Eugene Levy is Some Kind of ‘Man’

     September 8, 2005

Posted by Mr. Beaks

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If you weren’t watching SCTV in the early 1980’s – and, judging from the ratings, most of you weren’t – your first exposure to Eugene Levy was probably his brief bit as an chiseling used car salesman in National Lampoon’s Vacation (the guy who sells Chevy Chase the clunker of a station wagon) or as the marine biologist obsessed with outing Daryl Hannah’s as a mermaid in Splash.; Since then, he’s become best known as the ever exasperated, but well meaning “Jim’s Dad” in the American Pie films, though he did pull off a late career coup with his turn as Mitch Cohen in A Mighty Wind.;

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Now, Levy’s actually been charged with carrying a film in The Man, where he co-stars with the very loud Samuel L. Jackson.; Levy plays an out-of-his-element dentist who inadvertently gets implicated in an arms smuggling deal that Jackson, playing a Detroit police officer, has dedicated himself to busting up.;

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I’ve been a fan of Levy’s since the old SCTV days, so I was more than happy to throw a few questions his way at a roundtable.; Though I was mostly interested in finding out if there’s more Bobby Bittman on the way, Levy proved an engaging interview throughout.; Hopefully, it reads as fun as it was to conduct…


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So you’ve got to tell the world what it’s like to have Samuel L. Jackson as your bitch.

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Whoa, boy!; Let me tell you… did I enjoy smacking him across the cheek.; I’m the only guy, I think, in the history of movies who’s ever slapped Sam onscreen and lived to tell about it.; He’s a good guy.; Yes, he is my bitch.; I love that bitch.

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Did you enjoy your character?

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I did enjoy my character.; I love the characters because it falls within the tribe of characters that I do.; (To questioner); Boy, do you resemble me in some strange…

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The complexion?; (The questioner is much darker than Eugene)

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Yeah.; It’s kind of the same kind of character I like to do.; I love to play the real people, the good people, the people that I know the audience will get behind.; But it’s the good people in the world that I gravitate to.; I like the good people, and it’s the good people in the world that kind of get pushed around at their jobs and in life.; They’re not the kind to butt in front of people in line, but other people might butt in front of them.; That was the big thing.; When I saw the script, I saw the character and said, “I know I can do this”.; The character’s right in line with what I do, but it’s a two-hander; it’s a relationship movie, and that’s also what I love to do.; That’s kind of what attracts me to projects.; I don’t get the kind of great storyline mystery/dramatic/action scripts.; That’s not what I get.; (Laughs); I get comedies.; And relationship comedies is what I do; it’s what attracted me to American Pie.; It’s the guy and his son; I just thought that’s a great relationship and a great character.; That was it.; And doing… a two-hander with Sam Jackson was very exciting.; I’ve done a lot of comedies, worked mostly with comedy people, my own peers, but I’ve never worked with, I don’t think, anybody of the dramatic caliber of movie actor that Sam Jackson is.; So, it was a little bit intimidating for maybe the first day… or two… or maybe the first week, but, other than that, it was a joy!

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Do you want to be doing those kinds of dramatic roles?

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No, I think now I would look for roles that I think are… I’m a character actor and that’s what I do.; All the roles that I’ve had are supporting roles because character actors don’t usually get the lead in movies.; It rarely happens.; And this was a case in point where it was a funny role teamed up with another actor, it was a great teaming, and the role was a bigger role; it’s not so much that it was a co-starring role was a big attraction for me.; I’m now not saying, “No, I’m only co-starring”; it just so happens this role was a co-starring role.; If there’s an interesting role down the line that is back to being a great support role in a decent picture, then I will do that.; I think the idea of looking for a role that has more grist on the bone, that has a bit more to it, is something I would look to do more of.; Because I’ve done the other thing, and I could keep doing it.; I love doing it.; I love coming in for quick pops where you come in, you score, you leave, you’re on the golf course; it’s great!; (Laughter); You don’t have to carry any story, no exposition… but I’m ready for something a little meatier.;

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You’ve done the dentist thing before, too, right?; Did you bring any of the dental knowledge from Waiting for Guffman to this role?

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(Laughing); That is true.; I did play a dentist in Waiting for Guffman.; This is definitely in the same field, but, no, I didn’t bring any of my expertise.

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The press notes said you wrote your big speech at the dental convention.

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I wrote the speech at the conference.; In the original script, when it got to that scene it really was just, “Thank you very much, and good night.”; I mean, literally, that’s what it was; it was the very end of the guy’s speech.; And I thought, “Boy, he keeps talking about making this speech, he keeps talking about… how; the keynote address and the big thing in his life.; It’s too important to just say, ‘Thank you, and good night.’; I think we need to hear and see him talking about what’s important in his life.”; So, I got together with my dentist.; (Laughter); We worked through a few things there, and I thought it was kind of funny that teeth bleaching would be the high point to his speech.

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So they allowed you to improvise your lines?

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It wasn’t so much improvising; the speech was written, and any changes I made to my lines, which I do in every movie I’m in, I always ask them if I can make these changes.; But the only improvising I do really is in the movies with [Christopher] Guest, where that is what we do.; Those are the rules.; But to improvise in a movie where people are following a script, everybody kind of has to know what’s going on.; I think a line or two we may change, certainly I do, but I wouldn’t call it improvising.;

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The notes say that Samuel L. Jackson is a one-take kind of guy.; What about you?

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Well, I’m sort of a one-take kind of guy, except I don’t do it in one take.; (Laughter); I think we both approach our work in the same way.; I’ve never considered myself a comedian; I’m a comedic actor, and I approach my work the way an actor approaches their work.; The only difference is I do comedy and my job is to try and make things funny.; But I have a way of, and I think it probably comes from starting out in the Second City Improvisational Theater… my style kind of makes things sound like they’re improvisational, like they’re happening right then and there.; I kind of act the way I talk.; And I can go from take to take.; I’ll ask for another take; Sam never asks for another take because he basically knows what he’s doing.; He gives you what he thinks is the best take, and he does it on the very first take.; Me, I may not get it on the first take.; There may be something I don’t like and I’ll ask for another take, or I may miss a word, or something may not sound right to my ear, and I’ll keep going.; Every take is kind of different.; I’m not really changing the lines that much; that’s just the way it comes out.

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Have you thought about revisiting the Bobby Bittman character?; You did that one HBO Special.

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Yeah.; Boy, that was… ’87.

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But it’s such a great character.

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It is a great character, and it was probably my favorite to do on the show because, unlike any of these other characters that I like to do, Bittman was a very obnoxious Vegas comic whose real life I kind of borrowed from Jerry Lewis.; Very, very unlike me.; When Martin Short had his talk show prior to the Jiminy Glick talk show – it was The Martin Short Show, I think – he was doing Jiminy Glick on that show.; And on the last interview, I saw Catherine O’Hara come on – coincidentally, Christopher Guest also came on that show in character as Jiminy’s old partner.; But Catherine came on as Lola Heatherton.; Lola Heatherton today.; And it was an amazing thing to watch because she had actually taken that character from what it was when we did [SCTV] to where it is now.; There was something very Courtney Love coming through in the character now, and I said, “Man, how brilliant is what she’s doing on that show.”; And I wondered what it would be like for Bobby and Lola to be in something, but today, as they are now.; It’s something that we’re thinking about; we haven’t actually acted on it yet.

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When you jump onto the car in The Man, was that really you doing the stunt?

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Where the body gets thrown out of the car?; That was a double.; Yeah, I don’t do that kind of stuff.; I don’t bounce that well.; (Laughter); I did do the thing on the car.; That I thought I was able to do, because I knew they wanted a shot from inside the windshield.; I thought, “Boy, if you could see this kind of hit, and actually see the guy bouncing, and tell it was me.”; I understood why it was important for me to do it.; And that’s what I did.

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Did you get banged up at all?

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Yes, I did.; A little bit.; I got some bruises that… you don’t make a public issue out of it.; It’s not quite as easy as the stunt guy was saying, but it was something that anyone who’s thirty years-old wouldn’t think twice about doing.

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Did you have a good experience making this movie?

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It was a great experience.; I was elated through the whole movie working with Sam.; Honestly, I’ve only done comedy, and I’ve never been in a situation where I’m working with a bona fide movie star.; After all the years in this business, I still have to pinch myself in the morning and say, “You’re working with Sam Jackson.; Don’t screw up.”; It was a lot of fun.; And I was working in my hometown [Toronto, Ontario], which doesn’t happen a lot.; So, I got to go home like everyone else after work.;

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Have you ever had the experience of being in the wrong place at the wrong time like your character in this film?; Or have a misunderstanding that got you into trouble?

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Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been in the wrong place at the wrong time that I know of.; I’d kill for an instance because it would be a funny story, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where I’ve been mistaken for someone else.; The closest that comes to mind is my brother.; Sometimes I’ll get mistaken for my brother, or he’ll get mistaken for me.

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What does he do if he gets asked for an autograph?

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Now, he just signs.; (Laughter); He says, “I’ve given up trying to tell people I’m not who you think I am, so I just sign.; But I sign my own name.”

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What do you usually get when you’re walking around in public?

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Oddly enough, the thing I get the most is, “Hey, Eugene”.; There’s no catch phrases; there’s no, “What a week I’m having!”; People will actually just say, “Hey, Eugene”.; And it’s really a great thing that they feel that comfortable to call me by my first name.; It’s not a forward thing, but I… honestly think they can’t help themselves, like they know me, and I find it a very gratifying thing.

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Had you ever met Samuel L. Jackson prior to doing the film?

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No, met him for the first time at The Today Show when he came out of the elevator.; I was promoting A Mighty Wind, he was promoting something else, and he came up and said, “I hear we’re going to be working together”.; I said, “On what”?; He said, “The Man”.; And I had never heard his name mentioned before [for the role], so when I made some calls I found out he had read the script and wanted to do the movie.; What I remember from that is that he was a really friendly, animated kind of guy.; His screen image sometimes is a very hard-boiled, intimidating character, and that’s what I remember thinking:; “Boy, this guy seems like a normal guy; he seems like a real person.; If he’s going to do this movie, it could be a real comfortable kind of thing.”

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Are there any other actors you’d like to work with?

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I never thought I’d be working with Sam Jackson, number one, and that’s as good as it gets.; Ben Stiller has worked with Robert De Niro, but I think I’ve had my taste.; When certain comedians get to work with certain actors – Adam Sandler worked with Jack Nicholson; I got to work with Sam Jackson.; I can say I did it, and I had my shot.; I’d love to do something with De Niro or Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino; those are guys I grew up watching.; And now that I’ve got a taste of working with a bona fide movie star under my belt, I think I’d be more prepared to go head-to-head with some of the big guys.

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Interestingly, before Eugene was hustled off to the next room, he dropped a tidbit about a proposed musical version of Best in Show, but cautioned that it’s still in the very nascent stages of development.; He didn’t seem especially fired up about it, but what with The Producers and Spamalot, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it come to fruition.

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The Man opens tomorrow in theaters all over this great, great nation of ours.

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