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Checking in with the Gang from "Chuck": The Full Story

Okay, I've been naughty. I've been besieged by emails from many of you, gentle readers, wondering what happened last week with the day I spent with the cast from NBC's action comedy Chuck: Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, and Adam Baldwin. (Before you ask, yes, Strahovski does know about the existence of the Yvonne-centric website StraHOTski.com, thanks to her costars.)

I've been on enough photo shoots in my day to know that there's bound to be a lot of sitting and waiting between shots and setups (hell, if you've been to press junkets, you should be used to the endless waiting), but thanks to the good folks at Warner Bros. Television who organized the day and to the charming stars of Chuck who were more than happy to spend their Sunday shooting an assortment of promos and chatting with this jaded TV writer, I'd do it all over again.

These guys are all extremely talented, generous, and kind-hearted and have amazing stores of energy. Zach Levi in particular is extremely animated, offering up take after take after take and performing goofy karate moves while giving 110% to each line reading of "You're watching Chuck on..." for each of the international territories the series has been sold to. He even asked the promo director, upon being handed a white heart prop (which earlier, Adam Baldwin had turned over to form a posterior), whether his instructions were to act as though he had a heavy heart (emotionally) or whether said heart was physically heavy. Needless to say, he performed it both ways with a great deal of charm and humor.

I was anxious to catch up with Levi, with whom I had spoken in September just before NBC launched Chuck, along with co-creator Josh Schwartz.

Speaking about the love triangle between Chuck, Sarah, and Bryce, Levi says it's only natural that people are invested in that dynamic. "So many people want Bryce Larkin dead, dead, you have no idea," Levi jokes. "I mean, mainly friends and family."

So will Chuck and Sarah get together? "From an entertainment standpoint, it's like the Ross and Rachel," says Levi, "the longer you keep it eeeeeh, the more people are like eeeeh, the longer they watch the show."

Still, he relishes the accessibility of Chuck. "It's a good mix between procedural and serial," he says. "It's not like when you go and sit and watch Lost with someone who's never watched it before and you're like sitting down and ready for the episode and they're like 'wait, who are the Others?' and you're like 'Shut up! Just watch the show! I'll fill you in later.' Chuck at least is a little bit easier, he's a bad guy, he's a good guy."

Levi is, as previously teased, a huge Lost fan. We're talking so near obsessive that he stops an interview about his own series to offer up theories about who was in the coffin in "Through the Looking Glass," what's going on with Jack and Kate, and his disappointment that Evangeline Lilly wasn't around during my recent interviews of the Lost cast just a few days before.

He's also hugely obsessed with fellow Warner Bros. Television drama Pushing Daisies (rightfully so), a series Levi described as “Amelie meets your favorite Tim Burton movie.” Levi recounts that he must have had half a dozen screening parties of Pushing Daisies' pilot, when he meant to be showing friends and family his own.

Oh, in case you were wondering, Levi also loves 30 Rock. "Baldwin is so genius, it drives me crazy," he adds. And, um, surprisingly he loves The Big Bang Theory.

However, Levi is not a fan of the American version of The Office, a series which he can't just bring himself to watch, despite my abundant protests that he should tune in. "The reason I don't watch The Office now is that I watched the BBC version and when the American version came out, I sat down and watched the pilot and it was a carbon copy of the British first episode and I was immediately like, 'You... you are bad.' I heard that halfway through the first season, it branched off into its own thing, which is great and I am glad that they did that, but I am a 'completionist' and I want to watch a show from beginning to end."

Lest you think Levi takes himself too seriously, he does admit that he drives around the Warner Bros. lot (where Chuck is shot) in a Nerd Herd vehicle: "We shoot at Warner Bros., which is one of the coolest things in the world. Some of our sound stages housed Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Giant, incredible movies. Humphrey Bogart was walking around in the Buy More at one point. That’s a little ridiculous. But it's a little city. So I wanted a cart. And I’m a guy, so I had to have a car. So I got a little electric cart and I loved driving that around and... [Art Director] CeCe Destefano spearheaded turning it into The Nerd Herder. It’s got the decals and everything just like my car. It’s ridiculous. But one of my favorite things to do in the day is: I get in my car, I’ve got my coffee, I’ve got my glasses on, and I’m driving around, waving at Sarah Connor Chronicles and Pushing Daisies. 'Hello, hello. Ah, Moonlight. Hello.' It’s really fun."

Whose career would Levi most like to emulate? "Oh, gosh," he thinks. "Tom Hanks, probably." (I can see that.)

Following some more promos and photos being shot--including a whole series of Levi behind the wheel of a vintage car, mugging for the camera, and a series of Levi and Strahovski doing spy poses back-to-back like some mixed-sex Charlie's Angels--it was time for lunch. Adam Baldwin, especially pleased that of the four series he's worked on this was the first to advance beyond its original order, was waiting to chat.

Baldwin is just as physically intimidating in person as you would imagine from the characters that he plays, but at heart just the most laid back guy, with a seriously unexpected deadpan humor that is dry and wicked. Baldwin wasn't too concerned by the fall finale's cliffhanger ending, in which Casey was instructed to eliminate Chuck Bartowski for good once the Intersect 2.0 is completed. ("Terminate," he quips.)

So will Casey grow a conscience? "I’m looking forward to see how they flesh all that out," admits Baldwin, who said that nearly all of their characters are at risk, given their line of work. "It’s a fine line that Casey has to walk, in that you have to keep the dangerous element, otherwise where is the risk? Although again the show is called Chuck, so how much risk is there?"

Still, Chuck "is really contemporary, it’s fun," says Baldwin. "Firefly was not so contemporary; it was fun and certainly hip the way Joss wrote it, but marketing is always like a crap shoot. We launched Firefly during the baseball play-offs and American Idol was new and in its first year so, we sort of got lost in the mix there… And there were horses. It was a harder sell as a futuristic sci-fi with horses. Yeah, okay, so how do I wrap my brain around that one? [Chuck's] got a guy that has a computer in his brain. No big thing. The rest of it finds him hanging out with his buddies at the Buy More and, you know, there are spies."

What can Baldwin let slip about the upcoming episodes? "You’ll see a little of Casey’s back-story and see why he is such a hard case," slyly offers Baldwin. "You’ll see some further explanation of Chuck and Sara’s dynamic there with the Bryce Larkin love triangle. Hopefully we’ll see Matthew Bomer back who plays Bryce, he’s a great asset. More Morgan and Anna. Love those two. That’s a great relationship."

And while we haven't seen Casey get paired off with anyone quite yet on Chuck, his backstory will reveal just why he's living such a life of solitude. But don't look for another Crown Vic in his flashback episode. Baldwin teases that there's definitely a "fleshy" love interest in Casey's past. Hmmm...

I couldn't resist asking him who would win if there were some fisticuffs between Chuck's Casey and Firefly's Jayne? Offers a laughing Baldwin: "In a fistfight? Wow... I would say Jayne would probably win because even though both characters are both dirty, Jayne would be dirtier."

We're joined at this point by the incomparable Yvonne Strahovski, looking drop dead gorgeous in a buttery brown leather jacket that looked right at home on Strahovski's willowy frame.

Strahovski's tale of how she landed the role of Sarah Walker on Chuck is nearly too unbelievable to be true. "It's a bit of a fairytale," she admits. "I went in for meetings. I only packed my bags for two months really, 'cause I was gonna come in, try out pilot season, and then go home."

"I sent my tape in from Australia and it wasn’t even a tape, it was a Quicktime file on the internet. I didn’t know that I was going to be testing for [Chuck] when I got here. I got here and my managers called me in and said that [the studio] wanted a meeting with me and that was the second or third day and I was still jet lagged and then I did the studio and network test and so it was kind of um…"

"Welcome to America," Baldwin offers.

As for the chemistry between the three lead actors, Baldwin says its success is due in a large part to the skills of the pilot's director Joseph McGinty Nichol (aka "McG"). "We were very fortunate because McG is a terrific director," says Baldwin. "He loves actors and he made sure we had rehearsal time going into the pilot. We got to know each other. He explained to us his shot list, his vision, and he would give us reference material for the shots. Basically, he gave us tone notes going in and that alleviates a lot of the pressure, like: 'Oh who am I?' That’s all set in stone so once you get the 'Who am I' down, then you get the 'who are you?'"

Asked about the audience's overwhelming reaction to the pilot earlier this year at Comic-Con, Strahovski says it was an incredible experience. "That was wonderful; it was such a beautiful moment," she says. "We walked in the last quarter when people were just watching it and it was great. We were watching all the people watching the show, and how they reacted and laughing and cheering and going aww and doing all those noises. Then the lights came up and they just gave all of us a big fat standing. It was so nice. It was really special. I think all of us that were there were quite touched [and] moved by that whole experience."

All together now: aww.

How does Baldwin prepare for his role? "Good actors borrow, great actors steal," he says, laughing. "I steal. I think for me as close as you can relay what you’re talking about to your own personal life the better. It’s good to keep those secrets, but you know if you have to cry in a scene you have to think about something sad from your life... That’s how I try to approach it. Try to keep the stakes high and keep it close to home and try not to laugh when Zach’s in the room."

And yet Casey seems to be stoic all the time. How does he manage to keep it together? "[It's] my job not to make any cracks but, once Zach loses it, I lose it," Baldwin says. "I can’t hold it together… The ones that get me are Jeff and Lester, and Josh [Gomez] gets me, but if Zach loses it, I lose it..."

Strahovski agrees. "It’s the twinkle in the eye," she says. "If you’re looking at them and they haven’t started smirking yet, but you can see they’re about to smirk, then it’s over."

"Zach just has this pure joy in humor that I don’t have but that he has," Baldwin continues. "So when it’s coming from him, it’s so honest and wonderful and infectious you can’t help but laugh when he’s laughing. He’s just a beautiful person."

But what I really wanted to ask these two were about the set's infamous practical jokes, which I'd heard whispered about. In order to capture the banter between this dynamic duo, I'll have to switch over to Q&A format:

Q: Are there any on-set pranks we should know about?

Strahovski: Yes, I witnessed actually something pretty gross. It was Joshua--

Baldwin: Oh that was wonderful.

Strahovski: Should we tell?

Baldwin: I might be thinking something different, so go ahead...

Strahovski: Trailer poop.

Baldwin: You witnessed Levi pooping?

Strahovski: No, I saw him going in the door. Joshua [Gomez] and I are next-door neighbors on set and I wondered why Zach was going into Joshua’s trailer…

Baldwin: They share in the biz what is called a two-banger, because the [doors] bang…

Strahovski: I wondered why Zach was going into Joshua’s trailer. [Turns out that] Zach left some trailer poop and forgot to flush it, and so Gomez walks in and inhales the lovely scent of Zachary.

Baldwin: Poor Zach, he’s going to have to come and he’s gonna have to listen to you guys repeating this. He’s gonna read it on all the blogs…

(Adam, did you really think we wouldn't report that? I joke.)

So what sort of advice is the veteran actor giving newbie Strahovski? "Move into a secure community behind a gate," he jokes. "Buy a gun."

Strahovski laughs. "That's exactly what he said!"

It's clear that these two get along well. ("We give each other shit all day long," Strahovski admits.) Baldwin, for his part, says that Strahovski is "loathsome" and that she "hits [him] all day long."

"I hate Adam; he's my punching bag," jokes the kung fu-trained Strahovski. "He likes it."

When Baldwin later jokes about the underwear Strahovski wears under her Weinerlicious costume, Strahovski turns and says with a Casey-style seriousness, “I don’t wear underwear.”

(Millions of fanboys just shorted out their keyboards with drool just now.)

As for what they're watching on television when they're not shooting, Strahovski admits that she doesn't watch much television other than Discovery and Animal Planet and marathons of America's Next Top Model. Baldwin, on the other hand, has a slew of must-watch programming.

"Well there’s Chuck, of course," says Baldwin. "I like Entourage, Weeds, South Park, Family Guy, The Hills. I love The Hills. Spencer’s my hero; I can’t wait to meet that guy... Project Runway, love that too. That guy [Tim Gunn], I love his voice: 'Andre, you're not very good.' It's so campy and wonderful. I love camp, I love farce."

Lest you not believe me, his impression of Tim Gunn is scarily spot-on. He is apparently an unrepentant reality TV junkie.

"I want to do a reality show called Train Wrecks and Porno," continues Baldwin. "I think that would sell really well. I love Scarred on MTV. It's really revolting but I love it."

What do they do, between takes, to keep up their energy on the set? "We make up characters," says Strahovski. (Very politically incorrect ones, according to Baldwin.) "I krump. There's the 3 am pterodactyl dance. We have to be VERY tired for that one [to come out]." (And, no, no matter how much I begged, she wouldn't demonstrate that dance.) She also beatboxes with Levi and Joshua Gomez.

What's Strahovski's favorite episode of Chuck? "Chuck Versus the Alma Mater." "I always prefer when the episode has more heart," she says. Meanwhile, Baldwin's fave is "Chuck Versus the Sandworm": "I prefer when it has more dramedy or action. The heart stuff? You need the girl demographic. Girls love that stuff."

Still, Baldwin wants to know why Strahovski's Sarah kissed Chuck. "It's her last, dying moment," says Strahovski. "She likes him."

While Strahovski had to take off in order to get to another appointment, we were joined by Zachary Levi, with a plate of food sporting the largest pork chop I have ever seen. Amazingly, Levi's energy was still at a high (this guy is a walking Red Bull) and happy to chat about anything and everything under the sun.

Would Levi like to see Chuck learn some fighting skills from Casey and Sarah in the future? "Ahh, not yes, but hell yes," says Levi. "One of the funnest things about this show is being able to work on all the action stuff, blowing stuff up and guns, and bullets and bombs and kung fu and jumping out of buildings. Absolutely, I want to do all that stuff because that’s what I signed up for... But they have already told me like look you know, you’re not getting a gun in your hands until Season Three, maybe. So I gotta wait patiently and watch these yahoos screw it up all the time."

Levi has some particularly intense views about the possibility of another series doing a crossover with Chuck, a la Marvel's old company-wide crossover The Infinity Gaunlet. "I’ve actually talked to some of the producers about doing something like that," he says. "I was a big comic book fan when I was younger but I still very much appreciate the medium and one of my favorite things about comic books--[which] I’ve been so disappointed in television that they haven’t adopted this more--is crossover."

"I think that [it could work] when you have two shows that are similar in tone but I think the biggest problem is Chuck and Heroes, though I think they have a very similar demographic, aren’t necessarily the same kind of [tone]. If you had anybody from Heroes come on to Chuck, it would be much more of a drama. If you had anybody from Chuck go on to Heroes it would be much more of a comic relief. But that being said I’d totally be down to do it."

I couldn't help but ask then if we could ever see Kristen Bell make the jump to Chuck as a new love interest for Mr. Bartowski. "It’s funny I talked to Kristen about the whole crossover idea because you know they keep trying to think of ways to bring another woman into Chuck’s life that’s not gonna work," says Levi. "I mean nothing says doesn’t work like mutant powers."

Those of you wondering about the recent photos of Levi and Bell out and about together, Levi was quick to set the record straight. "She’s a friend of mine," he says emphatically. "PLATONIC. She’s so sweet and so talented. She’s great on Heroes, right? She’s wicked.”

As for other crossovers, I couldn't help but ask, "If the characters from Chuck crash landed on the creepy Lost island, who would be the first person to eat Morgan?” (I kid, I kid.)

We know he is watching Pushing Daisies, Lost, 30 Rock, and Heroes, but what else is on Levi's television? "One of my favorite things to hear, and I’ve heard it a lot from people who are really burned out on television, is ‘I hate television, but I love watching your show.’ That means everything to me because I don’t really like television that much either."

"I can’t watch shows that everybody is like ‘Oh my God, it’s the greatest show in the world!’ and I watch it and I go, ‘That was some of the cheesiest writing and acting and action I’ve ever seen in my entire life.’ For me, entertainment has one standard: is it done to the best of everybody’s ability. Is every grip, every camera guy, every painter, every transpo, every actor, writer, director, producer, is everybody coming in every day bringing their A-game and saying, ‘Let’s make the best damn product that we can make?’ I don’t feel that way when I watch [some series]. And I hate that. I feel like I am getting the short end of the stick. I want to watch a show like Chuck where I know that every single person on that cast and crew is giving 110% every single day.”

So what does Levi want for the holidays this year? "I just want sleep and more time to play the videogames that I own."

Amen to that.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Nice article, Jace. Sounds like a fun bunch of people to hang out with. In fact, they almost sound like my friends; you know, watching TV, surfing the 'net, playing video games, not flushing...
Anonymous said…
Ha, MJL. They sound like my friends too. Except for maybe the not flushing part. That I know of at least.

Jace, great interview! I can live vicariously through you when I read about you hanging out with people like this and getting to interview them. Instead, I'm in Buffalo.
Kelley said…
I know your pain! Too much audio to go through. Too many great stories to tell. I had to do mine in three parts and it took me almost two weeks!

I hope we get to see each other at another one of these things. It really was a lot of fun.
Anonymous said…
Awesome interview. I am in awe that you met the Strahotski herself and lived to tell the tale. Did she look as hot in person as she does on TV?
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the interview. I love CHUCK and hope that we get to see those 2 filmed eps soon. I am curious about what AB said about Casey's past and the love interest. Any idea when NBC will show those eps?
Eric said…
Nice interview. Thanks. I can think of one easy crossover Chuck could do, that Zach might enjoy - just have the guys one evening watching TGS with Tracey Jordan.
Anonymous said…
Great interview! I wish we could see Yvonne doing the 3 a.m. pterodactyl dance. They seem like a great group of people. Are you planning on doing more interviews like these? And congratulations on the Entertainment Weekly mention!
Jace Lacob said…
Spadada: Thanks, Kelley! I had a blast too and I am sure we'll run into each other again before long!
Anonymous said…
fantastic stuff thanks for all the news happy christmas. see ya 2008.
rockauteur said…
congratulations on the EW mention!! btw, where is your article on amazing race from this week?
Anonymous said…
Awesome interviews. I really like these actors and it is nice to see that they are cool in person.
Anonymous said…
I would LOVE to see Adam Baldwin do a Tim Gunn impression. Glad to see that the Chuck cast is not only talented but fun too!

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