Jane Levy has acted in a number of movies and TV shows, but many people likely think of her starring role in the 2011-2014 sitcom Suburgatory. Or at least until recently, as she’s busier than ever right now. Levy is in the just-released Amazon pilot Sea Oak, she’s starring in the 2018 Hulu series Castle Rock, and she’s starring in the just released There’s…Johnny!
The series from writers Paul Reiser and David Steven Simon looks at life backstage at The Tonight Show in 1972 and Levy plays Joy, one of the show’s talent coordinators. One of the best aspects of the show, and one of the things that attracted Levy to it, is the fact that show has such reverence for the period and these people, but it never looks away from the period’s uncomfortable and troubling aspects. Multiple reviews have cited Levy’s performance as one of the show’s highlights – some of them calling her the show’s Peggy Olson – but in truth she manages to define the show and set its tone, a nimble balance of comedy and drama.
What interested you in the series and in the character?
Firstly I was excited by the prospect of working with Paul Reiser and David Gordon Green. I’m a fan of both their work. Funny enough, Paul Reiser and my father were in a high school band together in the early ‘70s – which is not how I became cast in this project, just a funny cosmic thing. I think Paul is so smart and funny and I love David Gordon Green’s movies and I loved the part of Joy. I got to read the first four episodes before I signed on and I just related to her and found her to be a real person who I thought is multidimensional and contradictory.
She’s a fascinating character. Is she based on anyone? Does she have a real-life counterpart?
No, she just came out of Paul Reiser and David Steven Simon’s brains, I guess. I was impressed, too, because neither of them have daughters yet they really nailed a young woman in their writing. I don’t know how they did it.
For a period piece like this, how much research are you given? How much research are you doing on your own?
Research was important. I had heard the name Johnny Carson, of course, but I didn’t know that he was the original creator of this late night show model. I remember putting it together – that’s why Jack Nicholson says, “Here’s Johnny!” in The Shining – because that was the catchphrase of The Tonight Show. There was so much I didn’t know about Johnny Carson. So I researched that. I also read about women’s lib – which, ironically, feels like it’s happening all over again now. Thinking about who was president at the time and politics and the Vietnam War – I was definitely doing research.
You said that you read the first few episodes before signing on, and I assume some of the drama of the character is what attracted you to the part.
I really understood her. I relate to her anger and confusion, but also her work ethic and drive. Being a young person is confusing, whether you’re a man or a woman, and I appreciated that they showed her, like I said before, as a fully rounded contradictory human like everybody is. Not just “the love interest” in any way.
The show balances comedy and drama. As an actor do you think about that balance and how it plays out?
I guess I approach comedy and drama the same – you just play it real. I’m naturally drawn towards comedy in life. I guess I have dark humor personally and I guess I’m not really interested in any project as an actor that doesn’t have both because that’s how life is. I don’t really find there to be a huge distinction between the two. Unless you’re doing some sort of genre like a sitcom where there’s a real rhythm, but I don’t feel like this show had that, so you just play the scenes as the character. Sometimes it’s funny when you don’t even expect it to be, and sometimes it’s sad when you don’t expect it to be.
You mentioned David Gordon Green, who’s a director-producer on the show. What was it like working with him?
He’s a really fun director to work with. He is always excited to be at work, which makes you in turn very excited, and there’s just so much freedom and there’s no pressure to get anything “right.” He is a real artist who likes to explore weirdness. I’m a big fan and I just loved working with him.
You do a lot of comedy and you also do a lot of horror and both genres are flexible in terms of naturalism.
I wonder if there’s something about comedy and horror that are related. It’s just by chance that I ended up in these kinds of projects but I don’t really know. I’ll have to think about the relation of these two.
Recently Amazon released a new round of pilots and you’re in Sea Oak, which is written by George Saunders and stars Glenn Close. How did you get involved and what was this production like?
I am so happy that I get to be a part of this. George Saunders, Glenn Close, and the director Hiro Murai are all really interesting radical artists, in my opinion. A friend of mine was auditioning for the pilot and I was helping them make a tape and I thought it was so fucking funny and weird and sad that I actually called my agent and said, “Hey, can I audition for it?” I’m not sure if they had thought of me for a role like Min, but I was like, “I would love to be a part of this in any way.” So I actually auditioned for Jade and Min and got the part of Min. George is one of the most amazing people to work with. He’s so generous and smart and funny and humble. We wanted to make something strange and something that people haven’t necessarily seen before. I got to read the bible before we made the pilot. George hadn’t written all of the episodes, but he wrote a bible about what he saw for the show and I remember him saying that after every episode, “I want the audience to think, ‘What the fuck did we just watch?’” I think we succeeded in that in the pilot. There’s a level of it that’s grounded and rooted in real human experience, and also there’s this surreal magical world that we’re creating. I really hope Amazon picks it up because I would be so excited to continue exploring these characters lives and their situations.
Sea Oak is an amazing short story and the pilot is just insane in the most beautiful amazing way. I have no idea where it would go, but I really want to see.
Me too! Pick it up, Amazon! Please!
You’re also starring in Castle Rock, which is another show with an amazing cast. It seems crazy that you’re working on three series.
Yeah, it’s really exciting. I finished Suburgatory in 2014 and I loved that show. It was an incredible cast and the creator is so cool, and I’m really proud of what we did. Since then I haven’t found another show – and then I found three. I feel so lucky and it’s cool to be able to be in three vastly different universes like a period piece, I don’t know what you would call Sea Oak – a surreal comedy drama whatever, I don’t even know how to describe it – and then to be a part of Castle Rock, which is a thriller-horror with incredible writing and I play a really fun character in it as well, is just so awesome.
I’m guessing you’re not allowed to say any more about Castle Rock than you just did.
You’re right, I’m not. [laughs]
How do you describe There’s…Johnny? What is the show for you?
The show for me is really pleasant nostalgic entertainment and a visit to comedy past. I think that it would be a really nice show to watch with your family around the holidays. I think for older generations it’s really fun to see the old Johnny Carson clips. In 1972 you couldn’t DVR or YouTube or revisit anything that you wanted to watch again or that you missed on TV. You had to stay up until 11:30, and that experience doesn’t really exist anymore. I would encourage people to do that with There’s…Johnny – as cheesy as that sounds. I think it would be a really lovely experience.