They say you should never judge a book by its cover. But let’s be honest, you only need to look at Eugene Levy to know he’s not a guy who enjoys travel.
“Let’s start with airports,” he says, as our interview gets under way. “Take off your watch, your belt, your shoes, take out your laptop, take off that coat, take off the ring … then you’re watching your personal life rolling away from you in eight different, not the cleanest, bins in the world.”
Which makes Apple TV+’s decision to send him off as host of a global travel series a somewhat ambitious plan. At least they read the room before he left. The show is titled The Reluctant Traveller with Eugene Levy.
Levy is still going. “Now you’re on the plane and you know, you might get a good meal, you might not,” he continues. “And then you get to a place, and there’s a sightseeing agenda … five, six, seven, eight things in a day. I usually don’t find that the least bit enjoyable.
“I used to think, and still do, that the perfect vacation is one where you don’t have to think, you just perch by a pool, you have a nice cool drink, maybe a round of golf, and then where can we go for a good steak? I could do that every day. That’s relaxing.”
Which begs the question, why on earth is the Emmy, Grammy and SAG award-winning, travel-hating star of Schitt’s Creek, Best in Show and American Pie doing a travel show that will take him as far and wide as Costa Rica, Finland, Italy, Japan, Maldives, Portugal and South Africa?
“Because it was pitched to me originally as a show about exotic hotels around the world, and at first I thought, boy, that sounds like a show, but I’m not the guy for it,” Levy says. “I can pretend to be somebody on camera. But doing it as myself was something else. So I said no. I said, honestly, I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”
The creative team at Apple TV+ did not give up. “I was getting laughs on the other end of the phone with every reason I’m not the guy,” Levy says. “And what I didn’t know was, after that call, they got on the phone together and they said, that’s the show. The show, but with somebody who doesn’t love to travel.”
As an actor, audiences know Levy as Noah Levenstein in the American Pie films, Gerry Fleck in Best in Show, Morley Orfkin in For Your Consideration and, of course, Johnny Rose in Schitt’s Creek. And as much as it might seem amusing that those characters are not too distant from Levy himself, the truth is the 76-year-old Canadian-born actor, like a lot of actors, has always used characters as armour.
“The most frightening thing about this show, for me, was going on as myself because I’m not that person,” Levy says. “I was always very comfortable being in character. And the further the character was from me, the more comfortable I was.”
Johnny Rose in Schitt’s Creek, for example, was already uncomfortably real for Levy, he says. “[He] was very close to who I am as a person, not 100 per cent, but very close,” Levy says. “And kicking that show off was a very frightening experience for me because I looked like me, I sounded like me. And yet it was a character.
“I really approached [The Reluctant Traveller] as a means, maybe, of bettering myself, being more open to talking to people, having conversations. I was never kind of chit-chatty. I never really initiate conversations with people I don’t know. I don’t talk it up with the guy beside me at the supermarket while I’m waiting in line.
‘The good thing about the show is that it is forcing me to open up more with people.’
“I’ve [always] been a very private person in talking about myself and my life and my thoughts and in this show, those things are kind of coming out of me, the reluctant part of reluctant traveller. There had to be more depth to it than just a title and just a superficial premise. The reasons why I’m so reluctant about certain things had to come out to make this show meaningful.”
There was, ironically, very little time for holidaying while filming The Reluctant Traveller. Largely because the series was shot on an intense schedule. “We were shooting for four days and pretty much from the day we got anywhere, we started shooting,” Levy says.
And there was, he adds, a day off in Venice, for which his wife Deborah and daughter, actress Sarah Levy, joined him. “So we went out and walked around and did what you do when you’re on vacation,” Levy says. “Had they not been there, I may have wandered out to see what the neighbourhood was like, but when I’m on my own, I tend not to do the things that I end up doing on the show.”
You know, like, chatting to the locals. “It’s not me. It’s not how I’ve grown up. It’s not how I’ve spent the past 75 years. I just don’t do it,” Levy says. “So the good thing about the show is that it is forcing me to open up more with people. For me as a person, [the show is] doing a very positive thing for who I am at this age before it’s too late.”
Levy also struck deep connections with some of the people he encountered in his travels, particularly an Italian father and son who work together, and families he met in Costa Rica and the American state of Utah. As a father who works with his own son – Levy’s son Dan co-created Schitt’s Creek, and co-starred in six seasons of the show – he understood those connections.
“You know what it is, by and large, it’s family. I got to spend time with Alessandro, with his son. That’s a family bond there,” Levy says. “I totally got that, very easy for me to relate to people on a one-on-one when basically we’re talking family. That’s the common denominator. That’s how I grew up. And that familiarity, as you said, you see in every country I went to around the world.”
Back home, his eight journeys complete for the show’s first season, Levy is just as hilariously reluctant as he was before he set out. “I like the fact that I was open to doing things I would never have done; getting to experience them,” he says. “Some things I would never want to do again. Don’t want to night hike in the rainforest again. Don’t care to do that.”
But there are, he notes, some things that were enjoyable. Which means perhaps, just perhaps, the reluctant traveller is, after his journeys, not so reluctant any more. “If there’s a message here for anybody else out there that is like me when it comes to travelling, I would say just surprise yourself and just say yes to some of these things. You may like them, you may not like them, but at least you can say you did them.”
The Reluctant Traveller with Eugene Levy is on Apple TV+ from February 24.
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