Star Zachary Levi talks candidly to SFX about the way the US TV network system has affected the show
Chuck season three – which kicks off tonight (Mon 31 May) in the UK at 9pm on Virgin One – was a game-changing time for the show. Chuck now has the Intersect 2.0 in his head, wants to be a spy more than ever before and “knows kung fu”. It’s a rollercoaster ride for the next 19 episodes and a ride you need board from the very beginning.
As the show’s star, Zachary Levi, knows all too well, the show has been near to death nearly as often as his character has. But in a historic moment for TV, Chuck has now become a show saved by a fan support not once but twice. Indeed it’s almost unheard of that a show that was brought back thanks to a fan campaign lasts more than one extra season, but Chuck has managed it, and deservedly so. It’s a show that developing and improving in unexpected an exciting ways.
SFX had the chance to chat exclusively to Levi, and he was incredibly candid about the problems the show faces and the opportunities it can embrace.
SFX: You must be please that Chuck has been confirmed for a fourth season
“Oh sure, I can’t thank the fans enough. Everyone was saying it would happen but you never can tell with the networks. In the time I’ve been in this industry, which is 10 years, I’ve seen crazy things happen. I’ve seen shows picked up and immediately cancelled after they’ve been picked up. Networks can be very fickle.”
Do you think the fans campaiging actually had an affect, or is it all down to numbers of people watching?
“I’ll tell you what, we’ve got some of the best fans in the world. I mean, our renewal the last two seasons just goes to show you. It’s amazing – when people rally behind something and they wanna fight for something, they go after it and they fight for it. Our fans definitely did. Between buying sandwiches and writing in and all that jazz it really did turn into quite a scenario. Something that you as an actor can only dream about: having a great job but on top of that having a job that people respond to so vehemently. They will fight for you. This year, they did flash-mobs. I don’t even know what a flash-mob is, but it sounds awesome. And they dressed up like us doing it! That’s just crazy.”
Season three is only just starting in the UK, so let’s talk about that. You get to be much more of a spy this time around. Was that fun?
“I quite enjoyed it. I know a lot of fans had issues. Look, some people are the type of fans who don’t want anything to change. And some people are the type of fans who want to see evolution, who want to see change.
“It would be interesting to see what the uproar would be if there was no evolution, if there was no growth. I believe, especially with a show like Chuck, where you have mythology, and you have larger arcs at stake, it’s important to keep things moving. And granted, had we been a giant success right out of the gate, our show would not have matured or evolved as fast as it has, because the network would have slowed that down and milked it for whatever it was worth, cos that’s what tends to happen, especially in American television.
“But I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I’m quite a big fan of you do guys do things in the UK. I like shorter seasons. I think you should keep an audience wanting more. I think you should take your time to write your entire season before you start shooting it so that it all makes sense and it all ties up very well.
“In American television it’s about fashion over function, quality over quantity, sometimes. I’m not knocking anyone in particular, but by saying that, I guess on the other side of the coin I’m knocking everyone, including Chuck. I think that, you know, when you stretch out seasons and you do any more than 13 episodes, I think it becomes… well, you don’t necessarily have entire episodes that are crap, but you might have pieces of episodes that are crap, certainly. And I don’t want to do that. I want to make a lean, mean season of television where every episode counts, where every episode for the entire episode, means something.
“And I think that Chuck has a lot of that to offer for sure, but we could grow and be better like any other show can be better. It just seems easier to be a better show when you have less of a demand on the number of episodes that you have to do. It’s a difficult thing to do. The writers have to come up with different ways of skinning a cat, but at the end of the day, of you’re still skinning that same cat.”
In fact, season three was supposed to only by 13 episodes originally, wasn’t it? The network ordered six extra episodes quite late in the day. Do you think that affected the writing of those last six?
“I dunno. Everybody has a different opinion on it. It certainly would have been better for the network to have ordered all 19 episodes at the same time. It always makes it a little wonky and weird and difficult, particularly for the writers to do this 13 episode arc, and have basically already finished it by the time the network comes around and says, ‘Oh you know what? We want six more.’ Because then, what do you do with that? Do you try and shoehorn in six more episodes somehow into that arc? No. I think the writers were correct in making it its own little mini-arc. A whole season doesn’t all need to be one big arc. It’s tidier and it takes the audience on one clear journey, sure, but at the same time, on sit coms there’s no real arc, there’s no real journey. Even on shows like CSI or Law And Order, they’re very episodic. They may have some very general undertone big arcs, but for the most part they’re procedural. You can check in on any episode and you’ll understand, and it’ll make sense.
“So to do a 13-episode arc and then a six episode arc made sense. I wish we had more newcomers, but we don’t, and that’s been our biggest issue. The people who have come to know and love the show, know and love the show. They’re not newbies. There are very few people who are going to tune into episode 15 of this season and immediately get what’s going on and think, ‘I’ll start watching this.’ It won’t really make sense. We’re a very interesting hybrid of procedural and serial, and this season maybe even more serial, especially in the second half of the season. And I don’t just mean the last six. The last eight or nine episodes, really.”
So would you like to see the show become more episodic?
“I’d like to see if there’s a way we can be more accessible without losing what we already do well, and what the fans already love.”
You get to do a lot more action in season three. What’s the secret of faking kung fu?
“Good choreography. We don’t have much time to train or anything, so we learn the choreography a day or two before we do the fights. And fortunately for us we have an incredible fight choreographer, and all of our stunt department are excellent. They really help sell the fights a lot.
“I feel pretty confident about jumping in and doing it. I know I’m no Jason Bourne, but I certainly try my hardest and I get my choreography down pretty quickly, it’s just a matter of making it look as cool and snappy as possible, which, being six four and thin, doesn’t always turn out to be the snappiest, but I try.”
Part of the fun of the show, now, is seeing this geeky, lanky guy in the midst of the fights
“Ha ha. Yeah, it works within the show, but my own pride makes me want to look really badass and really cool. Maybe one day.”
You also got to direct an episode this season
“It was amazing. It really was amazing, I’ve wanted to direct for a long, long time. And I did direct some theatre, and I did direct a short film right before we started this season of Chuck, because I wanted to cut my teeth. And my used my whole crew from Chuck, so that we had all worked together at least once before when I came to do the episode. And it was an incredible experience. All the cast, all the crew were very supportive, they believed in me. I believed in me. I have seen a lot of directors come through and learnt a lot from them. I just tried to do my homework – have a plan and then be flexible with that plane, because any given day something can change or go wrong. Or you have differences of opinion. But the problem solving is part of the fun. It was incredibly rewarding.”
Does kissing Yvonne Strahovssky ever become another day in the office?
“Ha ha ha! Oh, I dunno. I suppose in some ways. I don’t know what kissing your sister would be like, but… I know, it’s not really like kissing your sister, but it is like kissing a friend.
“She’s certainly a gorgeous girl. It’s not like I don’t enjoy doing it. Kissing a beautiful girl is always enjoyable. But when it‘s your job there’s always that little bit of a disconnect. It’s not going anywhere. It stops when they yell cut. But yeah, I still enjoy kissing Yvonnne whenever we get to kiss.”