“How would you behave if your whole life was ripped out from under you?” Catherine O’Hara wants to know. I’m supposed to be asking the questions here, at the Manhattan hotel restaurant where the comedy legend is between appointments, cobbling together a late lunch of tapas (and urging me to try the stuffed peppadews). But I’ve just thoughtlessly referred to her character on Schitt’s Creek as selfish, and she’s politely defending the woman she’s spent the past four years portraying.
O’Hara has a point. Her alter ego Moira Rose is more gracious than many would be in her four-figure shoes. A sweet yet sharp Canadian family sitcom that will end its fifth season in the U.S. on Pop TV on April 10, Schitt’s Creek follows the megarich Rose clan–Moira, her husband Johnny (O’Hara’s frequent co-star Eugene Levy) and their grown kids David (Eugene’s son and co-creator Dan Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy)–after they lose their fortune and move into a motel in the titular podunk town, which they somehow own. It’s an unlikely scenario but one orchestrated to bring the Roses together. For 65-year-old O’Hara, who has two sons in their 20s with her husband, production designer and director Bo Welch, this forced togetherness is kind of enviable: “I’m always wondering where my kids are,” she laughs.
O’Hara rocketed to the pop-cultural stratosphere in the late 1980s and early ’90s through roles as a harried mother in Home Alone and Winona Ryder’s artiste stepmom in Beetlejuice (where she met Welch). Like Moira, she is an actor, wife and mom. But their personalities couldn’t differ more. Moira, a former soap star whose pretensions outstrip her talent, can be vain, competitive, histrionic and snobby, whereas O’Hara is warm, self-deprecating and animated without being effusive. She seems happier carrying on a reciprocal conversation than talking about herself. And while Moira looks larger than life in six-inch heels, pastel wigs and designer outfits that walk the line between gorgeous and garish, O’Hara–a compact woman in a crisp, white button-down and thick-rimmed glasses–could be a stylish humanities professor.
Still, as O’Hara points out, her character is a trouper and an optimist, always seeking to revive her acting career and restore the family to its former glory. “She thinks that she’s really making the best of a bad situation,” O’Hara says. This season, in a moment of growth, Moira returns the too-expensive gown she’d bought for the premiere of her comeback, The Crows Have Eyes III: The Crowening, a trashy sci-fi flick in which she is hysterical in both senses of the word. The Roses may seem hard to relate to, but as showrunner, Dan Levy endows them with heart, pluck and a capacity for change.
It’s this gentleness–and not, as one might expect, a kind of schadenfreude in watching the 1% struggle–that has made the show a sleeper hit stateside, where its availability on Netflix has attracted an enthusiastic young audience. And while it’s stretched O’Hara–she had never spent so much time playing a single role before–it has also brought her back to a type of character with which she’s intimately familiar. Moira, like many of her previous roles, is a performer–a ham who craves attention and approval. It’s the gulf between the way she comes off and the way she tries to present herself that makes her so funny. Yet O’Hara appears to be untouched by such self-delusion. “Maybe I’m just trying to get it out of my system,” she suggests. “I’m so afraid to be like that.”
All good acting requires an instinctive grasp of psychology, but the insight and empathy that ground O’Hara’s oddball characters are specific to her work. That’s probably because she’s spent so much time over the past 45 years creating them. Though her most familiar roles have been in major films, she’s devoted much of her career to projects rooted in the collaborative discipline of improv. “I’ve never, for a second, been drawn to the idea of doing a one-woman show,” she says. “Because it’s so inspiring to work with good, talented people.”
O’Hara credits that preference to growing up in a big, funny Toronto family whose members were always performing for one another. She became the baby of Toronto’s new Second City outpost in 1974, understudying for her brother Marcus’ then girlfriend Gilda Radner–whom O’Hara adored–and overlapping with Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Andrea Martin as well as Eugene Levy. (The two even dated briefly.) Improv comedy was still a relatively new form then, and they were essentially working out how to do it in real time. O’Hara grins when I mention that the manic creativity of those years reminds me of an underground music scene. In an improv troupe, “you are creating your own material like a band,” she agrees. “It’s so musical.”
By 1976, O’Hara, Levy and many of their cohorts had been drafted into the original cast of SCTV, Second City Toronto’s answer to Saturday Night Live. In the ensuing decades, she balanced character roles in big Hollywood movies with membership in a new troupe: the ad hoc ensemble of improvisers who populate the indie mockumentaries of Best in Show director Christopher Guest. It was only in those films that she and Levy started working as partners, often playing couples. O’Hara recalls that her family was moved to tears watching the old friends play troubled duo Mitch & Mickey in the 2003 folk send-up A Mighty Wind.
Throughout her career, she has cherished the freedom that improv has given her to shape her own outsize yet remarkably human characters through collaboration and research. But O’Hara appears to have mastered the portrayal of fragile entertainers, from SCTV showgirl Lola Heatherton to Moira, through keen observation. Days before the midwinter afternoon when we met, she and Levy presented at the Critics’ Choice Awards–where Schitt’s Creek made history as the first Canadian show nominated for best comedy–with a gag that had them hyping their own banter like a movie trailer. (“If you see just one couple present an award this year,” she bellowed, “make it this one.”)
They killed on Twitter. But in the room, O’Hara sensed more tension than mirth. “I’m not saying they should have been laughing, but I saw a lot of faces whose mind-sets were somewhere else,” she says now. O’Hara can, of course, get into the heads of her nervous peers: “These people have been told they’re going to win. This is their time.” But this need for recognition, surely not the chief motivating force for many of these creators, can distract from the intrinsic rewards of having made a great show.
O’Hara has similar reservations about social media; she doesn’t do Twitter, shudders at its appropriation of the term followers and laments the urge to share photos of every meal. On Schitt’s Creek, which will end its run following a sixth season in 2020, characters’ lives revolve around the town square rather than Instagram. That jibes with O’Hara’s values. “It’s a nice example of how we should behave in this real world,” she says.
And yet, for a comedic actor who excels at playing the obliviously vain, the narcissism of the Internet–and, arguably, of the era–is part of what keeps her in business. Not that she’d ever say she’s immune to it: “I love the idea that human beings–including me, right now and always–think they can control the impression they make.”
This appears in the April 08, 2019 issue of TIME.