How ‘Schitt’s Creek’ Built Dan Levy’s Confidence: ‘Writing This Show Was a Catharsis for Me’ (Video)

“Playing that character for six years really informed a lot in myself,” actor and showrunner says. “I was able to carry myself with a little bit more confidence and a little bit more gusto”

Last Updated: June 15, 2020 @ 6:54 AM

A version of this story about Dan Levy first appeared in the “Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. It is one in a series of conversations about the effects of the coronavirus on the TV industry. (Warning: There are spoilers ahead for those who have not yet watched the sixth season of “Schitt’s Creek.”)

In April, fans saw “Schitt’s Creek” come to an end after six seasons, saying goodbye to the eccentric yet lovable Rose family that made us realize that money doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have love in your life. The series’ showrunner, co-creator and star, Dan Levy, said that airing its last three episodes in the middle of the pandemic might have been just what we needed.

“The show is so small and it came from such humble beginnings that the fact that we were just presenting it as is to an audience who was at home and who maybe needed a distraction, that was really why we made the show in the first place,” Levy told TheWrap. “There were parties and people that were getting together over Zoom and watching the show together — That’s the power of community.”

Writing and starring in the show was a “kind of catharsis” for Levy, who said he learned a lot about himself through his character, David Rose.

“I struggle a lot with social anxiety and ultimately a sense of self-confidence, and finding that confidence through David and playing a character who, although he was completely riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, was a very confident person,” he explained. “He was very sure of himself and unapologetic in his convictions. And I think playing that character for six years really informed a lot in myself. I was able to carry myself with a little bit more confidence and a little bit more gusto.”

The last three episodes aired during self isolation. Did your ideas for the series finale change because of the virus?
There were big plans for the show: We were going to have finale events in New York and in Toronto. And as great as that would have been, in a way, the show is so small and it came from such humble beginnings that the fact that we were just presenting it as is to an audience who was at home and who maybe needed a distraction, that was really why we made the show in the first place… The fact that we were able to raise over $200,000 for Feeding America and Food Banks Canada really spoke to what the show is all about, which is just putting some joy out into the world and making people feel good… The 12 cast members all got on a big Zoom and watched it together, knowing that there were people out there doing the same thing. There were parties and people that were getting together over Zoom and watching the show together — That’s the power of community.

You had to wrap up six years of a show — did you always know how you wanted to end the show?
I had a pretty clear sense by the end of season four… I think the last episode of the last season of television is an incredibly challenging task. I knew it was going to be kind of intimidating, but didn’t know just quite how intimidating it was going to be until I actually tried it. But it was really fun because it forces you to go back and really examine all the other previous seasons and figure out, what are the little details that the audience wants to see? And the last episode I wrote in half a day, which to me was a really great sign because I felt like if there was a ton of struggle, it might just mean that we didn’t lay the groundwork properly in order for this show to end quite cleanly. It was a bit of a challenge, but one that I feel like we pulled off.

What was just the overall feeling of having this come to an end?
This could easily spiral into a therapy session. I still think it was really emotional. It was a team of people that got really close over the six years that we shot the show and not just from our cast — it was our entire crew that really formed this really tight-knit family.

For three months out of the year, we would spend some time in rural Ontario and really grow close together and had a lot of laughs. It was just a really fun, playful, collaborative, open set. It was tough to say goodbye to those people, even though I know that they’ll be in my life forever. Just knowing that we didn’t have that next summer to look forward to, it was hard and I still think it’s hard for us. But fortunately, we came out of it with just the most joyful, wonderful experience and just a ton of memories.

What was your favorite scene that you shot in Season 6?
(Warning: spoilers ahead!)
Oh, gosh, there are so many. When you have a cast that can handle both comedy and drama with the kind of ease that our cast has managed to do it, I’m always just in awe how easy they make it look, because it’s not easy to make people laugh and it’s certainly not easy to make people cry and to do it seamlessly is always something that amazed me. The Alexis-Ted breakup scene was something that from a writing perspective took us a long time to nail down. And so to watch Annie (Murphy) and Dustin (Milligan) really execute that scene so beautifully, it was so touching and funny and romantic. And I really loved the scene that I had in the car with Stevie (Emily Hampshire), where David finally sort of admits to his life’s big problem, which is that he doesn’t want to be seen as a joke. And it was the more emotional moments this season that really stood out for me because they were presenting closure on these characters after six seasons. So it was fun to sink our teeth into slightly more dramatic moments.

But then there were also moments of huge reveals — for example, Twyla being absolutely loaded. Was that an idea that was always there from the very beginning?
It was certainly there for a lot of the time. We knew that Twyla (Sarah Levy) had to have kind of a reveal at the end, and I think it’s probably the biggest reveal we’ve ever done on the show. But it was crucial to really point out the fact that this is someone who had a tremendous amount of money and never let it show and never wanted to mix money with family or money with friends. It’s why she never offered up her money to anybody and kept it quiet because, you know, part of it in researching lottery winners was that their lives fall apart when people win a lottery.

So it was this fun little secret that she was able to keep, which really contextualized the Roses’ kind of plight throughout these six seasons, which is, you know, money really means nothing if you don’t have love in your life. So to have that come from Twyla, the kind of character you least expect it from, was a really fun plot twist.

Which character do you think develops most from start to finish from season one to season six?
I think it would probably be David and Alexis, because I think Johnny’s (Eugene Levy) work ethic never really changed. He got the wind knocked out of his sails there for a moment, but ultimately found his footing and realized that he had the experience to start a new business and to create a new moneymaking revenue stream. And fortunately, that looks like it’s going to work for him. David and Alexis had the most to lose and the most to gain, mainly because they just never knew what life was like without money. So they never had that context. So placing them in this environment, forcing them to change and accommodate and acclimatize to a life without all the superficial elements that made them feel good about themselves and made them feel special, it was about examining, What will their life be like now that they have nothing?

For David, who spent so much money just like building a persona for himself, to not have that and to actually have to expose his true self to people was a huge change for him and one that I think really paid off. I mean, he found a husband who saw him for who he was, finally. And with Alexis, she gained a sense of independence and a sense of confidence that I don’t think she ever had. In the past she was always defined by the men that she was with or the people she was rolling with. And to really understand that she has something to offer and that she’s good at something and to have gone to school and done all the things that she took for granted in the past and to come out of it completely independent and want to go back to New York on her own and really try a life that she could build for herself, to me is probably the biggest arc we’ve done for years. And Annie just did such a beautiful job of bringing that to life and showing the vulnerability and the growth and the humor.

The big payoff for all of us in the writers room was getting to tell the stories of how these people changed. And yet, at the same time, you didn’t want them to change everything about who they were, because part of what brought the humor into the show was their flaws and their eccentricities. So it was the subtle changes and getting to tell those stories of change and growth without ever compromising the spirit of who these people were. That was the hardest part and ultimately the most rewarding.

There are moments, though, where you can see a light bulb go off in David and Alexis’ head, when they realize themselves that they’ve changed. I was curious if you learned anything about yourself during the making of the show?
One hundred percent. In a way, writing this show was a kind of catharsis and a kind of therapy for me. The fun thing about being in a writer’s room is that when you start to flesh out ideas like how do we break people up without ever having the relationship feel like it was a loss — that was the big Alexis-Ted breakup.

As an example, we wanted it to feel like they were parting ways, not because they necessarily wanted to, but because they had to for their own growth and to show a story about a relationship that made people better. And a breakup that wasn’t necessarily because people stopped loving each other, but because they love themselves so much that they decided to prioritize their own journeys over their collective journey.

When you have those conversations in a writer’s room, it brings up stories of your own experiences, and you end up having to talk through it almost in this kind of therapeutic way. For me, I struggle a lot with social anxiety and ultimately a sense of self-confidence, and finding that confidence through David and playing a character who, although he was completely riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, was a very confident person. He was very sure of himself and unapologetic in his convictions. And I think playing that character for six years really informed a lot in myself. I was able to carry myself with a little bit more confidence and a little bit more gusto. And Annie says the same thing about Alexis.

There is such a joy in playing someone who is so unapologetically themselves. It was really fun. And it was telling, the relationships between David and Patrick and really getting to explore territory that I had not really seen on TV before about a relationship between two men that felt very easy and natural. And it wasn’t kind of there to teach people a lesson or two, or to end in tragedy — it was to tell a really successful story about two members of the LGBTQ community, and that was really meaningful. And to give them a happy ending was really meaningful.

I wanted to talk to you about that beautiful moment where you received a letter from moms of LGBTQ kids complimenting you on how the show has promoted tolerance. Have you seen progress in LGBTQ representation?
Any time you try to depict stories about people who are not often seen on television with the kind of care that’s not often given to those stories, I’ve since realized that there’s so much power in that. People were referring to the story within the show as “groundbreaking.” And for me, it was always a strange word to use because we were really just telling a love story. There was nothing specific other than the fact that it was between two men.

My goal was to just make it as easeful and as nonchalant as all the other love stories I was watching on television and that came down to the kinds of intimacy we were gonna show and talk about. So for me, it was never really a groundbreaking thing. It was just about telling stories about my own experience and the experience of my friends and members of the community in a way that I wanted to see. But the fact that that had such an impact in a way is a positive thing, because I hope that it will continue to inspire storytelling that respects these characters in ways that doesn’t just constantly make us all a lesson to be learned or a butt of a joke or a caricature.

But at the same time, it illuminated the fact that we don’t see a lot of these stories. The fact that two men falling in love on television has gotten the kind of response that it’s gotten to me just woke me up to the idea that we just need to keep telling more of these stories because we shouldn’t be using words like groundbreaking when it comes to love stories about two men. It should just be stories. And I’ve just been finding more and more television that I think has done such beautiful work in depicting stories between the LGBTQ community, between characters in the LGBTQ community… I think we still have a long way to go, but it’s been wonderful to watch the representation expand over the years. And I certainly know that through this experience, I want to continue doing that on all the projects that I develop from here on out.

What do you think the future of TV post-pandemic will look like?
It’s busy. With everything that I’m working on, I just keep hoping that the more that I do, the more we can make. The more that writers create, the more that can be made and the more people that can eventually be employed. That’s what’s really keeping me motivated.I just hope that we don’t see a ton of shows about COVID-19 — Let’s just say this never happened! I’m finding it to be quite inspirational in terms of creating content that really offsets the sense of dread that I’m feeling right now. And I hope that it leads to some really inspiring TV — great art always comes out of really tough times. Through all of this and through the show, I realized that television has such a power to it and has the ability to change lives and change minds and change conversations. So it’s a really necessary form of entertainment.

With all these shows having reunions lately, like “Parks and Recreation,” would that ever be in the cards for “Schitt’s Creek?”
We did not want to end the show. I ended the show because it felt like it was the right time. And I am a big advocate for quality over quantity. Just because television is successful doesn’t mean it has to go on for fifteen seasons. I think storytelling is really crucial to what makes television work, and the minute that you’re running out of stories is the minute that you’re in a way taking advantage of your audience, because these are people that have spent a lot of time and taken a lot of time out of their lives to watch what you’re making. So when you stop respecting that experience, it becomes a strange dance. I wanted to create a show that had a legacy to it that people wanted to revisit season after season and start back in season one and work your way through it. And in order to do that, you have to have a really thoughtful and carefully considered series from start to finish. There were a lot of people that crawled out of the woodwork when we announced that we were ending them saying, “you’re crazy for doing this! Everyone’s watching!” And I’m like, “well, that’s great. But just because everyone’s watching doesn’t mean that we should stretch the show so thin that we lose the spark.”

I don’t think we’ll do anything anytime soon because I think you need to give people a minute to leave. But down the line, if there’s an idea that pops into my head that feels right and feels deserving of our cast and our crew’s time and attention then, yeah, I would love to tell some more stories and see what happens to these people, because I think there’s lives to be lived after that series finale.

To read more of the “Race Begins” issue, click here.

thewrap emmy magazine 2020

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