”I don’t do wacky.”
Standing in the kitchen of his Toronto home, Eugene Levy is politely but firmly laying down the law for an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY photographer. Furthermore, he adds, ”I’m not going to do some sort of a big smile.” The comic actor demonstrates for a moment – pulling his lips back to bare his teeth – and it looks deeply wrong. ”That’s not really me,” he says, and it’s difficult to argue. Levy has, for the past 20 years, built a career by playing genial but clueless types who aren’t in on the joke. While his characters may find themselves in wacky situations – dousing mermaid Daryl Hannah with water in Splash, catching son Jason Biggs molesting a pie in American Pie, kidnapping a costumed bulldog in Bringing Down the House – he usually maintains a poker face.
It’s that quality of earnest squareness that has made Levy, 57, a favorite of directors, who tend to pop a set of horn-rimmed glasses beneath his bushy brows and cast him as the star’s best friend or officious boss. He doesn’t play leads much, not that he minds. ”I’m a character actor,” he says later, sitting on a brown leather ottoman in his living room. ”That gives you the ability to go in knowing that you’ve only got a handful of scenes. And you don’t necessarily have to carry the movie, you just have to score. It’s a great way to work.”
He’s been working especially hard lately; this year, in addition to House (where his nasal delivery of the line ”You got me straight trippin’, boo,” uh, brought down the house), Levy has roles in a pair of summer sequels – When Harry Met Lloyd: Dumb and Dumberer (opening June 13) and American Wedding, the third American Pie movie (Aug. 1) – and one de facto sequel, the just-released A Mighty Wind, the latest mock documentary from director Christopher Guest.
The last of these seems the closest to Levy’s heart, perhaps because, as with its predecessors, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, he also worked on the template for the films with Guest. (To preserve the documentary feel, the dialogue for all three movies was improvised by the cast.) As Mitch Cohen, an aging, drug-addled folkie who’s still recovering from a disastrous breakup with his girlfriend and singing partner, Levy is often more poignant than funny. ”His scenes are fairly serious,” Guest says. ”It was his choice, and he was fairly anxious about it, because it was something he hadn’t done before. It was very brave.”
His collaborations with Guest represent a return, of sorts, to Levy’s roots. The first time he appeared on screen was in a 1973 student film directed by his college buddy Ivan Reitman; that movie, the horror spoof Cannibal Girls, was largely improvised, although Levy notes that back then, ”I don’t really think we knew what we were doing.” Levy didn’t master improv until a few years later, when he joined Toronto’s famed Second City theater, alongside John Candy and, later, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, and Catherine O’Hara. He still cites his work at Second City – and his eight years on the troupe’s TV series – as his proudest accomplishment, and videocassettes of every show line several shelves of his living room. ”It was a great training ground,” Levy says. ”You learned a lot of great, basic rules [like] ‘Always play at the top of your intelligence level. Never talk down to your audience.”’ Another key lesson from his Second City days was a belief in what Levy refers to as ”comedy through character” – letting the laughs come from close observation of a person’s worldview, rather than from a string of punchlines. O’Hara recalls that, even in the sketch-comedy environment of SCTV, Levy would emphasize acting and human interaction over shtick. Similarly, she notes that he’d always commit to playing even the silliest roles as if they were real people. ”No matter what kind of character he did,” she says, ”there wasn’t a wink that went along with it.”