Eugene Levy: ‘I’m not ruling anything out – including retirement’

Eugene Levy returns (hesitantly) to another season of travelling the world in Apple TV+’s ‘The Reluctant Traveller’  (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
Eugene Levy returns (hesitantly) to another season of travelling the world in Apple TV+’s ‘The Reluctant Traveller’ (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

There are two things everybody knows about the actor Eugene Levy – but only one of them is true. The first is that he has excellent eyebrows, and the second is that he is a jokey man. Upon seeing Levy on camera this afternoon, I can confirm that his eyebrows – or “brows” as he calls them – are on brilliantly bushy form: two caterpillars of hair as distinctive as Charlie Chaplin’s moustache. But despite being a very funny actor, he is not a man who likes to joke. Unless you are asking him about his eyebrow upkeep. “I hire only the best landscapers,” he says, gesturing to his face with a mock-reverential wave. “It’s very expensive, but I think it helps.”

It is easy to conflate Levy with his vast array of characters. After his six decades in the biz, they cram his CV like sardines in a can. At 77, Levy still has the same semi-nasal voice as his singing dentist in his and Christopher Guest’s improvised 1996 mockumentary Waiting for Guffman; the same endearing chin dimple as his ruined businessman in the 2015-2020 Emmy-winning sitcom Schitt’s Creek; the same coif as Steve Martin’s wolfishly smooth best friend in the 2003 comedy Bringing Down the House; and the same chunky spectacles as his hapless dad in the raunchy 1999 teen flick American Pie. But in person, Levy has a distinctive Canadian humility about him. He’s a far more serious man than his work lets on.

His latest project, the Apple TV+ travel series The Reluctant Traveller, which is out with a second season this month, reveals more of Levy than ever – more than he was comfortable with, frankly. “Any time I’m myself, I feel exposed – like now,” he says. “It was a concern, because I am always more comfortable in character than I am just being me.” The series – in which Levy jetsets around Europe, trying his hand at beekeeping in Provence, Ceilidh dancing in Scotland, and baking bread in Scandinavia – has helped somewhat with that lifelong shyness. “I think it’s actually helping me as a person,” Levy says, apparently shocked at his own realisation.

The show has helped in other ways, too. For one thing, Levy (the reluctant traveller of its title; his aversion to anything new is the show’s basic premise) is a little less reluctant the second time round. “A little,” he reiterates now. “To enjoy travelling, you’ve got to be a curious person with a sense of adventure... that ain’t me, but I am better off than I was a year ago.” But make no mistake, this is still a man whose first response to seeing floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the most incredible snow-dusted vistas in northern Sweden is: “Are there blinds?”

Levy has no desire to stray further from his house in the Pacific Palisades – where he lives with his wife, the producer Deborah Devine – than the nearby golf course; he plays every week, with the same coterie of pals each time. All the same, it’s a certain kind of celebrity that is asked to host a travel show, and Levy has entered a rarefied stratum of national treasures such as Stanley Tucci and Joanna Lumley. For Levy, it was the Noughties teen franchise American Pie that solidified his gold-member status, his side of the pond at least, but a younger generation will likely know him for Schitt’s Creek, the eight-time Emmy-winning sitcom about a rich family newly poor and forced to live at a motel in a town they bought in 1991 for a joke because of its name.

The series, which he made with his son Dan, ranks among the best comedies in recent memory. Word of mouth turned the show into a sleeper hit, and by the end of its sixth season, Schitt’s Creek had won nine Emmys, including a Lead Actor award for Levy.

Being the supportive dad he is, Levy said yes to his son’s proposition before checking to see if he had the chops to pull it off. “We started working on it and then I had this fear, it was almost like nightmares, where I would just think, ‘Well, what if he doesn’t have it? What if he doesn’t have the talent to do this?’” recalls Levy. “What do I do? Do I sit him down and tell him, or do I say nothing and we keep working on a project that will go nowhere? It was a real dilemma.” Happily, of course, it never came to that.

Levy earned his stripes during the 1970s. He graduated from college in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, with a degree in sociology at the start of that decade. It was there that he met future collaborators Martin Short, Dave Thomas and Ivan Reitman. His first professional acting role was as Jesus in a now famous 1972 Toronto production of Godspell, which launched the careers of Levy, Short, Thomas, Victor Garber, Andrea Martin, and Gilda Radner.

The Scottish spirit: Levy in Scotland for season two of ‘The Reluctant Traveller’ (Apple TV+/Ian Gavan. All Rights Reserved)
The Scottish spirit: Levy in Scotland for season two of ‘The Reluctant Traveller’ (Apple TV+/Ian Gavan. All Rights Reserved)

Two years later, he joined the Second City improv troupe in his native Toronto. Also part of the troupe were fellow Canadians John Candy, Rick Moranis, Dan Aykroyd, Short, and Catherine O’Hara – the last of whom plays his fabulously melodramatic wife in Schitt’s Creek. Second City moved from stage to screen with SCTV, essentially the weird Canadian sibling to Saturday Night Live. Though largely ignored at the time, SCTV has since secured comedy touchstone status; its 2018 reunion special was directed by big fan Martin Scorsese.

SCTV has aged mostly well – although, perhaps inevitably, there have been a couple of missteps. One sketch starred Martin as Indira Gandhi in a spoof of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s political musical Evita. “There were scenes that were really kind of out there,” says Levy now. “Would I be doing them now? No, I don’t think I would. Times have changed. Humour has taken a different course.”

It was a different time, is his point. “When I started in the Seventies, you could go a bit more risqué, push the envelope a little bit,” Levy says. “It was more a macho thing. That’s what was expected, so that’s what you did. In the world of comedy, there’s nothing wrong with pushing the envelope; you just have to make sure you’ve totally examined whatever premise you’re considering so you know for certain whether it is totally justified.” He pauses. “But you know, I do think there’s a certain age where pushing the envelope just doesn’t work – and I think I may be at the age where maybe it doesn’t work so well,” Levy laughs. “Something a bit more laidback is my cup of tea.”

Father figure: Levy and Jason Biggs as Noah and Jim Levenstein in ‘American Pie’ (Getty)
Father figure: Levy and Jason Biggs as Noah and Jim Levenstein in ‘American Pie’ (Getty)

It makes sense: Levy has a laidback reputation in Hollywood. Short calls him Saint Eugene. “A little Buddha” is how Devine, whom he married in 1977, once described his constant sense of zen. “Oh no, things get under my skin,” Levy says now. “Like when I’m trying to do up a shoelace and it becomes a knot. So I guess that’s a streak of insanity that runs through me, but I never lose my cool with other people. There’s not enough time in the day for that behaviour.”

It was American Pie, though, that first introduced Levy to a truly global audience. Levy played dad to Jim (Jason Biggs), a role he reprised in eight of the nine sequels; the final four were straight to DVD. For those who came of age around the turn of the new millennium, that raunchy, randy film, which followed a group of teen boys trying to lose their virginity, was a seminal piece of sex-ed – for better or for worse. Yet the original script was too explicit for Levy, and he hesitated before taking on the role.

Funnily enough, it was the girls that ran the show on ‘American Pie’. Women [characters] ran the show in those stories, they made all the big decisions, right? Which was something

It’s hard to imagine the crude humour and the way the film objectified women playing out so well in 2024, but Levy has only positive things to say about the franchise. “It’s true that I read the script and thought, ‘Wow, this is really... urgh. I don’t know whether I want to do this,’ but we did some work on it and redid some scenes and it turned out so well,” he says. “And funnily enough, it was the girls that ran the show. Women [characters] ran the show in those stories, they made all the big decisions, right? Which was something. A credit to the writer Adam [Hertz] on that, as well.”

The role had implications for his real-life son, Dan, who recently recalled how, to his humiliation, his friends at school had believed the film was based on his life. Levy tells me he is grateful to one of Dan’s pals, who advised Dan not to accompany his dad to the film’s premiere. “It was absolutely the right move. I am so glad he wasn’t there,” Levy laughs. “It would have been extremely uncomfortable watching it with my 15-year-old son.”

The family business: Annie Murphy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Dan Levy as seen in ‘Schitt’s Creek’ (Netflix)
The family business: Annie Murphy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Dan Levy as seen in ‘Schitt’s Creek’ (Netflix)

Retirement is a dirty word for a lot of actors, but not for Levy. “I’m not afraid of retirement,” he says bluntly. “I love it when I have nothing on the agenda, I really do. I love getting up and the only big decision is where to go for lunch. There’s nothing wrong with that.” The days of scripted shows, he suggests, are behind him. “I’ll take on jobs that I find really interesting, and jobs that won’t be too time-consuming – but I don’t think I’d get into another series where you’re working six days a week for five months straight.”

Including, as it turns out, the new Spinal Tap sequel. It was announced by Guest in 2022, with Paul McCartney and Elton John also to star, and there were rumblings that Levy, being Guest’s long-time collaborator and a very vocal Spinal Tap superfan, may be involved. “No, I know they’re doing a remake, but my phone hasn’t been ringing,” he laughs. “I don’t think I’m going to be involved in that one.”

But he’s not ruling anything else out? “No, not ruling anything out,” he repeats. “Including retirement, but I think there’s still a few jobs in me left.”

Seasons one and two of ‘The Reluctant Traveller’ are available to watch now on Apple TV+