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'Chuck' Star Zachary Levi Talks Nerd HQ: A More Intimate Alternative to Comic-Con

by Laura Prudom, posted Jul 20th 2011 6:40PM
Zachary Levi sporting Nerd Machine apparelStarting today, thousands of fans, celebrities, industry executives and journalists will make the annual pilgrimage to San Diego for Comic-Con International, a five-day festival of all that is geeky and fantastical.

For some, it's a chance to meet their favorite TV and movie stars, for others, it's to test out the latest video games, while plenty go just to get their hands on the newest comics, merchandise and free swag from studios. What they'd all likely agree on, though, is that with over 120,000 attendees, Comic-Con can be more than a little overwhelming.

Enter Zachary Levi, star of NBC's 'Chuck' and holder of some indisputable geek credibility. Levi is right alongside Nathan Fillion and Joss Whedon in terms of commanding a loyal nerd army, eager to follow him from project to project. Having experienced Comic-Con as both an entertainer and a fan, Levi found himself wondering if he could do something to improve the San Diego experience for the people it was supposedly designed for -- to allow fans and the people that they're fans of to interact in a more intimate, low-key setting, while still enjoying the same mecca of merchandise, video games and comic books they've come to know and love from Comic-Con.

Thus, the Nerd HQ was born -- viva la Nerdolution!

After founding The Nerd Machine, a website which Levi characterizes as "a hub for all things nerd," the Nerd HQ seemed like a natural progression, combining the excitement of Comic-Con with the importance of supporting a worthy cause. Levi's charity of choice is Operation Smile, and all funds raised from the sale of "Conversation for a Cause" panel tickets will be donated to the organization, while the rest of Nerd HQ -- the merchandise areas and gaming booths, for example -- are free of charge and open to all ages. No passes are required to get in and take a look around.

Over the course of the weekend (July 21-24), the Nerd HQ will play host to a number of nerdtastic "Conversation" panels, featuring actors from across the "Nerdiverse," from the reunited cast of the short-lived but much-loved TV series 'Firefly' (Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Alan Tudyk and Jewel Staite) to fan-favorites such as Zachary Quinto, Seth Green, Jared Padalecki, Jorge Garcia, Danny Pudi, Olivia Munn, Felicia Day, Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes, and Levi himself, among others.

Unlike Comic-Con, where fans often have to line up for hours outside Ballroom 20 or Hall H in the hope of being admitted in time for their favorite show's panel, the Nerd HQ is selling tickets for a more intimate gathering, only admitting 250 or so fans and giving them an hour with their favorite entertainers for a low-key Q&A, often followed by an autograph signing. That way, no-one has to sit through any panel they're not interested in to get to the good stuff.

For more on the Nerd HQ experience, check out our one-on-one chat with Levi below, and hit the Nerd HQ website for further details and a chance to buy tickets.

For the uninitiated, what is the Nerd HQ?
That's a question I've been trying to answer for a while now. [Laughs] At the end of the day, the Nerd HQ is an attempt at creating an intimate, organic, fun, interactive experience between celebrities and fans that all culminates for a greater good, which is raising money for charity -- in this case, Operation Smile, which is a charity that I'm an ambassador for and I have a firm stance and belief in.

Zac Levi and Simon HelbergBeing a celebrity, or pseudo-celebrity, and having gone to Comic-Con for quite a few years now, and being a nerd myself and loving and embracing that world and having it embrace me back, I wanted to do something that was good for business, for TheNerdMachine.com, but that has a bigger scope and a bigger reach than that. So that's kind of what the Nerd HQ came out of; it's a one-stop shop for nerds.

It's videogames, it's technology, it's celebrity panels in the sci-fi, genre and fantasy world all rolled up into one for fans to enjoy, and hopefully for celebrities to enjoy as well.

At the same time, also having a really cool place where shows like 'Firefly,' that aren't on the air anymore and haven't been for years but still have such a loyal passionate following, can have an outlet for fans and give them an hour of Q&A to keep fostering those relationships, because I think they're really important.

You should always maintain that your audience is a partner in that content and a partner in that relationship. I really want to start dialoguing about the future of entertainment and technology and where they're going, because if everything's going online, that means everything is potentially poachable or pirateable or downloadable. You really need to have a clear relationship with your audience so that they're a part of the success of something and not the demise.

How did the idea come about? I remember how disappointed the 'Chuck' cast was last year when your Comic-Con panel ran out of time before you could get to the fan Q&A portion.
Oh, absolutely, yeah. As you saw in last year's panel, and as the panels have kind of always been every year ... We have great moderators, I have nothing bad to say about [Damon] Lindelof -- other than I was so frustrated with the end of 'Lost' and not having certain questions answered, but that's neither here nor there [laughs]. But having Damon or Alan Sepinwall or any of the great moderators we have is great, [but] when you only have five minutes leftover at the end of a panel to actually give to fans to ask the questions that they want to ask, I feel like that's kind of a travesty.

I think that Comic-Con is all about the fans. It's all about the Atmosphere at last year's Nerd Partylifeblood that they infuse into whatever you happen to be a part of. I think that you really need to be conscious of that and foster that and allow them their time to interact with you.

But basically Nerd HQ started out of the NerdMachine. Last year at Comic-Con, when we did our soft launch of the company with just one t-shirt -- our Nerd Shirt -- we got a great response and threw a fun dance party to honor that. So this year, when we were sitting around trying to think of what we were going to do, I knew that for the company's sake we needed to have a presence down at Comic-Con. I wanted to throw another Nerd party ... everyone's always looking for a dance party. Unfortunately, more often than not, it's like me and Joss Whedon and the kids from 'Glee' and we're all dancing our asses off and then that's it.

Last year, I really wanted to give this environment a fun, dance-your-ass-off party. We accomplished that in spades, so, I wanted to do that again. And I wanted to have a presence for merch. So, we went to Comic-Con and said we'd love to be able to get some space on the floor at the convention center, and they said, "We'd love to be able to accommodate you but there is a three year waiting list,' which I was not aware of, although I probably should have known better [laughs]. They suggested going to an offsite location, and that just snowballed into this whole thing of merch and videogames and Conversations for a Cause, which are the charity panels we're doing, and podcasts and live streaming and a celebrity lounge and the whole nine.

What exclusives and special swag are you guys boasting that the fans won't find at Comic-Con?
Well, there's going to be some exclusive stuff with the panels. As a fan you get exclusive time with celebrities. You can go see a 'Robot Chicken' panel somewhere, you can see a Zach Qunito panel, a 'Heroes' panel, or a 'Star Trek' panel or whatever, but nowhere else are you getting an hour of time in a small, intimate setting where you get to ask the questions that you want to ask. I think that's pretty special and one of a kind.

We have exclusive Nerd HQ merch that will be at the Nerd HQ, as well as exclusive 'Gears of War 3' t-shirts that are limited edition and that are only being sold at the Nerd HQ. We have a great relationship with Microsoft, XBOX and, through that, 'Gears of War' and the guys over at Epic, so we're going to have a panel with them. We're selling their shirts exclusively at NerdMachine. We're really excited about that, that's kind of our first licensing deal.

Danny Pudi and Joshua Gomez at 2010 Nerd PartyAs far as the NerdMachine is concerned, a lot of fans want to know how they can get into the nerd party. Unfortunately, with the nerd party there'll be a bit of a separation; there's going to be kind of an industry nerd party going on upstairs and there will be an open-to-the-public nerd party going on downstairs. They'll be simultaneous and we're going to try and interact between them through the two photo booths that we have. Celebrities are more than welcome and encouraged to go down and spend time with the fans downstairs.

It's just one of those things where I want the celebrities that are coming down to not feel any kind of camera lens on them at all, so they can really let their hair down and enjoy themselves. The unfortunate thing is, and I totally understand, when you have fans in the same party they all want to take pictures of the celebrities. I mean, I want to take pictures of Nathan Fillion picking his nose, so why wouldn't they? I get it. But the nerd party for the public is going on downstairs, and people admitted into that party will be those that are donning their NerdMachine apparel. So, if you don't have NerdMachine apparel on you might not even make it into the party.

Tell us how you became involved with Operation Smile and why the cause is so important to you?
As an actor in Hollywood, you are given a platform -- you're given this incredible power that some use for good and some don't, unfortunately. I think that the power that you are given as a celebrity can really help shine a light and raise awareness and raise money, and that's a wonderful thing.

Going into something I was doing, they were asking me what charity did I want to benefit from my involvement, and the week leading up to that, I felt like it was just God kind of speaking to me -- I'd seen five commercials and five billboards, all within a period of three days, all for Operation Smile. I had seen them before, I had clocked it, I had been aware of it, I thought, "Oh, that's a cool charity." But it never really resonated with me in the same way until this point.

Zachary LeviWhat really hit me was, as an actor I'm so blessed to get to do what I do and live out my dreams, but so much of why I'm able to do that is because I was born in a very privileged way, in that I was born in America and to middle class family who had health insurance. If I was born with a cleft lip or a cleft palate, that would have been taken care of pretty quickly. I could still go on with my life and be able to make a living smiling.

On a bottom-line, human level, smiling and laughing are just so integral to happiness and joy overall. If you are ashamed or feel bad or embarrassed to laugh or smile, how much does that affect your everyday life, and your everyday ability to appreciate life? That just rocked me. And that's aside from the infections that can come from having a cleft lip or palate or other oral deformation.

I saw a small investment for a huge payoff; doctors volunteering their time to go to countries and for not that much money you can literally change a child's life forever. I wanted to do what I could on every level. Every time I do anything now I want to incorporate Operation Smile. I think we've been able to improve the lives of a couple thousand children now. That's just awesome.

Members of the 'Chuck' castThis will be 'Chuck's' final season -- is there anything you want to say to the 'Chuck' fans in particular?
It's been one of the most life-changing experiences for me, certainly, both on a personal and professional level; I'll be forever indebted to the fans for that. As I move on in my journey in life and in Hollywood, I hope I can continue to bring them stuff that they gravitate toward and appreciate. And I always want to continue to keep a relationship with them -- going back to what we were talking about before, it's all about your audience and believing in them and creating for them.

Will Nerd HQ live on even after 'Chuck' is gone?
Oh, yeah. If it's something that doesn't just blow up in my face and become a life lesson of sorts [laughs] ... if it succeeds and people dig it and they respond to it, we can create more of a positive thing in San Diego at Comic-Con or wherever. Then we'll be doing Nerd HQs for years to come.

I love the idea of being able to provide people with actual physical, tangible hubs, events where they can go and interact with one another. Even at our NerdMachine office where we've been tirelessly folding t-shirts and stuffing them in our little signature tubes and packing those up for Comic-Con, we've had half-a-dozen, if not more volunteers that have all met at theNerdMachine.com, became friends online and now are meeting each other for the first time in the flesh.

I feel like by giving people an actual event like the Nerd HQ you're not just giving them a place where strangers can play videogames together, you're giving them a place where people who have met online now get to meet in person and get to appreciate these experiences together. That's one of the things I want to accomplish; embracing the digital world but giving a real world synergy to that, bringing those worlds together so we don't just talk and meet online, but we get to actually meet in person -- what a novel idea!

Check out TheNerdMachine.com for more information on Nerd HQ, and keep an eye on AOL TV over the next few days, as Mo Ryan and I will be reporting direct from San Diego with Comic-Con and Nerd HQ interviews, recaps and videos.

Follow Laura on Twitter: @LauinLA

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This is a good idea because at some point (in fact I think we’re almost there) Comic-Con is going to get so huge it’s going to go supernova and implode in on itself. Celebrities and the masses alike are gradually going to stop attending.

There were a couple of panels I would have loved to attend this year as well as last year but attending these types of “mega cons” has become, for many of us, an ominous, oppressive chore/job instead of a fun weekend with friends and fellow geeks. It used to be the “hardest” part was getting your air fare and hotel. Now, it’s like a mass army-like offensive you have to plan out and mount months in advance. And don’t dare try to do it alone, oh no, you won’t survive. You have to have a posse of fellow soldiers to cover your six. People to stake out places in line while you sleep and eat and vice versa, and to lay claim to the good seating in the coveted ball rooms (as your article points out ‘Hall H’ has become a legend of its own). It’s gotten to crazy. Too crazy in a really bad and sad way. It’s not fun anymore.

July 20 2011 at 7:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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