For most people, being paid to visit eight of the best hotels in the world would be an opportunity they’d jump at. But Canadian actor Eugene Levy is not most people. ‘I couldn’t have said no to this thing any more times,’ he says, still looking baffled as to how he ended up presenting a new travel show for Apple TV+. ‘I’m not a curious person. And I’m certainly not adventurous. I thought: they’ve got to get somebody else.’
But the team behind the show were persistent. They called him for a chat, during which Levy listed the reasons why he avoids travel, hates airports and is turned off by sightseeing. ‘What I didn’t know at the time was that’s what Apple wanted,’ he says. ‘A travel show with somebody who’s not fond of travelling.’ On the condition that he wouldn’t have to pretend to enjoy himself, Levy gave in – and the result is the aptly named eight-part series The Reluctant Traveller.
It’s the first time he’s appeared as himself on screen; usually he plays flustered comic characters, his bushy eyebrows twitching with anxiety. You might know him as the awkward dad in American Pie, for example, or as Johnny Rose in the hit Netflix series Schitt’s Creek that he created and co-starred in with his son Dan.
‘I’m not a curious person. And I’m certainly not adventurous’
Levy, 76, grew up in Ontario, Canada, and started his career in the 1970s with the famous comedy troupe The Second City. This is where he met Catherine O’Hara, who plays his wife Moira in Schitt’s Creek; in fact, they’ve acted as a series of eccentric couples over the decades, from dog-breeders Gerry and Cookie in the Crufts spoof movie Best in Show to folk singers Mitch and Mickey in A Mighty Wind. There’s a photo of Mitch and Mickey behind Levy’s shoulder as he sits at his desk in Toronto today. It’s part of a wall crammed with mementos from his impressive career, including a snapshot with friend John Candy and a magazine shoot of the Schitt’s Creek cast.
His work life may have been exciting, but his holiday life has been much more conservative. For this working-class kid, growing up with two siblings, holidays 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 didn’t travel.’
He and his wife Deborah Divine married in 1977 and have two children, Dan and Sarah (who also appears in Schitt’s Creek as waitress Twyla). When the kids were little, the family started going further afield – but not always with great success. He remembers a disastrous trip to Barbados: ‘We checked into the hotel and went into the courtyard, which was on the depressing side – there was a guy in a vest sipping a beer. There was a rubbish bin outside the door to our room, which wasn’t the cleanest. My heart sank – but not as low as my son’s. He started to cry.’ They walked straight out again, suitcases in hand.
For most people, being paid to visit eight of the best hotels in the world would be an opportunity they’d jump at. But Canadian actor Eugene Levy is not most people
Today, he likes to go on golf trips with friends or with family to the Caribbean – though not back to that particular hotel – where his ideal itinerary is lazing around. He’s aquaphobic, so prefers sitting on the beach to getting in the water. And don’t get him started on flying. ‘The airport experience is something I hate,’ he says. ‘It’s the security. I’m taking my watch off, I’m taking my belt off, I’m taking my jacket off, then everything’s going into a bin and moving away from me. I’m being yelled at by people telling me, “Not that bin! This bin! Grab the bin! It’s underneath!”’ His eyebrows go up. ‘It’s a nightmare.’
A lot of the humour in The Reluctant Traveller comes from him being his cautious, crotchety self in a situation that’s wildly out of his comfort zone. The show takes him to exotic locations, and while his accommodation is beyond most of our wildest dreams – a £6,000-a-night hotel in the Maldives, for example – the producers have done their best to make him uncomfortable.
In one scene he joins a veterinary crew in South Africa as they tranquillise a young elephant to give it a health check. ‘It was a fascinating, exciting thing to watch – but then they said, “Now we want you to take a stool sample,”’ he says with a sigh. ‘I said, “Thank you, but I’m not going to do that.” Then I hear my co-producer David Brindley say, “Oh, I think you are.”’ Plastic gloves were produced, and Levy was shown how to insert an arm into a very personal part of the elephant’s body. ‘It’s not something I want to do again.’
In Costa Rica, he stays at a hotel in the heart of the rainforest, and an enthusiastic guide takes him out for a night hike. Watching him shudder as venomous snakes, spiders and ants are pointed out by torchlight – at alarmingly close proximity – you can see that he is not having fun. ‘I maintain that the guide could have stayed a little nearer to me.’
Food, which Levy is picky about, also causes him problems in the series. In Finland, a family of reindeer farmers serve him a plate of the meat for dinner. The distaste on his face is clear, but he eats it nevertheless. ‘I think I said, “Mmm, not bad.” The reason I was so polite was because they were delightful people, doing their damnedest to show me a good time. But I didn’t like it. They said, “It melts in your mouth!” and I agreed. But I’m thinking, “It really melts in your mouth.”’
He did, however, find some uncharacteristic bravery while travelling. He’s scared of heights, but gritted his teeth through helicopter rides (‘which terrified me’) and a walk over a perilous suspension bridge. ‘I used to be proud of saying: “You know what, I don’t want to do it – you guys go ahead.” Now I think: “Surprise yourself, give it a go”.’
South Africa, in particular, profoundly changed his perspective. ‘I had never had a desire to go on safari.’ But once he arrived, and found himself in a hotel with floor-to-ceiling views over the Sabie River, something changed. ‘I developed an affinity for the wildness. Looking out of the window, I’d see a hippo or elephant or crocodile going up the river, and I thought, this is my backyard.’ He visited a rhino conservancy and was horrified to learn of the danger they face from poachers. ‘It turned me around. I’d always thought that rhinos were perhaps the ugliest animals on earth, but I grew to love them.’
There are other moments in the show when you can see how much fun he’s having – steering huskies across the ice on a sleigh in Lapland, for example – but it’s the scenes in which he is 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 beside someone at the grocery store and they start talking to me, I’ll give them a cursory response and that’s it. But the people I met making the show helped me realise that conversation is actually nice.’
We see him getting to know a gondolier and his teenage son in Venice; being welcomed by families from the Navajo Nation in the US state of Utah, and spending an evening with locals in Costa Rica. ‘Those were the most memorable parts of the journey because family is important to me. Sitting around the dinner 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 up with them in the evenings. When I ask what they thought of him doing the show, he laughs. ‘They hope it’s going to be a good thing for me, because they know I have a lack of adventure in my system. My son had always talked about Japan. He’s been there six or seven times, and he’d say, “You’ve got to go.” My wife and I thought, “We don’t know.” But he was right – Tokyo is amazing.’
Still, while The Reluctant Traveller has changed Levy, he’s still not given to wild enthusiasm. ‘If you put my interest in seeing things around the world on a scale from one to ten, it started out at one and a half,’ he says. And what is it now? The famous eyebrows twitch: ‘The needle might have moved up to five.’ Not a bad score for the man who just wanted to stay at home.
The Reluctant Traveller is out now on Apple TV+