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Arts and Entertainment

LAist Interview: Samm Levine, Inglourious Basterds

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Though it first aired a decade ago, most people still remember Samm Levine quite clearly from the cult TV show, Freaks and Geeks (look back at the cast and writers and marvel at the talent). Since then he has worked steadily, both in television (the best episode of Entourage ever) and film (the hilarious and underrated Not Another Teen Movie.) This Friday, Samm appears as one of Brad Pitt's basterds in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. LAist had a chance to speak with Samm recently about working on the film.

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LAist: How are you, Samm?

Samm: I'm great. How are you?

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LAist: I'm good. Let us interview in earnest!

Samm: All right.

LAist: So how did you first find out about the film, and how did your involvement come to pass?

Samm: Well, I actually met Quentin about five years before casting got under way. When he was promoting Kill Bill 1 & 2. I met him in LA around that time. We knew who the other one was. Which is really to say, he knew who I was. And then I think I read in the trades about this movie, about Basterds. And then I had a couple of friends who were really excited that they were going in to have a general meeting with Quentin. So I called my people and said, "Where's my general meeting?" (laughs) And they said, "Relax, relax. We're setting one up for you." So then I went in and met with Quentin. And he wasn't reading anyone. He was just meeting with a whole bunch of people. All young Jewish actors.

LAist: Right. Fittingly.

Samm: Yeah. So we met for ten minutes. Talked a little bit. And then after I left the casting people called my people later that day and said, "Hey, Quentin wants Samm to come back in two days and read." Actually read with him. Originally it was for the role of Utivich. So I prepared all weekend and I went in on Monday, did Utivich, read with Quentin -- literally. He did not make a casting associate read for him. He read with me.

LAist: We he reading Aldo?

Samm: Yeah, he was reading Aldo and Landa in that particular scene.

LAist: Right, the scene at the end?

Samm: Yeah, the scene at the end. So we did that for a little bit. And then he says, "You know, I really want to see you read these lines." And then he gives me some Donowitz lines to read. And so I sat there with him and we did Donowitz for another ten, fifteen minutes. And he said, "That was really great. Thanks so much for coming in." And so I split, and two weeks later we get the phone call and, "Hey, they're offering you Hirschberg." (laughs) And that's pretty funny because I didn't read for Hirschberg.

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LAist: Quentin has a very -- at least we think he has a very defined personality -- but at the same time directing is a hard job. It's difficult and exhausting. How is he different as a director from his wild, public persona? How does he deal with you as an actor differently than you've had other directors work with you before?

Samm: Well, I can tell you that the persona stays with him the whole way. That is not an act. That is not a facade. That is truly him. He is as excitable on set as he is anywhere else. He loves to make films. Quite frankly, for a man who loves them as much as he does I'm surprised he doesn't make them more often. As far as working with him versus working with everyone else, he is the first writer-director I've worked with. And that's always a different breed of auteur because it is their baby from minute one. From ten years ago when he first put pen to paper on this to the moment you're on set. He demands your commitment as an actor one hundred percent from the part to the lines to everything. It's not like he would get mad when you didn't give him that, but he would get upset. He'd be like, "What are you doing? You've got to be in it, man. You've got to get with it. You've got to be in this part." But, you know, that didn't happen too often. Everyone there was well-cast and wanted to be there -- My God, everyone wanted to be there! It's not a movie where anyone was doing it for the money, you know? No one was trying to buy a boat by appearing in Basterds. (laughs) We were all there because we loved Quentin, loved the script and, to quote Quentin, "Loved making movies."

LAist: Quentin said he overwrites his movies a little bit. He feels he writes too much. And so I'm assuming you shot a lot of things that didn't make the film. What were some of interesting scenes that happened but, for whatever reason, we didn't see?

Samm: Well, that would take about an hour and forty minutes if I went over all of it. (laughs) That is how much is missing from what you saw. And as bad a victim as I may feel that I'm not really in it, there are a number of other actors who are completely removed from the film. Maggie Cheung --

LAist: Yeah, I heard her sequence was just completely wiped out.

Samm: Exactly. The whole sequence of her as Madame Mimieux meeting Shoshanna, getting to know her, giving her the theater -- all gone. There was a great scene -- a really great scene -- between Cloris Leachman and Eli (Roth). It was Donny's whole back story about how the bat came to be. And all the signatures on the bat and what they mean -- all gone. But, you know, there's no movie that I've ever been in where every scene is there. You get to that point, and say, "Well, I like this scene. But it really doesn't movie anything along."

LAist: Yeah, Quentin said -- someone asked him that question -- and he said, "You may want it. But you don't need it." And that was sort of his defining principle as they were cutting the movie.

Samm: Yeah.

LAist: You went to Cannes with the movie, right?

Samm: Yes.

LAist: Was that your first time there? What was that like?

Samm: It was a total head-tripping experience for me. It was really crazy. How would I describe it? I've never even been to Sundance, but I've heard other people describe it as Sundance on crack. I've never been in a city that was more crowded. And everyone there was talking about Basterds. It was really the film of the festival this year which was, you know...great! People would meet me and go, "Hey, Basterds! Any chance you have an extra ticket???" I'm thinking to myself, "My God, I feel lucky that I have even one for me." But it was really a wonderful, wonderful experience. I've never had anything like it. Walking up the red carpet to the Palais the night of the screening with just that sea of people. It's really something else. I took some pictures with my own little camera because I know I wouldn't have believed how crowded it was in my memory.

LAist: Samm, I'm down to my last question. Most people refuse to answer, but I'm going to ask you anyway.

Samm: My favorite curse word is fuck.

LAist: That wasn't it. But I want to see how sporting you are. Naming names, tell me a great Hollywood story.

Samm: A great Hollywood story naming names?

LAist: Naming names. Everyone always tells a great Hollywood story but they never name names. It's that clause which prevents people from doing it.

Samm: Okay, here's a good one. So years ago -- back in 2002 maybe -- I'm at a party at Mike Medavoy's house. It's a Golden Globes party at Mike Medavoy's house. I have no idea why I was there. And I see Ralph Fiennes at the party. And I have had a totally heterosexual man-crush on Ralph Fiennes for as long as I can remember. The guy can do no wrong in my book. So I see him at this party and I say to my friend, "Oh my God, Ralph Fiennes is at this party. I have to say something to him." My buddy's like, "What are you going to say?". I say, "I don't know, but he's so fucking cool. My God!" And so I waste all night thinking about what is a good time to approach Ralph Fiennes. But I don't know what I'm going to say. I have no game plan! And so finally it gets to that hour and Ralph Fiennes is about to leave. He's literally walking towards the door. And so I say, "Embarrassment be damned. I'm talking to this man." So I see Ralph Fiennes and I run over to him. And there's a lot of people watching. So I say, "Ralph!" and he says, "Yes" and I say, "My name's Samm Levine. I'm an actor and I'm a huge, huge fan. Your work has meant a lot to me, and I really admire you. You give me hope for what I want to achieve as an actor." And he says, "Oh, thanks. That's very sweet." And I say, "No, wait. I have a favor to ask." And he says, "Yeah?" And I said, "I don't know if I'll ever run into you again, but if I do and I should happen to have a woman with me, I can think of nothing more impressive than seeing you across the room and saying, "Oh, honey. Look. There's Ralph Fiennes. I know him. Let's go say hello." And he's kind of laughing a little bit. And I said, "So if I came up to you with a woman and I said, 'Hey, Ralph' you could say, 'Hey, Samm. How's it going? About three months later, I'm eating at a restaurant in LA with some people and sure as shit I see Ralph Fiennes across the room. Sadly, I didn't have a date with me but I thought, "Oh, hell. Let's test this thing out." So at an appropriate time I walked over to his table, put out my hand and said, "Hey, Ralph. How's it going?" And he looks at me for about five seconds and goes, "Samm! How's it going?"

LAist: That's a great Hollywood story.

Inglourious Basterds opens tomorrow in theaters.