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Catching Up With... Inglourious Basterds' Samm Levine

June 2, 2009  |  8:00am
Catching Up With... <em>Inglourious Basterds</em>' Samm Levine
It’s been a decade since Samm Levine played the bawdy, faux-suave king geek on Freaks and Geeks and permanently endeared himself to a certain segment of his generation. Since then he’s been a prolific actor on television, with guest parts on shows like Veronica Mars and Entourage, and he’s also broken into film work in genre and teen flicks (Pulse, Sydney White). This summer he has two high-profile movies ahead: The heavily promoted comedy I Love You Beth Cooper, from director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire), and Quentin Tarantino’s furious war epic Inglourious Basterds, which premiered last month at the Cannes Film Festival. Paste caught up with him shortly after the movie’s premiere at the fest.

Paste: Was that your first trip to Cannes?
Samm Levine: Yeah, I’d never been to Cannes.

Paste: How’d it go?
Levine: It was crazy. I’ve never done anything like that before. The build-up to the movie the whole week before was crazy. Everyone was asking about Basterds, and everyone was asking for tickets to the premiere. And I could barely get one for myself, you know? [laughs] The actual premiere was pretty crazy. The red carpet beforehand at the Palais, just this sea of people on every side. I took pictures with my camera, because I wouldn’t be able to believe it otherwise.

Paste: How was the premiere itself?
Levine: Well, we get in there, and there’s like this 10-minute applause for Quentin.

Paste: Before the movie even started?
Levine: Yeah, before the movie even started. People just loaded in there, and then the last people to come in are Quentin and Brad [Pitt] and Diane Kruger and Mélanie Laurent—you know, “the big stars” of the flick. And as they walked in, there was just this thunderous applause for Quentin. That guy is Cannes’ golden boy, he really is. 

Paste: What else did you get into while you were there?
Levine: Ha, nothing that I think would be terribly interesting to other people. Well, actually, here, I’ll give you one scoop. I’m not a tall man. I’m just a hair under 5’5. You know who also is? Emile Hirsch.  

Paste: Really?
Levine: We are the same height. I met him at a party, and he was like, “Have any idea how nice it is to see a guy my height?”

Paste: Tell us more about your character in Inglourious Basterds.
Levine: My character’s PFC Hirschberg, who’s in this kind of elite, secret unit led by Brad Pitt’s character, Lt. Aldo Raine. And basically the unit, their mission is to—they’re dropped behind enemy lines, in Nazi-occupied France, during World War II. Their goal is to pose as French civilians and ambush Nazis as they encounter them. And their mission is to kill Nazis. And not just to kill them, but to ambush them, torture ’em, scalp ’em, and then leave these destroyed bodies behind so the other Nazis will know what will happen to them if they ever run into the Basterds. And the best part about it is that the Basterds are all supposed to be Jewish-American soldiers, because, you know, we’re fighting for survival.  

Paste: Right. Did you think the movie explicitly goes for a revision of other World War II movies, where there are always old-school, white-bred heroes?
Levine: Well, you know, I don’t think [Tarantino] was trying to make a political statement with the film or the casting or anything. I think this is more about Quentin’s love of cinema. I think really, at the end of the day, that’s what this is about. And not just his love of cinema, but how influential cinema can be, especially during wartime. Propaganda cinema was so big all through Europe, to try to get people over to one side or the other during the war.

Paste: We heard you had the script for this movie a while before you read for it, so how did you get involved?
Levine: Well, I didn’t have it for that long. There had been a version online for a little while, and I just dismissed it, like it was a version of the script that some fan wrote. And when I eventually got the call about the meeting, I got sent the script, and I checked back, and as it turns out, that copy that was online was the real deal. I’m not sure how it got leaked, but Quentin didn’t care too much, because I guess he always intended on rewriting large portions of it before we shot anyway. So I can definitely say the script we shot is not the same as the one online.

Paste: So you got a reading. What’s your creative relationship like with Tarantino? 
Levine: I met Quentin five years prior to the meeting. We met at a party somewhere and we talked for like two hours about movies. He was a big fan of the show I was on, Freaks and Geeks. We knew who the other was. Or maybe I should say he knew who I was, because who doesn’t know who Tarantino is? We had a fine chat when I went in to meet with him. He was talking to a bunch of Jewish-American actors. It was important to him to cast Jewish guys to play Jewish guys.

Paste: Yeah. Makes sense.
Levine: So first we talked about the script and shot the shit, so to speak. At this point no one was really reading. He just wanted to get an impression of how he was interacting with people, because he’s a very hands-on kind of guy. Eventually I got a call that he wanted me to come read with him. And when I say read with him, I mean literally read with Quentin. Very unusual in the casting world. 

So I went in and read for the part of PFC Utivich, who is played by B.J. Novak. I read that part with him for a little while, and then he asked me to read for the part of Donny Donowitz, who is played by Eli Roth. So I read that one with him. I read for a good 40 minutes. Then about a week later, we got the call: They wanted to offer me the part of PFC Hirschberg...

Paste: Haha. Awesome. 
Levine: …a character I never even read for. That’s what I love about casting.

PasteWhat are you working on now?
Levine: Drones is a little indie I shot last summer in Louisiana, actually, in Baton Rouge. And when I say little indie, I mean this thing is the smallest-budget project I've ever worked on. But I did it because I absolutely loved the script written by two friends of mine. They're the most talented writers I know who are ready to break out. Their names are Ben Acker and Ben Blacker. Ha... When I read the script, I said, "I'm there for free." I liked it that much. So we shot this really, really funny movie. I don't know what the current plans are for that in terms of a release. [They'll take it to] some film festivals to see if they can get it bought. And I'm sure they will. It's a really unique film.

Paste: Sounds cool.
Levine: I'm also focusing my attention on something I gave up a while ago: stand-up comedy. I was a stand-up comedian for 10 years, if you can believe it. And I gave it up at age 22. That's right, 22. At 22, I retired a 10-year career. Because I'm a lunatic. So I'm getting back into it. 

Paste: Thinking back on the past decade, plus with I Love You Beth Cooper this summer, would you say this has become a breakout summer for you?
Levine: You know, I hope so, and that’s a very hopeful way of putting it. But I never try to put too many expectations on it. I’ve had projects before where everyone says "This is going to be the big thing," and it doesn’t really turn out to be. Then there is a little project you do and forget about and then it comes out and it’s huge. I try to take it project to project.

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