For over a decade, Canadian native Eugene Levy has been one of Hollywood’s memorable comic sidekicks or ensemble players. Even in Splash, Levy’s comic ingenuity was in evidence, and since then, from American Pie to his work with Christopher Guest, Levy is a master of cinematic comedy, but now, he is the actual star of the film The Man, a job he takes seriously but with actual reluctance, he confesses.
“I was daunted by it, because I’m not used to it,” says Levy, as we chat in a Beverly Hills hotel room. “I don’t like the responsibility, as I like kinda just popping in, scoring and getting out which is what I’m used to. I normally just take care of my own business, my own character, I like to do my work, change things, rewrite and all I have to do is worry about my scenes,” the actor says smilingly, admitting that playing film star was never a dream. “It wasn’t a premeditated thing. I wasn’t looking to now star in movies, it was just this, was a two-hander, and I was one of the hands.” Levy says the pressure of being one of the central characters was in “looking at what you’re doing in context of the story and the film and you have to be more involved as they allow you to be.”
In The Man, a case of mistaken identity forces Federal agent Derrick Vann [Samuel L. Jackson] and dental supply salesman Andy Fidler [Levy] to team up as they speed through the streets of Detroit to pull off a sting operation and solve the murder of Vann’s former partner. Levy ended up rewriting most of his character for the buddy action comedy, but then for this actor, it’s par for the course. “I always do a little rewriting with my own character in any film that I do, primarily because what’s written down on the page sometimes reads like a written line and so I like stuff to sound like it’s almost improvisational.”
Comparing this technique to the improv work Levy does with Christopher Guest, “the movies I do with Chris are great because we come up with the idea, and we write the thing. It never gets changed; there’s no interference; you don’t have to deal with a studio or with people making changes. We do what we want to do and they allow us to do it because it’s a very cheap movie to do and because there’s no expectations.” Levy is in fact currently reuniting with Guest for the new improv comedy, For Your Consideration. “It’s about people working on a small independent movie and what happens when the word ‘Oscar’ gets tossed into a conversation in relation to one of the performances.”
One of the recurring character traits in Levy’s persona is that his characters are rarely mean, but remain goodhearted. Levy, who strikes one as being similar to his characters from that perspective, says that those are the kinds of characters that have always appealed to him. “I’ve always gravitated to those characters, going back to SCTV or a television show where it was all character work. Most of the stuff I did on that show were like real people, not necessarily the sharpest pencils in the drawer, but that’s where the comedy comes in for me. I don’t find it innately funny to necessarily play a really smart person, but, everyday people I honestly relate to. In the real world, real people get pushed around as there are people who will step in front of you in a line where you just go, wait a minute, that guy just, butted in. I like to play real people, well intentioned with a good heart, and I think that’s the kind of character that most people can actually relate to, because they sometimes feel a little smarter.” Levy says that is what attracted him, for instance, to American Pie. “To me the relationship with the father and the son in American Pie was really what the movie was for me. I didn’t get attracted to it because it was the raunchiest movie ever made, but I just thought there was a great relationship for this square dad.”
Levy continues to be very busy, with two animated films and a sequel in production, plus the Guest film. Beginning with Over the Hedge, which Levy describes as “a really funny, very cute story,” n which he and Catherine O’Hara play a couple of porcupines. Levy is also one of the voices in Curious George, and says that he does movies like this “because it’s always important for kids and families to have, a film that they can go and see.” Including Cheaper by the Dozen 2 which Levy just wrapped. “That is a case in point a great family film. We’re having a lot of fun on that one and I think it’s going to be a really funny, good family movie. But I also spend a lot of time doing radio and voice work, in Toronto and the idea of going in to do voice work for, an animated character, or a radio spot, which is what we kind of grew up doing, is work that that I find enjoyable.”
As for Cheaper by the Dozen 2, that may well be the film that shirks off Levy’s nice guy image. “I kind of play Steve Martin’s foil, a guy that has known him for a long time. I’ve got my own big family, he’s got his family and there’s a kind of competition, but we go back to being kids and I always beat him at these competitions. Now I’m just an over-wealthy kind of guy, a funny character, who’s not pleasant. It’s a nice change, and, again, it seems to work well off, of Steve.”