ZACHARY LEVI - INTERVIEW
There is something wonderful about those who go out their way to make their experience at this week’s San Diego Comic-Con memorable. From the hours that fans put in to get their costume just right, the planning some geeks will do in order to get the ultra exclusive from brand X that scores of fellow basement dwellers also covet, to the meticulous schedule jiggering (present company included) in order to account for every moment of the day so as not to waste a single second. It’s this kind of thought and effort that make coming back every year to the land of the strange smell so wonderful. As the event has become so ginormous and almost unwieldily, event planners have taken it upon themselves to think outside of the four walls of the convention center.
You now can find odds and ends to do without ever having to possess a ticket to get inside 111 West Harbor Drive and that has only proven the power that the nerd herd has a collective. Actor Zac Levi, best known for his years as Chuck Bartowski, is back for a second straight year at his offsite Nerd HQ which proved to be a successful compliment to the official offerings of Comic-Con. Where once fans had to wait in long, slow, spindly lines just hoping that they could have the chance to have a seat to sit in their favorite panel, Levi offered them the chance to get a ticket and reserve their chance to sit in on a conversation among the cast of Chuck, with Jared Padalecki, with Zachary Quinto, Felicia Day and many others who showed up somewhere else besides the congested innards of the Con floor. So successful was the novel approach to offering fans what they really want, a guarantee and a chance to intimately share the space with those they really came to San Diego to see, that Levi is doing it all again in a new space but with the same commitment to offering an opportunity to sit in on conversations with celebrities who are just as excited talking as the people sitting, listening.
This year’s list of notable notables include some cast members from The Expendables 2, Chuck, Twilight, Joss Whedon, Stan Lee, Seth Green, Guillermo Del Toro, and so many others. In addition to brining out the talent, Levi is once again making a commitment to label these small panels “Conversations for a Cause” as he helps raise money for Operation Smile, adding an element to humanitarian stewardship to a convention known as much for its excess as for its geekery. Levi took some time as he comes upon zero hour to chat about what’s on board this year and what made him think that he could do it all over again for a second year in a row.
The finer details of where you can be a part of the goings on at The Nerd Machine:
Located just two blocks away from the convention floor at Block No. 16 Union and Spirits (344 7TH Ave., San Diego, CA 92101), Nerd HQ gives fans a unique experience through cutting edge technology and gaming showcases, exclusive parties including Levi’s annual Nerd party and exciting autograph signings. In addition Nerd HQ will bring back the popular “Conversations for a Cause” panel series.
The popular “Conversations for a Cause” panel series, which benefits Operation Smile through ticket sales, allows fans access to their favorite celebrities to have un-moderated, up close conversations. This year Break Media will broadcast the panels live on their site at www.break.com/nerdhq. Last year’s participants included Kevin Smith, Jared Padalecki, Zachary Quinto, Nathan Fillion, Olivia Munn, Felicia Day and Seth Green among others and the series raised $40,000 for Operation Smile. Individual tickets will sell for $20.
In addition to live streaming the “Conversations for a Cause” panels, Break Media, the official digital partner of Nerd HQ, will broadcast nightly highlight reports hosted by Zachary Levi and have produced a three part original series. “Trailer Park Heroes” premieres today and features Zachary Levi, Adam Baldwin, Aly Michalka, Joel Moore, Jason Biggs and surprise guests. The nightly highlights and “Trailer Park Heroes” can be viewed at http://www.break.com/nerdmachine-2012/nerd-machine-trailer-park-heroes-part-1-2339892 .
Xbox, the official gaming sponsor, will provide gaming stations featuring the newest and yet-to-be released titles including the debut the first hands-on demo of the completely reborn Tomb Raider franchise from Square Enix. Also playable exclusively at Nerd HQ will be OverRun, the new multiplayer mode coming in Gears of War: Judgment. VIZIO, the official technology sponsor of Nerd HQ, will provide laptops, tablets, and PCs for fans to demo. New LED monitors will fill the space and showcase the newest 3D and Internet App technology.
As an added feature, Spike TV will be broadcasting live from Nerd HQ on Friday, July 13 and Saturday, July 14 to their network and digital outlets through their ALL ACCESS LIVE programming.
For more information, schedule updates and tickets please visit www.thenerdmachine.com.
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CS: Hey, sir, how are you doing?
LEVI: I’m doing well thanks.
CS: Are you hip deep in logistics for next week or is that just not on your plate?
LEVI: Fortunately Dave, my business partner, Dave Coleman, there is a reason I started a company with a partner. It’s so that somebody could take care of all the nuts and bolts of operation. There’s still a lot of stuff I’m busy with and decision making that needs to be done but I’ve been kind of having to focus on some other things outside of HQ so it’s been good to toss that onto Dave’s plate. But, yeah. It’s crazy the amount of things that pop up or go wrong right before you are supposed to open the doors. It’s like everything is smooth sailing and you’re a week out and then it’s this that and the other thing. And you’re like why didn’t this happen a couple of months ago? But, we’re good. We’re excited. Hopefully the logistical stuff will work itself out. Last year was kind of a surprise to us as much as anyone else that it came out being as special as I think it was and being able to sit on as many panels as we did and raise as much money for charity and have some great parties – great partnerships. We’re really excited about this year and hoping that it lives up to last year. Not necessarily in size, but in how people walk away from it. I feel people walked away from celebrities that they liked and it all felt good. I want people to feel good when they spend time with us and when they leave I want them to feel like I really enjoyed myself at that spot and I want to do that again.
CS: It’s funny that you bring that up. I was there – either Sunday morning or when the Chuck panel when that conversation happened and there was just energy – devotion – these people have that really came out. It was electric and you could feel it. Was there any point in your mind thinking that should we do this again or is it always I knew I was going to be coming back next year?
LEVI: I believed in the idea enough when I was coming up with it that barring it being a failure I was planning on doing it in years to come but you still have to open the doors and see if it’s a failure or not. And there were a couple of dicey moments leading up to it wondering if people were going to know about it, if people were going to be into it. And there’s a lot of other – I can’t really get into it but when you go to make a big event – poor Dave and Paige – she’s not only my personal publicist and has been for so many years but basically came on to do the PR for it last year and it was going to be a one day – no, actually, it was going to be a party. The year before, two years ago, we threw the first nerd party and was just so launch our first shirt in the company, it was a soft launch and we had a great time and danced until 4:00 in the morning. So, the next year we were going to try and get a little booth – space on the convention floor and have a party. And when Comic-Con said there was no room on the floor, I was just like, how do we sell shirts, how do we keep name recognition and brand recognition out there?
So, I thought what if we do like – have some people come and do signings, not even thinking panels, just have people do signings, I know Baldwin goes down to conventions and he can make his money while he’s there. We will just host it and that will bring traffic through and when people come we can sell them a tee shirt – yeah, that’s it – and at night we will have a party. We all kinda settled on that and then the next day or whatever, I called Dave and I said, I think we should do this for two days. And they’re like, that’s double the cost, and I said, I know and it just kept going and going and I finally said guys, if we’re going to do this, let’s really do it and let’s do it the whole week of Comic-Con – all four days and four nights and let’s bring in video games, let’s bring in technology and let’s give the fans and celebrities a really cool place to come and hang out. Where they can have a drink and order some food and play some cool video games that they’ve never played before. I just really believe – and I think people know this of me because of the panels we’ve done at Comic-Con or other interviews I’ve given, but as an entertainer, if you boil it all down, take away all the glitz and glam and money and all that stuff, which is all great and lovely and I’ll take it anyway they want to give it to me if that comes with it, awesome, benefit of the job, but I like entertaining people. I like that that’s my job that I get to bring a smile to people’s face but you are only as good as your audience.
You boil it all down and it’s like community theatre that I’ve done most of my life. Your show is only as good as the people that decide to go and come see you. You have to appreciate them. So, I started to think about that, I’m always thinking about it, but in regards to HQ, how do we offer something different or improve upon on an idea or thought as far as events go. And I started thinking about CES and E3 and how they’re awesome but unless you’re a vendor or a company you’re not going to be able to go and I’ve been really blessed to go to them – especially E3 for years. Because I’m quote unquote celebrity so I get a pass. I think about all these fans at Comic-Con that I know love video games – very similar demographic. So I thought why don’t we get some cool games there that they didn’t get a chance to play at E3 because they weren’t even allowed in. And then I love Xbox a lot and I play that more than any system – I mean I love all my systems but I probably play Xbox the most. I already had some friends that worked there so I said hey would you like to be our gaming sponsor and Break.com was interested in being able to cover it and have content for their site and content for our site – were very generous and I thought this was coming together rather well. And I went out of pocket a good amount last year but to me if you want to make an impact on the world you have to sacrifice. And whatever, dude, I could die tomorrow – like you don’t see a hearse on the back of a U-Haul.
Might as well spend a little money while I’m here and try and give people something that’s memorable and exciting and fun and inclusive and intimate. And the panels – the biggest site guys for the panels was I just always felt a little cut short doing my panels for Chuck at Comic-Con. Comic-Con has a tough job trying to juggle everybody. What’s the best way to do a panel? How do you make everyone feel comfortable? Moderators do. They balance questions out – they make people feel comfortable but I was always bummed when we did our panel because they were 6,000 people out there dying to ask a question and you have a lovely reporter like yourself, or Alan Sepinwall, asking a question but you guys can ask us questions all the time and I would look out at this audience and felt like can’t we just let them talk the whole time. They might ask stupid or silly questions but at least we’re interacting with them – at least they are sitting there for a reason. And also going to panels in hall H and being like wow these are giant and massive and cool but if you’re in the back you can’t see Kevin Smith – the moderator of them. And again, I’m not trying to knock Comic-Con in any way, shape or form.
That’s the mothership.
They bring everybody down there but I just kinda felt if I was going do to panels, what would I do? And, how would I want to do it differently? And then I started to think about – every time I’ve been down to Comic-Con there’s all these brown coats running around. And I’m like – there are still so many Firefly fans still – that still dress up but there’s never going to be another panel for it. Retro-panels rarely happen. So I called up Fillian who is a buddy of mine and asked if he would be interested in doing a Firefly panel. Get the cast back together – a small intimate panel. That was the first panel I thought of. He said, dude that’s a great idea – that would be so much fun. He’s going to be hanging out at the HQ basically all weekend long just to hang out – just to hang out with fans or have a drink or play video games. He and I are very kindred spirits in that regard. And so excited that Comic-Con is having a 10 year reunion for them. That’s really awesome. But anyway, that’s the little things that kept swirling through my head.
And I’m like, can we put this all together – how do we put it all together – how do we make it all about something that’s bigger you know? Because obviously I want to do well by Nerd Machine – that’s my company. I believe in capitalism but conscientious capitalism. If felt if we can do good by us and sell some merch and get some brand recognition while simultaneously offering fans a really cool intimate hands on experience with games, tech and celebrities AND give those celebrities the same kind of … Basically I told Seth Green or Zach, do whatever you want to do with your panel, it’s yours. If you want to sit there and juggle for an hour, then do that. If you want to talk about a project your doing or pump another product, it’s yours. I just want you to have fun with it and have fun with the fans because that’s what they’ll walk away from the most. And then to be able to let the event be a free event where anyone can just walk in off the street and not charge anybody for it but to use the panel as a tool to raise money for those less fortunate around the world, I just felt like was a really good fit. All the pieces just came together. It’s just kind of crazy to think that it did! We’ve been planning this one literally since Comic-Con ended last year.
LEVI: Yeah, it’s been in different phases obviously but the next day we went out and started looking at venues. We liked where we were but we wanted to see if there was anything else out there. We did, found another great venue. And then securing sponsors which I thought would be a lot easier this year given our track record from last year but it still wasn’t super easy. In some respects it was but in other ways we still had to fight. We haven’t announced any of our panels yet because we have to wait for Comic-Con to announce their schedule before we can even do our schedule. And also, it’s just a big, big jigsaw puzzle. We can only put 225 people in our audience so it’s not like your having to fill 1,000 or 6,000 or 10,000 people.
Hopefully the people that we’re going to have on the panel so far the ones we have locked – I’m so freakin’ excited about it and wish I could tell you about ‘em – but to me the coolest thing is to see people that I’m intimidated by – stars or show runners or directors where I say holy crap - they are down to do a panel at our little venue. It’s a testament to them being really cool people who want to be decent and cool with their fans who are into the idea of raising money for charity and like the idea of having a cool place to hang out. So, definitely, the next day after Comic-Con Dave and I and his wife just walked around San Diego – had some food. I love the Gas Lamp. I love it down there. It’s a really cool location.
CS: Were there efficiencies from last year that you said we could make this an even better experience by doing x or y? Was there anything off the top of your mind that you thought would make the experience a little bit better?
LEVI: I gotta say that most of the things that we felt like needed to be polished were very kind of venue contingent and by that I mean one of the things we had issues with last year was fire code for example. There were only so many people we could fit into any particular room in the location we were at last year. And that was just because it was kind of an older building and had very few entrances and exits and they were small. So when it came to the party or it came to having a lot of people at the panel and signing, and games and stuff, that was difficult. All the things that you think about or things you don’t think about like how do we do this. Every venue has it’s challenges. The venue we’re in now poses a challenge but that’s something you gladly take on. How do we roll our sleeves up and solve this puzzle and I think we’ve done that pretty well. I’m trying to think of other things. Honestly I think it was all just little logistical things that weren’t really too much of a worry then and are not too much of a worry now. We’re spacing our panels out a little more just to give ourselves some breathing room. Last year it was one audience was getting up to go into the signing room while we were loading another one in - we just felt a little frazzled. Because everyone that’s coming in to do a panel is volunteering their time and they are busy. They are running to other panels at Comic-Con or doing other appearances with other publications and stuff and parties.
So, it was very advantageous of us to just spread that out a little bit. Give ourselves some breathing room, and we’ve done that. Can’t wait for the parties. I’m just excited about all of it. Because I’ve been busy with other stuff it’s more my personal career – I’m constantly juggling these two brands – Zach the actor and Zach the entrepreneur which gets a little tricky in some ways and I’ll tell you about that some other time maybe. But I’ve been forced to have to juggle a lot in the Zach career so David has taken the brunt of the stress of HQ. So, I’m looking forward to him not being so stressed anymore. That’s one of my best friends and I was best man at his wedding. I never like seeing him stressed. I never like seeing anyone stressed. It’s just a testament to how much he cares. He really cares. He cares about the fans. He worked with me on Chuck. He knew how important they are.
CS: At what point did it become more of you thinking about this is something that would be cool to have – you connecting with your idea of connecting to a charity – which I think you had a very large presence for that charity – that marrying those two ideas together – that everyone can have a really good time but we can also do something that’s positive and impactful. When did those two things collide?
LEVI: It was kind of midstream with the planning of HQ. Basically every time I do something – at my birthday parties – they all have some kind of charity aspect to them. I just think there is no reason why if God has given you some sort of influence and a little bit of sway - I have a lot of friends and I like having big birthday parties – not necessarily for me just because it’s a great excuse to throw a big dance party. So, I always try to have something there where people either – I don’t ever force people to donate because that takes the whole heart of donating and charitable giving out of the equation – you can’t strong arm anybody – but it’s always a presence – I always encourage people. If I can have a big carnival birthday party and have 500 people and they all just bring one dollar, that’s $500 – that’s changing two children’s lives through Operation Smile. $240 dollar operation. Their lives are changed forever. So for me, again, I believe in capitalism and I believe in going out and doing well for your life – do whatever and be successful at it but along the way realize the blessing you have and try and give back as much as you can through the process.
It was always something in the back of my mind that I intended to bring to the HQ so it was just a matter of trying to find the most impactful way to do it. We have places at HQ that you can just donate. Even if you don’t pay for a panel you can donate money. That’s great but how can you guarantee that you can get more money without strong arming somebody in return. And that’s where the panels were the light bulb. I didn’t want to charge people to come to the venue. I didn’t want to say hey come and play video games for free oh but it’s a donation in order to get in. That makes it a little tricky and then you have people possibly waiting outside in line and it’s just a logistical thing. It just didn’t feel right. So much of what I go on in life really is just gut feeling. If I were John Doe and I walking around downtown – what feels like it’s a scam what feels like it’s cool, what feel like it’s organic like I’m not getting ripped off? What feel like a place where they really put a lot of thought where everything comes together? And to me that’s a testament to somebody. When I walk into a venue or a restaurant or a bar or an event or whatever, I look at all the aspects of it – parking to refreshments to everything. And I go, was there thought put into this or were the people planning this just going whatever, they’ll figure it out. I don’t like that.
I want to feel like people thought of somebody. And not only did they think about the people coming in, but they are also thinking more globally and thinking about – like in my case – Operation Smile is my charity. I am an ambassador for it, proudly, and have been for years and will continue to be. It struck a chord with me that is incredibly deep and personal. I’ve never had a cleft lip or pallet or oral deformation but I’ve had friends growing up with cleft lips and pallets. And the effect that that has on a child growing up – in a lot of third world countries they are considered cursed. They are considered damned. I can’t even imagine. It was one day I was driving around town and I felt like God just put it in my face. I saw six billboard and six commercials in two days. And I’d seen them before but all of a sudden it dawned on me that I make a living and a big part because I have a good smile. I have a good dentist and good orthodontist. I’ve got a good smile. But what if I didn’t? What if my teeth were all mangled? Or slightly mangled? That would have a huge impact on me as an actor. Everyone knows that Hollywood is a physical beautiful place or whatever. And it just sort of hit me that not only do I get to have a normal life, even if I couldn’t be a working actor, what if I was in this kids shoes. This child is a human being, has a heart and a soul and because of some weird birth defect, they are shunned and have no friends and being able to get medical assistance to them in the middle of nowhere. Stories that I’ve heard of families trekking hundreds of miles with their kid on their back so they could get in line to get their child an operation and having been turned away because there were too many people there already and they trek hundreds of miles back and wait for the next one to come around.
Anyway, I’m sorry, I went off on a tangent there but the point is that I think that if people are always mindful of the impact you can make in the world, even in the smallest of ways, collectively that’s where you change the world. That’s how you do it. And if it means going to fans and saying, “Fans of Firefly, you got Nathan and Alan, Adam and Jewel and Morena and they are all willing to come and hang out with you guys and you can secure a seat, you don’t have to wait in line hoping to get a seat if you are lucky enough to be in it. If you buy the seat, it’s yours – it’s $20.”
A pretty nominal fee.
I feel everyone will walk away from the experience like we had done something special that was bigger than ourselves. And also, it was very much about ourselves it was very much about the relationship you maintain with your fans and supporters that give you that validation and the reason that you do what you do.
CS: Let’s say it’s Sunday, Nerd HQ is closed, it’s done. What is the definition of success for you – what will tell you that you did well, that you can leave there happy?
LEVI: I gauge it all the way down. First and foremost the amount of money that we can raise for charity and that all depends on the fans and the panels and selling out the panels and hopefully we are offering panels that they really want to buy tickets for. So the biggest success is that. The most money we can raise for Operation Smile and then just below that would be the response from the talent involved and the fans and if they felt like it was special.
If they felt, even aside from the philanthropic aspect, if they felt like the time they got to spend with each other – the communication, the back and forth between the fans and talent was good, intimate, real and good and off the top and was really unique and one of a kind and you don’t find it anywhere else. And then of course just under that is hoping that the sponsors that trusted us with their money and their resources walk away from this feeling like it was an investment well spent. And if all that comes together, even if I have to spend more of my own money then it was worth it.
CS: Sir, again, as always, thank you, thank you for taking some time out of your day to talk with me. It is always a pleasure.
LEVI: Brother, it was great to talk to you again.
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