#88. A Conversation with Samm Levine

Jason Anders: What is the most annoying question you're asked on a regular basis?

Samm Levine: I get asked a lot of the same questions, but I don't consider any of them annoying. A lot of people ask if I still keep in touch with the gang from Freaks and Geeks. That seems to be a pretty popular question.

JA: And what is your response to that question?

SL: I see John Daley all the time. He and I have been very close friends since we did the show, and the rest of the gang I see occasionally. We're all still very friendly with one another.

JA: Who are your favorite performers? Do you have a top three list of your favorite actors?

SL: There is an ever-changing answer to that question- Gary Oldman is always in the top three, I just think he is the finest actor of his generation and it's absolutely criminal that he doesn't have ten Oscars. You've gotta love Pacino. I've always loved Jeff Bridges. Edward Norton is a fine actor.

JA: Which is your favorite character that Gary Oldman played?

SL: I would say his character Drexel in True Romance. Do you remember that? I think that might have been the first movie I saw him in without realizing it was Gary Oldman, and then I saw him in something else and was like "wait, why does that guy look familiar?" I went back and was shocked to realize it was the same actor. I just said "holy crap, this guy is good!"

JA: I love that movie. You know what bothers me about it, though? Samuel L. Jackson's name is in the opening credits, and he appears onscreen for maybe five seconds.

SL: Well you know I'm in the opening credits for Inglorious Basterds, but how long am I onscreen? He might have shot a lot more than you saw.
JA: Did you shoot a lot more in Inglorious Basterds than we saw?

SL: Oh boy, did I! Oh yeah. Most of my scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Most of the Basterd's stuff ended up on the cutting room floor, there was just so much of it- Quentin just had so many great scenes that he shot for this movie, and I'm sure it was like Sophie's Choice for him cutting it down. All in all, I was thrilled with how the movie turned out. I loved the movie. Obviously I wish more of the Basterd's stuff would have stayed in it, but I don't think I would change anything about the finished cut of this project.

JA: What was your experience like working with Quentin Tarantino? Were you geeking out the whole time?

SL: I kept my geek-outs confined to about the first two days. Working with Quentin was a dream come true for me- I've been a hardcore fan of his since Reservoir Dogs. In fact, a couple friends of mine dug up old interviews that I had done from ten years earlier- When I was asked about my career goals and who I wanted to work with, I apparently responded many times with, "I wanna work on whatever Quentin Tarantino is working on." So it was something I really wished would come to fruition, and it did.
He is everything you would expect him to be on the set. He is a mad genius. There were no problems that came up which he couldn't immediately figure out how to work past. He has such a creative vision when he is creating these characters, worlds, and scenes. Each scene in that movie stands in its own perfect little vignette, and watching him craft them is something I will treasure.

JA: Have you had other experiences where you were able to work with an actor or director whom you've always admired?

SL: That's a good question. I've certainly had high levels of admiration for a lot of the people I've gotten to work with. I've always loved Bill Paxton and thought he's a fantastic actor- I love him because he's one of those guys who does comedy as well as he does drama, and so it was a lot of fun for me when I got to work with him on a movie called Club Dread. Also Brad Pitt in Basterds- I mean, come on! Who doesn't love Brad Pitt?

Quentin does jump out as the front-runner there because of the impact he's had on me as an artist, and as a fan.

JA: Was it bizarre working alongside Biff Tannen in Freaks and Geeks?

SL: Now there's a guy who I bothered! Tom Wilson, who played Coach Fredricks, is the nicest guy in the world... completely different from Biff. We were doing the pilot and I started asking him questions about Back to the Future, and he was totally polite and answered all of them- But then the show gets picked up, and now he has to see me pretty much every day. I was just like, "Tell me about this scene, tell me about that scene. Why did this happen, why did that happen?"

He totally went with me for at least the first week or two, and then we got into about September of 1999 and he says to me, "You know what, Samm? Here's what I want you to do- I want you to go home and write down all the questions you think you have about Back to the Future, because come January 1st, 2000, I'm declaring a moratorium between you and me on discussing it. It will have been fifteen years that the movie has been out, so get all your questions in before the millennium... because after that, we're done."

JA: Did you actually prepare a list?

SL: I didn't make an actual list, but I did make sure and get all my pressing questions in before the deadline.
JA: Did a response from him stand out to you as anything you didn't already know about Back to the Future?

SL: Actually, no. (laughs) Being the intense fanboy, I already knew the answers to all the questions I had. But it was great to get to talk to him about all that- Just what a great experience it was for him, and how much I loved all of those movies growing up. I've often said that when it comes to me with film and television, I've always considered myself a fan first. It would be wrong of me to tell you I became an actor just because I wanted to, because that's not true- I wanted to become an actor because of all the wonderful acting, direction, and character work I watched growing up. I never wanted to lose that "fan" aspect and the admiration I have for the stuff that inspired me.

JA: So what were your favorite films growing up?

SL: Well I was a weird kid, so I liked A Clockwork Orange a lot. I really liked Stanley Kubrick. I was also a huge Marx Brothers fan. Of all the Marx Brothers movies that I watched, Animal Crackers was probably my favorite. Also Kurt Russell in Escape from New York- I thought that was the best futuristic action movie. What I love about that movie is that it came out in 1981 and it takes place in 1997- the future is now. You just look at stuff like that within the past ten years and have to laugh.

JA: So was it your idea to dress up as Groucho Marx on Freaks and Geeks?

SL: I have to believe that idea came out of me having a conversation with Judd Apatow or Paul Feig about me being a Marx Brothers fan. They based so many of the stories and little bits on that show on the actor's real lives. A perfect example is that my father on the show, played by Sam McMurray, was a dentist. In real life, my father is a dentist. They didn't know that until my father came to visit me on the set one day, and after I introduced them they made Neil's dad a dentist.

JA: That's awesome. Does your dad have the same license tag?

SL: He does not have the "IFLOSSEM" license tag, no. Nor has he ever been unfaithful to my mother, I'm happy to say.

JA: Okay- Forgetting every project you've worked on, if you could take on the role of any character in the history of television, which would it be and why?

SL: Chandler Bing on Friends. How easy was that question? You thought I'd be humming and hoeing over that question for ten minutes. Nope! That was it.

Matthew Perry as Chandler on Friends was a huge influence on me as a young man with my sense of comedic timing and delivery. There's no doubt that there was a period of at least a year where everything that I said sounded as if it were coming out of Chandler's mouth. I'm sure it was very annoying to my friends and family. I'm happy to say that I've moved past that phase, but certain aspects of it stayed with me. Any time that I have ever done any work on sitcoms where I have to be a quirky, offbeat, sarcastic character... it's me doing some variation of Chandler.

JA: Have you ever had the chance to tell him that?

SL: I have- I've met Matt a number of times and am happy to say I know him now. I've played poker with him a couple of times. He's a very funny, very nice guy.

JA: I'm going to go down a short list of projects you've worked on, and I just want you to give me the first thought that comes to mind when you hear it mentioned- Starting with Wet Hot American Summer.

SL: That was more or less an afterthought- I had nothing to do with the actual production of the film, that was David Wain calling me during post-production saying, "Hey, I hired the wrong kid. Can you come in and help me?" And I said "of course." I've always loved David Wain and The State, so I was very pleased to be a tiny, but fun, part of that project.

JA: Spin City.

SL: I loved playing young Richard Kind. Everyone in the poker world of Los Angeles has a Richard Kind impression. Everyone. So to actually get to play Richard on camera was a hoot for me.

JA: Did you spend any time around him prepping for that role?

SL: They sent me a bunch of tapes with episodes that centered around him, and I had met him previous to working on the show, (in a Richard Kind voice) "Wait. Wait a minute. You're telling me... that you... are gonna be playing me? Well this is great." And so on and so forth.

JA: Just Shoot Me.

SL: The best ensemble cast in comedy I've ever worked with, hands down. I can't give you specifics, because there was no weak link in that cast. They were such a well-oiled machine. Everyone in that cast had their beats and rhythms down perfectly. The writing on that show was so sharp. There was a wonderful mix of the writing matching up with spectacular actors and great direction. Pam Fryman directed the bulk of that series, and she is one of the best sitcom directors I have ever worked with.

JA: Undeclared.

SL: That was my first chance at playing a very different role from anything else I've played. I got to be the bad guy for the first time, and man did I have fun! I think Judd knew how much fun I was going to have, and they wrote a really great part for me. Working on that is what led me to being in Club Dread, because my episodes of Undeclared were directed by Jay Chandrasekhar... member of Broken Lizard, and director of Super Troopers and Club Dread. That was great fun.

JA: How I Met Your Mother.

SL: The producers of How I Met Your Mother are huge Freaks and Geeks fans. If you can believe this, I originally read for the role of Barney. I'm thrilled they didn't go with me, because I think that is definitely the best role for Neil Patrick Harris in his post-Doogie Howser, M.D. career. Since they are fans, Martin Starr and Busy Philipps have also been on the show.

They were in their first season when they asked me to come on, and when a show is in its first season everyone assumes they are about to get canceled. Anything they really want to do, they try and do in that season while they still have a studio willing to spend money on them. It was cool because I got to see my old pal Jason Segal, and Pam Fryman ended up being the director of that episode- So it was a wonderful reunion in a lot of ways for me.

JA: And finally, thoughts from being on Lost.

SL: That was a six-year dream in the making coming true for me. I've known Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost, for about ten years now- He's a wonderful, sweet Jewish boy from New Jersey... just like I am. We used to play poker at his house, and I came over early and he showed me the first hour of the two-hour pilot- I was riveted. When the game ended I made him stay up late and watch the second hour with me, because I couldn't leave until I'd seen the rest of it. From that moment on I was hooked, and it was my favorite show.

For six years Damon had been swearing that he was going to write me a part into the show. Because of story changes and the network it didn't work out. When it was winding down and the end episodes were coming I sent him an email saying, "What's the deal here? After six years and a ten year friendship you're going to let me down? I don't buy it." After that he called me and said that they wrote me a goofy little thing. I told them I didn't care if it was just one line, I'd do it. I loved the show that much. That was the most fun I've ever had filming a guest role, just because of how much that show meant to me as a fan.

JA: If you had to describe yourself using three words, which would you choose?

SL: What is this? A personality profile test? I don't know! Would "lazy" be one? You're putting me in a position where I either have to be funny and give you stupid answers, or try to be humble and not give ridiculous answers.

JA: It's the fork in the road.

SL: Yeah, this is tough! Introspective, curious, and skeptical.

JA: If you could live in any decade, which would you pick and why?

SL: I think about that all the time, and here's my question- Do I have the knowledge of what I know now living in a previous decade? Or am I just in that decade thinking that's as good as it's gonna get? I'll tell you what, I will give you both answers; Knowing what I know now, I would probably live in the 1950s. There would have been an opportunity to make a lot of money, and people say now who lived through the 1950s that it was the best decade in the past century. We weren't really at war, with the exception of Korea... but that wasn't as bloody as the others. The economy was booming, rock and roll was born... it just would have been a spectacular time to be alive, especially knowing what I know now.

Not knowing what I know now, if I could have been alive in any decade it probably would have been the 1970s... strictly for one reason only: Led Zeppelin. If I could have been there when Zeppelin was being discovered by Americans, and they had albums coming out every year, that would have been a nice time to be alive.
JA: Do you have a favorite Zeppelin album?

SL: Absolutely! I'm the weird guy. Led Zeppelin III is my favorite album. Widely considered to be their worst album, it's my favorite.

JA: I love Led Zeppelin III, I would nominate Presence as their worst album- would you agree or disagree?

SL: I don't think so. Can we count Coda? Does that really count as a Zeppelin album, at least after Bonham's death? It's hard for me to say what I consider to be their worst album, that's like a parent picking their least favorite child. It's hard for me to say which one I don't like the most. I have often said that Plant and Page have never put out a bad song.

JA: And the final question- What projects do you have coming up that we can be looking forward to?

SL: I'm happy to say that web series are finally starting to get to the quality of production that people have wanted for a long time, and I have one series now called Vamped Out. It's a very funny show directed by Kevin Pollak, and we're going to start shooting a second season at the end of this month. There's also another web series called Held Up by Randy & Jason Sklar, two very funny guys. I worked on a film called Columbus Circle with the steady cast of Kevin Pollak, Jason Lee, Selma Blair, Amy Smart, Beau Bridges, and Giovanni Ribisi.

JA: Well thank you so much for doing this interview- I'm sure we could easily turn it into a three hour conversation.

SL: I'm sure we could have, you've asked some very interesting questions. It's been my pleasure.

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