The Low-Key Success of Catherine O'Hara and 'Schitt's Creek' (Exclusive)

Catherine O'Hara
Mike Pont/WireImage

The actress opens up to ET about playing Moira on the Pop TV series and enjoying life under the radar.

This past Sunday, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara -- a longtime comedy pair seen on SCTV, in Christopher Guest films and currently on Schitt’s Creek -- took the stage at the Critics’ Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California, to present the limited series or TV movie acting categories. The two actors quickly got the star-studded crowd laughing as they pitched themselves (“Levy/O’Hara”) as two of the best presenters of all time. 

“If you just see one couple present an award this year, make it this one,” O’Hara said as she and Levy went back and forth with grandiose statements, fake bragging until they were jokingly cut off by music. 

“Nobody’s ever played off a presenter. That was great,” O’Hara tells ET while sipping coffee in an empty Bar Fiori at the Langham Hotel in New York City two days later. “But then we felt bad for the rest of the show because winners were getting played off. We thought, ‘Oh, we took too much time.’” 

Despite her worry, the pair’s time on stage was a welcome one, especially for fans of Schitt’s Creek, which has been growing in popularity since it first premiered on Pop TV in 2015. Considered TV’s “best-kept secret,” the Canadian show has become a must-binge on Netflix in between new seasons and a quotable favorite on social media. At the Critics’ Choice Awards, Schitt’s Creek was nominated for Best Comedy Series -- its first major U.S. award.

Co-created by Eugene Levy and his son, Dan, Schitt’s Creek tells the story of a wealthy family that loses their entire fortune and is forced to rebuild their lives in the titular small town -- their only remaining asset. There, the Roses -- business magnate and patriarch Johnny (Eugene Levy), his wife and former soap actress, Moira (Catherine O’Hara), and their two privileged adult children, David (Dan Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy) -- adjust to a simpler life, from living in a rundown motel to interacting with the town’s less sophisticated locals. Returning for season five on Wednesday, Jan. 16, the series sees the Rose family becoming more permanent fixtures in Schitt’s Creek as they ingratiate themselves with newfound friends, relationships and business opportunities. 

A longtime staple of film and TV, O’Hara first came on the scene in 1976 as a core member of SCTV, a Canadian sketch comedy series that also aired in the U.S. on NBC. From there, she moved on to iconic roles in Beetlejuice, the Home Alone franchise and Christopher Guest films, memorably opposite Eugene Levy in Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. (The two even performed in character at the Academy Awards for the latter film’s nominated song.) While a reliable guest star on TV -- appearing on everything from 30 Rock to Six Feet Under -- O’Hara has never had a starring role on a scripted series until Dan Levy invited her to participate in the pilot presentation of Schitt’s Creek

“That first season was scary because I've never committed to doing one character for any length of time,” O’Hara says. Despite initial hesitations, playing Moira the past five years has been a complete surprise and utter joy -- so much so, that when answering questions about Moira, the actress admits she can't help but answering in character because she loves playing her so much. “It’s too much fun.” 

While Dan Levy is very much the creative force behind the series, O’Hara credits him for allowing her to collaborate on the formation of the Rose matriarch -- a character so specific and nuanced that only she could bring her to life onscreen. Moira’s signature glam-gothic style is based on photos O’Hara brought in for Dan to see (“I never enjoyed wardrobe fittings more in my life,” she says), while her ever-changing wigs are based on two women she knew who would change hairstyles multiple times throughout the evening. “There was no explanation for it,” O’Hara recalls. Meanwhile, Moira’s distinct accent “comes from everywhere,” she adds. It's a collection of “vocal souvenirs” from all the plays her character has traveled to in her career. 

Catherine O'Hara as Moira in a scene from 'Schitt's Creek' season five. - Pop TV

The actress also credits Dan for giving her a variety of material to play with. While other shows might limit characters of a certain age to storylines about “divorce, disease or death,” O’Hara says “it’s not true of this show.” Instead, Moira has demonstrated her prowess for politics by running for town council and joined a local women’s singing group (the Jazzagals). In one episode, she adopted a fake persona to buy a used car and in another, relished in the news of a death hoax. 

On the new season, Moira’s battling her insecurities as she fights for the comeback of her acting career on the set of the hilariously misguided The Crows Have Eyes Two. Realizing no one cares about the success of the film, Moira “puts everything into it to trying to make it what she wants it to be,” O’Hara says. 

While her’s character desperate for a comeback, O’Hara has been lucky to avoid that trap. In fact, her career is probably the definition of low-key success. 

Over the course of her career, O’Hara has managed to mostly take on projects that she’s loved and been rewarded with cult status, if not continued appreciation. In addition to the growing success of Schitt’s Creek, the actress has received endless praise, some of the best reviews of her career and numerous accolades for her role, including three Canadian Screen Awards and the Order of Canada.

Back at the Critics’ Choice Awards, O’Hara noticed that she and Eugene Levy were met with rapturous applause. Backstage, she turned to her co-star and asked, “Have they heard we’re going to die and we don’t know it?” 

“It’s really nice,” O’Hara reflects, not wanting to take all the attention too seriously “because you have to take the bad stuff seriously too.” But despite that, she does seem to enjoy being discovered, again and again, considering most of her work has “gone under the radar.” 

The bonus “is when people start watching and actually liking it,” O’Hara says, adding: “I think I've done a lot of work like that.”