Eugene Levy gives new meaning to the term "character actor." Over the course of his career, he has delivered an entire cast of distinctive personas, from idiot newscaster Earl Camembert in SCTV and gentle, out-of-it folksinger Mitch Cohen in A Mighty Wind to endearing, hopelessly unhip Jim's Dad in the American Pie movies. And though we can't quite imagine anyone else inhabiting Levy's fully formed creations, we always believe in the character.
"It amazes me that someone with such distinctive looks—he says his eyebrows have their own agent—could disappear so fluidly into his characters," says Catherine O'Hara, who has worked with Levy many times, stretching back to their days together in the Toronto branch of improvisational comedy troupe The Second City.
Perhaps this is due to Levy's meticulous approach to comedy. "My comedy comes through character," he says. "I'm not a comedian, I'm not a standup comic; that's not what I do. The comedy comes through character and comes through the situation. In short, I think everything has to be grounded in the truth for it to be funny. I can laugh at a good joke; I can laugh at a standup; I can laugh at movies like Airplane or a Mel Brooks movie; but what you find is, when the jokes stop, there's not much else going on. There's not an emotional kind of involvement with the movie. I like to be true to the characters and let the comedy come through the character and have everything be grounded in some kind of truth. I mean, you can go as far as you want with a comedy notion or a comedy idea: As long as it's grounded, it's perfectly, absolutely valid. It really is. That goes for flatulence jokes or anything else."
As for gas-related humor, there's at least a bit of it on display in Levy's new movie, The Man, opening Sept. 9. Levy plays Andy Fiddler, a sweet dental-supplies salesman who, thanks to a case of mistaken identity, ends up partnering with badass federal agent Derrick Vann (Samuel L. Jackson) to take down arms dealers. In less-skilled hands, Andy's aw-shucks earnestness might have seemed insincere, but Levy plays him without the knowing wink. "He approaches the work pretty much the way I do," says Jackson. "So you don't go in trying to figure out, 'What can we do to make this funny?' You go in to figure out, 'What can we do to make this real and honest?' Especially because our characters are in a car a lot, and we're talking and we're expressing how we feel about each other, we're expressing how we feel about the world—it's kind of [about] the evolution of two people and how they profoundly affect each other because they are thrown in this situation, more so than a straight-ahead action 'let's be funny' kind of movie. His honest approach to all that stuff allows me to be as real and as cynical as any character that I've ever been."
In addition to being honest, Levy has an obvious passion for what he does and for the many projects he's worked on. He speaks with quiet conviction about everything from the groundbreaking SCTV to lesser lights such as FOX's quirky, short-lived sitcom Greg the Bunny. You sense that he's always fully invested when he takes on roles, that he never gives less than what he's capable of.
"He takes his time—with everything—like no one else I know," says O'Hara. "I have had to learn to shut up and let him finish a thought without interruption—and it's not easy for me having come from a large family where you get five seconds to speak your mind—but it's worth waiting for Eugene. He'll start a thought, and you'll think he doesn't know where he's going with it, but he'll confidently continue, and by time he's finished, it will all make sense to you; you'll be laughing, and you'll wish you had thought of it."
Class to Pie
Levy doesn't merely bring his natural skills to what's on the page: He'll let people know if he doesn't find the part appealing as written. "The scripts that I get, sometimes the story's good, the film is good, and my part isn't necessarily the best-written part in the picture," he says. "I let people know up front: 'I'm going to make some changes, is that all right?' If anybody says, 'No, it's not all right,' I would seriously have to reconsider doing the picture."
Take his work in the 1999 gross-out teen comedy American Pie, which elevated his profile and introduced him to a whole new generation of filmgoers. As Jim's Dad, one of the few prominent adult figures in the movie, Levy was a beacon of well-meaning decency—patient and grounded, even when the character discovers his son engaged in an intimate act with a pie. That, however, wasn't the original vision for the part. "The part was a smaller part, as written, and the father in the movie had kind of a crassness about him," Levy remembers. "He was kind of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink guy with his son—kind of like, 'Well, son, we've all been through this before, ha ha ha.' I didn't want the father to be remotely attached or associated or likened in any way with what was going on in the rest of the movie. I wanted to make the father a square, straight father that most kids really would love to have. One of the things I wanted to establish in the character was, the father takes it upon himself [that] he screwed up somewhere along the line by not necessarily giving the birds and the bees story to his son when he should have, and now his son is doing strange things with pastry."
Luckily, filmmakers Paul and Chris Weitz were willing to work with Levy. "They said, 'What would you change?' I said, 'I'd like to change everything,'" he says. "They actually were right behind me with this, and they said, 'Well, let's get together, and we'll have a rehearsal period.' And we improvised all the scenes, and we kind of worked out these new scenes with this new characterization that I wanted to bring to the thing. They really allowed me carte blanche to go through and change some things. I think they were optimistic enough that these changes would be better for the movie, and I think they were."
Adam Shankman, who directed Levy in Bringing Down the House, was similarly impressed with the qualities the actor brought to the character of Howie, a randy lawyer who falls hard for former jailbird Charlene (Queen Latifah). "[Howie] was more slimy on the page—it was less from his heart," says Shankman. "Eugene made that character really fall in love with her in the most innocent and charming way. This is a guy who wants to go to strip joints, and then he really falls for this girl. He brought an incredible sweetness to that and a lot of charm."
Shankman, who reunited with Levy for the upcoming Cheaper by the Dozen 2, also expresses admiration for the actor's process. "He cares very deeply about his craft and about comedy," he says. "Once he's locked into a character, it's perfect. He always reacts to you from a character perspective. I love rehearsing with him so that we can get the dialogue right, to have it come out of the character's mouth the right way. I would never force Eugene to say something that doesn't sound right, because, for one, he knows his characters better than I do."
McMastering His Craft
Levy grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and attended McMaster University, where, as some film reference guides have it, he "studied film." "Studying film is not necessarily the thing," he amends. "There weren't any film classes, and there weren't any credits for it. This was all extracurricular at McMaster. All the dramatic work was extracurricular; there were no dramatic courses."
There was, however, the McMaster Film Board, presided over by aspiring filmmaker Ivan Reitman, who later directed such comedy classics as Ghostbusters and Stripes. "We would pitch a film idea, and if Ivan and his other executives on the film board liked the presentation, then your idea was chosen to [be made into] a movie," remembers Levy. "They gave you the camera and basically told you how to turn it on, and that was pretty much it. You take it out, and you make your movie, and you have to edit it and do the sound work and cut your negative. It was great fun and a great experience. I spent a lot of time working with the film group and with the drama group and far too much time cutting classes to do it."
Levy wrote and directed two films while at McMaster: Garbage, which juxtaposed images of, well, garbage with students in a classroom regurgitating information, and Jack and Jill, which boasted the distinction of being McMaster's first "talkie." Levy enjoyed his time as filmmaker-actor at the school, but it never occurred to him that acting could become his career. "Even when I was doing it, cutting classes and loving every second of it, I always thought, 'This is great fun to do, and it certainly beats going to class,' but it never, ever occurred to me, 'Why don't you do this for a living?'" he says. "It was the '60s, and back then becoming an actor was not part of the thing."
If Levy hadn't spent all that time cutting class, the career part might never have entered into the equation. "It so happened, when I realized I was not gonna make my year because I'd missed a lot of classes because I was goofing around with the film camera and going to rehearsals for all kinds of plays, that I called my friend Ivan Reitman, who had left school the previous year and gone to Toronto and was doing his first feature [Foxy Lady]," recalls Levy. "I said, 'Do you have a job on your film for me?' And I got the last possible job, which was coffee boy on the movie. He was embarrassed to give [it] to me, because it only paid $60 a week. I said, 'Great. It sounds great to me.'"
After that job, Reitman put Levy in front of the camera as one of the leads in 1973's Cannibal Girls—the film's title says it all—and the actor has worked steadily ever since. Another one of his early gigs was the Toronto production of the musical Godspell, which he recalls with much fondness. The show featured future comedy cohorts Martin Short, Dave Thomas, and Andrea Martin. "Oh, my God, 1,000 people came out to audition for that show for 10 roles in the production," he says. "They told us, 'When you sign on for this thing, we want you to sign on for 12 months.' Well, we were just doing backflips. Twelve months! That's a check every week for 12 months."
Levy went on to join the Toronto branch of sketch comedy theatre The Second City and was a major component of SCTV, the troupe's successful television offshoot. The show featured such all-star comedic players as Levy, Short, Martin, Thomas, O'Hara, and John Candy playing a slew of memorable characters. "When we started the show in 1976 we were just excited about the fact that we were now doing a TV show," Levy remembers. "We approached it in such a wrong way. We came out of improvisational theatre, and we would write the show by trying to improvise ideas: doing these exercises and trying to come up with a scene. And it was kind of fun, but, boy, you didn't get much done at the end of the day. Eventually we learned to kind of split up a little bit and to use typewriters and to think and write and do a scene without it necessarily being a group function."
The show got better every year, says Levy, and he still takes pride in how unique the work was. "I just watched some of the old shows on the DVDs," he says. "It's been years since I've seen some of those shows. [They] are really good, and they were really different. I don't think anybody was doing or has done anything that even comes close to what it was we were doing back then. That was a lot of fun. Creatively speaking, I think a lot of us hit our apex doing that show."
Levy is mostly known to mainstream audiences as an actor, but that doesn't mean he's abandoned his filmmaker roots: He has writing and directing credits to his name, including helming the feature Once Upon a Crime…. There are also his collaborations with Christopher Guest: Levy shares writing credit with the actor-filmmaker on the hilarious, mostly improvised mockumentaries Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. When Guest first approached Levy about working together, the actor was flattered but perplexed, as the two had met only a couple of times. "I knew who Chris was; I'd been a fan of his for many, many years going back to National Lampoon in the early '70s, with the amazing voice character work that he was doing on those records and [the] radio show," he says. "I kept thinking, 'Why is he calling me? I don't know.' But I said, 'All right, let's work it out.'"
Though Levy and Guest didn't know each other well when they started collaborating, Levy says their chemistry together was evident from the beginning. "Writing teams are a very tricky kind of entity; it's such a delicate thing," he says. "It takes so much for a writing team to kind of click together that I figured, 'Well, how is this going to work? I don't know this guy.' And honestly, from Day One, it was such an amazing fit. We had a lot of laughs, we were on exactly the same wavelength; it was exactly how I thought a writing team should operate, something I'd never found before."
Working with Guest also gives Levy a chance to act opposite old friend O'Hara: In A Mighty Wind, the two play estranged former couple and folk duo Mitch and Mickey. Their chemistry onscreen is palpable and oddly touching—O'Hara's earthy Mickey perfectly contrasting with Levy's unhinged Mitch. O'Hara, who says Levy claims to be "tortured" by improvisation, remembers the actor being very anxious on the second day of shooting the film. "He had convinced himself overnight that he had made an awful character choice for Mitch and that the first day's shoot was a waste, and now he didn't know what to do," she remembers. "If you've worked with him, you know that that kind of second-guessing is most unusual for Eugene. As I reassured him [that] he had made a beautiful choice and that he should trust himself, I realized I was Mickey talking to Mitch and that this was the challenging and exhausting dynamic of their relationship. Eugene could never feel grounded improvising the words of a mad genius, but, obviously, it was worth the torture. As Mitch, he would go off on these mad rants, and others would worry for him or slowly back away, but, sure enough, he'd create poetry. Mad, funny poetry."
The next Guest project, For Your Consideration, will tackle awards-season mania and includes such Guest regulars as O'Hara, Michael McKean, and Parker Posey, plus The Office's Ricky Gervais. "It seems that every few years we will get a chance to do this," says Levy. "And they're the kind of movies that are such a great creative release, because we come up with the story, we come up with the script, we get no interference at all from anybody, and we get to do the kind of movie that we want to do. It's nice to be able to have that little release valve."
At this point in Levy's career, it seems he has no shortage of roles. So how does he go about choosing the ones that are right for him? Levy's massive, magnificent eyebrows—for what it's worth, they are indeed a comedic weapon all their own—knit together as he ponders the question. "Well, the truth is, I'm not Tom Hanks, and I'm not Brad Pitt," he says. "It's not like there are a thousand scripts that come across my desk and I pick and choose which ones would be most advantageous to my career. I think a film has to be really, really a bad project for me to just turn something down. You sometimes have to look at a project and think, 'It may not be perfect, but can I do something with it, can I make something of it?' If so, then you do it, because it's work, and working is better than not working, as any actor knows."
And unlike so many performers known primarily for comedy, Levy doesn't have a yen to show off a more serious side. "It's not like I want to play Hamlet or I want to do anything dramatic," he says. "I think I've done [what I want to do]. I've worked on the best kind of television that anybody could conceive of in terms of comedy, which was SCTV. I've been on some great shows—Greg the Bunny, as short-lived as that was, was, to me, just the greatest half-hour. And the movies I've done have all been great fun."
Perhaps this refreshingly satisfied attitude comes from Levy's sheer surprise at what he's been able to accomplish thus far. "Honestly I've gone a lot farther in this business than I ever thought I would," he says. "I've worked with a lot of extremely talented people, and I always felt that I was kind of hanging on by my fingernails a lot of the time. I never felt that I had what it takes. For years I'm just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'You know what? We've seen it. Bye-bye.'"
We don't see that happening anytime soon. BSW