This story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Zachary Levi is a nerd. Has been his whole life. Video games, comic books, action figures, the whole deal. His pop-culture breakout came by playing the titular nerd of NBC’s Chuck. But despite growing up in Southern California, the 32-year-old had never been to Comic-Con until 2007, when NBC sent Levi and the rest of the cast to San Diego. “The driver got lost at some point,” remembers Levi, calling from his temporary apartment in New York, where he’s preparing for his Broadway debut in First Dates, which just started previews, and waiting to hear whether Marvel will need anymore of his services for November’s Thor: The Dark World, in which he plays one of the God of Thunder’s devoted Warriors Three. “We look out the window and see three Rebel Stormtroopers and four Harry Potters, and we’re like, ‘No, we’re in the right place.’ “
After going to Comic-Con year after year, Levi decided to leverage an apparel company he’d started called Nerd Machine — “I always had a bit of a passion for apparel; I like being able to make something that people like enough to wear” — and create what he called Nerd HQ, a convention away from the convention that hosts Q&A panels and signings with celebrities in a smaller venue than the cavernous ballrooms of the San Diego Convention Center. “I wanted to offer something to complement the mothership of Comic-Con, which is amazing and brings together 150,000 people, but to make this little clubhouse where people could decompress a little bit — whether you were a fan or a celebrity — and partake in a slightly more intimate version of what Comic-Con does so well,” says Levi. “I felt like so much of Comic-Con is the fan experience. We as celebrities are, yes, going down to promote our shows and stuff, but it’s really to connect with our fans.”
This year, Nerd HQ’s fourth, Levi’s little con that could is hosting “Conversations for a Cause” panels with such guests as Joss Whedon, Seth Green, True Blood‘s Joe Manganiello, Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith, the cast of Orphan Black and Nathan Fillion, who is serving as something of a helper host so that Levi can preserve his Broadway pipes. Proceeds from ticket sales to those conversations go to Operation Smile; last year, Nerd HQ cut the charity a $140,000 check.
“I had been mulling different ideas about how we can do our own panels,” says Levi, “and linking them to charity allows celebrities to donate an hour of their time for a Q&A that’s completely unmoderated and gives fans something that they’ve never had. I’ve always believed in what I call conscientious capitalism.”
As altruistic as Nerd HQ might be, Levi did have an ulterior motive: “When I came to Comic-Con, I was always disappointed that there was no dancing. I wanted to go to a party where I could dance my ass off, and it was always me and Joss Whedon and Felicia Day huddled around a speaker. If I’m gonna be down at San Diego, I wanna have some drinks and I wanna dance.” So, Nerd HQ has been the place for celebs to rage on the Con’s Friday and Saturday nights — unless you’re “the enemy.” “No press is allowed,” he says. “No offense.”