Schitt’s Creek star Daniel Levy attributes his success in television to the English teacher who taught him the subtleties of subtext.
By Richard Ouzounian
Photos: Vanessa Heins
The 800,000-plus Canadians who tune in to the CBC comedy series Schitt’s Creek have plenty of reasons to watch, but what arguably keeps them coming back for more is the show’s heavily bespectacled and highly talented Daniel Levy.
His performance as David Rose, the charmingly dazed hipster son of Catherine O’Hara and his real-life father, Eugene Levy, has solidified his stardom after a decade of hosting programs like MTV Canada’s flagship show MTV Live and The After Show.
Although Levy co-created the offbeat comedy series with his SCTV-veteran father and writes many of the scripts, he traces the origins of his career as a comic writer not to his gene pool but to his time spent in an OAC1 English class at North Toronto Collegiate Institute.
“High school was a tricky time for me,” recalls Levy. “I had high hopes but lacked the confidence to go out there and make things happen. I knew I wanted to write, to create, to have my voice heard but I had no idea how to do it.”
But then Anne Carrier, OCT, came along at just the right moment in 2001. “I remember Dan sitting on the right-hand side of the semi-circle seating arrangement that I liked to put students in,” says Carrier. “His demeanour caught my attention because he was calm and engaged in a class that was full of very intense students, who were primarily interested in the marks they would get.”
The fact that Levy made such a strong initial impression on Carrier had nothing to do with his father’s celebrity status. “I didn’t know he was Eugene Levy’s son,” she insists. “I often taught students whose parents had a high profile but I preferred not to know. I wanted to get to know the person first. And when I did get to know Dan, I thought to myself, ‘This is a very well brought up young man.’”
Levy may have impressed Carrier, but she had the same effect on him. “Ms. Carrier had an innate ability to make you want to strive, both academically and intellectually. She created a safe space for ideas to be shared, concepts to be discussed and opinions to be expressed without fear of failure or embarrassment.”
Carrier's approach was not only pedagogically sound, but informed by a piece of astute psychological intuition. "What teenagers really want is to be taken seriously," says Levy, "and we definitely felt that when we were in her class."
“What teenagers really want is to be taken seriously, and we definitely felt that when we were in Ms. Carrier’s class.”
The well-worn phrase “a born teacher” acquires new meaning when discussing Carrier’s career path: “I used to help my Grade 2 teacher, Miss Neary, in class! I always loved learning but I also loved sharing my learning,” she laughs, remembering her young self. “I might have been a bit hard to take, though — the know-it-all student.”
With her early years spent in Peterborough, Ont., Carrier took her post-secondary studies at an exhilarating assortment of venues: Carleton University in Ottawa, The University of Manchester in England, Trent University in Peterborough and finally the University of Toronto’s faculty of education.
“I started out in political science but once I got to England,” Carrier recalls, “I felt this pull toward 18th- and 19th-century literature.”
She began teaching within the Toronto District School Board in 1974. Carrier then spent 14 years as the assistant head of English at Northern Secondary School, before winding up as the head of English at North Toronto in 1998, where she stayed until her retirement in 2005.
I enjoyed a wonderful journey in education,” enthuses Carrier. “I was blessed to live during what I believe was the best time to teach — not too much technology and just enough freedom. I also always had great department heads, which is something every teacher needs and dreams of.”
After a far-reaching teaching journey, Carrier wound up doing just the kind of work she was meant to do, and the same thing happened to Levy. Despite his comedic pedigree, he wasn’t sure where he was heading in life before he entered Carrier’s class. “I initially thought journalism would be a good career for Dan because of his attentiveness to his peers and his engagement in knowledge,” the star’s former teacher explains. Levy finds her observation amusing but correct. “Funny enough, I did end up spending eight years talking to people for a living on TV. Which I suppose, in its own pop cultural way, was a form of journalism.”
Considering how outgoing Levy is today, Carrier admits that back then, she never would have guessed his actual career path.” But then she recalls Levy as co-host of the school fashion show — when a more extroverted young man began to emerge.
Levy — who had previously discovered the school theatre program — excelled in that role, so much so that he looked to participate in similar activities throughout the rest of the year.
But Levy’s success today is not just as a performer but as a writer, and he gives Carrier full marks for that.
“The most inspiring thing about being in Ms. Carrier’s class was her approach to academia. She emphasized subtext,” explains the Schitt’s Creek star. “The challenge of reading between the lines and examining what an author is trying to get at was incredibly stimulating — and nobody does subtext like Shakespeare.”
The watershed moment in the Toronto native’s development as a writer, however, came with an assignment on Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.
“This was a major turning point for me,” says Levy. “We were asked to write an essay based on this terrific story. Instead of delivering another generic assignment, I took a risk and decided to mimic the book’s unique narrative structure to convey my ideas. In the end, it presented more like a memoir, but I handed it in anyway and hoped for the best.
“The following week, Ms. Carrier read my work to the class, as an example of how to think outside of the box,” Levy explains, with an audible sense of pride. “She gave me a 99 per cent and said that I didn’t get perfect because I handed in a paper that was clearly not an essay — fair enough!”
“I remember Dan doing an excellent job,” says Carrier. “It wasn’t a traditional approach but it was an extraordinary examination of the nature of social satire. He had a real attunement to it.”
“Ms. Carrier’s encouragement changed everything for me,” says Levy. “She could have failed me, but instead she inspired me to think differently and continue to write.
“I walked away feeling supported and validated — which is why, looking back, I am able to attribute my career as a television writer to that very moment.”
In this department, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.