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Catherine O’Hara on ‘Schitt’s Creek’ and the cult of Moira Rose: ‘I’m surprised by the whole thing.’

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Catherine O’Hara, photographed in Toronto on Sept. 6, is up for best actress in a comedy at this year’s Emmys for her performance as Moira Rose in “Schitt’s Creek.”
(Ryan Enn Hughes / For The Times)

Over five seasons of “Schitt’s Creek,” Moira Rose has demonstrated, if nothing else, how to make an entrance. When the former soap opera star and newly elected councilwoman showed up for her first day of work (“What time is curtain?” is how she chose to greet her fellow council members), she wore a fur hat that had its own gravitational pull, and an adorned blouse fit for “Game of Thrones’” Night’s Watch. When Moira and husband Johnny (played by O’Hara’s longtime collaborator Eugene Levy) traveled to Amish country to track down their missing son, David, she delighted the locals with a decidedly un-modest pair of tights, a very short designer dress and a top hat perhaps borrowed from Slash. And to record a commercial for a winery, why wouldn’t she wear a Raf Simons PVC dress and gauntlet cuffs? It’s called being camera-ready.

Earlier this month, when I met Catherine O’Hara — who plays Moira, the Rose family matriarch on the Pop TV/CBC series “Schitt’s Creek,” and has garnered an Emmy nomination as lead actress in a comedy series for her efforts — she was decidedly more dressed down: She was wearing a tailored white blouse by Anne Fontaine and black-and-white checked pants from Zara. (Earlier this year, O’Hara told the New Yorker that she — like Moira — almost exclusively wears black and white. “It’s easiest,” she said.) But Zara?! Would Moira ever?

“She might,” O’Hara mused. “She might tell Jocelyn [Schitt, the mayor’s wife] that, you know, ‘If you go online, you can actually find some nice pieces,’ knowing that Jocelyn can’t afford the higher end.”

“Sorry,” she said, suddenly slipping into character as Moira.

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Catherine O’Hara
“I love playing Moira,” says O’Hara. “It’s going to be hard to let go.”
(Ryan Enn Hughes / For The Times)

It’s quips like this that have made Moira Rose a fan favorite from the show’s beginning. Before we got down to our interview, her hairstylist showed her pictures of a Moira tattoo that an obsessive fan had posted on Instagram. She and her team joked about her competition for the actress Emmy. She deserves to win, right? No one’s getting Selina Meyer tattoos! Plus, Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Veep” has won so many times. Not that that should matter. The award should go to the person who put in the time, the person who worked the damn hardest, they concurred.

“I mean,” said O’Hara, “who wore the wigs?”

As we settled into our conversation in a colleague’s Toronto home that offered a relatively peaceful break from the frenzy of the Toronto International Film Festival then engulfing the city, O’Hara talked about the critical acclaim that has finally come to “Schitt’s Creek” (in addition to her own nomination, the show received three other Emmy nods this year, including its first for best comedy), the items from Moira’s wardrobe that she has appropriated as her own and the end of “Schitt’s Creek’s” six-season run. This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

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Moira’s been a breakout. She’s the most memed character on the show. What do you think draws people to her?

Don’t ask me. I’m surprised by the whole thing. Personally, I just wanted to create a character that I could live with for more than one season, because I had never committed to one character for any length of time. I love playing Moira. It’s going to be hard to let go. (Season 5 of “Schitt’s Creek” will begin streaming on Netflix on Oct. 10; the final season will air on Pop TV beginning Jan. 7.)

Does the Emmy nomination feel exciting for you? Is it nerve-racking? Is it annoying?

I do keep reminding myself of “For Your Consideration” [the Christopher Guest comedy in which three actors, including one played by O’Hara, mistakenly believe they might get Oscars for their roles in a truly awful film, “Home for Purim”]. Because it’s so easy to get sucked in. Poor Sally Field took such heat for saying, “You like me,” because it’s not what you’re supposed to say out loud. But it’s the truth. I’m sure most nominees feel that way. Especially if they win.

‘Schitt’s Creek’
Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy as Moira and Johnny Rose in “Schitt’s Creek.”
(Pop)

No matter how you see it, an Emmy nomination is a marker in a career. How do you feel about where you are in yours?

I rarely think of my age. But sometimes you have to. I’m grateful to be alive, let alone having a fun job. I’ve been able to do this show where I get to play this ridiculous but lovely character. And I’ve been able to collaborate and play with my dialogue. And to have stories that weren’t just about death, divorce and disease, which are pretty much the story lines for people past a certain age.

‘Schitt’s Creek’
The Rose family, from left, Alexis (Annie Murphy), Moira (O’Hara), Johnny (Eugene Levy) and David (Daniel Levy).
(Steve Wilkie / Pop TV)
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You have an improv and writing background — from Second City going through the Christopher Guest films. How much input did you have with Moira?

I was very lucky, and I was spoiled at the same time, to start my working life with Second City because there I learned that I could write, that I could have a great time working with other really talented people. Daniel [Levy, Eugene’s son and co-creator of “Schitt’s Creek”] would send me the outlines, before the scripts were fleshed out. So I would have a say right at the beginning. I was given the freedom to rewrite my dialogue. One speech that I’m happy to say that I wrote was when Moira was looking for nude pictures of herself. She tells Stevie [the woman who manages the motel where the Rose family lives], “Now that you have this body, at this age, get as many pictures as you can.” Because people will look at current pictures of themselves and say, “Oh, I’m fat. Oh, I’m old.” But they’ll see pictures of themselves from even just two, three years ago, and they’ll be so much kinder to that person. Why can’t we be kind to ourselves right now?

I don’t think it’s stretching the metaphor to say there’s an element of improv to Moira’s aesthetic. It feels like she plans her outfit, and then on the way out the door she throws on 85 pounds of jewelry and maybe a hat.

Absolutely. Everything is on a whim. At the beginning, I asked if I could wear wigs all the time. And they were like, “What? What’s the purpose? Is it a mood?” And the hairdresser was like, “Well, how much time would I get to work on these?” And it’s like, “No, no, I want them to look like [Moira] did them!” But the origin of the idea is, yes, it’s a mood. It’s sometimes one that goes with my outfit but, more often than not, it doesn’t. Sometimes we say, “No, that’s too matchy.” I think more women should wear wigs. They’re fun. It’s a great accessory.

How do the clothes, and the wigs, help define Moira for you?

They remind Moira, and the world and this town, who I think I’ve been and who I intend to be again. I’m not going to lose that. It’s like, I’m here, but I’m not really here, because look at me. I don’t fit in and I’ll never fit in. So there’s something very protective about it. Defensive. And you look at some of the jewelery, it’s really defensive. It’s sometimes offensive.

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Johnny and Moira go Christmas tree shopping.
( Steve Wilkie/CBC)
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How much input do you have on the looks?

Once we all agreed that we’re going to do it as a series, I had lunch with Eugene and Daniel, and I brought my iPad just full of pictures of Daphne Guinness [a singularly dramatic fashion icon]. Scared to sign on to a character for any length of time, I thought, I’ve got to look amazing, and I don’t want to be your typical straight-looking rich lady that you’ve seen in so many family comedies. There’s a look.

They try and make it believable and in doing so they make it unbelievable.

They do, and it just becomes a cliché. I thought, No, this is a woman of the world, she has been everywhere, and she thinks of herself as very fashion-forward, avant-garde. And Daniel went, “Oh, yeah!” But, in any creative conversation where you all seem to be agreeing, when it’s executed you find, “No, that’s not what I meant. What?” Not in this case. I showed up for my first fitting, I was like, “Oh, my God, this is better than I even thought.” And it was like that for every fitting. They kept thanking me at the end of fittings and saying, “You must be tired.” And I would say, “No, thank you. What else you got?”

Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara
Longtime collaborators Levy and O’Hara. In 1982, the two shared an Emmy win when they were on the writing staff of “SCTV.”
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Is there a specific costume where you had a great deal of input?

My first thought was the pajamas; I believe I asked for a vest. But we never did a fitting without Daniel. I’d come out of the dressing room and he would hold things at my neck, change the shoe, or add some necklaces -- again, accessorize. Sometimes he or Deb would say, “No, too many.”

With Moira’s looks, I have a hard time believing there was ever a time when someone said, “Too many.”

We would laugh about that! If it happened, we would go, “I can’t believe what I’m saying, but it’s too much.” And sometimes there were fittings where they had to call up the runway shot, because we couldn’t figure out how to put it together.

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“I rarely think of my age,” says O’Hara. “But sometimes you have to. I’m grateful to be alive, let alone having a fun job.”
(Ryan Enn Hughes / For The Times)

Has playing Moira influenced the way you dress at all?

I would like to think that I would take more chances. I would have begged to take all of Moira’s wardrobe, but I can’t carry it the same way.

Have you “borrowed” anything from wardrobe?

I didn’t have to “borrow.” It’s all above board. And I’m still waiting to hear if I’m getting a bill. The Givenchy boots. I think I took three pairs out of so many beautiful pairs. (The Anne Fontaine blouse she was wearing on this day came from Moira’s closet.)

Moira does love a boot.

Yes, but so many of them are so wild that I think I would just want to put them in a glass case if I had room in my home. And there was a coat that I wore at a photo shoot early on that’s Celine. I think.

Phoebe Philo’s Celine?

Yes. It’s black. And the material is so thick and beautiful-feeling. It looks like it has tails. And you can see the white of the lining. That, I love.

Young people are obsessed with Moira. Just last month, the website Popsugar wrote an article, “Consider Us Positively Green-Eyed Over Moira’s Impeccable Style on ‘Schitt’s Creek.’”Any idea why?

I like anyone that takes chances with how they look and pulls it off and looks good. I felt good in those clothes. Sometimes on the set people say, “That’s crazy.” And I go, “I don’t think it’s that crazy.” Because it looks great. Because it’s creative. It’s art. And I am not responsible for that. That’s [costume designer] Deb Hanson and Daniel Levy. They would shop all year long online. The fashion that I’m wearing is high-end designer. You can’t fake that. Not very well.

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Moira comes to Amish country.
( Steve Wilkie/CBC)

Do you have a favorite look from the series?

The outfit I chose to wear to go look for David in Amish country. That was really fun.

Moira dresses up to churn butter.

Well, [Moira] didn’t plan on working. Possibly a free lunch. Deb Hanson started with a hat that she added the feathers to. She dressed up the hat. I should have asked for that dress. It had woolly bits hanging off of it. It fit great and tight at the waist. I like that. I also loved the hat I wore when we went looking for Christmas trees. I’d always loved a big kind of Doctor Zhivago fur hat. That big, round fit. And then I had a giant, woolly coat to go with it. I loved that everyone agreed that I could wear short clothes, which women my age don’t get to wear. Thankfully I have my mother’s legs.

Do you know what you’ll be wearing to the Emmys?

Not yet. I’ve had some offers of custom. And a couple of Canadian designers. I would love to do a Greta Constantine or Romona Keveza. I borrowed a really fun black-and-white dress for the Tonys from Marc Jacobs.

Tonys 2019
Catherine O’Hara wore Marc Jacobs to the 2019 Tony Awards, where she introduced a number from the Broadway production of “Beetlejuice.”
(Theo Wargo / Getty Images )

If Moira ever got nominated, what would she wear?

I want to say a dress by [the Dutch designer] Iris van Herpen. And some great boots.


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