The subtle grandness of Catherine O’Hara

The Schitt's Creek star discusses Moira Rose's distinctive voice, the ongoing popularity of family sitcoms and making fun of people in a changing world


SCHITT’S CREEK (Eugene Levy and Dan Levy). Season five premieres January 8 on CBC at 9 pm and streams on CBC Gem. SCHITT’S CREEK: UP CLOSE & PERSONAL at Sony Centre (1 Front East), February 25. Doors 7 pm, all ages. $50-$135. ticketmaster.ca.


Six days before Christmas, I hopped on the phone and spoke to Catherine O’Hara about appetizers. Specifically, we spoke about the fact that my choice to serve them in lieu of a proper Christmas dinner would likely prove to be more difficult than just making a bird – and O’Hara would know because she planned to host 22 people for the holiday, and over the course of her life has learned how to delegate kitchen duties, read recipes and enjoy cooking.

Which is something I could’ve spoken to her about for hours. But of course, I could’ve talked to her about anything for hours: O’Hara is a comedy and acting legend, whose work on SCTV, Home Alone, Best In Show, and Schitt’s Creek has earned her accolades from fans and peers – as well as the Order of Canada.

That said, if you haven’t seen Schitt’s Creek, there’s never been a better time to start watching. On February 25, O’Hara will join stars Eugene and Dan Levy, Annie Murphy, Emily Hampshire and Noah Reid at the Sony Centre for Schitt’s Creek: Up Close & Personal, where they’ll talk about everything from the production process to behind-the-scenes stories.

The latter should be plentiful: the fifth season premieres on CBC on January 8, and will only add another layer to the story of Johnny (Eugene Levy), Moira Rose (O’Hara) and their kids, David and Alexis (Dan and Murphy) as they attempt to get their lives back together in the eponymous small town after losing their family fortune at the hands of their business manager.

O’Hara and I quickly parlayed the cookbook talk into how her Schitt’s Creek persona uses a soft-albeit-powerful voice and an aura of grandness to declare who Moira really is, as well as the ongoing popularity of family sitcoms, and how Moira has become a better parent.

I’m very obsessed with Moira Rose! A lot of my friends speak in her voice.

I can’t help it either! We did this one live show in Los Angeles for the tour, [and] I cannot answer questions about Moira without doing Moira. The other people in the cast, their characters [are] not them, but their characters sound like them. So they might be answering in their characters’ voices, too, but when I do it I can’t help but go into Moira.

What came first: the character or the voice?

The character. We did a pilot presentation with Eugene and Daniel and the rest of the cast, and I was not doing that voice. But when they sold the show to CBC I really tried to start thinking: what kind of character do I want to play who might have a long life? You never know when you sign on to do a show. It might be five shows or five years. So I’m trying to think of someone fun, I’m trying to think of somebody who’s an actress and wants to prove to the world that she has so much potential. And I know people with an accent, and you know they’re not from where the accent is saying they’re from. So it’s somebody who’s maintaining this idea that they can be anything and anyone.

And the vocabulary thing. I love doing that. I love coming up with archaic words.

The voice goes with Moira’s physicality, too. She gesticulates. But she’s also very grand. You can tell she wants to be taken seriously and now that [she’s] part of the town council, there’s this kernel of truth to the way she’s always been foisting herself onto everybody. Did you always think she had more to offer than when we first met her?

Oh, of course! I’m not interested in playing a caricature, even though people will label Moira a certain way. I’ve always thought of her as very real, and of course the longer you play a character, they become more and more real. Right from the beginning, I thought, “Okay, how would anyone behave if they’ve had their life ripped out from under them?” And of all the things she does, she does not harp on her husband for [them ending up] there. It comes out, but she’s not making his life hell. She thinks that she’s making the most of it. She’s a people person.

But the grandness – she probably wouldn’t be as grand if she had her life back. She probably wouldn’t be as desperate to tell people how grand she can be. Every day she’s like, “Look, this is who I really am, and this is the life I should be leading. And I will be polite as long as I am here, but [then] I am out of here.”

Why do you think we’re returning to family-centric comedies now – whether traditional family or family that you find?

I think the family you find has always been [there]. Like Mary Tyler Moore. Or even Andy Griffith. People want to see themselves, so I guess that’s what’s popular. I get told a lot that people watch [Schitt’s Creek] with their parents, and I’m sure that’s true of a lot of shows. It could be for all ages, different races, different sexual orientations, anything. Watch it together and enjoy it together – that’s probably what people are yearning for.

There’s a pronounced and genuine love that Moira and Johnny feel for the kids. I think that’s more important than following the rules in some parenting manual.

They never really thought about what it meant to be parents or to have any kind of relationship with their child, at any age. They thought they’d given them a good life by throwing money at them. I love that Johnny and Moira get to be with their grown kids. I am jealous of that because I have two sons in their 20s.

Looking at where you began with SCTV, do you think you’ve learned things that helped you create ­Moira?

I can’t tell you precisely why or in what way, but definitely. The world has changed. In so many ways for the better. Sometimes it’s a little too politically correct. In a perfect world, we would be able to make fun of each other and know that it comes from a place of love and respect. But because it’s not a perfect world and there are hateful people in the world, you can’t do that. But with family and friends, where you know you love each other, you can say anything to each other. I mean, you wouldn’t say anything to hurt each other, but you can make fun of each other and you can make mistakes and forgive each other. But we’re not there yet in this world, and I don’t know if we ever will be.

But times have changed, for sure. I love that Moira and Johnny have never really known their kids, but they love them. They love everything about them! They’re learning to be parents, starting out fresh with no real agenda on how to be a parent. Every experience is fresh and new. In a weird way, they’re total innocents in terms of what it means to be a family.

@annetdonahue

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