Zachary Levi (Chuck), Yvonne Strahovski (Sarah Walker) and Adam Baldwin (John Casey) in the season three Chuck episode "Chuck vs. the Three Words." Photo by Justin Lubin and copyright of NBC.
NBC's action-comedy series Chuck returns to the NBC lineup on Sunday, January 10th with all-new missions and two action-packed, back-to-back original episodes in its third season premiere (9-11:00 p.m. EST) before the series - starring Zachary Levi in the title role - moves to its regular day and time (Mondays 8-9:00 p.m. EST) beginning January 11th.
In season three of Chuck, Chuck Bartowski continues as the Buy More electronics store computer geek who unwittingly becomes the government's most vital secret agent. Chuck is transformed into the Intersect 2.0 after another data download into his brain. This time, he not only knows government secrets, but he is also well-equipped with deadly fighting skills. Chuck has the potential to become a real agent, but he has one problem - his emotions. Now he faces the battle of keeping his emotions in check in order to protect himself and the people around him. The ever-stoic Colonel John Casey (Adam Baldwin) returns with his partner Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski), one of the CIA's top agents and Chuck's dream girl. As Chuck assumes his new role as the Intersect 2.0, Casey and Sarah need to protect him but also help him become the agent he is destined to be.
Also starring are Joshua Gomez as Morgan Grimes, Chuck's best buddy; Sarah Lancaster as Chuck's ever-supportive sister Ellie and Ryan McPartlin as Devon Woodcomb (also known as "Captain Awesome"), Ellie's husband, while Chuck's Buy More team consists of Big Mike (Mark Christopher Lawrence) and the Nerd Herd, which includes Lester (Vik Sahay) and Jeff (Scott Krinsky).
Earlier this month, Zachary Levi along with Chuck co-creators/executive producers Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak took some time out of their day to chat with myself and other journalists on a conference call. The following is an edited version of that Q & A. Enjoy!
What do you think of Chuck being able to fight now? Do you like that for the character, and is it fun for you as an actor as well?
Zachary Levi - As far as Chuck being able to fight this season, I like it very much as an actor and a man. For two years I kind of sat on the sidelines and watched Adam Baldwin and Yvonne Strahovski, Casey and Sarah respectively, kick bad guys' butts and was very jealous of that. Not that Chuck should have been able to do it [fight] at that point; he was much better at running away or screaming like a little girl. But now that he has these new abilities, he's able to kind of lend a hand in the kick butt-ery, if you will. I think that Chris and Josh along with our other writers have crafted that very well, and it's really changed the dynamic of the show, or more specifically the dynamic of Chuck and who he is. He's still the somewhat bumbling hero, and I think that's what brings so much of the heart and general premise of the show and keeps that there. So although Chuck now has these abilities, they're fleeting, they're in and out, they're glitchy. And that lends this new door that we walk through now, and lends itself to more action as well as comedy, which I think is good all the way around. It doesn't, however, change the heart of the show.
Is pretending to be in love with Yvonne like your easiest acting challenge?
ZL - It's pulling teeth [he says jokingly]. No, it's not. It's very good, man. I mean, Chuck has gotten to fall in love with a few women over the years, and some really, really, really beautiful women. And that certainly helps in your process as an actor, to have to pretend that you're attracted to these girls. So, yeah, it's a good deal.
You guys have a lot of great guest-stars all the time and this season looks to be the same. Besides Brandon Routh and Kristen Kreuk, doing multiple episodes, I was wondering if you can talk about some of the guest-stars, like Vinnie Jones and Stone Cold Steve Austin, and what they'll be playing?
Josh Schwartz - We've lined up hopefully a really fun and eclectic group of actors. We have these episodes where we don't have a lot of time to spend delving into the very complicated and intricate back stories of our villains, so we find these truly great actors who can come in and really make an impression very, very quickly and bring so much of their body of work to the roles. So, for example, Vinnie Jones, I don't think he's really done any television before, so he's coming in and playing a bad guy and bringing that sort of Guy Ritchie-type villain energy to the show. Armand Asante is hilarious, too.
Chris Fedak - When you're trying to cast the Castro-like dictator, Armand Asante is the perfect guy. You don't need a back story to prove that. It's like he can literally be that person. Also, when it came to trying to find someone to be the kind of ominous soldier from Casey's past - well, we just finished shooting an episode with Robert Patrick and he is just fantastic.
Josh Schwartz - And if you're Chick on a plane and you flash on a bad guy that you're going to be trapped with on a plane that you have to then defeat, and that person is as terrifying as Stone Cold Steve Austin, then viewers really get to go on that journey with Chuck.
CF - And Steve Austin is actually a very nice man.
JS - As for Brandon Routh and Kristin Kreuk's characters, they're obstacles for Chuck and Sarah, but we didn't want to just bring in characters to merely be obstacles. I think you'll find that the way that they interact in the spy story lines, and certainly in the case of Brandon's character, is going to reveal complications and secrets throughout the season.
Obviously fans were very excited when NBC announced that you'd be coming back in January rather than March. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the conversations that you had with NBC about why you were coming back early. And did you ever talk about perhaps being on another night other than the Uber-competitive Monday night in the 8:00 p.m. time slot?
JS - Well, it was an evolving conversation. I mean, we were getting our information not that far ahead of when you guys were. And sometimes the opposite was true, where oftentimes we would learn about our fate from the blogs for answers of when we were coming back. We were actually thrilled to be coming back in January, because we're the only thing premiering in January for the network, and we've all been really excited and impressed by the amount of promotion the network has thrown behind the show this year. We feel like the promos that they're been putting out really tell the story of the season this year, that being no more Mr. Nice Guy is a very pithy way of summing up the season. Coming back with a two-hour premiere is, hopefully, for our fans exciting after this long drought - a flood of Chuck episodes coming at you, three in the course of 24 hours. And Mondays at 8:00 p.m. was our time period and it's gotten us to season three, so we'll take it.
Zachary, I read that you directed an episode this season; what's more challenging, being a first-time TV director or playing a spy?
ZL - I would have to say 100% being a television director, and I can only say that because being a spy is completely fictitious, I suppose. Not that it doesn't have its difficulties, being spy on the show. We get to do a lot of fun stuff, but a lot of that fun stuff also requires a great deal of rehearsal and choreography as well as making sure that you don't hurt someone else or yourself. And with my long, noodle-like arms that's not always a guarantee. But directing an episode of television, and maybe even specifically our show, although I can't speak of directing any other shows, so I don't know by comparison, but from speaking to other directors who have worked on our show, it's a very difficult one to direct. And people watching the show can tell, or you can sense, that there's a lot to the show.
It's a cornucopia of genres, if you will, a horn of plenty, so it's lot to take on in a very short period of time. Then on top of that, being in the show and directing it at the same time doesn't make it easier. But being surrounded by, in my opinion, the best crew in Hollywood as well as the best cast, and feeling the support that I have from Josh and Chris and the other writers, editors and everyone in post-production, made it a really incredible experience. There were certainly moments where I felt like I couldn't go on like this - I was very, very overwhelmed a couple of times. Overall, though, it was just the most incredible experience and I'm happy to be through it and really pleased with the product that we got from it.
JS - The episode turned out great. We also decided for Zach's first episode that we were going to give him one of the more ambitious and important ones in the series mythology.
CF - We did Zach no favors. It's an important episode, and he's absolutely right, Chuck is an incredibly difficult show to direct because you're doing comedy and action, which are really difficult in their own right and we try to do both of them. So Zach was really jumping into the deep end, and he was fantastic. He was swimming laps by the end of the day.
We've heard about the Chuck character, but what are we going to see out of Buy More this season?
JS - Buy More will always be a dysfunctional hotbed of competing bizarre personalities. They're going to face their own challenges this year, cutbacks and potential management overthrows, including a new assistant manager coming into the mix, someone who you may know from the show. There will be a new comely young lady who's going to come to work at Buy More this year, played by Miss Kristin Kreuk. She plays Hannah and is going to get multiple hearts aflutter, not just Chuck's.
How difficult was it to sort of plot out the back six episodes as the order for them came somewhat late in the game?
JS - I actually think it's a great thing for fans because basically the season was being built to have this incredible end of season run as you got to episode 12. And as I said to Chris, well, 13, what a great season finale that he wrote, and, of course, now it's merely just another episode with the back ones. It was then incumbent upon the writers to top that. So the fans are going to get a whole extra dose of "insanity," which I think is going to be really exciting and raises everybody's game.
Watching some of the preview material that was on NBC.com, I saw that Chuck will also be doing a little bit of Spanish guitar in addition to all the kung-fu and fighting moves. Is there anything else that you would like to see Chuck do that maybe you've never gotten a chance to do in real life?
ZL - Well, considering I haven't done much in my real life, there's a whole lot. Gosh, I don't know. I mean, the writers certainly keep me on my toes, and we've been doing a lot of fun stuff. I would say most of it is fight-oriented and various forms of martial arts in different kinds of aspects, be it for a moment or for a whole full-fledged fight. But, yeah, you know, there are musical instruments, and as you see in the previews I may or may not speak Thai. There's some dancing, too, and vehicle maneuvering. Skydiving would be awesome, although I don't know how we'd fit something like that into the budget, but to have a little bit of that going on, or bungee jumping, would be cool.
So I don't know. I'm personally in my own life a very big fan of extreme sports and adrenaline and all that stuff. But, honestly, I think anything you throw at Chuck would be outside of his norm because he doesn't do any of that. He experiences all of his adrenaline [rushes] through video games. So I think anything you throw at him would certainly be out of his comfort zone and make for good entertainment.
Ratings are such a big deal and you kind of have to keep an eye on that stuff. Is that something you consider when you're plotting out a season or thinking about the show, or do you just have to kind of put that in a box so it's not really a part of the "game" for you?
JS - We've made our peace with that a long time ago, and for us it's just about trying to make the best show possible. And what was so gratifying last year was that people really connected to the show emotionally and just became very passionate about it. It wasn't about trying to keep an eye towards ratings or write towards, you know, stunts. I mean, certainly we tried to help ourselves by having great actors, guest-actors come onto the show and we wanted to do that 3-D episode when it was dangled in front of us. We don't miss an opportunity if there is something presented to us that could help expose the show to the broadest possible audience because we do feel like the show is designed to be very broad and very commercially entertaining. It's really supposed to be fun and something that people of any age can watch.
Obviously this year and giving Chuck powers, we felt it was really opening up the show and even taking it one step further, making it even more exciting and more visual with bigger stories and really pushing he character into new territory. And I think NBC really felt inspired and excited by that, and that's reflected in the promo materials. This year was really just about taking everything we'd done in the previous two seasons higher, and I thin, hopefully, that will be exciting for audiences as well.
Zachery, in your role you're kind of jumping across genres because you play some comedic stuff and you have to do the spy stuff as well. Has that become second nature for you to just kind of bounce between those two in your acting?
ZL - I don't know if it's second nature, but after two years of being involved in a show that is such a multi-genre one, you would hope that you would start to feel how that works and how to go back and forth between wearing those hats. But that's part of what was so attractive about the show, and why the roles in the show were so attractive to begin with. It's an opportunity to be a part of something that's not just this one [thing] that you're playing. You get to be part of many, many styles and tones. So in some ways, yes, it's second nature. Any actor given enough time with a character, you live with it, you live with it every day and our days are long ones, so I live with it all day, everyday for a long period of time.
But also Chuck in his heart, I feel, is very similar to who I am. I mean, you know, we're both geeks about video games and comic books and pop culture and great 80's movies, so all that stuff helps lend itself towards feeling good in Chuck's shoes. And because I love action and have to shoot guns since I was a kid, and even, you know, do karate and all that type of stuff, I very gladly take all that on. I'm really happy with the opportunity, especially this season, now that Chuck gets to be a part of all those things. Again, though, it never gets away from the heart of the series, which is still action-comedy. We definitely have some really kick-butt stuff, but we always maintain the funny bone in it. So it's been awesome and challenging, but a great challenge.
JS - One of the challenges about being an actor in a television series can sometimes be having to play the same character every week and having to play the same beats. We've really tried to make an effort to have Chuck evolve, and I think he's a very different guy from that of season one. So we're really trying to take advantage of Zach's skills and abilities as an actor to really grow that character so that he's not the same. I can imagine that it would be very frustrating if he was still sitting in the car and scared of everything like he was in the beginning of the first season.
I just wanted to ask about what happened behind-the-scenes between the season two ending and the season three pick-up, and what were the emotions going on as you guys waited to hear what would happen? And what was it like waiting for that news?
JS - It's not fun. I mean, you know, look we love the show and were really proud of it last year. We were hoping against hope that the show would come back. We know, though, that we were on the bubble. The show has had some incredible challenges outside of itself - the writer's strike in season one, and five hours [of programing] going away to The Jay Leno Show. There have been some really unique obstacles that keep getting thrown our way and yet here we are, which is exciting. I think for all of us it was pins and needles and mixed with incredible pride in the sense that we've put our best foot out there. And then all of a sudden and completely outside of our own power, this fan base uprising began. It started out small and it just grew and grew, and, suddenly, the show, which at times lived below the radar except amongst its most passionate fans, really found a narrative, I think, in the broader media. And it felt like it became undeniable through the support of the fans and critics.
So we remained optimistic, although it took a while, and there were several twists and turns in the story and there were dark days and days when it looked like it was all coming up roses. And in the end, we got this third season. So that was incredibly gratifying, and there was the sense that everybody at the network wanted to bring the show back. However, they were facing their own kind of challenges, again, with the five hours [of programming] going away, budgets, etc., and it was a challenge to us to come back and say we can make the same show but do it in a way that would be less expensive. I don't think, though, that anyone watching is going to be able to see that on the screen. I'm extremely proud of how everyone pulled together to deliver the same show.
Zachary, can you talk a little bit about what it was like for you to see that fan-based reaction. Were you surprised by the mobilization of the fans and how they really rallied for a third season?
ZL - It's incredibly humbling to say the least. To just have a job is a great blessing, but to have a job that you know people care about so much that they band together and let their voices be heard. I mean, we knew we had fans and, furthermore, I knew we had really passionate fans. We're fortunate to be kind of in this world of Comic-Con love. And Comic-Con fans, and fans of Sci-Fi and Fantasy are the most die-hard and will stay with you to the bitter end. They really know how to band together when it comes to the Internet and blogging and making sure that you don't go down without a fight, and our fans did just that and continue to do just that. They've very savvy and very smart. One of our fans (Wendy Farrington) was the one who was responsible for the Chuck foot-long [Subway] finale campaign that really got so much heat last season and got everyone banding together to buy Subway sandwiches. And while that wasn't, you know, the lynchpin of what got us back on the air, it certainly was a component of that, and people took notice - the studio, the networks, Subway themselves took notice.
And it was interesting last season when we weren't renewed along with everyone else. You get kind of bummed. You're like, "Wow, I thought we were making a really great product that people really loved, so why aren't we being renewed? what aren't we coming back for another season?" But then all this stuff started playing out. It was very clear that we were on the chopping block and on the bubble, and all this fan support starting coming out and all the various media outlets began picking it up. And we got even more love and even more play as far as publicity is concerned then we ever would have gotten had we just been renewed quietly in the night. So I think everything is for a reason, and I think there is a lot of reason to how that all went down. And I'm thankful for the experience and that it allowed us to be very in touch and in tune with our fans throughout that experience and, again, just very humbling.
CF - Agreeing with everything Zach said, the TV landscape has changed so much in that the difference between what makes a hit show and makes a show on the bubble is a thin line now. So for everything to play out the way it did was actually the best thing that could have happened for us because it really showed people that there was real life to the show and a really passionate audience.
Zach, just to pick up on what some other people have asked you about with the new skills that Chuck has, does that pose any new physical challenges for you or required you to take any sort of specific training?
ZL - Well, we train per fight as it were. With every episode, the fight coordinator and stunt coordinator break it [the fight] down and find out what we need to do. Then I will go in and learn every fight before we do it. We have a very ambitious schedule on Chuck and we have a lot to shoot and not much time to shoot it. But we do the very best that we can, obviously, and fortunately we're in very good hands with our stunt and fight coordinators, Merritt Yohnka and Dave Morizot, respectively, both of whom are incredible. Merritt, our stunt coordinator, has won Chuck our first and to this point only, Emmy. He's really kicking butt and taking names on all of our behalf.
Initially I wasn't really sure if we were even going to have a third season, and more than that, I didn't know exactly the extent of the martial arts that would be incorporated into that third season. I was working on some other things over the summer hiatus, so I wasn't really able to get into extensive kung-fu or other training over those months, but I feel confident in what we've been able to accomplish just in the week-to-week [doing] of it. And I feel like God has given me enough coordination and ability to remember the fight choreography where we can put it together and it looks good. So I'm happy about the process.
As noted above, photo by Justin Lubin and copyright of NBC, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!