For most people, it would be an opportunity to get paid to visit eight of the best hotels in the world. But Canadian actor Eugene Levy isn’t most people. “I couldn’t have said no to this,” he says, still looking in awe at how he finally presented a new travel show for Apple TV+. ‘I’m not curious. And I am certainly not adventurous. I thought: they should find someone else.’
But the team behind the show was persistent. They called him up for a chat, during which Levy listed the reasons why he avoids travel, hates airports, and is turned off by sights. “What I didn’t know at the time was that Apple wanted that,” he says.
“A travel show with someone who doesn’t like to travel.” Provided he didn’t have to pretend to have a good time, Levy relented — and the result is the aptly named eight-part series The Reluctant Traveler.
For most people, it would be an opportunity to get paid to visit eight of the best hotels in the world. But Canadian actor Eugene Levy isn’t most people
It is the first time he appears on screen as himself; most of the time he plays confused cartoon characters, his bushy eyebrows trembling with fear. You may know him as the clumsy dad in American Pie, for example, or as Johnny Rose in the hit Netflix series Schitt’s Creek that he created and starred in alongside his son, Dan.
‘I’m not curious. And I’m definitely not adventurous’
Levy, 76, grew up in Ontario, Canada, and began his career in the 1970s with famed comedy troupe The Second City. Here he met Catherine O’Hara, who plays his wife Moira in Schitt’s Creek; in fact, they’ve performed as a series of eccentric couples over the decades, from dog breeders Gerry and Cookie in the Crufts spoof film Best in Show to folk singers Mitch and Mickey in A Mighty Wind. There’s a picture of Mitch and Mickey behind Levy’s shoulder as he sits at his desk in Toronto today. It’s part of a wall full of memories of his impressive career, including a snapshot with friend John Candy and a magazine shot of the cast of Schitt’s Creek.
His work life may have been exciting, but his vacation life was much more conservative. For this working-class kid, who grew up with two siblings, vacation meant driving an hour and a half to the same lake once a year: “I was never on a plane with my parents, I was never on a train with my parents – we just haven’t traveled.’
He and his wife Deborah Divine were married in 1977 and have two children, Dan and Sarah (who also appears in Schitt’s Creek as waitress Twyla). When the children were small, the family moved further away – but not always with great success.
He recalls a disastrous trip to Barbados: ‘We checked into the hotel and went into the courtyard, which was on the depressing side – there was a man in a vest drinking a beer. There was a bin outside the door to our room which wasn’t the cleanest. My heart sank – but not as deeply as my son’s. He started to cry.’ They walked right back out, suitcases in hand.
On the Grand Canal in Venice: The Schitt’s Creek star’s new series, The Reluctant Traveler, is now available on Apple TV+
These days he likes to go on golf trips with friends or family to the Caribbean – but not back to that particular hotel – where lounging is his ideal travel route. He is aquaphobic, so he would rather sit on the beach than go in the water. And don’t let him start flying.
“The airport experience is something I hate,” he says. “It’s security. I take off my watch, I take off my belt, I take off my jacket, and then everything goes into a garbage can and moves away from me. I get yelled at by people who say to me, ‘Not that trash can! This bucket! Grab the bucket! It’s underneath!’” His eyebrows rise. “It’s a nightmare.”
Much of the humor in The Reluctant Traveler comes from him being his cautious, whimsical self in a situation that is completely outside his comfort zone. The show takes him to exotic locales, and while his accommodation is beyond most of our wildest dreams – a £6,000-a-night hotel in the Maldives, for instance – the producers have done their best to make him uncomfortable.
A little sumo? Levy pictured himself leading a wrestling match in Japan
In one scene, he joins a veterinary team in South Africa as they anesthetize a young elephant to give him a health check. “It was fascinating, exciting to watch, but then they said, ‘Now we want you to take a stool sample,'” he says with a sigh. “I said, ‘Thanks, but I’m not going to do that.’ Then I hear my co-producer David Brindley say, ‘Oh, I think so.’” Plastic gloves were produced and Levy was shown how to insert an arm into a very private part of the elephant’s body. “It’s not something I want to do again.”
In Costa Rica he stays in a hotel in the heart of the rainforest and an enthusiastic guide takes him on a night walk. Watching him shiver as venomous snakes, spiders and ants are pointed out by flares – at alarmingly close range – you can tell he’s not having fun. “I still think the guide could have stayed closer to me.”
Food, which Levy is picky about, also causes him problems in the series. In Finland, a family of reindeer farmers serves him a plate of meat for dinner. The disgust on his face is obvious, but he eats it anyway. “I think I said, ‘Mmm, not bad.’ The reason I was so polite was because they were delightful people, who went out of their way to give me a good time. But I didn’t like it. They said, “It melts in your mouth!” and I agreed. But I think, “It really melts in your mouth.”‘
However, he found an unusual courage while traveling. He has a fear of heights, but gritted his teeth during helicopter flights (‘which I was terrified of’) and a walk across a perilous suspension bridge. “I used to say proudly, ‘You know what, I don’t want to do it – you guys go ahead.’ Now I think: ‘Surprise yourself, give it a try.’
Levy admits he went from a low one and a half to a five in terms of his wanderlust after filming the series
South Africa in particular changed its perspective radically. “I’ve never felt like going on safari.” But once he arrived and found himself in a hotel with a floor-to-ceiling view of the Sabie River, something changed. ‘I developed an affinity for the wildness. When I looked out the window, I saw a hippopotamus or elephant or crocodile going up the river, and I thought, this is my backyard.’ He visited a rhino sanctuary and was shocked to learn of the danger poachers pose to them. “It turned me around. I had always thought that rhinoceroses might be the ugliest animals on earth, but I’ve come to love them.’
There are other moments in the show where you can see how much fun he’s having—steering huskies across the ice on a sled in Lapland, for example—but it’s the scenes where he’s welcomed by local people that are the most moving. “It was a surprise because I rarely open up and start talking to people I don’t know. If I’m standing next to someone in the supermarket and they start talking to me, I give them a cursory answer and that’s it. But the people I met while making the show helped me realize that talking is actually fun.”
We see him in Venice getting to know a gondolier and his teenage son; be welcomed by families from the Navajo Nation in the US state of Utah, and spend an evening with locals in Costa Rica. “Those were the most memorable parts of the trip because family is important to me. Sitting at the table for hours is how I grew up, so I felt at home with these people.’
He took his own family on one or two of the trips and met them in the evenings. When I ask what they thought about him doing the show, he laughs. “They hope it will be good for me because they know I have a lack of adventure in my system. My son always talked about Japan. He’s been there six or seven times and he’d say, “You have to go.” My wife and I thought, “We don’t know.” But he was right: Tokyo is great.’
While The Reluctant Traveler has changed Levy, he’s still not fond of wild enthusiasm. “If you put my interest in seeing things around the world on a scale of one to ten, it started at one and a half,” he says. And what is it now? The famous eyebrows twitch: “The needle may have moved up to five.” Not a bad score for the guy who just wanted to stay home.
The Reluctant Traveler is now available on Apple TV+