It will likely come as a surprise to no one that Dan Levy is a delightful interview. Coming off of the success of his beloved comedy series Schitt’s Creek, which went off the air with its critically acclaimed final season earlier this year and is currently up for 15 awards at the 2020 Emmys, Levy is poised for a turning point in his career just at the moment the entertainment industry (and the world) finds itself in unprecedented and unknowable terrain. But that hasn’t stopped Levy from staying busy, nor did it stop him from being a candid and warm-spirited person to talk with about these chaotic times and how he’s staying creative.
Like most industries, for the last six months, the entertainment industry has had to evolve and adjust as international shutdowns put productions on hold, new safety measures rolled out, and filmmakers continue to adapt to the new “normal”. Productions around the world are starting to gear up, but for some creatives, quarantine gave them the strange opportunity to stretch themselves in new ways and they wasted no time discovering new ways to keep cameras rolling in lockdown. One of those projects is HBO’s Coastal Elites, one of the earliest efforts to get back into production; a film staged across five monologues that showcase a knockout cast confronting the emotional chaos of living in 2020.
Written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Jay Roach, Coastal Elites sees Bette Midler, Sarah Paulson, Issa Rae, Kaitlyn Dever, and Dan Levy deliver direct-to-camera monologues, from political rants and reflections to a nurse’s early-pandemic video diary, and in Levy’s standout segment, an actor doing some soul-searching after auditioning to play a gay superhero. With the film premiere on HBO September 12, I recently hopped on a Zoom chat with Levy to talk about how they pulled it off mid-pandemic and how he pulled off performing his first monologue since high school. Levy also discussed life after Schitt’s Creek and the type of opportunities he’s being offered, staying creative during quarantine, and LGBTQ+ superheroes in movies. More specifically, that there aren’t any, but Levy would be happy to play one, and after you see his work in Coastal Elites, you’re probably going to want to see that happen.
I’m excited to talk to you. When lockdown first started, I finally did the thing and watched Schitt’s Creek, which gave me joy in a joyless time. Now, my mother’s finally doing the thing and watching Schitt’s Creek and having the same experience.
LEVY: Oh, my goodness. Well, thank you for watching.
Thank you! We needed that right now. Tragically, my mother seems to relate to Moira a little too much, but we don’t have time for all that.
LEVY: Listen. We can celebrate that any time.
So to talk a bit about Coastal Elites, how long has it been since you did a proper long monologue like that?
LEVY: To be perfectly honest, it was a Greek tragedy in high school.
LEVY: It was two pages long, not five and a half. I had never tackled anything quite like this. It came to me very early in the pandemic, when I think we were all just experimenting with ways of challenging ourselves. This felt like an incredible challenge. Obviously, it came with the gift of Jay Roach, and Paul Rudnick, and Bette Midler, and Sarah Paulson, and Kaitlin Dever, and Issa Rae. You don’t generally walk away from that. The whole idea was with something that I instantly said yes to.
It seems to be a shared experience that no matter what industry you are in, who you are, lockdown has made us flex new creative and personal muscles. What was it like tapping into that form of performance and delivery. Did it challenge or inspire you in new ways?
LEVY: Oh, yeah. I panicked off the top because you look at the script in front of you. In my case, it was five and a half pages. You think, “Okay. Well, at some point, in a month and a half from now, I will know all of these words, but for now, it’s sending me into a tailspin.” I sat down and I thought, “Okay, how many days do I have? When do I want to actually be totally versed in this monologue by? Then, let’s count back from that date. How many days do I have until that date? Then, how many lines do I need to learn each day in order to get to that date and feel totally secure with the monologue?” It turns out it was about two paragraphs a day. I just started.
I started every day, I was reading it out loud. I was saying it to my dog. I was saying it on walks. I had recorded it all and was listening to it on headphones when I went to sleep because I’m not very good with retaining lines. I knew that, particularly when in front of a camera, I tend to get quite anxious and nervous just performing, so I knew that I was going to have that, in addition to just retaining the lines. The whole thing was very stressful, but it was such an incredible experience. I think to be surrounded by such encouragement, and I think Jay and Paul were so encouraging all throughout. They were able to listen to questions or concerns that I had. They were so open to the collaboration process and helping me with whatever I needed to make sure that when we sat down in front of that camera, in June, I had everything I needed to just do my job.
Even still, I messed up many times in front of the camera, but we were fortunate enough to get a handful of takes that we were all very happy with. It was something. I was texting with Kaitlyn [Dever] throughout the process too, just being like, “Please tell me I’m not the only one that’s incredibly nervous about all of this.” She just would text back being like, “No, no.” She shot before I shot, and she just told me that she sweated the entire time. It made me feel better.
Even these Zoom interview make me super nervous, so I can only imagine. But you did a beautiful job, and it’s a subject that’s very near and dear to my heart, as you can see by this nerdy collection behind me [gestures to posters and collectibles in the background].
LEVY: Oh my god!
It’s insane to me that we live in a world where Schitt’s Creek is pretty much universally beloved, and we are still waiting on a queer superhero to exist in film. It’s weird that we just got Black Panther, and we just got Captain Marvel, finally, and it does seem to be somewhat a cultural tipping point of acceptance, the superhero genre. Is it something that is near and dear to your heart as a consumer? Or was it the emotion of this material specifically that drew you?
LEVY: To be perfectly honest, and to speak to what you had just said, I think for a long time, I didn’t really pay attention to a lot of superhero movies because there were not a lot of gay people in them. In a way, I had always put them in a place that I didn’t have a direct line of relation to because I don’t read the comic books. It wasn’t until I started researching the monologue that I realized, within the actual comic book world, there is quite an incredible array of queer superheroes. Where are they in the movies? I mean, really, in researching for this part, it opened my eyes to the world of comic books, in a way. There are some really lovely stories that are being told in these comic books, queer stories. I would love to hopefully be a part of that at some point.
Well, I think a lot of people are going to walk out of this going, “Well, now I really want to see him play a superhero.” Have you noticed, in the aftermath of Schitt’s Creek‘s success, that you are getting called into more of those bigger type rooms? Have those types of opportunities started presenting themselves at all?
LEVY: [Pauses and thinks] No!
Oh, no! That’s not what we want to hear!
LEVY: [Laughs] No. Well, other than this, which I think is such an incredible opportunity. Up until Schitt’s Creek, I was certainly not anybody that anyone would offer a part too. When this part was offered to me, I did a double-take to make sure that they got the right person. I also think that it’s a very strange time for development and the entertainment industry, just in general. I have never been someone to wait for people to come to me. I’d much rather continue to tell stories. If the day comes when someone wants to approach me with something great and interesting and fun, obviously, I will sit down with that.
But to answer your question, no. I haven’t gotten that. From a development standpoint, it’s obviously been quite different. I think people are very open to what I have to say next in terms of television and film. That’s a really lovely and new experience for me. I hope to make the most of it, obviously. Again, I think with the pandemic, being a writer, it’s one of those few professions that really wasn’t… it wasn’t shut down because film and TV need content when everything comes back. That was really actually fueling me, from a writing standpoint, to keep making and keep writing and keep developing so that when this is all done, we’ll have work for people, that we can hopefully develop these ideas and these scripts into projects that can employ people, and that we can actually build back an industry that has really been struggling in the midst of all of this chaos.
Yes! Well, I am sadly out of time with you already, but I can’t wait to see what you came up with, with your quarantine creativity. I hope, at least, that this show will plant the seed in the minds of people who make choices to cast you as a superhero.
LEVY: Fingers crossed. I’m game!
Coastal Elites is now available on HBO.