“It was a frightening prospect to raise our kids in Hollywood,” Eugene Levy, 74, recalls of the decision to move back to Toronto from Los Angeles in 1992. And yet after a career heading up Christopher Guest ensemble films, Levy is now likely to be most fondly remembered for a family affair, the show he launched in 2015 with his son, Dan, 37: Schitt’s Creek. (Daughter Sarah, 34, also starred.)
“I thought, this will either be the greatest thing on earth or it will end in family court,” says Deborah Divine, Dan and Sarah’s mom and Eugene’s wife of 43 years. “Fortunately it turned out to be the former.” So great, in fact, that the Canadian-born series swept the comedy categories at the 2020 Emmys.
At the end of their monumental year, the father and son get sappy — with trademark sarcastic asides — about work and family life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Who was more excited on Emmys night?
DAN LEVY: I think physically, me. I haven't watched it back because I'm scared of just how excited I was. It was a very physically cathartic experience. I think I did a lot of jumping up and down.
EUGENE LEVY: I was actually more excited, but I was off camera for most or all of the broadcast.
DAN: I was more excited for other people.
EUGENE: Well, when you said, “I hope I win,” at the beginning of the night —
DAN: I never said that. I never once said that. In fact, I believe what I said to you is, “I will not win. I hope you will.”
EUGENE: Oh, maybe that was it.
DAN: That's what I said.
EUGENE: That was it. I heard it wrong. It was an exciting day.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did Schitt’s Creek start?
EUGENE: My son came to me with an idea for a television show and said, "Do you want to work on it with me?" I said, "Yes." It wouldn't matter what the idea was.
DAN: I would go over to my parents’ house every Sunday, and we'd sit down for a few hours and start to hash out what this idea was. And slowly but surely, things started to unfold.
When did you realize, okay, we have a family business?
EUGENE: I always felt, being the senior member with the most experience, I would have to mentor a little bit in both a writing capacity and even possibly a performing capacity. Once I realized I did not have to do that, I could step back and we could go through this as equal partners. That was the beginning of this thing moving forward like a well-oiled machine. On set and during the entire process, I think it was a very professional relationship. It wasn't really like, are the families kind of putting together a show?
DAN: No, except for you being at the monitors all the time, watching Sarah and I, mouthing the words along like a stage parent.
EUGENE: I... was not aware anybody was looking at me.
DAN: Everyone was looking at you.
Will you work together again?
EUGENE: That may happen down the line. I mean, certainly, if there's any future Schitt's Creek spin-offs or movies or specials or whatever, which is a possibility. But I think that this lad here is now spreading his wings and flexing. He's got a thousand ideas that he's ready to do.
DAN: I don't think you ever want to set yourself up to be compared to what you've done. I hope that we can continue to find a story to tell maybe in the future with Schitt's Creek. And then if there's other ideas that come up, I just think you need to let dust settle before you even begin to touch the chemistry that people have come to know and love so well with the show.
Eugene, do you agree? Or are you already thinking about how you collaborate with Catherine O’Hara again?
EUGENE: As many times as I've worked with Catherine and a lot of my friends, dust does settle between projects. When you're working with people that you absolutely love working with and the experience is so great, you do want to have that experience again.
DAN: When you have 80 episodes of television with the same people, it's a slightly different relationship, and for the audience knowing from the start that whatever you did in Waiting for Guffman would be totally different from Best in Show.
EUGENE: Yeah, that's true.
DAN: We need to wait 80 years, I guess.
EUGENE: Yeah. That might not work for me necessarily, but I get it.
How do you express affection for each other? Are you a huggy family?
EUGENE: Well, I came from a huggy family, and I think we had plenty of hugs in our family when we see each other.
DAN: Not anymore.
EUGENE: Not anymore, and not now. Now the show's over because we're not getting along at all.
DAN: No, I meant because of COVID.
EUGENE: I actually miss those hugs. It's been a while since we've had family hugs, certainly because we're not all in the same bubble. I don't think we necessarily go too much over and above.
DAN: No. It's not an enmeshment situation.
EUGENE: I don't finish every conversation with "Love you! Love you!" I feel that we know the love is there.
DAN: I’ve never had to prove myself. I've never had to explain myself and that, fundamentally, is the support that every father needs to give their son. Particularly where the son is a gay or queer person, because that relationship is crucial. And I think for a lot of people, they don't get that support from their fathers. I’m grateful.
EUGENE: Well, that was always there from your mother and me.
Dan, you tweeted about one of the international distributors having cut some of the gay kissing out. What happened?
DAN: It was a promo that was sent to me, out of India. For me, it was a responsibility to investigate and get to the bottom of what was going on. There's a community of people that have really rallied around the show and found a sense of safety and security in it. I was very relieved to learn that the scene wasn't cut out of the show itself but rather the promo, but I think it's an important lesson to learn in terms of censorship of any kind. It was necessary to call it out. As one of the gatekeepers of the show, you can't just turn a blind eye to something like that when you made the conscious choice to make a show about inclusivity.
We saw this happen also after Rocketman came out — in that case, airline edits were cutting out gay scenes.
DAN: When I heard the Rocketman stories, as a gay person I felt like, what is going on here? It raises a fundamental question about the price of integrity when it comes to the work that you're making and how sometimes in this industry money talks in ways that overrides the intention of what is being made.
How much do you two get to control that process as the show goes into syndication?
DAN: Listen, we have a hand in every single part of this show. We are protecting the show as much as we possibly can. We approve every piece of merch. We are approving every single cut. Obviously, syndication means that you have to cut some time out of your shows, so my dad has been patiently going through every single episode with an editor, making sure that they remain as true to the show as possible.
Eugene, you moved the family from Los Angeles to Toronto to help your kids have a normal life.
EUGENE: It was a frightening prospect to raise our kids in Hollywood. As much fun as it can be, it's a very affected society, and it would shut the kids off from other non-showbizzy, normal ways to go about in life.
How old were Dan and Sarah when you started to get an inkling that they had more theatrical inclinations?
EUGENE: They would be putting on shows almost constantly. Daniel was the ringleader. Sarah was too young — she just did what she was told by Daniel. He would more or less produce the shows. We would summer quite often with Marty Short and his family, and [the kids] would put on these shows at the cottage almost nightly. It wasn't until they were in high school that I saw an interest in drama and being in school plays. That was when I first realized there's some talent there.
Is there an acting family version of the talk, where you have to be like, "Don't turn into this kind of actor," or did you sit back and wait to see how that played out?
EUGENE: I sat back.
DAN: I never gave you the option to give me that advice.
EUGENE: I would offer to help him, like learning lines, but he always said, "No, I've got it." And he did actually have it. I honestly didn't know whether there was a future there. I never once thought when I was in high school plays that I could do this for a living. And the same thing with my kids.
DAN: When you have family members and family friends that are actors, you tend to be surrounded by these really wonderfully colorful personalities. I can't really tell whether it came from a natural instinct or whether it originally started with a desire to experiment with what we saw our parents doing. But it was certainly something that brought a lot of joy and excitement to our young lives. You don't perform as children consistently if you don't like it.
EUGENE: That's the key point. Some people like performing because you like the attention that it gets you from the people watching. It struck me more with Daniel that he just loved the process of doing it, the idea of making it up, and the idea of actually acting it out. He wasn't doing it for the attention.
DAN: I do remember really enjoying the rehearsal process and putting together the run of the show. Figuring out how it would look, and what color curtain we would use, and how we'd hang it — it was all a very specific and thorough process that was almost to me more exciting than actually doing it.
EUGENE: Always just a fun kid, a caring kid. He developed a great sense of humor, I guess around maybe 14. That was a time when he was able to elicit great, hard laughs from the family, from me, and my wife, Deb, and Sarah. Just like, "Wow, where did that come from?" That was an awakening for me: There's a funny mind in there.
Dan, when did you understand what your dad did for a living?
DAN: Probably young. SCTV was one of those cultural tentpole TV shows in Canada, so you were always aware that there were eyes on him, or people would come up. I, from a very young age, had a really hard time with attention from strangers. I found it to be an incredibly uncomfortable experience and would try my best to avoid it as much as I possibly could. I didn't like going out to baseball games or going to restaurants, because it meant that you were preparing yourself for a lot of unwanted attention. As a kid who was incredibly anxious and very insecure in dealing with my own personal stuff, the last thing you want is groups of people staring at you and coming up to you and drawing more attention.
EUGENE: But we didn't know that at the time. We would always wonder why he walked six feet in front of us. Didn't really understand why.
Dan, you had experience being on a set for your hosting work at MTV Canada, but obviously acting in a scripted series is quite different.
DAN: Right up until the night before we started shooting, my biggest concern was making sure that the [scripts] were as good as they can be. It was a blessing in a way, because I didn't have the time to overthink anything. And I didn't have the time to really get nervous about it, because that time was being spent writing. I remember the week before shooting, sitting down with Emily [Hampshire] and Annie [Murphy] and going through the first episode script and saying, "Is there any dialogue that doesn't feel right to you? Are there any situations that you as an actor feel are out of place?" And we had really meaningful conversations that helped really inform those characters from day one. Smash cut to the first day on set. I learned my lines, and I knew how I wanted the character to look. In those early days, it was a very funny navigational adventure, because I remember walking out without my glasses on and my dad was like, "No. You absolutely have to wear your glasses." And I was like, "Nope. I'm not wearing my glasses. I will not wear them. I've talked to the wardrobe team. They agree. We're not wearing the glasses."
EUGENE: The glasses was an iconic part of Daniel's persona in Canada at that time, because his look when he was on MTV —
DAN: I wore clown glasses! They were ridiculous.
EUGENE: And yet, once you started wearing them on MTV, you started noticing them popping up all over the place. It became a trendsetting thing. I thought it was, why are we not playing into that? This is what you're known for, I thought.
DAN: As a fresh young actor, when you're trying to navigate the choices that you're making as a character, it was tricky because you're trying to listen to everybody yet at the same time you're trying to stay true to your own impulses.
What’s a time when you gave each other feedback on your performances?
EUGENE: When we were doing our presentation pilot, he at one point came in to give me an acting note in a scene I was doing with Catherine. That was the first note he'd ever given me. I remember, my first reaction was, “What?!” And then, when I heard the note, I did what he had asked, and that was the right thing to do. It was good to know there's somebody who actually has an eye on what you're doing that a director might not necessarily detect. The only note I had for Daniel, again in the presentation, was that I remember I kept saying, "You may have to talk louder, because I'm not sure the microphone is able to pick up what you're saying. You're talking very, very, very quiet."
DAN: I remember specifically one instance — the episode where Alexis was studying at school, and Johnny's in the doorway. He crosses the door frame from his room to the next room and then crosses back and then comes back in. My dad has this very slow gait to his walk, so we were watching Johnny cross the frame and then it was holding for a minute on one side and then coming back. We didn't have the real estate to let this gag land for as long as it was, so I just kept going into him like, "This is a terrible note to give, but can you just do it faster?" He was like, "Well, this is feeling goofy." And I was like, "Trust me, on camera it doesn't look goofy. We're just going to need you to go double as fast." So then, we tried it double as fast, and I had to run in again and be like, "Okay, let's do it triple as fast." It was this whole thing, which I could understand. I think when it comes to physical gags, everyone is reluctant, to not want anything to play shticky.
EUGENE: Yeah, playing faster used to scare the hell out of me no matter what I was doing. When somebody says, "Could you play it bigger or play it faster?" I get jittery. Going back and forth, I understood how that could be funny. The good thing is that ultimately you're dealing with somebody who has great comedy instincts. It's always comforting to know there's somebody on the floor you trust. It's a rare experience to work with your kid on a job. I don't know who else [has done this], certainly not in this business.
DAN: On Golden Pond was a recent example.
EUGENE: Yes. That was a great example.
DAN: I also feel like the entire Wayans family works together all the time. That's a huge family, so respect to them.
EUGENE: Again, those are brothers. I guess the Marx Brothers worked together. The Ritz Brothers worked together when they were working. The Everly Brothers. Brothers working together might be different than a father/son working together or a father/daughter working together.
Dan, what's the most surprising thing you learned from Eugene in the course of making the show?
DAN: Just the way that he is with people, the way that he operates on set, the level of care and respect, it's quite remarkable. Because when the number one and number two on your show treat everybody with the same level of respect that they treat each other, you notice that nobody can get away with having an ego — except for me at times. The ripple effects of that create a safe space. It allows for a level of creative freedom. It allows for people to really be open to the process of collaborating. It changes everything, and it certainly informed in me a standard with which I will never operate beneath. I would rather shut a production down than work with an actor that is absolutely maniacal. It's not worth it. I don't care who they are. I don't care how good they are. The process of making whatever we're making is the majority of the experience.
How is your relationship different now?
EUGENE: Considerably worse. We worked well together.
DAN: This is the last time we'll be appearing together ever, so...
EUGENE: And we don't spend a lot of time together anymore, for some reason.
DAN: You might call it estranged. [Laughs]
EUGENE: The idea of working with both my kids, for me, was totally surreal.
DAN: When you go through such a life-changing experience with your family, it cements a layer of memory into your life. For my dad and my sister and I to have these performances immortalized is a fun little gift.
This interview has been condensed and edited.