Canadian comic Eugene Levy has been making audiences laugh for over two decades, beginning with his scene-stealing performance in the classic “Splash”. Best known as frequent collaborator of Christopher Guest in the much-acclaimed series of improv films, Levy lends his voice to the character of Orrin in “Astro Boy”. Levy talked to PAUL FISCHER in this exclusive interview.
Question: Now, when you do an animated film, do you do it for you, or do it for your kids, or do you do it for the child within you?
Levy: [LAUGHTER] Well, let’s rule out the last one and my kids are fully-grown now. But I’ll be honest. You know, the way animated movies are going now, they are usually the funniest movies that are out funnier than most comedies that are coming out today. The writing is really superb in every way, shape, or form, both comedically, and just story-wise, and they’re just done so well that you know you’re involved in a really class act. That’s number one. And the other thing is, I just love the – that way of working. I love voice work.
Question: Is it because you like the isolation of it?
Levy: Well, it’s not that I love the isolation of it, because there are times when it would be fun to be in a room with other people. It’s just a very bizarre kind of acting exercise, in a way, because you have to go in to these things with – you know, a completely clean slate. You can’t really prepare too much, because the idea of doing these things, at least in my case – and I don’t know what that’s saying. But – you kind of go through – you know, five, six, seven, eight, ten variations, you know, on every line, kind of. You have to be prepared to just kind of do it one way, and then just do a 90 degree turn, and do the dialogue another way. And so really, for me, I end up kind of just going through all the lines, and giving – you know, five or six different variations on a line. And tell the director, you know, ” If you don’t have it, let me know.” And if not – if not, I’ll move onto the next line.
Question: When you come up with a character like the character in Astro Boy, do you know instinctively when you read the script how vaguely you are going to interpret that character vocally?
Levy: No. I thought I did on the very first animated thing I worked on, where you got the script, and put a lot of time into it. And kind of prepared it, and thought about the slant on the character. But the fact of the matter is, you don’t really know until you get in the studio with the director, kind of where he kind of leads you, because I used to prepare. I used to kind of come up with an angle on a character that I thought would really work well, only to find you get in the studio and the director’s saying, ” Well, that was really good. Now, how about trying it this way? And how about trying it this way? And now we’ll do it again, and why don’t you try it this way?” And you just have to be – you know, free enough to give the guy whatever he – you know, whatever he’s looking for. It’s really hard to kind of specifically say, ” Well, I’ve got a good take on a character here. I think I know what the vibe is on Orrin.” Because when I read the pages, I’m thinking, ” Well, this guy’s really kind of beaten down and I sense kind of a lower energy kind of thing.” But by the time we were done, there were reactions that — David Bowers, the director, would be saying – ” Gee. Well, you know, when he taps you on the shoulder, how about a big squeal?” Or, ” How about a scream?” Or – you know. And you’re going, you know, 90 degrees the other way.
Question: What was your take on the character when you read it? I mean, how does he fit into the overall Astro Boy legacy?
Levy: Well, what I loved about it was, you know, the kind of abuse that he was getting from – you know, Toby, this kid that he had to look after, Tenma’s son. It was horrible, the way he was being treated by this kid. And because he’s a robot, you know, you can’t really say or do anything. You can’t talk back, you can’t discipline. You can’t – you know, you’re treated like a second class citizen. And not only that, Orrin was, as a robot – you know, not the new souped-up model. He was kind of a bit of a relic. You know, from the old days. So then you almost have that kind of – you know, ” What do you do when you get old?” kind of thing going for you as well. And then the – you know, the turnaround that comes when Astro Boy comes on the scene and starts – you know, treating him like a human being. It’s – his reaction to that was really kind of – you know, kind of heartwarming. So, as a little character, I thought there was a lot to play with. And I loved the fact that his nerves were shot. And he’s just kind of a nerve end, through most of the movie, you know? It’s kind of a fun thing to play, too.
Question: Now, as a comedic character actor, what are the challenges for you to find comic material that you enjoy doing? Because it seems that it has been a while since we’ve seen you. Are you slowing down? Are you finding it difficult to find the right sorts of scripts? I mean, what’s going on there?
Levy: Well, there are two things. Well, yeah. It’s hard to find – I have to be honest. It’s hard to find a comedy script that I feel is kind of worth doing. They’re really hard to come by. So, I’ve been – I had a great experience working with Ang Lee in Taking Woodstock. That was kind of a nice – not a departure for me, but just in kind of a different area. Slightly straighter performance. That was kind of fun. You know, again, voicing Albert Einstein in Night at the Museum. I was much happier, actually, just lending my voice to the movie, than being in it. And, you know, I’m doing another animated thing coming up. It’ll be out next year.
Question: Is there a character that you’ve done, or a movie that you’ve done, that you’re dying to repeat? That you would like to do a sequel?
Levy: Well, I think we’ve done seven American Pie movies in the past nine years, a character that I love to do, which is that character. And – you know, fortunately, they keep doing these movies. So, that’s like putting on a pair of old comfortable slippers.
Question: What about working with Chris Guest again?
Levy: Well, yeah, sure. I haven’t really gotten together with Chris in the past year; when I’m in Canada, he’s here. And when I’m here, he’s touring somewhere with Spinal Tap. We talked about getting together when I come back to Los Angeles in January, to see what we feel like doing. We were toying with the idea – or, actually, we were approached at one point about a year ago with trying to turn one of our movies into kind of a theatrical piece, and we thought that was kind of an interesting notion, but we wanted to kind of work it through ourselves before we kind of committed. So, we only got about a quarter way into that, and then parted ways. So we’ll get back to that, too. I think there’s something definitely there, in our creative working relationship, but we won’t know ’til probably we get back together in January.
Question: And do you know what you’re doing next?
Levy: No. No. Another animated project that’ll be out next year, that we started recording.
Question: Which one is that, sorry?
Levy: It’s called Gnomeo and Juliet. It’s kind of a musical, an animated musical.
Question: And which of the faux-Shakespearean characters are you?
Levy: Well, if I tell you it’s a pink flamingo, would that mean anything to you? It’s the story, with garden gnomes. And that’s it.