Dan Levy Is Also “Educating and Re-educating” Himself in Quarantine

The “Schitt’s Creek” star chats self-reflection in a pandemic, and his very meta role in HBO’s “Coastal Elites.”

Dan Levy is very much still in the mix, not that that was ever in question. Not with the final season of his beloved sitcom Schitt’s Creek up for a whopping 15 Emmy nominations (and Levy himself up for three of those), or his upcoming role in Clea DuVall’s groundbreaking queer holiday romcom Happiest Season, or his multi-year development deal at ABC Studios.

On September 12, Levy appears in HBO’s Coastal Elites. Originally conceived as an evening of monologues written by Paul Rudnick (Jeffrey, In & Out) for New York’s Public Theater, the production was retooled for television after the pandemic shut down the city’s theaters in March. Each of the five characters in the one-night special, shot remotely in isolation this summer, grapples with the outrages and injustices of the Trump era. Levy plays Mark, an out working actor in L.A. whose agents keep telling him he’s “still in the mix” for the role of a gay superhero in a blockbuster comic book movie.

NewNowNext caught up with Levy via Zoom to chat about his character’s moment of crisis and who exactly Coastal Elites is for.

Were you involved in this production when it was still just a play?

I was asked to be a part of the production when it was in its theater phase, and I couldn’t. I was shooting a movie at the time and couldn’t figure out the logistics of it. And I think with a monologue like that, you really need to give it a lot of time. [Laughs] My mind doesn’t memorize things very easily, so the actual ingestion process was very tricky. I was very lucky that they came back around when the idea kind of changed into something based on television.

Was your character written with you with you in mind?

That I don’t know. I know that they offered me the part, which is always a very rare luxury. I think that [director Jay Roach] had watched my show and had really responded to it. And then obviously, when I read it, I thought, There’s a lot in here that I think I could do, and a lot of similarities in terms of being a gay actor in Hollywood. So, I’d like to think that we were destined to find each other, this monologue and me.

Your character has a lot to say about the way Hollywood handles gay characters. But you did basically the opposite of that on Schitt’s Creek, so it was really interesting to hear you specifically delivering that monologue.

I think what I did on Schitt’s Creek was in reaction to all of those auditions that I had done prior, and knowing that I didn’t want to only have caricatures or little sidelined characters to play. I wanted to have a more substantial role that really kind of celebrated who I was in a way that felt really authentic to my experience and the experience of my friends. And you don’t get those that often because I think a lot of the time, you don’t get a lot of queer people writing the script. So, it’s coming from a perspective that isn’t quite lived in. It’s an observation of a person as opposed to coming at it from the inner workings of that person. To have been given the opportunity in Schitt’s Creek to write the character of David and then Patrick, and to get to tell the queer stories that we have on the show really felt like an opportunity to do my best to make up for all the parts that I auditioned for that made me sad at the end of the day.

What kind of conversations did you have with Paul Rudnick regarding what he wanted to explore about what it’s like to be an out actor in Hollywood?

So much of it was there to begin with. It was really about mining the piece for my own experiences, while at the same time honoring the character and never getting too caricatured by way of this person who is slightly different than myself in terms of how he presents himself. But what I find so special and exciting about all these monologues is they start by giving you an impression of a person. And you really need to watch and learn and listen in order to get those layers peeled back and actually understand why this person is standing in front of you talking. For Mark, there’s some humor off the top. He’s having this huge life conundrum. The funny reveal—“Here’s my problem: I’m an actor”—plays into the preconceptions of coastal elitism, and it’s not until you actually sit with him and listen to why he’s panicked and why he’s anxious and why he cares so much, that you realize, Oh, there’s so much more at play here than I had originally thought.

Each of the monologues is built around a breaking point for the characters. Have you had a moment like that recently?

I think for me, particularly just with everything that’s happened since the beginning of the pandemic, with the Black Lives Matter movement and really realizing what is at stake here in a truly fundamental way… I’ve really tried to stop thinking about myself, because I’m fine. And there is a lot that is not fine out there. I’ve really tried to change the impulse of, like, worrying about myself and harness that into something more constructive, whether it’s educating myself, re-educating myself, finding ways of being more active in terms of effecting more positive change. That has been the big thing that I’ve taken from all of this. Aside from, in the early days, just trying to cook, which went terribly.

As the show was originally conceived, it’s likely only people like Bette Midler’s character, Miriam, would have seen Coastal Elites—people with a subscription to the Public Theater. But on HBO, it has the potential to reach a much wider audience. What do you hope people who aren’t “coastal elites” will get out of the show?

Whenever I read something that kind of doesn’t sit well with me, the impulse is to write it off. But more and more I’ve realized I have a need to try and find out why before making a judgement call on people’s beliefs. Why are people acting the way they are? What is it about their circumstance? What is it about their financial background? What is it about their personal and professional standing that is making them think, act, say things that I might not agree with? I think answering that why-question is so important because it contextualizes and allows us to understand, even if we don’t agree, that there are far more substantial and profound reasons behind people’s ideologies than just having a bad take on something.

I know that, obviously, Coastal Elites will attract a certain type of person who is just generally curious. But I do hope that the other side sits down and watches this, because I do think that it answers a lot of the whys from people who might look at the coasts and reduce those people to the term “coastal elites.” Instead, they get an opportunity to see where these perspectives are coming from and why. I hope that it does reach a wide array of people so that the conversation can be had at the very least.

Coastal Elites premieres this Saturday, September 12 on HBO.

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