th animated film, the first CGI musical, the first 3-D musical," he said. "It's pretty spectacular."

The "Chuck" actor and the "This is Us" alum only met once during the production, to record their Oscar-nominated duet, "I See the Light," a song they performed at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2011. "You're forced to use your imagination and infuse that (into your performance)," he explained. "You just have these loose ideas. But when you watch it all come to life, you say: 'Wow! This is way bigger than I thought."'

Zachary Levi had a brief marriage to Missy Peregrym

In June, 2014, Zachary Levi tied the knot in Hawaii with his on-and-off-again girlfriend Missy Peregrym, per People. The "Rookie Blue" alum made the announcement in a series of playful Twitpics. Joking to her new husband, she wrote, "You're a real babe alert. How about we grab a coffee and talk about your dreams and goals." Nine months later, it seemed the newlyweds were already showing signs of strain in their relationship.

At a benefit for the Alzheimer's Association in Beverly Hills, per People, Levi admitted, "With dating you can be 'Hey, it's not working out,' and you're out. But marriage, you make a commitment. The easy outs you don't have anymore." The "FBI" actor filed for divorce from the "Tangled" star in April, 2015, less than a year after their private wedding in Maui, per The Los Angeles Times. Levi said the split him the hardest while he was shooting "Heroes Reborn" in Toronto, where he and his Canadian-born ex-wife spent a lot of time.

Speaking at Wizard World, via Tell-Tale TV, he revealed, "I was in this town, working and alone for the first time. I was looking around and everything reminded me of that pain. It was very difficult." Appearing on Access in 2019, Levi said he was "waiting for that right woman to enter my life." It appears he may have found her. As of 2021, the "She Loves Me" star was rumored to be dating Caroline Tyler, per Us Magazine.

He almost had the lead in Guardians of the Galaxy

Zachary Levi was a frontrunner for the part of Peter "Star-Lord" Quill in Marvel's 2014 film "Guardians of the Galaxy," per Variety. That was before Chris Pratt, who refused to audition, had a change of heart and nabbed the role in the final round. It was a devastating loss for Levi, who believed the role would be a game-changer for his career. "It's part of what drove me into darkness—my unhealthy take on what that meant to my own worth," Levi revealed to Men's Journal.

Levi's career was stalling, he endured a painful divorce, and his mother died. "I was at a place in my life where I didn't really understand why I wanted to live anymore," he said. The actor never tried to take his own life, and he eventually checked into a mental health retreat in Connecticut. "It was an incredible one-on-one therapeutic, healing, spiritual deep dive into figuring out the pain and sadness," he said of the program, which included psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, meditation, and nutrition counseling.

Things turned around for Levi after this. He recorded his audition for "Shazam!" on his iPhone, and booked the gig a week later. Director David F. Sandberg said casting the role of a 14-year-old kid inside the body of an adult superhero was particularly challenging. "We looked at over 100 people, then Levi's tape came in," he said. "Immediately it was like, this is the guy. He has this enthusiasm and excitement about things that feels very much like a kid."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

He wasn't saving lives in Heroes Reborn

In 2015, Zachary Levi had two very different roles in NBC's fall lineup. To snag the part of James, Eva Langoria's love interest in her comedy series, "Telenovela," he didn't have to work very hard. "I didn't audition," the actor told the New York Daily News. "We've been friends for so long and she just said, 'Hey, I have this role. Would you want to come do it?' And I said, 'Yeah, I'll come do it.'" Despite their decade-long friendship, he dished to Hoda and Jenna on Today, the "Desperate Housewives" alum is "a fantastic kisser!"

After his long-running stint as "Chuck," Levi wanted his next small-screen character to be a departure from the computer geek turned secret agent. He chose the role of Luke Collins, a hero-slaying hitman in the Peacock network's miniseries, "Heroes Reborn." "I wanted to get away from that kind of archetype and do something that was darker and grittier and heavier — and that's exactly what we found," Levi explained to Entertainment Weekly.

Levi was a huge fan of the original "Heroes," which aired on Monday nights after "Chuck," and stars Hayden Panettiere and Milo Ventimiglia. The actor also became friendly with the cast. Referencing his "Shazam!" superpowers, he added, "Flying around and shooting lightning bolts out of your hands — all that stuff is so cool, especially as a comic-book kid," he said. "So when somebody sent me an article saying they're going to do a Heroes: Reborn miniseries, I was like, 'Sign me up!'"

He called Thor: Ragnarok 'a bit of a bummer'

Zachary Levi was cast as Fandral, one of the "Warriors Three," a swashbuckling friend of the titular character in Marvel's 2011 superhero film "Thor," which stars Chris Hemsworth. Levi was replaced by Josh Dallas because of his shooting schedule for "Chuck," per Screen Rant. For 2013's "Thor: The Dark World," the tables turned, and Levi replaced the "Manifest” actor, who fell out due to scheduling conflicts.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Levi said he was looking forward to working with director Taika Waititi, but added the experience was "a bit of a bummer." He added, "I mean, look, to be perfectly honest, when it came back around that they wanted us to come in to do that, I was disappointed because I felt like the Warriors Three never got their moment in the sun in the Thor franchise." Levi came back one more time for 2017's "Thor: Ragnarok."

When he was told he was only needed for one day of shooting, he knew his character's ultimate fate. Fandral gets impaled by Hela, Cate Blanchett's character, and his final lines in the film were cut, per Yahoo Entertainment. When people asked, Levi didn't even tell people he was in the flick. "I mean, I'm in it, but I didn't want to get people's hopes up and then all of a sudden they'd realize, 'Oh, well, you're in it, but you're only in it for 30 seconds," he shared with Entertainment Weekly.

The actor is a Tony-nominated Broadway star

Zachary Levi made his Broadway debut in the 2013 original musical "First Date." Levi plays Aaron, a buttoned-up banker who gets set up on a blind date with Casey, a carefree party girl, played by "Smash" actor Krysta Rodriguez, per Playbill. The actor made quite an impression with theatergoers and critics alike. "By the end of Broadway's 'First Date,'" Zachary Levi has won over the entire audience," wrote the New York Post, calling his first appearance on the Great White Way "stunning."

In 2016, Levi came back to Broadway, starring alongside "Nashville" alum Laura Benanti and "30 Rock" actor Jane Krakowski in a revival of the popular musical, "She Loves Me." He earned a Tony nomination for his performance as Georg, a heartwarming store clerk with a secret romantic pen pal. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the actor said the character was right up his alley. "For whatever reason, I find roles or roles find me of these good-hearted people; they want the best and they're optimistic," he said.

In an interview with Broadway World, Levi said he believes the relationship between an entertainer and the audience is a two-way street. After each performance, he signed autographs for every fan who showed up at the stage door. "I don't know how to walk out a stage door and sign only 20 autographs when there are 100 people out there waiting in the cold. I just can't do that," he noted. ..."The 'fairness police' or 'justice squad' in me override these things."

The actor met his match on Mrs Maisel, or did he?

Zachary Levi's celebrated turn in "She Loves Me" led him to another romantic role. "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino caught the show and offered him the part of Benjamin Ettenberg in the series' second season. Benjamin is a Jewish doctor, an eligible bachelor and prospective match for Midge, played by Rachel Brosnahan following her split from her husband, per Backstage. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Levi said the "Mrs. Maisel's' tight-knit cast and crew welcomed him with open arms.

"Everyone was very cool. And to join a show that's skyrocketing to the moon is just a really dreamy situation," he said. Levi had only seen one episode of the comedy series before he signed on to do the show, but he quickly got up to speed. "Part of the pitch was he's kind of ahead of his time, in that he is bored with the gender roles of the '50s and wants to be challenged," the actor explained.

Speaking to The Wrap, Levi said fans have compared his character to Mr. Darcy, the romantic hero from Jane Austen's novel, "Pride and Prejudice." He agreed: "I think that's actually a really good, classic way to explain him." As for mastering the fast-banter dialogue Sherman-Palladino is famous for, Levi admitted, "I think I'm pretty good at rapid-fire speech. You know, when I don't stumble over my own tongue, which is easy enough to do."

He lost out on roles for being 'too Jewish'

In a 2016 interview with the New York Daily News, Zachary Levi revealed that being "too Jewish" cost him a few acting jobs. While he played a Jewish character on TV, the actor actually isn't Jewish. "I heard multiple times that I was too Jewish," he told the publication. "Which is surprising to people because I go by Zachary Levi. Levi is my middle name." The actor explained that his full name is Zachary Levi Pugh, and that he is of Welch origin (Levi is a common Jewish surname in the U.S.).

"I guess they were looking for more of a corn-fed, white boy look," he added, "My family is from f****** Indiana! Come on, I'm like dying here!" Levi isn't the only actor In Hollywood to be mistaken for Jewish. Jason Biggs played Jim Levenstein in the "American Pie" movies, but he's Catholic. Speaking to Haaretz, the "Cash at Your Door" host said being the "Jewiest looking non-Jew" hasn't hurt his career one bit.

He's been playing Jewish roles "almost exclusively" since he was a kid. Levi's "Mrs. Maisel" co-star Rachel Brosnahan is often asked if she's Jewish, which she isn't. In 2018, she told Vanity Fair, growing up she attended "hundreds of Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs. I could maybe Bat Mitzvah you," the "I'm Your Woman" actor joked. "I spent more time in a temple than any other house of worship," Brosnahan shared with Variety, "I love that this show is unabashedly Jewish."

The comic book fan's dreams came true with Shazam!

Before Zachary Levi won the lead in "Shazam!," he was offered a chance to audition for a smaller role in the film, and passed. In an interview with Men's Journal in 2019, he explained, "I was like, 'This must be a mistake. Aren't they looking for superjacked guys? Or someone way more famous than me?'" Levi said he thought the audition would just be wasting everyone's time. Playing the titular role in the DC Extended Universe film was the comic book buff's dream come true.

"It's crazy to think how obsessed I was," Levi told The New York Times at a 2018 stop in Manhattan's Midtown Comics. "At one point in my life this was everything." In an interview with POPSUGAR, the actor explained "Shazam!" gives moviegoers a fresh, light-hearted take on the superhero genre. "It's a movie about a 14-year-old boy who's given a magic word (Shazam!) to transform into being the superhero version of himself. It's 'Big' meets 'Superman.' That, inherently, is gonna have lots of heart and lots of humor."

Before putting on his "slightly padded" red bodysuit for the film, the actor bulked up, doing two workouts a day, five days a week for several months. He also worked on a whole new nutrition plan. Speaking to Hot Corn, he said, "I'm probably stronger and healthier now than I've ever been in my life, so thank you Warner Bros. for paying me to get into the best shape of my life."

The actor kept the faith in American Underdog

Zachary Levi suited up in a football jersey and a helmet for his next big-screen role. In the 2021 film "American Underdog," the actor plays football legend Kurt Warner, alongside Anna Paquin as the former NFL quarterback's wife. The movie explores the early years of Warner's career before he was a Super Bowl MVP, and his marriage to Brenda, who was divorced with two kids when they met.

In an interview with Parade, Levi said of Warner, "He could go do whatever; he's a college stud! But even at 21 he had this grounded thing about him. He didn't run after distractions, and I think that's a part of why his dream ultimately did manifest." Both stars had the opportunity to meet their real-life counterparts, who were on set for much of the filming. Naturally, Levi had to learn how to move like an NFL Hall of Famer on the field, and how to throw a spiral.

"I was dying to get as much right as I could," Levi told People. I definitely got to the point where I could throw some dimes, but I also had some great doubles that were helping me do that along the way." The faith-based flick was a fan-favorite, earning a 98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. "I think that it does inspire and it does give people hope," added the "Alias Grace" actor. "And it tells them to run after those dreams."

Zachary Levi opened up about his 'mental breakdown'

In his 2022 memoir, "Radical Love: Learning to Accept Yourself and Others," Zachary Levi opened up about his painful past, including his traumatic childhood, and how he suffered from low self-esteem, anxiety and depression for years. Speaking to Elizabeth Vargas on her Heart of the Matter podcast, he said, "I didn't realize that I was struggling with these things until I was 37, about five years ago, and I had a complete mental breakdown."

After growing up in a household rife with "lots and lots of unhealthy, toxic behavior," Levi picked up a few bad habits to help him ease his pain. "I was running to lots of other things, whether it was sex or drugs or booze or things to distract me from, to numb myself from the pain that I was running away from most of my life." In the book, via CBN News, Levi noted he felt like he wasn't living up to his own expectations for himself. "Ultimately, like most of my life, I felt like a failure," he wrote.

In 2017, he finally hit rock bottom. "I would say if suicide was climbing a ten-rung ladder, I was at rung nine." Levi admitted to Vargas that wasn't the first time he had those thoughts, but after moving to Austin, he didn't have a support network in place. These days, he focuses on prayer, meditation, and the power of positive thinking. "Our minds are so powerful, but they are so easily, so easily hijacked," he said.

His real-life superpower might surprise you

In 2017, Zachary Levi quickly sold his Studio City, California home for $1.4 million, per the Hartford Courant, and purchased a 75-acre ranch near Austin, Texas, where he plans to build a combination movie studio and amusement park, per Men's Journal.  At 2019's Wizard World, per Telltale TV, the actor waxed philosophical about his future plans. "I want to go and make my own version of Disney World, where people can go and not just have fun, but also live better lives," he said.

Levi added, "Ever since I was a little kid, God gave me a lot of empathy. It's an incredible superpower." Once he discovered theater as a teenager, he knew a life in the spotlight was his destiny. "It suddenly dawned on me that this could be an actual career. I realized that this was what God wanted me to do and I never looked back," he told Broadway World. But the star of two Broadway musicals, a blockbuster film franchise, and a cult classic TV series doesn't do it for his own satisfaction.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the "Heroes Reborn" actor explained that one of the reasons he took on that project was because "Chuck" fans also liked "Heroes." "I really believe that entertainment is for the audience. It's not for you," Levi said. "You shouldn't feel fulfilled at work. At the end of the day, I think we should all be focusing on doing right by the fans."