Thank God For Dan Levy
Inside the showrunner’s hard-earned, awkwardly timed, very good year.
Occasionally, Dan Levy will pick up his phone and send a text: “Can you believe it?” These messages are sent to Annie Murphy or Noah Reid or Emily Hampshire or Karen Robinson, former inhabitants of Schitt’s Creek, titular town of the series Levy co-created with his identically-browed father, Eugene. What Levy can’t quite believe is that a CBC and Pop network show that aired in the U.S. after reruns of The Young and the Restless became a no-shit international phenomenon and won every major 2020 comedy Emmy from Outstanding Series to Outstanding Contemporary Costumes, plus awards for the show’s four main cast members: Levy, Levy the elder, Murphy, and Catherine O’Hara.
Not that Levy has any qualms about the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Or, more accurately, the best thing he’s ever made happen: In addition to creating, writing, and starring as skeptical scion David Rose on Schitt's Creek, Levy occasionally directed episodes and sourced many of the award-winning costumes. But the endless wretchedness of 2020 is perhaps an inopportune time to publicly garner good fortune.
“What this year has done has opened so many people's eyes to so much of the social unrest that is happening in America and really forced people to learn more,” Levy says, sitting in the bland Toronto apartment the 37-year-old is temporarily renting until he can head back to LA. “Read more. Educate themselves more. Check their privilege more. And yet…” Levy’s magnificent eyebrows unfold from a furrow of probity to an arch of delight, and his mouth into a crooked tilde of a smile. “There are moments when I think it is important for your sense of self to also be OK to say, ‘Something good happened to me this year, and I worked really hard for it.’ And so did a group of really talented people that I love. You're kind of caught in this place where only you can talk about it amongst yourselves.” Levy’s conversations with his co-stars are couched in language familiar to anyone who doesn’t want to give off the vibe of an Instagram caption on a pandemic birthday trip to a private island: "Well, obviously, you know, this is not of much significance" compared to everything else that’s going on. Still, Levy has to acknowledge that, yes, a good thing did happen; after all, he says, “You're talking about breaking records at the Emmys!”
Since he began social distancing, Levy has engaged in something like a fame-offset program, matching his good fortune by taking, publicizing, and raising money for University of Alberta’s online Indigenous Canada course. Levy’s queasiness about his success happening with a 2020 backdrop seems to stem from goodness so pervasive he’s caught himself thinking, Am I going to seem too, like, sincere? (When I ask if he believes he’s a good person, Levy frets, “Is being a good person something you can proclaim? Or is being a good person something that someone has to observe about you?”)
And Schitt’s Creek itself is an oasis of kindness — it doesn’t seem coincidental that after a slow five-season ascent, the show’s viewership exploded in its final year as we quarantined with our own bad thoughts. Levy has said that the arc of the Rose family — a “Balenciaga” to “consignment Balenciaga” to “back to current season Balenciaga” story — is based on the question, “Would the Kardashians still be the Kardashians without their money?” To Levy, the answer is obvious: Yes, and they would be better for it because, he says, “There is a love to that family.” So of course when the Roses lose the fortune amassed from a video rental empire and are forced to move to a Canadian town purchased as a novelty gift, they learn what truly matters.
Levy’s father and collaborator, Eugene, who co-wrote Christopher Guest films Best In Show and A Mighty Wind, says, “There are people who work in the world of comedy where they like to push envelopes in terms of what they can get away with, but that may come at the expense of other people. If it's at all important to you to avoid then you, you know, avoid it.” With the notable exception of programs like The Great British Bake Off — Levy, naturally, used to host the Canadian iteration — it is quite a bit more difficult to be entertaining and kind than entertaining and cruel. But Dan Levy attributes some of Schitt’s Creek’s success to what he calls “a purity to the storytelling and the show that caught people off guard because it was so unexpectedly sincere.” “There was something badass about the fact that it didn't have the kind of edge that people had often equated with cable comedies,” he says.
Making Schitt’s Creek a source of goodness and light was an unrelenting crush for Levy. “How much anger and rage do I have to repress in order to get the light out?” he says, laughing and stroking his elderly dog, Redmond, so vigorously I worry about ginger fur getting on Levy’s David Rose-appropriate black and white JW Anderson T-shirt. “Um, at times a lot.”
When Levy was working on Schitt’s Creek, he was picked up every morning at 5 a.m. and driven to set, where he would rehearse and rewrite scenes. Next was making decisions about sets and wardrobe fittings for cast members like O’Hara. Moira Rose, the actor mother of Levy’s character with a grandeur as flamboyant as her choice of syllable emphasis, might have to go to meet someone who makes her feel exposed. Levy would supervise an outfit selection that functioned as a billboard for her emotional state. “How do you express vulnerability?” Levy asks. “Well, you put more clothes on, and more aggressive clothes on, so as to armor yourself.” Levy needed to approve budgets, which didn’t increase even as the show gained more attention. He would act and sometimes direct, and then be back in wardrobe picking out the right statement necklaces for O’Hara to wear to buy a used car.
“How much anger and rage do I have to repress in order to get the light out?” Levy says, laughing. “Um, at times a lot.”
After filming ended, Levy went to the writers’ room to work for a couple more hours. He’d get home at 8 p.m., quickly eat dinner, and write until 2 a.m. on some nights. Then he’d sleep for two hours and get in the car to go back to work at 5 a.m. When shooting wrapped for the year, Levy went into post-production, spending months in windowless rooms. Once a season was finally completed, preparation would begin for the next one. Levy charged himself with making sure every detail connected to each other and tracked with the personal histories he and Eugene had written for each character before the series began. Eugene can remember only one deviation from those bios during the entire run of the show. Originally, the father of motel employee Stevie had been a roadie for Fleetwood Mac before receiving a restraining order from the band; the detail was later transferred to the father of diner waitress Twyla, who was played by Levy’s sister, Sarah. Several times during the run of the series, Levy developed anxiety so literally paralyzing that his neck would seize up, forcing him to wear a brace and receive chiropractic treatments between scenes.
“Through every phase of Schitt's Creek,” Eugene says, “Dan had a very strong sense as to what it was he wanted the show to look like and what he wanted it to sound like and what the tone of the show was going to be and what the message of the show would be. He certainly makes himself responsible to make these things happen. He doesn't go with the flow at all.”
Total control let Levy create a perfectly realized world, from the menu size in the Café Tropical to the caws in Moira’s comeback film The Crows Have Eyes III: The Crowening. But it’s perhaps not the healthiest arrangement when the confines of quarantine feel normal to you. “Over the past six years,” Levy says, “I really haven't been outside that much.”
When he was a boy, Levy became so anxious that he did not want to attend birthday parties. He did not want to go to summer camp. He did not, in fact, want to engage in any social situations. Levy’s anxiety physically manifested as iritis, an inflammation of the eye which doctors feared would eventually take his vision. It was as if the dread that drove Levy indoors had then decided to draw all the curtains.
“I think that came from a deep-rooted fear of knowing that I was gay and not being able to be free,” Levy says now. “By the time I got to high school, when your brain is starting to catch up to your physical impulses, it led to a very confusing time. Because on the one hand, you are now being introduced to things like self-awareness and anxiety. At the same time, you’re becoming more and more savvy when it comes to hiding it.”
The escape was theater. Levy began writing, directing, and performing in school plays, including a student-run stage adaptation of Clue produced during a teacher’s strike. “I was starting to develop a sense of confidence by way of being able to entertain people,” Levy says. “It was like a decoy version of myself that I was putting out there to not have to live with the reality that when the bullying was happening — if someone was calling me a f----t or whatever it was — they were speaking the truth.” What a cursed blessing to discover you have a gift but to understand it as a distraction from who you really are and not as a true part of yourself. No wonder that Levy says of creating a persona — naturally, in the self-distancing second person — “Your sense of self gets chipped away. You lose sight of your own value.”
Levy had a ticker of fears scrolling through his mind broadcasting what might happen if people knew who he really was: “Fear of being ridiculed. Fear of being othered. Fear of exposing something that I think a lot of high school students at the time didn't have the tools to process properly, to make it comfortable for me.”
Then, when he was 18, Levy came out. Actually, his mother, Deborah Divine, invited Levy to come out, over lunch. Levy accepted, and was accepted in return. It was one version of an inflection point that Levy has explored in some of his most impactful work. In Happiest Season, Hulu’s lesbian Christmas rom-com, Levy delivers the film’s high point in a monologue; filmmaker Clea DuVall tells me, “I cried during every take.”
“Everybody’s story is different,” Levy’s John says to Kristen Stewart’s Abby, who is planning to propose to a woman whose family doesn’t know she’s queer. “But the one thing that all of those stories have in common is that moment right before you say those words, when your heart is racing and you don’t know what’s coming next,” John goes on. “That moment’s really terrifying. And then once you say those words, you can’t unsay them. A chapter has ended and a new one’s begun, and you have to be ready for that.”
On the Schitt’s Creek episode “Meet the Parents,” David’s future in-laws discover their son Patrick is gay before he can come out to them. “Did we do something wrong, David?” Patrick’s father asks, inadvertently head-faking homophobia before saying, “The thought that Patrick was feeling like he couldn't come and talk to us about this…”
Obviously not everyone who comes out gets the response they’re hoping for. But like Patrick, Levy had a happy ending sitting in front of him: accepting and caring parents wondering when their son was going to tell them he was gay and trying to respect his timeline for doing so. When I ask Eugene if it’s painful knowing that he could have potentially alleviated the anxiety Levy was feeling by approaching him sooner, he concurs. “I would have done things so much differently, you know?” Eugene says slowly. “I would have gotten more involved in talking about what was going on.” But he doesn’t know that it would have changed anything — after all, the flow goes with Levy. “Not necessarily that we would have gotten any direct answers,” Eugene says. “You can only get back what you get back.” (Levy confirms he was not ready to discuss his sexuality before he was; despite his parents’ openness and love, he had created Schrödinger’s Eugene and Deb in his head, simultaneously welcoming him and rejecting him at the news.)
“I really got to a point where I felt like if I didn't make an active choice to pull myself out of this shell that was becoming such a comfort,” Levy says, “I would not be the adult that I want to be.”
Newly out, Levy went to college and began dating. However, he says, “I was not in any place to be of great value in a relationship.” Like David Rose, Levy’s pitch tends to ascend on the back half of sentences, making him sound like he’s interrogating his own thought process. “You then get into these habits where you're dating people who are totally wrong for you because they're seeking out people who are a bit damaged,” Levy says, “and you're seeking out people who have one foot out the door so that you don't actually give yourself over in any kind of way.” (After I mention that while watching Happiest Season, I wanted Stewart’s character to dump her semi-emotionally damaging girlfriend and leave with Levy, he says, “In this conversation, I'm brought back to many a relationship [where] ‘RUN’ was just, like, the subtitle flashing for about a year and a half of my life.”)
Dating, then, became another way to keep people out. “I really got to a point where I felt like if I didn't make an active choice to pull myself out of this shell that was becoming such a comfort,” Levy says, “I would not be the adult that I want to be.” He spent a summer in England, answering phones at the ICM talent agency as exposure therapy for speaking, unscripted, to strangers. A month and a half later, he auditioned to be a host on MTV Canada. Levy says it was “the ultimate exercise in pushing myself and getting myself out there. If I could get a job on television asking other people questions — which had previously been on the top five things that I would never want to do — this could be the final kind of exercise in changing myself for the better.”
Like Levy’s high school theater work, his success as a host was a gnarled little monkey’s paw of unfortunate wish fulfillment. He was charismatic on screen and became famous enough to travel to New York on the weekends and get into the clubs he wanted to get into. Levy also pioneered the now-prevalent televised after-show with his The Hills discussion series, which exists in the same tonal universe as Schitt’s Creek: sharp enough to make you feel smart for laughing at it, but warm enough that Lauren Conrad herself was a guest.
But much of the work felt limiting. The questions he had to ask celebrities were pre-negotiated with publicists and written by producers — as Levy notes, “No one wants to sit down with someone from MTV Canada and have a revelatory chat about life.” One of his last appearances before quitting was the MTV Movie Awards red carpet. “You could see a kind of judgment in the people you're interviewing,” he says. “They're not rolling their eyes, but you can feel them thinking about rolling their eyes. And I know that a lot of the times they were questions I didn't necessarily want to be asked if I were in that situation.” Pretending to be the version of himself he thought people would accept, Levy says, “kind of just didn't feel worth it anymore.”
You know the next part. Levy realized he could keep the traits people had responded to when he performed — his charisma, his humor — add sincerity, and still be compelling. He spent half a decade grinding out something that was truly of himself. And through Schitt’s Creek Levy became, his father points out, “one of the top showrunners in the entertainment business right now.” Eugene says, “After the [Emmys] broadcast I think there were probably some executives who — if they even remember us going in to pitch the show — are probably kicking themselves.”
Based on what he does next, Levy is now in the unique position of being able to calibrate how famous he becomes. It’s evening in Toronto, and Levy mulls the question over what simply cannot be good wine; when I ask what kind it is, he says, “Red?” Levy knows he could choose to stay behind the scenes and work on the ABC Studios projects he has in development. But Levy is also in the early stages of a romantic comedy he would star in. He worries that he wouldn’t be able to handle uber-fame with the aplomb his co-star Kristen Stewart does. When they went out to a dive bar while filming in Pittsburgh, he says, “I was just so kind of in awe of her confidence and comfort in herself. She's so at ease — [I say that] as someone who I think will always be on their journey to have that for myself.”
“Dan’s assessment is actually incorrect,” Stewart says later. “But what I have done is try to keep that experience [of fame] fairly insular, not make other people I’m with take on the weight of my own self-consciousness — or, God forbid, have someone think I’m up my own ass and loving the attention. It’s easier for me to pretend [people noticing me] is not happening, even though on the inside I still feel like the world is a big school yard of giggling onlookers. Are they laughing at me? Yes, no… Who cares.”
If Levy ever does find himself in the position of being Stewart-famous, she thinks he’ll be fine. “What I did notice was how absolutely wonderful Dan is with everyone,” she says. “He is so loving and gracious towards people that recognize him. The positive force he puts out into the world is clearly reflected in how people come back at him.”
What Levy is putting out into the world next: “I would like to date more,” he says, shoulders bashfully rising ceilingward. “Circumstance plays such a huge part in what we accept for ourselves. When you're doing something that you love it’s like, ‘I have a full plate.’ Even though [Schitt’s Creek was] super intense and even though at times I need a neck brace, it was never not inspiring, and it was never not thrilling and exciting and totally satisfying. So to [want to] make space for someone else…in a way, it is the ultimate filter. You’re basically saying, do I want to carve out the space in an already full and fulfilled life for this person? And a lot of the time, the answer is no. But it only makes it that much better when the right person comes along.”
For now, Levy’s plate is full of his multiple simultaneous projects. (He says there are more than three but few enough that you could count them on both hands, though he doesn’t want to talk about them in detail until there’s actually something to talk about — if Levy follows the Schitt’s Creek model, he jokes, he’ll “get five seasons on television before anybody sees them.”) Before he begins writing, Levy must make sure his entire house is immaculate. Even today, months after the series finale of Schitt’s Creek aired, Levy is negotiating the length of the “fuck”-blocking bleeps of syndication. But as we have all learned this year, not everything is under our control, even if we are Dan Levy. Stewart remembers him panicking as he tried to decorate a new home and realized none of the furniture he bought made any sense together. “The idea of him left and right showrunning and developing and acting and writing — and then his sweater closet confounding him — was very cute,” she says.
A certain amount of acceptance will be useful as Levy figures out how to follow up a beloved hit show. “The goal was to make sure that the first season was exactly what we wanted it to be,” Levy says of his Schitt’s Creek thought process. “To use the resources that we have as best as we can to get that season out there, so that we can go to sleep at night knowing that if people don't respond to it and it gets pulled off the air, there was nothing more we could have done.” Levy leans forward with a sincerity he’d surely second-guess if he were writing this scene and explains the daunting task of living up to yourself. “That’s the goal of anything I'm gonna do from here on out. It's just, try and do the best job you can. Try to make sure that you're loving it.”
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