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Eugene Levy Is 'Not a Comedian'

Actor discusses his character-driven approach to comedy

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April 13, 2011 | by Matt Paolelli

He is known to younger generations as “Jim’s Dad” in the “American Pie” film series and to older audiences for his wide-ranging characters on the Canadian sketch comedy show “Second City Television.”  But when Eugene Levy spoke to students Monday at a Fiedler Hillel event, the veteran actor -- known for playing the hilariously awkward nerd -- emphasized that he is not a “funny guy.”

“I spent my whole life in comedy, but I’m not really a comedian,” Levy said. “When I’m introduced as a comedian, I always get an odd feeling, because I’m a comic actor. I get my laughs through characters, not necessarily as myself.”

In a Q & A format at Ryan Family Auditorium, Levy talked about growing up in a Jewish family in a non-Jewish neighborhood in Canada and about his unconventional path to a career in entertainment.

He traced the rise of his comedic star from his work as a coffee boy on a film directed by Ivan Reitman, after he dropped out of college, to his success on stage in Second City doing improv, on television in “Second City Television” and on the big screen in numerous films, including his “mockumentary” collaborations with filmmaker Christopher Guest.

On his first day of shooting Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman,” Levy was surprised when the director did not encourage his actors to rehearse their unscripted scenes in advance.

“The great fun of being involved in those first takes on camera is that the scene is opening up for the very first time, and you don’t know what anyone is going to say,” he said. “It’s always an amazing experience doing those movies.”

Levy’s film career reached new heights with his role in the 1999 sex comedy “American Pie.” The film spawned six sequels, and Levy has appeared in every one, even though he initially rejected the role when he read the “raunchy script.” When he got to page 25, he called his manager.

“I can't do this movie,” he said. “This is a horrible movie. Why would I want to be in a movie that I wouldn’t go see?”

After his manager convinced him to meet the filmmakers, he was impressed by how smart they were. When they allowed him to improvise the lines for his scenes, he was sold on the project.

Levy confirmed that the long-rumored “American Reunion” sequel is in the works and will feature the return of all the main characters from the original movie.

Levy attended McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada, which did not have a theater program or a film program. “So everything we did was extracurricular,” he said.

Even during his college days, he said, Northwestern had a considerable reputation as one of the great theater programs in North America.

When asked for advice about entering the real world after college, Levy boiled it down to three words: “Obey the rules.”

“It’s brutal out there,” he said. “You’ve been at one of the great universities in the country, and if you can’t get a head start by being at a place like Northwestern, then I don’t know.”