Rachel Zegler: “I’m trying to catch up with everbody else’s version of me”
Perhaps it’s fate that Rachel Zegler was cast in Shazam! Fury of the Gods. The DC superhero franchise focuses on teens who, with just one word, are able to instantly transform into superhero adults with amazing powers. And though it’s taken more than just one magical phrase for the 21-year-old West Side Story star to land multiple blockbuster projects in the last few years, her Hollywood rise has felt similarly meteoric.
“I really found myself relating to Zachary Levi attempting to be his age, you know what I mean?” she tells NME as she details her reaction to 2019’s Shazam!. “When you’re in this industry and you’re held to a certain standard, it can often feel like you’re trying to catch up with the version of yourself that everybody has projected onto you. I constantly feel like I’m chasing after the girl who’s on the cover of Elle magazine, rather than who I look at in the mirror every morning. It can be really difficult. But at the same time, it’s cool to have aspirations to be yourself.”
Zegler is very good at being herself. Warm, bubbly and a bit nerdy, she’s as excited to discuss the final season of Succession – “I don’t like all my favourite shows ending, but I’ve sat through some of my favourite shows becoming not as good with more seasons, so I feel like they’re probably doing a very smart thing” – as she is a recent visit to Disneyland Paris.
She’s also very good at playing other people, and Anthea, her character in Fury Of The Gods, contains multitudes. Though she is first introduced as the mysterious new girl at a high school, she’s also a 6,000 year old goddess and one third of the Daughters Of Atlas, alongside Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu.
Shazam! director David F. Sandberg didn’t know who Zegler was when she auditioned – West Side Story had not yet been released – but he was quickly taken with her “charming” nature. “We did a chemistry read between her and Jack [Dylan] Grazer,” he tells NME. “We couldn’t do it in person because it was still COVID, so we did it over Zoom. And we were mesmerised. She has that star quality.”
“I was kind of the bridge between so many different elements of our cast both on and off-screen”, says Zegler of the experience. “I got to spend time in the real world as a high schooler in my normal clothes with Jack and all the kids. And then I am also wearing this goddess costume and going out to lunch with Helen and Lucy during the day.”
A quick look at Zegler’s phone contacts reveals even more star-studded names such as Steven Spielberg, Carol Lawrence – the original Maria from West Side Story on Broadway – and This Is Us heartthrob Milo Ventimiglia, “who was one of my childhood crushes, which is kind of crazy to me.” There is zero sign of fame-fatigue though. “I’ve never seen her sad,” says Sandberg. “She’s always so happy. It feels like she’s so appreciative of her life and what she gets to do. I don’t think she’ll ever become a diva. I don’t think it’s in her.”
Could there be more Shazam! in Zegler’s future? Although DC is currently on its way to a soft reboot with James Gunn at the helm, Sandberg recently tweeted that “there’s nothing in the Shazam! films that contradicts the future plans for DC.” And Levi already has some sequel ideas in mind. “I think it’d be cool to do this zombie plot that Zach is obsessed with”, says Zegler. “It’s Evil Dead meets Superman meets Big, which doesn’t sound like it should work, but I think it might.”
Such a genre mishmash could open the door for musical numbers in a potential Shazam! sequel. That would certainly suit Zegler, who has been sharing videos of herself singing online since she was 14. Earlier this year, she uploaded a cover of Taylor Swift’s ‘Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve’ to the web, and it went viral. Could her own album be in the works soon? “Who knows?” Zegler says. “Honestly, I would love to ghost-write because I think of myself as more of a lyricist than anything else. I’m a firm believer in words before all, and I would love to write lyrics for other people.”
— rachel zegler (she/her/hers) (@rachelzegler) January 10, 2023
Sharing candid clips of herself online is not something many in Zegler’s position would choose to do. But the star – who has a YouTube channel with 230,000 subscribers, populated with 85 videos that she edited herself – sees it as a necessity. “I think that slice of reality is really important”, she says. “I don’t always have good days. I’m very human. Even when I am sitting next to two friends of mine, Lucy Liu and Helen Mirren, I’m like, ‘what am I doing?’ I want people to see the dimensions that they tend to miss when they see the magazine covers.”
Shazam! may not have called on Zegler’s musical talent yet, but her next two projects surely will. Due out in November is The Hunger Games prequel The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes, in which her character Lucy Gray Baird wins the heart of Panem when she sings during the reaping ceremony. “It’s the most natural musical moment I’ve ever had”, Zegler recalls. “The main lyric is ‘nothing you can take was ever worth keeping’. She’s staring down the barrel of all these news cameras. It’s just an amazing, defiant song.”
Then next year comes Disney’s latest live-action remake – Snow White. If elements of The Hunger Games felt natural, Zegler says Snow White was far less so. “I was terrified, terrified, terrified, terrified”, she repeats, “because you’re playing the first one. The blueprint of all Disney Princesses comes from 1937’s Snow White. You have so many conversations leading up to it. You’re gonna chop off all your hair and learn how to dance with all these fake animals and things that are not there. It was a lot of pressure.”
With the talent that she’s already showcased, the sky’s the limit for Zegler. Her Twitter bio – which reads “welcome to the gutter theatrical”, a lyric from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1978 music Evita – sums up her outlook best. “There’s a song called ‘High Flying Adored’, which is about getting famous too young. And Evita in that song says, ‘I’ve been called names/They’re the strangest/My story is quite usual.’ And then she says ‘One thing I’ll say for me/No one else can fill it like I can.’ And that’s also how I feel about myself.”
‘Shazam! Fury Of The Gods’ is in cinemas now