Zachary Levi: Mental Health, “Radical Love” & Forgiveness

Whether you know him from Chuck or as Flynn Rider in Tangled, Joseph in The Star, or Shazam, Zachary Levi has risen to stardom and you would think it was a smooth ride. The now, 41-year-old shares that ir was far from it in his powerful new book Radical Love: Learning to Accept Yourself and Others.

In a vulnerable and authentic coversation, he shares about hitting rock bottom, landing in a therapy center, where he finally addressed the underlying issues that led to his downward spiral and where God was in it all. Risen sat down with the star to talk about mental health, forgiveness and how not to outsource our self-worth.

We covered so much ground we split it into two parts… here is the beginning of our conversation.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: We’ve talked over the past many years from Chuck and Comic-Con to Tangled, The Star, Shazam and most recently American Underdog but to be able to have a deeper conversation with your book Radical Love as the catalyst… is so fantastic. As mentioned I’ve had the privilege to see you as your career has grown but after reading your book – which I could not put down – I felt like we just met? You were so good about masking your mental health I would never have known what was truly going on in your life. So talk to me about getting to the point where you’re able to share more of who you really are.

Zachary Levi: Ultimately that was just me coming to the end of myself. All of those years, I don’t know that I was actively, or consciously, masking. In fact, I don’t know that anybody really does. I think all of the kind of the charade or the facade that we play out in life is all tied to survival. It’s all tied to, How do I navigate this crazy world that I don’t fully understand? And that we’re all still trying to learn and figure out. Life is wacky and hard and also beautiful. And I’ve always been the same guy inside, the same soul, the same lover of people and lover of joy. I mean, I talk about in the book, I’m an Enneagram 7 (The Enthusiast) I just want to have all the fun all the time.

And I have. I’ve had plenty of fun, but I didn’t realize how much of that was also me running away from the pain that I was experiencing in my life and not metabolizing that pain. And until I was 37 and fell through the door of therapy, really for the first time – I had gone through a little bit of therapy when I got very quickly married and divorced, and that’s also a bit in the book as well – but it wasn’t until a few years after that when I really fell apart. And when I fell apart, thank God, my sister was able to find this incredible organization that kind of put together this package of me going away and having three weeks of intensive therapy. And I learned so much clinically through that, but then also had this amazing woman who was a part of loving me back to life and helping me to understand that it was okay to love myself, because I think that was one of the biggest things that was missing in all of it.

You can tell somebody all day long they should love themselves, but if they don’t think they’re deserving of that love, they’re never going to apply that. And throughout my career, there was a lot of this stuff going on under the waves, but I wasn’t even aware of it. I was still just being who I thought I was supposed to be. And the truth is, it’s still very much authentically me. It’s just there was so much more that I hadn’t processed and so many other things that I didn’t realize were kind of moving. puppeting, and taking you to places that you’re inclined to do or attracted to, or whatever.

I talk about in the book, being attracted to an unhealed version of your relationship with your parents.I didn’t know I was doing that my whole life until I went to therapy and I was like, Oh my gosh, what am I doing? So the book was really an opportunity to hopefully just show people, Hey, this is all real. This might not be your experience exactly, but this was my experience, and I can assure you that some of these things are probably happening in your life. And regardless, we should all just continue to go and love ourselves and love each other and do that radically, which is to accept the fact that people are not perfect and love is not just amplified “like.” It doesn’t mean that you just like somebody tremendously. You can love, and not like someone at all. You can love and still have lots of boundaries around yourself, protecting yourself from whatever this person might be doing continuously.

But we ought to stop demonizing each other, and start humanizing each other. Even the most, let’s say wicked evil people on Earth are still God’s children and we have got to recognize that. We have got to recognize that we’re all miracles. Do some of those miracles, do we need to incarcerate for times, do we need to make sure that they’re not hurting other people? Absolutely. But we can do it in a way where we can still tell them, Hey, this is not coming from shame. This is not coming from how dare you, you evil thing. We treat dogs better than we treat human beings. If you see a dog who’s in a corner snarling, biting, doing all this stuff, what do we think? We don’t think, Oh, what an evil dog. We go, Oh wow, they must have been really abused in their life. But we don’t apply that same logic to humans. So we can radically love a dog, but we can’t radically love a human and that is a huge tragedy. And that’s why I felt that could be an important message for people to hear.

RM: I really liked within your book that you talk about forgiveness, and that explaining someone’s behavior is not the same as excusing it. Will you unpack that a little bit because that might be a completely new concept for people?

ZL: Yeah, which is really unfortunate. I guess I understand why people have a hard time with it because we’re just not conditioned to believe that, but it’s very unfortunate because when somebody does something wrong and by the way wrong, even that is a pretty malleable term. Because what’s wrong in our country might not be wrong in another, right? I don’t know. But let’s just for the sake of conversation, something we agree upon is wrong, like you murder. Let’s say murder. Everyone can pretty much agree that murder is wrong and a bad thing and we should not do that, absolutely not. When someone kills someone, what we do is we pile on and we say, well, that person, that murderer, they’re horrible, they’re evil, they’re a monster. It doesn’t matter why they did it, what they did was bad and therefore we write them off. We write them off immediately.

And I think we’re all doing ourselves a massive disservice because we’re not learning in the process. We’re not actually building more empathy and understanding our own human condition, and our own human condition is all depraved. Every single one of us is capable of doing all of the worst things in the world. If you happen to be conditioned and programmed through your childhood, from your parents, from the rest of your family, your friends, your community, your society, all of these things make you who you are. And I think that it’s very important that we don’t just not throw the baby out with a bath water, but that we take a moment to say, hey, yes, what they did was wrong, certainly, we can all agree on that, but can we just take a moment to ask why? Why did they do this? Because almost every time – I mean, yes, there are examples of let’s say psychopaths or sociopaths, these are clinical conditions and psychologists can talk to you about them and they’re real, but they’re a very, very small portion of the population – by and large, everyone is doing what they think is necessary for their survival in this world. Lots of people who take the lives of other people grew up in very abusive conditions where they had to survive through violence, and then they end up in a position where now they’re robbing a convenience store because they’re starving or whatever, I don’t know. Now, again, it doesn’t excuse any of that, but it helps us to at least start building an empathy with someone and recognizing that they are this dog who’s been abused, who’s in a corner snarling and biting and it allows us to hopefully radically accept that they are who they are, why they are, and then start applying love to that person, because I really truly believe in the transformational power of love.

I mean, look, it’s been documented, well documented, there are people who go into prisons and they spend time with murderers and rapists and thieves and they get to the bottom of why they did what they did. And instead of saying, Well, you did what you did so you deserve to rot in prison for the rest of your life. They say, Hey, what you did was horrendous and what you did caused so much pain to other people but I can see the little child, I can see the five year old in you, that five year old that wanted nothing more than to be protected and loved. And you didn’t get that. And so because of that, your life spun out of control and you got to where you are right now. You are still responsible for your actions. We use these words in the book. I mean, you’re responsible. We’re all responsible. All of my problems, all the things that I’ve dealt with in my life, I can’t blame my parents because who am I blaming ultimately? They did that because of their parents, and their parents did it because of their parents, and so where’s the blame?It goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. Fine.

Is that is that what we want to do? The blame has to stop. The shaming has to stop. Responsibility doesn’t stop, because somebody’s still got to be responsible for whatever actions are, but we can hold people responsible without making them into monsters. Because when you make them into monsters there’s never a chance of redemption. There’s never a chance of any amount of them coming around and recognizing that what they’ve done was wrong and trying to atone for that and make a better life for themselves. Love is the only way forward.

RM: I thought you had such a great quote where you said you were outsourcing your sense of self-worth to forces beyond your control. We live in a world today where I don’t know how we all are not doing that on some level. Talk to me a little bit about how you’re able to have some success in maybe tying your value or your worth to something else that’s bigger and more important than just how our social media pages look or what our friends think of us?

ZL: Yeah. Well, still working on it. As I talk about in the book, it’s not a one and done fix. I’m not, I thought I was. I went to that therapy and I thought, all right, I’ve got the fix and now everything’s just uphill from here or downhill from here. It’s all good. It’s like I broke my arm, but they reset it, they cast it and I’ll have some pains for a couple of months, but then after that I’m good as gold. Good new. But it’s just simply not the case how our minds and hearts work. We are not gizmos. We’re not robots. We can’t, it’s not just a fix. It’s a healing process. And we need to tend to our minds and tend to our hearts in the same way you would tend to a garden, in the same way that you tend to your teeth.

I really think mental, is like dental health. You’ve got to brush and flush your brain on a regular basis, daily. And if you do that, you do the little things, you do the little work continuously, you don’t end up with mental root canals needed years down the line. I needed some major mental root canals when I went away to therapy. I did. Because I didn’t know what it meant to tend to the garden of my mind. I didn’t know that I wasn’t. I didn’t know that I wasn’t loving myself. And so even after the therapy and going through the pandemic and falling apart again and all this stuff and me recognizing, wow, I still have so much to do in learning how to just love me for me.

And I think that starts with accepting the fact that there’s nothing that you can do to earn that love. It isn’t merely a matter of accepting, it’s receiving. From a Christian standpoint, I suppose you could see, it might be a little easier because you can say, well Christ, God loves me and that’s God’s love. But even I know a lot of Christians that still don’t love themselves, that still don’t understand what that means, that still don’t understand what self care, self love is… We live in a world now where it’s either you are a raging narcissist, or you are so afraid of being a raging narcissist that you are doing nothing but doing for others because you’re afraid… well, if I take time to invest in my own body, my own heart, my own mind, my own soul, my own time, well, I’m being selfish.

And a lot of people… I don’t have kids of my own yet, but I can only imagine how difficult that must be to be a parent… you are called to take care of your children, so how difficult must that be to balance what it means to love yourself and take care of yourself in the midst of taking care of your children? That’s a difficult thing to do, but there’s nothing truer than it’s like the oxygen masks that drop in a plane. If you don’t put yours on first, you’re not going to help your kids. You’re not. You have got to put your own mask on first, before you can help anybody else, at least efficiently. And so I think that when it comes to that kind of stuff, like the journey of not outsourcing our worth, I mean, it’s got to start with recognizing that there is no worth outside of just the innate worth that God has given you because you exist.

You are here. You’re a miracle. And for those people out there that don’t believe in God, you’re still a miracle. You’re a mathematical improbably. The fact that we even are walking around, talking on this ball of mud, spinning around in the middle of the universe, and we still haven’t been able to identify any life anywhere else in the universe. We might one day, I don’t know. But up to this point, we haven’t and up to this point, that’s a lot of planets that we’ve checked out and there’s still nothing. So you’re still a miracle. So to take that in and just go, oh, wow, what a cool, incredible thing this is, let me invest some time and energy into myself. I don’t have to go and take care of everyone else all the time, especially if I’m neglecting my own self. My worth lay in the fact that I am and let me then protect that worth, let me tend to that worth, let me love what is already worthy of being loved simply because I am and turn these off as often as possible.

And I struggle with it myself. I am not cured of any of these things. This is not a book I wrote of like, Let me tell you the 10 steps of getting to where I am. This is like, Hey, I’m still screwed up. Can we all talk about us all being screwed up together? Because we are. We are. And social media is not making it any better, not by a long shot because we continue to see these curated versions of other people’s lives that are completely fictitious. They are not that happy. They are not that together. They are not that at peace or feeling joy. They’re all just posing and doing and oh my God, look at it all. And it’s like, oh man, it’s just it’s driving us all down the proverbial mental health tube. So I don’t know. That’s how I think you don’t outsource. You have got to just accept the fact that there is no worth that lay outside of the miracle that you are, that you exist.

Radical Love: Learning to Accept Yourself and Others is available June 28

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