Schitt's Creek star Catherine O'Hara on the tragic comedy of Moira Rose
There’s no character on television quite like Moira Rose. A displaced city socialite remanded to a life of small-town stasis, the matriarch of Schitt’s Creek’s stranded Rose family raucously inserts herself into the unglamorous tedium of bucolic America, wielding a vicious vocabulary and a vivacious wardrobe which, vital as they are for Moira, serve as even more powerful tools in the hands of actress Catherine O’Hara.
O’Hara is, of course, the 64-year-old comic cult icon whose resume is littered with cultural touchstones including SCTV, Home Alone, Beetlejuice, and Christopher Guest ensemble comedies like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. But there’s something different about her role on Schitt’s Creek. It’s O’Hara’s next great act, the role with which she’s stepped through the digital portal and crossed over into the slice of the zeitgeist that measures by memeable metrics, anointing cultural superlatives and demanding recognition for long-undersung talents (see: Laura Dern). But more than the role’s context or the three Canadian Screen Awards it’s won O’Hara, Moira Rose simply marks one of O’Hara’s best character creations yet — and that’s no easy competition.
Moira is as electrifying as ever in the fifth season of the show (which premiered Jan. 15 on Pop TV, where it will first run before presumably joining the rest of its four seasons currently streaming on Netflix). With another cycle of Schitt’s Creek now off and running, O’Hara spoke to EW about the triumph of Moira Rose and the underlying secret to the character’s success.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First things first: What do people most often ask you about playing Moira?
CATHERINE O’HARA: When will there be a wardrobe sale? [Laughs] And the second question is, where the hell did my accent come from?
And what do you say to that?
I say, it’s how people speak when they want to reinvent themselves over and over again! [Laughs]
It felt like the online love of Schitt’s Creek really exploded in 2018, as if the internet suddenly took ownership of the show and elevated it to this revered level on social media. Was that your experience last year? How did you perceive that?
One thing that really helped was Netflix deciding to show our show. Wow, that really opened it up to so many more people around the world, and that’s just a lovely thing. If no one saw the show, it would still be a wonderful, fun job, but I’m so happy for [creators and costars] Daniel and Eugene [Levy] and the show that it’s being seen by so many more people. And I think there’s been wonderful response in particular to all the relationships on the show and the growth of Alexis and David, especially David’s relationship with Patrick. There’s a lot of love in the writing of the show.
What has surprised you about Moira’s growth over five seasons? There seems to be endless mileage to the character.
People were quick to maybe judge these characters at the beginning because they were much less sympathetic at the beginning, but I would always ask people, “Well, how would you behave if you had your life ripped out from under you?” Those characters were not at their best. Moira certainly was not at her best. Although I do keep pointing out that Moira does not make Johnny’s life hell for their situation like some wives would. I’m not sure I wouldn’t. [Laughs] But the scripts have been really inspiring. Daniel and the writers have given Moira lots of great opportunities to show who she can be, and that is Moira’s dream, I think, to show the world how much potential she has. And that’s hard.
I think it’s hard to write for older characters, to write stories for them that don’t involve death, divorce, or disease. Unfortunately for some people, that is life; if you’re lucky enough to live long enough, you’ll have some of those things in your life. Certainly, death. But the younger characters, Alexis and David, they’re finding their way and having so many new experiences and building careers and most importantly building lovely relationships. And it’s harder, I think, to come up with new, fun stories for older characters, but Moira has had so many great opportunities. Any opportunity they give me to do a ridiculous arrangement on a song or to get a chance to show the many characters that Moira could do, like when they go looking for a used car… you know, the world just opens up with so many possibilities for Moira, and I jump in to each one.
Do the writers know what makes you laugh the most on set as Moira? Is it the language she uses?
They have added a lot more vocabulary as we’ve gone on. I have a couple of books that have arcane and archaic words that nobody’s ever heard, and it’s fun to play with my dialogue a bit and… accessorize with a few of those words. And they come up with a lot that I have never seen either.
What kills me are the truncated name-drops. The Sandy Bullocks and the Stan Kubricks.
[Laughs] That is so sad. What a sad reference. “Yeah, Sandy, good friend.” And Joyce DeWitt. There are a lot of references to Joyce DeWitt for some reason.
Schitt’s Creek is a show where you very much don’t ever want to see the Rose family leave this town, and yet it’s simultaneously very exciting that this season begins with Moira in a new space, on a film set. What was exciting to you about getting Moira out of town for a bit?
We did do flashbacks for the Christmas show and that was a joy, and the point of it was not to show what a great time we were having, but it was great for Moira to just have a taste of that world again. So yeah, going to Bosnia and getting to act? Because Moira is claiming to be a wonderful actress to the world. She’s claiming to whoever will listen that she has had great success and she will again as an actress. So to be able to go and to be on a set, even if it was for The Crows Have Eyes II, with a director who couldn’t have cared less about the project… it was fun! It was fun to see her in that world and to play that human transitioning into a crow with that much conviction.
I was hoping you might bring up that scene, because I’m curious: Do you consider Moira a good actress? Because on the one hand, she had to have had at least some success in acting in her past. But if you don’t play her as the world’s worst actress, what do you play her as?
Oh, I like to think I did that crow very well! [Laughs] I think Moira was very good. I think if you’re given… okay, the role itself in Crows Have Eyes II is ridiculous, right? So in my mind, your best choice is to do the best possible job you can do at playing it. And it was hard! I was kind of nervous that day because I really wanted to do that ridiculous dialogue well, and I really wanted to play a human transitioning into a crow better than anyone else would ever play it. For Moira’s behalf, you know? Because it’s hard to play bad just being bad.
I remember somebody once told me that a big aspect of comedy, diluted of course, is the idea that failure is funny.
But not when they believe they’re failing. The more they believe they’re succeeding, the funnier it is.
Do you consider Moira a tragic character?
No more than we’re all tragic characters in life. I love that we’re all kind of delusional and we have really no idea of what impression we’re making on others. I love playing people who are living that to that degree, and Moira believes she’s a people person and she’s making the best of bad situation. She’s like a baby: She has all the potential in the world, if she’s just given the opportunities. And so in that way, she’s tragic. You know, people will say something about Moira being awful or mean, but I’ll defend her to the death because you have to. But in the acting, I think the joke is already there. Crows Have Eyes II is already pretty sad, and the role she’s playing is not a role Moira would have chosen as her comeback role. But it’s the opportunity that was given to her, and when the joke is already there in the script, the straighter you play it, I think the funnier it is. I think it would have been scarier to give Moira a really good role, or an iconic character in a famous play with a great speech. Because then I’d have been even more scared because I really would have tried to have Moira do her best, and I can only be as good as I am!
One of the great joys of the show and its success is watching the continuance of your 40-plus-year collaboration with Eugene Levy. How have you found that a television show has evolved your relationship in new ways?
I have learned to be more patient like Eugene is, and more diplomatic like Eugene is, and I’ve tried to be more grateful like Eugene, and more professional. I mean, I’ve always thought I’ve worked hard and tried to do a good job, but when you’re together every day for a few months like that and working really hard… decent, good behavior is really appreciated by everyone. And good manners. It just makes the job a thousand times more enjoyable. And he’s a very good example in all those regards, as well as the obvious being a smart, funny, and great actor and writer.
Do you see your onscreen kids, Annie Murphy and Dan Levy, mirroring the dynamic of Catherine and Eugene in the comic work they’re doing on this show?
Oh, I’d like to, because I love them and they’re so talented. I’m just so flattered every day that I get to fool people into thinking I’m their mother. [Laughs] So I like that. I find that very flattering, that someone would think I would have made those two. But they’re such sweet characters. They were raised in captivity, basically, and as much as they’ve traveled and been everywhere and done everything, they have no real experience in just day-to-day living, and it’s been a joyful thing watching them grow up. Annie, just her delivery of everything, is so fresh and new and original, and I love watching her ridiculous hand movements. And [Daniel as] David is so sweet and vulnerable.
In your mind, what would constitute a happy ending for Moira?
Every day, Moira’s thinking about getting out, but I think that would actually be a lot harder for her than she knows. It’s a pretty precious thing to be with your grown children this much time in the day and to see their lives and to see them learning and growing up as adults. So I think she’ll miss that, and she’ll miss being a mother and being that tight as a family. But I think a good ending for her would be a great career opportunity that is not a one-shot deal. It would have to be some long-term project with a great director. And of course seeing Johnny have another great success.
In terms of being recognized on the street for characters, I imagine there was never a lack of people over the past 20 years yelling “Kevin!” at you.
[Laughs] Especially at this time of year.
What is the Moira quote people repeat to you? Is there even a signature one?
Oh, what would it be? I think it might just be the accent. And adding just a few more syllables to a word.