February 3, 2006
ZACHARY LEVI: More than just a nice set of eyebrows
There was nothing particularly redeeming about the trailer for BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE 2 and I was afraid of what was to come when I saw Martin Lawrence shaking his chubby, fat suit groove thing all over the screen.
I thought that my relationship with the movie was going to be limited to a few wry comments about the preview, a little pole smoking of how Martin Lawrence is the Next Coming on Entertainment Tonight and a little faux funny-funny about the zany antics during shooting on Extra but when I was asked to speak with one of the movie’s stars, Zachary Levi, I had more than a few doubts of whether I should say yes.
Looking back on the decision many months ago to just throw a few handfulls of caution to the wind I am glad that I acquiesced to do it because instead of just focusing on Zach’s involvement with this movie, which did more than well in its first weekend of release and snagging the top spot by a healthy margin, I wanted to know not only what it was like to be in a big film like this but the itch I wanted to scratch was to ask about whether there was any stigma at all on working for a film called BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE 2.
Truth be told, I admire Zach for being so honest in being unassuming in realizing that to utter this film’s title does spark involuntary laughter but he also reveals that even though some may look down on taking work on a sequel there is a learning experience to be imbued by being open to the process. My initial apprehension was turned to understanding as Zach explains what it was like to make BMH 2 within the context of doing whatever it takes to advance his career to the next level. Where I thought there would be shame and derision Zach talked about opportunity and excitement just to be a man working within the Hollywood system. The more I talked and inquired about how he found his way though the film which would ultimately reign supreme at the box office the more I understood that this was more than just a movie that would come and go this was a flick that would help someone realize their dreams of making movies. Regardless of how you feel about the cash-in commercialization mentality of needless franchise pictures Zach has a got a story to tell and it’s all sorts of intersting and amusing. As point of fact, his next film project, SPIRAL is in post-production. Starring Amber Tambyln of Joan of Arcadia and the better than it sounds SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS, written and directed by Joel Moore (aka That Skinny Guy from DODGEBALL and LAX) the movie will hopefully wash away any doubts of this guy’s ability as a bankable actor.
To start off a conversation with him I explained why someone from a place named Poop Shoot had the opportunity to chat him up and what I did, primarily, at the site: I review movie trailers.
Oh, right on.
Well, that didn’t help you any for this movie as I wasn’t in it.
That’s the thing. You weren’t in it but how big of a movie is this for you?
Well, basically what happened was that, the genesis of what happened, was that they wrote this movie with every intention of having Paul Giamatti come back and reprise his role from the first one. It was like he was his partner and he had a lot of screen time so they went to Paul and he pretty much said, “Uh, no, I did SIDEWAYS. Uh, have you not seen my body of work? CINDERELLA MAN? Hello?”
Paul didn’t need to do it, I don’t blame him, you’re playing second man to Martin Lawrence. So, he doesn’t do it but they still have the script and then what they do is rework it in all these different ways and they create this new, different partner who he hooks up with and that would be me. I am like one of four different FBI agents that comprise his partners, if you will. So, I kind of play his partner but I don’t have as big a role as Paul Giamatti but still a good size. Actually, a real good size but then I just did the DVD commentary with my director and producer, which was freakin’ awesome, because I was like, “Hell yeah I want to do a DVD commentary,” and I got to go in and do that only to find out that the good and the bad of it was that I have a lot of scenes on the DVD and a lot of them were deleted.
I mean I will get a lot of screen time in the movie, which is good, but the director, and he’s given me a kind of heads up, who told me, “It’s got nothing to do with your performance, it has everything to do with trying to fit the continuity of your character’s relationship with Martin’s.” Like, there was one scene that doesn’t make a sense with me being a newbie, that was originally written for Paul Giamatti, that was taken out because it flat out didn’t make any sense with the kind of relationship I have with Martin in this movie. It made the deleted scenes but it didn’t make the movie.
So, I still get a good amount of screen time and I still am Martin’s partner throughout the film but I’ve just got a lot of deleted scenes which are going to be on the DVD. There’s up and downs to all of this, I guess.
Well, after all the rewrites, and then the decision that you were going to the comedic, white cracker foil to Martin’s character, how long was your actual set time on this film?
You know what, I started this in April of last year, I started on the second day of shooting and I was there for the last day of shooting. But there were many days within that where I spent my time chillin’, mindin’ my own business, because we were in LA and all sorts of different locations. Overall, though, I probably was on set maybe half of all the filming days in total.
Well, a majority of the film we shot in New Orleans. It was like three weeks in LA and then we moved to New Orleans. We were there from like May 18th to July 11th so I was there in New Orleans for a while with a few weekend trips back to LA when I had a few days off because I wanted to get the fuck out of New Orleans.
Why? It seems like a place…
It’s interesting because if, like, I was married…people kept asking me, “How was New Orleans?” I mean if I was married it would be fantastic. I would have my wife with me, we would be hanging out, we would go check out some real good historical sights, blah blah blah, listen to some great music, and then we could go back to the hotel at the end of the night and we would get it on like Donkey Kong. But, when you’re a single dude and you’re in New Orleans it’s lonely, dark and weird.
I would figure it’s like Girls Gone Wild every minute of the day.
It is but I am really not that kind of guy. I would much rather just go out and check out the museums.
You know, if I was like 18 or in high school I would be, “Yeaaaaahhhhhhhh! Show me your boobs!” But after one night on Bourbon Street it’s like, “Ok. Now what?” You’ve got great museums there…or even swamp tours but you don’t want to be that one dude who is by himself on a swamp tour as everyone is looking over and just going, “Who the fuck is this guy?”
And then the really bad scenario would be if they would then follow up with, “…Isn’t it that guy from ABC’s Less Than Perfect? Oh, what a loser.” I mean that’s what’s going in my mind. I was going around the French quarter a little bit, have a little food, and then went back to my hotel where I would watch the same informercials over and over again. INCLUDING…Girls Gone Wild.
The icing on the cake was when I spent my last night in New Orleans and I was in this room. I was in my hotel room and it was like midnight. And when you’re in your hotel room and there’s nothing to do you just sort of just flip through the TV and I just thought I would just go to bed. I turn off the TV, my head hits the pillow, as soon as I turn off the light I hit the pillow and I hear (simulates the sounds of a creaking bed). “Oh my God, yes, yes yes!”
So it’s like I’m laying there for an hour and half and I am just saying to myself, “My God…I just want to go to bed. Please let me go to bed, please let me go to bed.” And the dude just kept goin’ and goin’, seriously must have taken Viagra or something, and it was confirmed because when I finally went to sleep and woke up around 10:30 the next morning the dude and his lady were still moaning.
Besides figuring things out on a personal level, then, what did you take away, professionally, from making this film?
I honestly took away a lot from making this picture.
It was kind of the bane of my existence for a while because I am in this weird demographic where I have a lot of competition in my field. For example, when I go up for a role it is like, “Oh, we love this guy, but Ashton Kutcher is available.” Or even Dax Sheppard or Topher Grace or Tobey Maguire, whatever. So, it doesn’t even matter if you like these guys but even if they have one more film credit to their names than I have they are going to get the film. So, it’s tough to try and crack that egg or that thing that needs to be cracked.
So, by the time I auditioned for BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE I had already gone in for about a dozen or so films in a row and it was always the same thing: between me and the other guy, whoever the other guy was. And by that time I was getting a little bitter and jaded and so when my agent called and said, “I’ve got a script coming your way and I already know what you’re going to say…It’s BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE 2.” I was all, “Oh my God.” I mean I was already going up for a sequel, which people already look down on anyway, for whatever reason, so I am not only auditioning for a sequel, but I am running the risk of losing the job on a sequel. I did not need that confidence booster in my life.
So, I go in, and it’s those jobs that you don’t really think you’re gonna get that you really end up getting or the one’s that you that you think, “I fucking killed it,” that they say, “Eh, he sucks.” I went in, did my thing, and that day they called Endeavor and said, “This is our guy. We’re gonna call Fox and fight for him.” And I knew it was going to be a fight because we knew they wanted to cast someone from…Punk’d or whatever.
It was that 13 year-old they really wanted.
Oh, by the way, that was EXACTLY who they wanted to get to play my role.
Get the fuck…
No, that was one of the ideas they were kicking around. “Who’s that young kid on Punk’d?” I was like, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I’ve been acting my whole life and I’ve been on a sitcom, one, granted, no one watches, but you’re going to go and give it to some kid who makes fun of people on the red carpet?”
He was on Cribs, though.
EXACTLY! “He’s been on Cribs.” That’s what I need to do. I need to be on Cribs and my problem’s resolved.
So, they fight for me and I can’t thank my director and producer enough. They were just huge supporters of me the whole time and believed in me. And so, long story short, that’s one of the things I really walked away with. One of the greatest things about this experience was that I was able to grab dinner with my director and producer to just take in their history and their past and anything else they had to impart on me because they both really believed in me. They believe I have the potential to pop and pop in a really big way and I wanted to know, “Well, how should I go about doing this?” You can go back and see other actors who were in the same position as me and you want to know what kind of decisions they made.
And just watching Martin, being able to watch an actor who has done lots of television and movies, watching his subtleties and mannerisms was also helpful. The biggest thing I learned from Martin, a real eye-opening, movie star kind of thing, was that he has like 10 people around him at all times. He’s got this large entourage, and it’s not like they are hangers-on, either, but he’s got assistants and since he’s got this production company where you’re either in the movies your making or helping to produce there is that feeling that, “Shit, there is a lot happening with this guy.”
It was nice to have made my first movie with someone who is really the embodiment of what a movie star really is. It was humbling and grounding all at the same time. I mean, I had some idea but until you see it first hand it makes it a little more real.
And, despite what I said about it, on a personal level, it was nice to have seen New Orleans before it was changed forever. I mean a few months later I was at my producer’s house, having dinner, and this was right after the hurricane hit, and as the news shows started showing the devastation we were like, “Fuck, we were staying right there. We ate right there. We shopped right there. We shot some of the scenes right there in that park.” And then, to have some of the PA’s call me, the guys who worked on the film, to tell me, “Yeah man, I’m staying with a family I don’t even know, I’ve got no electricity, no running water, I’m washing my clothes in a dish on the side of the road, we’re barbequing whatever we can put on the grill.” And it was like, “Holy shit.” I was just having drinks with that guy just months before on Bourbon Street.
What’s left to be seen is if this film is a success in terms of whether it opens some doors for me as an actor and try to parlay it into some kind of acting career. And the whores. You can’t forget the whores that go along with it.
You’ll never catch me being too serious about this.
And that’s nice to hear because I did an interview with Robert Patrick and, walking into an interview, you never know what you’re going to get. I mean Robert had this black t-shirt on with these jeans and chain wallet. I wouldn’t have been able to tell that things were going to go as well as they did just on looks alone.
Oh, I know Robert. I’ve been to barbeques to his house and he’s one of the coolest dudes. He rides his motorcycle, his kids run around his house, his wife is totally awesome and he’s just this great guy who just happens to be an actor, a really good one, and does big films.
And I am telling you, no joke, our agent and managers we have are like the best in Hollywood like just the person who hooked you up with me. They are real people who really work hard and really kick ass who really care about their clients. That’s what makes the difference. I’ve talked to friends of mine, some of them are really successful, but are so miserable with their relationships with their manager and agents and that’s because they’re schmucks. They set these actors up with anything they can get. It doesn’t matter what the quality of the work is. “Yeah, I’ve got you going up for a vehicle starring you and Gary Coleman.”
It’s like, “Uh, what? I don’t want to work with Gary Coleman.”
I’m sure if it was Todd Bridges…
Yeah! “Todd Bridges, maybe, but…” I know what you’re saying about Robert. He looks like he’s hardcore.
He looks like the kind of guy who would just completely get involved with a fight if he had to.
It would be like, “Oh! Shit! Somebody is going to make the tabloids…”
Well, on the same token, how picky can you be when it comes to film roles or television work?
The thing about it is that you’ve got to have criteria. I have certain things that I do and do not choose to work on. But my criteria are more along the lines of, well, how I do put this, more along the lines of morals or values. Like, for example, a movie like [Removed]. This might come back to bite me in the ass.
No, I’ll take care of this.
But, like [Removed], I would never do it. I think that [Removed] is taking the lowest common denominator of film and doing whatever you can to give a 13 year-old a hard-on and going, “Here’s a movie! Oh, that’s entertainment!”
To me, it’s not my bag. If those guys want to do it, great. Although, on the same token, I would do BOOGIE NIGHTS. BOOGIE NIGHTS, to me, portrays things in a realistic context.
I’m not some crazy fanatic about stuff, like I enjoy some stupid comedy, but you’ve got to be responsible. There has to be some kind of accountability. I mean, clearly, I am not that picky, I just did BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE 2. Funny enough, I did read BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE 2 and I was really skeptical because I did not want to do a big piece of shit, I just didn’t want to do a really bad movie, but when I read it I did think it was funny. I mean I have read hundreds of scripts, you have no idea. But when I read BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE 2 it seemed like corny, family comedy but it did seem kind of funny.
And when I went to do the DVD commentary, which was weird because I hadn’t seen the whole movie put together, and so I was trying to watch it and talk about it at the same time. So, I’m silent every 10 seconds or so trying to watch it and then I would realize I wasn’t saying anything. “Oh yeah, uh, the funny thing about that, uh, scene is, uh…”
But, really, the film did what it needed to do. It’s a brand that stars Martin and it accomplished what it set out to accomplished. The first one made a few hundred million dollars and surprised everyone. If the promise of bringing out that same audience was there, and then some, it was like, “Let’s do this.”
On the subject of scripts, you’re on the other side of a screenwriter’s process. What can you tell is a consistent element of things you’ve read?
I don’t know if this will answer the question but I think this might. The one thing for me, from my perspective, that one of the things that I constantly run into, ever since I started in this Hollywood game, is that I kind of fall between the funny man and the leading man.
Like, I went on this audition a couple of months ago and I went in for the lead character and the feedback was, “We love him but he’s more the funny friend.” Right? So, I go in for that and they’re like, “Well, no, he’s kind of the leading guy but he’s the funny guy. So, I guess from my perspective, I wish there were more scripts where it wasn’t the stereotypical, “This is the leading man/straight man and this is his funny best friend.” I wish there was a more of a melding between the two and I think that Tom Hanks got lucky because he got a lot of those roles where he can be the funny guy/leading guy. And Jim Carrey gets those roles but I’m not Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey. They only write those things for the really big stars. I just want a vehicle, I just want an opportunity to audition for a movie where I can go after that kind of role without me worrying that they’re going to go, “Well, he’s the funny guy.” And it’s like, “Well, no. I’ve got a depressing side, I can bore the shit out of you, trust me. Let me do something.” But it seems like, normally, writers, and I’m guilty of this as well as I write too, want to go with a formula and the formula is a Will and Grace kind of thing. You’ve got your two leads and you’ve got your super funny supporting leads and everyone seems to fall in accordingly.
Does that answer your question?
Yes, it does. I just wonder if it’s like a dump truck that comes to your house and spills scripts all over the place.
You’d be surprised. After the holidays, my agency, they’re so on it, it’s pilot season and there is a lot of movies being cast and, literally, there will be one or two scripts on my doorstep. It’s just a busy time of year. And when it’s not busy, then, of course there is nothing to do and I just sit in my bedroom and cry.
I mean in the six years I have been with my agency I have read so many scripts that I will sometimes go to the movies and it’s depressing because you know the story already. I remember one time I was excited and I was sitting there and then I said, “Wait a minute. I know what happens. I won’t get the full experience of not knowing what’s coming next.” But, really, when I do see something like that I hope that it has been long enough that I have forgotten what it’s all about.
Is it nice to know that you’ve got some good, steady, television work?
I’ll tell you, it has been a real blessing. I’ve gotten to know from living in a small studio and living on unemployment and having a car that…I had this Integra, this little used Integra that I was driving around from Ventura, California to LA, about an hour’s drive, and just from commuting the transmission went out twice. And it’s like 2 grand to get your transmission fixed. I didn’t have it. I was busing tables just to make ends meet and I needed a car to get to and from LA. And Mitsubishi had this thing around 2001 where it was like 0 down, 0 payments, 0 interest for a year and I booked two pilots the season before that and I was like, “I really believe I can book another pilot and pay this thing off.” Or most of it, anyway. So, I went down to Mitsubishi and I signed my first born away and I was like, “I need you to give me this car for free. Aaaaaand…joke’s on you if I don’t have any money.”
So, I literally got this Montero Sport and I am driving it, a car that I owe like 30 grand on, that I don’t have a cent for, I’m living in this studio and on unemployment, and then I go and try out for Less Than Perfect and I get it. I’m being a little more wise, though, this time around because the after the first couple of pilots when I got this big chunk of money I was like, “Waaaa!!! Yeow! I’m taking everyone out to dinner…” Because, when you’re 18, it’s like, “Yeah, who’s the baller?” And I blew through that money really fast so when I got my third pilot which was Less Than Perfect I was all about thinking, “Let’s just calm down a second. Let’s see what happens with this one.”
So, Less Than Perfect gets picked up, we shoot a couple more episodes, I’m sure the people at people at Mitsubishi were really disappointed they were not going to be making any money off the sale because I literally whipped out the checkbook and said, “So, what is it that I owe you on this? 28,500? There you go…” And they’re all looking at me saying, “Who the fuck is this kid who couldn’t afford it a few months ago and is now paying it off in one check?”
It’s been a huge blessing that it has gone for four years, it’s just unheard of. I mean, ABC just had Emily’s Reasons Why Not. Cancelled. One episode. One episode!
This is the crazy irony of it: everywhere you go in LA there are these billboards and bus stops and it was all over the place! And they went one episode. The ratings were so horrible that they had to yank it after one episode? Huge star. Less Than Perfect? We have jaaaaaack shhiiit for publicity. I mean it was pretty good to start but, near the end, it was like, “So, watch a brand new According to Jim, a brand new this,” and they would show a little clip of each show, but by the end it was like the fast talking Micro Machines guy, “anddon’tforgetLessThanPerfect.” You would’ve thought someone was sneezing at the end of the promo, that’s how fast it was.
It’s one of those things as an actor, or really anyone in this business, when you kind of get to a place where you don’t have any control over it anymore you’ve got to really just say, “Ah, fuck it. Whatever.”
But, you know, I am not working in a coal mine getting buried and killed so this is just an actor venting and I feel blessed for what I’ve got and these problems are all relative.
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