It is rather intimidating talking to Catherine O’Hara, the acting goddess who has most recently gifted the world with the unforgettable Moira Rose on Schitt’s Creek. In the decades since her time on legendary Canadian comedy series SCTV, O’Hara has become a vital member of Christopher Guest’s mockumentary troupe in films like Best In Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. She’s also excelled in voice-over work; given life to memorable characters in movies like Beetlejuice and Home Alone; and shown up in everything from Martin Scorsese’s After Hours to both the film and TV adaptations of Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events.
O’Hara’s performance in the final season of Schitt’s Creek earned her a second consecutive Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. She’s a previous Emmy winner for Outstanding Writing In A Variety Or Music Program for her work on SCTV, along with Eugene Levy, John Candy, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, and Martin Short. Schitt’s Creek was her first long-term series work since SCTV, reuniting O’Hara with her frequent co-star Eugene Levy in a series he created with his son, Dan Levy, about the fallen-from-grace Rose family. Moira Rose’s unique pronunciations and creative vocabulary, along with her boldly experimental black-and-white wardrobe, made the character one to remember. Schitt’s Creek’s sixth season really belonged to Moira, who started out the season in the midst of an epic, closet-dwelling breakdown, then resurrected herself on the success of her new film, The Crows Have Eyes 3: The Crowening, culminating with her ultimate performance as she presided over the wedding of her son, David, to his beloved Patrick.
In honor of her latest Emmy nomination, Catherine O’Hara talked to The A.V. Club about the high bar raised by her first series since SCTV, her long partnership with Eugene Levy, and her view of her career from a post-50 vantage point.
The A.V. Club: What does the Emmy nomination mean for you at this point in your career?
Catherine O’Hara: It’s lovely. The kindness of strangers. It’s a nice big unexpected bonus to the great time I had making the show with everyone. And, you know, try not to take it too seriously, but it’s always better to be nominated than not nominated.
AVC: As your character in For Your Consideration would probably be the first to point out.
CO: [Laughs.] Yeah, Eugene [Levy] and I continually remind each other of that.
AVC: Will you be wearing black and white to the Emmys, even at home?
CO: [Laughs.] I wear a lot of black and white, anyway. For years of traveling, it always seemed easier to pack black and white, because I could never think of what to wear ahead of time. And you know it’s going to go together. But I have never had a wardrobe like I did as Moira. So yeah, I’m definitely inspired by it, and I wish I had Moira’s nerve.
AVC: Her wardrobe is actually similar to your character’s wardrobe in Beetlejuice.
CO: Yeah! I think so is my character. [Laughs.]
AVC: Moira was so fun and riveting to watch. Where did she come from? How were you able to craft her?
CO: It was sort of anti-creativity. At the beginning, I was just trying not to do a lot of things. I was nervous about coming up with a character that would be challenging and fun to play for an undetermined or non-determined amount of time.
The only series I’ve done before was a sketch comedy series. And in that, you’ve got a lot of variety happening every day on that kind of work. But for a series like this, I was just nervous about coming up with a character that I’d be interested in, let alone anyone else would want to see. And fortunately, of course, I had great, inspiring details to work with from the concept from what Eugene and Daniel [Levy] were developing at the time—and that I had been an ex-soap star. Actors, no matter how much success they have in something, they want to prove that they can do so many other things, too. They have so many other talents they haven’t been able to show yet. So that gave me a nice little bit of neurosis.
Eugene and I, without even talking about it, individually decided that we would be a solid, loving couple. So that was very nice to play. I don’t think they were going that strongly in this direction, but there were a few nagging jokes at the beginning, and we all worked against that, which was great. Because I think it was lovely having a solid relationship in the middle of all this madness and turmoil.
And then the vocabulary thing. I’ve met people where it’s obvious they’ve learned a new word that day. And they try to put it into conversation—and I admire that. I think that’s great. I’m very lazy with my own vocabulary, so it was a great opportunity to find obscure, arcane words. And Daniel and Eugene and the writers gave me the freedom to play with the dialogue a bit and add some more using my fun books like Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary [Of Unusual, Obscure And Preposterous Words]. That was just an added treat while working on the show, to be able to have that kind of creative fun, with something that was already really beautifully done.
AVC: I didn’t realize that you were adding your own vocabulary suggestions to her dialogue.
CO: Oh, they wrote the best expressions, though, like “disgruntled pelican” and “vigor of a wartime radio operator.” I’ve got to look at some shows to remember some more, because there were just hundreds of them throughout the seasons. Such purposefully creative ways of expressing herself, Moira had. But if they ever wrote a sentence that just seemed like a normal person would say it [Laughs.], then I would go to my books and find some great words.
AVC: One of the greatest moments for her is the beginning of season six, when she’s mid-total breakdown. But the episode that you submitted for the Emmys was the one after that—the social media one.
CO: “The Nighttime Oopsy-Daisy.” It’s not as showy as some other scenes that I had in other episodes. But we have some nice scenes where we actually relate to each other. I have scenes with Alexis [Annie Murphy] and scenes with David [Dan Levy] and Patrick [Noah Reid]. I think if you know the show, then you know what we’ve all done. But, ultimately, at the center of the show was love and family. And it’s there in that episode, I think.
AVC: It’s also just fun to see her take over social media, with her “#frans” and @WineAndCatLady74.
CO: The excitement, the new toy. Yeah, the internet is a new toy for her on that day.
AVC: What are your favorite moments from episodes looking back at the series overall?
CO: Right from the beginning, I loved our group scenes, our Rose family scenes. Anytime the four of us were together in those sad, little motel rooms or the cafe. I love that we went from four people in that first episode who—they had a connection, although one that was full of worry for David, and wild adventures for Alexis. But they had their own relationships and, Johnny and Moira had a good, solid relationship, but they really were not connected as a family.
And it was great, just really fun to play with Eugene and Daniel and Annie. I love them all so much, and they’re all so great. So all those scenes are really fun. And then to see the growth—how we ended up together in the motel room, before we’re all saying goodbye. But really, it was just always fun, and we made fun of each other in a loving way, and helped each other do our scenes. It was just so collaborative and such a joyful kind of atmosphere always on the set. Great people on the crew, too, who were so creative and fun-loving and added humor in every department. It was a great group.
AVC: You and Eugene Levy have played a married couple now several times. It’s always different, but like you were saying, there is so much love there—in Best In Show, in A Mighty Wind, in this. There’s always that support between you two.
CO: I don’t know how it happened. [Laughs.] But I’m so grateful that we have had this—to be together, not just in work, but as friends. And even when we weren’t working together, we’d see each other sporadically, with Martin Short. Martin Short always gets everyone together. Great social convener.
I’m grateful to Eugene. He’s the one that’s hired me so many times. On the Chris Guest movies, he and Chris wrote them, wrote the outlines, outlined scripts, and then they hired me. And actually, they wanted me to play a different part in Best In Show. And that was the one case where I said, “Can’t I just be Eugene’s wife?” And we worked it out. But yeah, he’s just—well, he’s really talented, obviously, and I hope you think that.
AVC: Yes, definitely.
CO: And he’s also really lovely to work with. He’s fun and funny, and he’s a gentleman. And he’s all about the work. There’s no kind of added bullshit or ego nonsense. He’s focused on the work, and he’s collaborative and fun. And we know from our days at Second City and SCTV that our help is welcomed from each other. We will continually remind each other where we’re at in the scene and what we’re doing and, “Oh, you did a great thing that other take. What about that?” He talks about it being comfortable, and it really is. But it’s also exciting, continually exciting. Like Johnny and Moira, I guess. We actually are more like Johnny and Moira, probably, than our other characters, because he’s so solid and reasonable, and I will get like, “Ehh, I don’t know, Eugene! I don’t know. I’m not sure I want to do that.”
AVC: Because of your improv background in the Guest movies, is there something from one of those movies that sprung up that really surprised you? While you guys were throwing ideas around, or even that wound up in the movies?
CO: Oh yeah, every day, all day long. Because honestly, the scripts—the dialogue is not written. There were great running jokes in the outline—I’m calling it an outline—but really what ends up on film in the final edited version is almost exactly what that outline was. It just the dialogue wasn’t there. So each person, each actor that came in to work was just speaking from their own character’s heart and soul.
And we shot, you know, ninety-something hours that would be cut down to 92 minutes. There’s so much material there that you’ll never see. But all of it was great to watch. Everybody surprised me. We accuse each other once in a while of writing. Like, “You wrote that ahead of time. There’s no way you came up with that.” They’d say, “What do you mean? How would I know what they were going to say?!” You know, “I couldn’t write that.”
I was continually astonished by the amazing brain work of all of them. It was fun. We just gave each other our characters and went from there. And sometimes when you’re improvising, you’ll say something about the other character, just maybe something about their past, and the rules of improv tell you you have to go with it. You can say “yes and” or “no,” but—so we’re giving each other histories and stories and funny ideas the whole time. It’s such a great, collaborative way of working.
AVC: And just the trust necessary to have Eugene or someone like that to be able to take your idea, and you know he’s going to go with it.
CO: Oh yeah, definitely trust. Yeah, you’re right. I don’t even think of it in those terms when I’m working with him, but objectively, yes. I know I can trust that man in every way. I mean, look at their family. They have a lovely family.
AVC: You did some series work, like on Six Feet Under, before this. But as you were saying, you weren’t on something for six seasons like this show. What are you thinking of next? Does this series open up the world of TV for you?
CO: I’ve been offered a few things, but the show in general is a tough act to follow. Because everything about it was just lovely. It really was. And there are so few opportunities for older actors to have these kinds of adventures that our characters had. I’ve said this a lot, but so many of the stories for characters past a certain age involve death, divorce, or disease. Or all three. [Laughs.] Because, sadly, that’s true of life. So it was great to be able to play characters that have new and fresh adventures at our ages. And also, to be able to be ridiculous and funny.
AVC: Dan Levy told Vanity Fair, “To be able to be a part of this moment for Catherine O’Hara at this point in her life and show the world that there is nothing sexier, nothing more hysterical than a woman over 50—that was the joy.” Moira Rose is a perfect example for how being over 50 should be the prime of your life.
CO: Yeah, it should be. It really should be. You’ve lived enough to not take the nonsense seriously. But those other things I’ve mentioned, disease and divorce and all those other things, they do get in the way of your sense of humor. But if you can let the crap go, excuse me—yeah. There should be a certain amount of confidence, I think, when you’re older, but that depends on your environment and your health.
But generally speaking, you have a little more big picture sense. That can also kill confidence, though, I think. When you’re young, there’s that great bliss of ignorance. When you’re in your early 20s, where you just look at the world and you go, “I can do all this better than they’re doing.” And that’s great. It’s great to have that confidence. And I feel bad, actually, for the current younger generations that have to be so much more aware of the rest of the world. They’re, of course, good with that, and it’s good to get outside of yourself and be aware. But they can’t have that same kind of blissful ignorance that we had. My generation, we’d think, “I can try this. Why don’t I?” I didn’t know that millions of other people were trying to get into comedy. And I wanted to do it.
But so then you get older. And of course, you are more aware of the world—and as we all are now. And it kind of puts you in your place, but it’s not necessarily a bad place. There’s a certain confidence, too, I think time can give you. It’s like if you have faith in God, you have the confidence of knowing I’m just one little speck. I am just one little thing on this earth, and I don’t have to be everything.
AVC: It’s simultaneously humbling and empowering.
CO: Which is not a bad thing at all, especially the humbling part.