Eugene Levy Interview

The master of improv teams up with Sam Jackson for some funny business.

We all remember Eugene Levy as the dad in the American Pie series. He's getting ready to rock the big screen again with Samuel L. Jackson in The Man! He plays a dental salesman who is mistaken for an international gun salesman.

Eugene got his start on the Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV and continued his improv skills with Christopher Guest. He gave us a little preview of the latest in the series - For Your Consideration while promoting The Man.

Read what he says about that and working with Sam:

Why do this movie?

Eugene Levy: I like to eat, I'd like to send my kids to college, I like to buy things. When stuff comes across your desk, you look at it seriously. For me, it's got to be an absolute dog before you can say, ‘No thanks.' I'm not in the Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt kind of place where you get a thousand scripts dumped on [you] - the A-list scripts - you get to turn down anything you want. So it's got to be a horrible project that I know I can't do anything with before I can actually turn something down. Why this picture? It came across my desk and it's a character that I'm very familiar with, the kind of character I love to do. It's a two-hander, and I'm one of the hands. I'm not one of the support guys; I'm one of the hands. It was a pretty special project even before I knew Sam was involved.

In fact, you were the first one cast.

Eugene Levy: My understanding was I guess it was three years when they sent the script and wanted to know if I was interested in doing this movie. I said ‘Who's doing this.' And they said ‘Well, we don't have the part cast yet, but we wanted to know if you want to do this.' I liked the part; I liked the fact that it was a two-hander. I think the script needs some work, but I think I can do that. I think I can humanize this character more than he was originally written. Originally, the guy was - I wanted to smack him on page 30, but I knew I could make those changes. The longest time it seemed like a while went by, I think originally there was talk about rappers, trying to get a rapper, trying to get Snoop Dogg, trying to appeal to a certain audience. And I remember saying ‘Ah, I don't know. I think the guy's gotta be able to act.' It's an acting piece. It's a two-hander here. This is not just a movie where you're throwing off funny lines. And then I was doing the Today Show, promoting something, and Sam Jackson walks off the elevator to the green room. He walks in as if he knows me and says ‘Hey, I hear we're working together.' I said ‘On what?' He says ‘On The Man.' I said (surprised) ‘Oh, that's good; I didn't know that.' I get on the phone and say ‘Sam Jackson says he's doing The Man.' They said ‘Yeah, he's got the script, he's interested, he wants to do it.' I said ‘Boy. That's it.' I never thought it could get that good. That was a big day, that was a good one.

Is Sam as tough as he looks?

Eugene Levy: I was intimidated the first couple of days at least because most of my work is comedy, and I work with people in comedy. I work with funny people; I don't think I've worked with anybody of that caliber - that movie star-type caliber that Sam was. So I was a little - my thing was, okay, don't screw it up. When they yell ‘cut' he loves to laugh and he loves to go over with his people - the makeup and wardrobe people who have been working with him for a long time - and they do nothing but laugh and talk and tell these stories, always chit chatting in the makeup room, the first thing in the morning. They talk and laugh and talk and laugh. And in this movie, he played a very angry character, but when they yell ‘cut,' he's right out of it. And my memory of him at the Today Show was how friendly and effusive he was. I remember thinking ‘Why is it he's not the way he seems on screen, he's really nice."

How is it to headline this film instead of supporting?

Eugene Levy: I don't like it as much; I liked being able to come in and kind of do a quick pop and the only thing you have to worry about is yourself. And if you're covered, you can come in - It's like a Teflon thing, nothing sticks. You go in, you get out, you score and then you hit the golf course. With this, I felt the pressure of having to help carry a movie, and when you do that, you're carrying story, you're carrying exposition, you're carrying a bunch of stuff that normally I don't have, I try to avoid. I like to do the stuff that's funny, and that's it. But at this point in my life and in my career I think I'm ready for something with a bit more meat on the bone. It's not necessarily a co-starring thing. That wasn't the huge attraction in this movie for me. It was the fact that you're doing a great relationship movie with somebody of the caliber of Sam Jackson. But that was the essence of this movie. It's a great two-hander. That's the stuff I like to do, character comedy - everything comes out of character, everything's grounded. As funny as you want to make things, it has to come out of a truth, out of a real place, whether it's a real fart incident in the car. It is really tied into a very real scenario that the guy has a problem with meat. He's been picked and turned inside out, upside down by this man in a world that he doesn't know. The guy won't let up; he can't do anything about it. All he wants to do is get something to eat. He hasn't eaten all day. The guy talks about getting a burger. He says ‘I can't. My stomach has a problem with red meat.' The other guy finds it funny, takes him to that place anyway. And the fact is, he gets a chance to unwittingly and unconsciously smack Vann back in the face.

The odd couple buddy comedy /action works at the box office; will you continue to do these?

Eugene Levy: I think I work well with and off other people. The idea of a buddy, it's an odd term; I know what you mean. I never saw this as a buddy movie. First of all, they're not buddies. They don't even become civil to each other at the end. And I think there definitely is some affection at the end, as close as these guys are going to get. But they don't go through life - it's not Wedding Crashers or something. I would like to look for things that are a bit meatier and I think that means working with somebody else because I work well off of other people. Not necessarily in a buddy movie, because there are other two-handers that are not necessarily buddy-action movies; that's something I'm certainly looking at.

What research did you do to write the dental salesman speech?

Eugene Levy: The reason I wrote the speech was because in the script, the only lines written were, ‘Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Good night.' They cut to the scene. It was the end of his speech that they cut to. I said ‘I think we have to hear more. I think we have to see and hear what is so important to this guy. He keeps talking about making his speech. He's got to make his speech. That I think we got to hear his speech. We have to hear what it is that's important to him in his work and in his life. So I got together with my dentist. He gave me some stuff to work with; I just wrote the little speech out. It all sounded kind of funny to me that these things are important to people. It's funny, when I talk to my own dentist and he puts a crown or cap or something, he just talks about how this is the best, this is the best cap or crown design; this is it. I'm thinking ‘Boy, can you imagine doing this every day?'

Was there any improv between you and Sam?

Eugene Levy: We did no improvising in the movie. Improvising is a really tough thing to do unless you know that the ground rules from the director down are just go ahead and have fun, forget the script. That's a whole different thing. That not only rarely doesn't happen, I don't think that ever happens unless you're doing an improvisational movie. We certainly made changes and I made changes to scenes and lines before we go in to shoot it, but they're changes for the most part everybody knows. I let the director know and certainly let Sam know. We would do a scene, and at the end of it, we would say ‘What if you did this and what of you did this?' We'd say ‘Okay, that would be good,' and the next take we'd change it. What you don't want to do is improvise and throw things at Sam Jackson in a scene while the camera's rolling. He's not necessarily -- although, honestly, he's go with it and play along and do it, he's that great. Normally improvising is something you don't do. Unless you know that the camera's in a fixed position, and it's really just you and you don't have to worry about anybody else in the scene unless it's someone you're working with that loves that kind of thing. But the camera guys have to know where to pan to and where to put the camera. They know where the scene is, and you have to go by the script.

So the Christopher Guest films you've done, are they less improvised than we believe them to be?

Eugene Levy: No, we don't write dialogue. We write a very detailed scene-by-scene outline of our movies. If we find something funny, a joke or a situation or some lines, we will indicate that in the script. We will put them in, but no dialogue is written. So what the actors do is they take the outline - we also give a very developed character background for all the characters as you go along in the script. We try to give them as much meat on the bone to improvise with. And all the exposition that comes about from scene to scene - this is the information that has to come out - we don't care how you say it. Just make sure it comes out, otherwise we've got no story. But all the dialogue is up to the actors and they bring, sometimes they will come in with a kind of characterization that we hadn't written. We didn't write Jennifer Coolidge with whatever dialect she had in A Mighty Wind. It wasn't written that way, but that's how she came in, and that's what they bring to it.

So the Who's your bitch scene is all scripted? When you read it, did you want to crack up?

Eugene Levy: It wasn't hard for me to keep a straight face. I'm not an easy breakup. I also know, especially for doing the movies with Chris that if you're doing a scene, and it's going really well and it's really funny, if you laugh in the middle of a scene you're killing a potentially great moment that you may never get again if you do a retake on it. So there's something very indulgent about laughing in the middle of a scene if you find it funny. You're actually sabotaging the scenes. It happens sometimes where you laugh - something strikes you funny and you laugh - normally it's when a scene is somehow going south and you know you're not killing a good thing. But that scene, it wasn't improvised, and it was scripted. I just kept thinking, I have to slap Sam Jackson in the face. He did it well, in fact, he made the suggestion of slapping him on the ass at the end of the scene. It was his suggestion at the end of one of the early takes. He said ‘Why don't you slap me in the ass when we're getting in the car and say something like, 'Get in, bitch.'

What about working with Christopher Guest again?

Eugene Levy: We're doing our next film in October. We shoot it in October. It's called For Your Consideration. It's about people working on a small, independent movie when the kind of magical word Oscar gets tossed into a conversation in regards to one of the actor's performances in the movie. Once the word gets dropped, you can't shake it. You can't get it out of your head, and it kind of permeates the production that they're working on. Everybody's back. Parker [Posey], Jennifer [Coolidge], Bob Balaban, Michael McKean. We had a couple of people in smaller roles in the last production that got bumped to larger roles. Chris Moynihan, who was one of the Main Street Singers in the last movie. And Rachael Harris had very small roles in the last two movies, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, a very funny girl is in it. And Ricky Gervais is coming in for a little part. I play an agent called Morley Orfkin who ran this agency called DOA, the Dorkman Orfkin Agency, a talent agency. I represent one of the actors in this independent movie. I'm not really basing it on any one person. I'm just experimenting right now with the look of the guy. I try to start with a look, it helps me, going back to SCTV. Chris is playing the director of the movie - Jay Berman, a guy who came out of a sitcom. It's going to be fun.

The Man hits theaters September 9th; it's rated PG-13. For Your Consideration will revealed to fans in January of 2006.