The actor: Catherine O’Hara, 65, who started out in the Second City and then SCTV in her hometown of Toronto, and whom you have since seen and loved in a battery of Christopher Guest movies (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration, Waiting for Guffman), among other gems (Beetlejuice, Home Alone).
Essential traits: An affected, unplaceable accent; a love of unusual words and phrases like “pettifogging” and “frippet” (and innovative pronunciations of more ordinary terms, like ahn-chiladas and bébé); an obsession with her wig collection; devoted wife to her husband, Johnny Rose; longtime benign neglector of her children, David and Alexis, the latter of whom she she knew virtually nothing before moving to Schitt’s Creek.
In the first draft …
Dan Levy, Schitt’s Creek creator and star, had the “fundamental tentpole philosophies” of Moira in place before O’Hara signed on. “She was a soap-opera star who had a fall from grace after some contract things went south, and really never got another job after that. So we knew that this woman thought of herself as this artist, and that she was going to be the most vocal family member when it came to the dissatisfaction of being in this town. But so much of the minutiae and nuances of who she was really came when Catherine got onboard.”
It was Eugene Levy, Dan’s father and a longtime collaborator of O’Hara’s, who first suggested they cast her as Moira. (Dan, as you might expect, had zero qualms about this plan.) For her part, O’Hara had two key concerns when she sat down with the Levys to discuss the role. One, that Moira be incapable of accepting that she really did live in Schitt’s Creek. “I was afraid they weren’t going to let me show what a nightmare this was for Moira,” O’Hara said. “I thought, They’ll want me to quickly accept this new life and embrace this town. No! No. I wanted to be able to show how awful it was for her.” She and Eugene — who plays Moira’s husband Johnny Rose, former video-store magnate and now co-owner of the Rosebud motel — emailed about this question in the lead-up to shooting the first season in April 2014. Rereading her emails with Eugene, O’Hara now admits that “we were slowly turning into Johnny and Moira,” as she implored him to let her “feel what I’m feeling” and he assured her that everything was going to be fine.
Her other early sticking point: Moira was not to be mean-spirited. “In the pilot, Moira was full of insults — to anyone, especially townsfolk. I think their idea was to have her be very dry and funny and caustic,” O’Hara said. But it was important to her that they avoid “a hardened bitterness” and instead “show that I loved and supported my husband, and that I always held hope, right to the last second, that he was going to work out a way to get us out of here.” The key to Moira, she believed, is “that self-delusion that we all have, especially in hard times, when we think we’re holding it together. Instead of a futile bitterness, I wanted there to be a weird optimism.”
Dan Levy also remembers O’Hara’s insistence that Moira not be a “snob.” “She can be slightly delusional,” he said, but really she’s motivated by her belief that she always has wisdom to impart. How fortunate for all these humble Schitt’s Creek residents to learn from someone so worldly and sophisticated! This results in a lot of backhanded compliments — Moira, in season one, to her children: “You are blind to reality and for that I am most proud” — but her intentions are pure. “Moira’s not mean. She’s just a woman who constantly thinks that she has things to teach people, and is missing a bit of a chip in terms of how that reads,” Levy said.
“Moira believes that, ‘As long as I’m in this moment with these people I can teach them something,’” O’Hara added. “I can teach them something about the English language and how beautiful it can be. I can teach them to appreciate the beauty in the world and in fashion, how we should get up in the morning and present our best selves. I can help in the world of creativity because I myself am so full of potential and have so much to offer. I can bless them with what I know.’”
The Moira of O’Hara and Levy’s collective imagination — an indomitable force of personality and spirit, driven by pride but not malice — set the tone and shaped “the “general philosophy of the show,” Levy said. “It’s about kindness, and the power of love and acceptance. There’s nobody that is mean on our show.”
No one talks like Moira Rose
Though O’Hara had discussed her plans to do an accent with the Levys, no one had actually heard what Moira was going to sound like until the first day of shooting.
“I remember being so thrown off by it, because it’s this vaguely European accent that has no origin and yet is from everywhere,” said Levy. “I remember really having to hide my enjoyment of it, and actually do my job as an actor, as a kid who has been around this accent for his whole life.”
Though O’Hara initially thought she’d ramp the accent up with strangers in town and tone it down when she was with the Rose family, eventually she realized that Moira would never not be engaged in the elaborate performance of Moira-dom. But one of her most iconic pronunciations didn’t turn up until season four; in earlier episodes, Moira still said “baby” like a normal person would. “I said ‘bebe’ as a joke or a mistake the first time,” O’Hara said. “Once I hit on ‘bebe’ and got a laugh from the crew, that was it.”
From day one, they had all agreed that Moira would have a deliberate, heightened way of speaking — that her “thirst for uniqueness in everything she does,” as Levy put it, would extend to her vocabulary. A bonus for O’Hara: “I just love having an excuse to look up arcane words.” During the first season, makeup artist Lucky Bromhead gave her Foyle’s Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual Words, which O’Hara devoured but did not share with Levy until season five. “I was greedy about it,” she said. “Daniel and the writers would write me dialogue and I’d go through my book and rewrite it and make it that much more Moira.”
It’s called fashion, look it up
Moira dresses to dazzle: lush textures, striking silhouettes, heels high enough to cause vertigo. It’s all black-and-white and wildly expensive, Cruella de Vil by way of Alexander McQueen. A wardrobe like that would stand out anywhere, but especially in Schitt’s Creek, where residents splurge on going-out tops at a polyblend mecca called the Blouse Barn.
But Moira’s outfits aren’t just flashy statements. Clothing is the one part of her old life she could keep, even as everything else — her faded stardom, her wealth, and all its attendant comforts — is hauled away by the Feds and/or the cruel passage of time. That’s why, during an early lunch with Eugene and Dan, O’Hara brought photos of English socialite and designer Daphne Guinness as inspiration for the character’s dramatic, elevated fashion sense, which was “very much in line with what I was already thinking,” said Levy.
O’Hara’s vision was to avoid “your typical snooty rich that you see in old family comedies,” she said. “Nothing against Chanel, their stuff can be beautiful and wild, but I was thinking the typical tweedy Chanel suit, that lovely wealthy woman look. I just wanted to be avant garde.”
Along with costume designer Debra Hanson, Levy prowled for the just-right designer clothes to fill out Moira’s closet. “We couldn’t afford to buy them in the stores, nor did it work with the reality of the show, because they lost their money, so we could only shop designer up to a certain year.” (This great strength has become, for Levy, a lingering weakness: “That talent has left me with an insane shopping habit that I have not been able to curb.”)
Meanwhile, O’Hara turned to hairstylist Judith Cooper, a friend she’d known since her SCTV days, to help design Moira’s “everyday look” before shooting began. (Cooper, who passed away in late 2018, didn’t officially work on the series.) “I was trying to sell the idea of the wigs and that made everyone nervous,” O’Hara recalled. “And I said, ‘It can be spontaneous, it should look like [Moira] did it.’ I was driving people mad, I’m sure.” Schitt’s Creek hairstylist Ana Sorys took over from there, building off of O’Hara and Cooper’s foundation.
For O’Hara, knowing she’d be able to pluck any of the dozens of styles off the wig wall eased her initial fears about being “locked into” one aesthetic for however many seasons the show might run. “Moira just has so much to show, she believes, but doesn’t know quite what that is yet. And if you can externally present different versions of yourself with the help of great wigs and wardrobe, then it boosts your confidence. I have more to me, too. I can be different. I can still grow.”
If her wigs expressed a desire to change her identity on a whim, Moira’s makeup needed to be about holding on to something constant: a piece of her pre-downfall life to which she would cling forever, even though she was applying it in a seedy motel room. “We decided that Moira’s makeup would be part of her armor, in a way, for protecting her identity, and against all of these changes that were coming her way,” said Bromhead, one of the show’s makeup artists.
Bromhead and O’Hara knew they wanted red lips. “Red lipstick is such a statement. You have to step into wearing a red lipstick,” said Bromhead. “If you’re the type of person that puts on a red lipstick to go to the corner store, that’s a specific type of person. And that’s who Moira is. And she never really takes off her makeup, either.”
But on the day of the makeup test, only a month before shooting began in 2014, the look wasn’t quite coming together. “We were like, is it the color of the red? Is it a specific shade? What’s happening?” Bromhead remembered. “Catherine said, ‘I want to try something.’ She took the pencil and drew these oversize lips. As soon as that happened, her whole face changed. That was the click: her lips.” (By the way, it’s Ruby Woo by Mac.)
Why Moira became a fan favorite
On paper, an out-of-touch, fallen member of the one percent who is constitutionally incapable of keeping an opinion to herself does not immediately scan as someone an audience would adore. But there is something so endearing about Moira, a vibrant, dazzling quality that makes you want her to get what she wants, no matter how absurd her aims.
“She’s such a funny, lovable character who is just not compromising at all. That, I think, almost builds even more empathy, because you have a woman who is just not willing to let go of what she built for herself. And I actually think that’s very relatable,” Levy said. “There’s such a lovely effervescence and confidence and sexiness to Moira that I don’t think we see a lot.”
Of course, even a character as uncompromising as Moira Rose has to grow on a sitcom that runs for six seasons. While Moira and David are clearly in sync when the show begins — even his black-and-white, look-at-me wardrobe is a (subconscious) homage to his mother — her bond with her daughter, Alexis, played by Annie Murphy, is virtually nonexistent. That’s why, after conversations in the writers’ room about “mothers and daughters and the tensions that come up between them,” Levy said they finally decided to pull back the curtain on Moira and Alexis in season three’s “The Throuple.”
“They have this bonding lunch for the first time, where they both reluctantly end up on this one-on-one tea and Alexis is basically forcing Moira to admit that she doesn’t know anything about her life and hasn’t really cared to find out,” Levy explained.”That really acted as a catapult for the progress they make as characters, over the next handful of seasons.” So when Moira shows up to Alexis’s graduation at the end of season four, it’s a “really satisfying, full-circle moment” for Mama Rose.
That, really, is what makes the Roses people you root for: They’re a family that is learning how to actually be a family, removed from the vacuous, extravagant culture that kept them all emotionally (and, in the galavanting Alexis’s case, geographically) distant from one another. Through that tricky, sometimes-awkward evolution, O’Hara brings this warm playfulness and exuberance to Moira, which makes even her most absurd comments, outfits, and opinions feel grounded, believable, and even charming.
“There’s magic in Catherine O’Hara,” Levy said. “We throw those words around, ‘iconic’ and ‘legendary,’ really freely these days, but I truly feel like she defines that. And she will kill me for saying this, because she does not like attention and the last thing she wants is people complimenting her: She’s the Mariah Carey of comedy. She has an eight-octave comedic range.”
O’Hara, true to Levy’s observation, begged off theorizing on why her character has won over such a devoted following. “But I’ll tell you what I like to see: I like to see people who have no idea what impression they’re making on others. And I don’t think any of us really do.”
Favorite breakthrough moment: “I remember shooting the enchiladas scene,” Levy said. “It was one of the first times that I came to her with a note … I tiptoed in, pulled her aside, and whispered, ‘Do you think Moira might say AHN-chilada?’ And she was like, ‘YES! Yes she would!’”
Just wait for those DVD extras: “Any time that Moira has had to perform, whether it was a Christmas medley, or her singing ‘Danny Boy,’ or scatting, all of those performances were much longer than what made it into the show,” Levy said. “I would love to have had the time to show them in their entirety.”