Catherine O'Hara has made a career out of creating memorable, sometimes slightly screwy characters. Those characters are often one-and-done creations, contained to their own sketch world or movie. However, that wasn't the case with Moira Rose on Schitt's Creek. And while O'Hara was initially wary to sign on to a series commitment, she eventually came around and got to work shaping Moira Rose, a character that has become a beloved fixture in the lives of fans around the world.
"First of all, I just wanted to have a character that I wanted to live with," O'Hara said with a laugh. "But the fact that anyone else cares about her or finds her entertaining, or even thinks she's crazy, or some people actually talk about how they learn something from her."
"Or a character that could inspire older women to dress a little hipper," she told E! News during an interview last year, "take a few more chances, to inspire people to have fun with wigs, and God bless them if they have to have them."
For six years, O'Hara came into the homes of viewers as Moira Rose, a former soap opera star. The show started with the Rose family—Moira, her husband Johnny (Eugene Levy, also a co-creator on the series), son David (Dan Levy, co-creator) and daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy)—losing all of their wealth and assets, forcing them to relocate to the small town of Schitt's Creek.
While developing Moira, O'Hara looked to socialite and fashion designer Daphne Guinness for wardrobe inspiration. She also worked closely with the Levys to ensure that Moira would have plenty of wigs to play with and an ambiguous accent. O'Hara went on to play Moira longer than any character in her impressive career. A role that earned her a 2020 Emmy and a 2021 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Series—Comedy.
O'Hara has a different kind of bond with the Rose family matriarch.
"Because we didn't know how long we'd be playing our characters when we first signed on, it made me really adamant about creating somebody who could keep changing," she said. "And they already had in print I was a former soap opera actress. So, you know, right away in my mind I thought, 'OK, she was an actress in a soap opera, but that doesn't mean she can't act in anything and do any kind of comedy or drama,' like every actor wants to imagine of themselves."
With that in mind, she had a lot to work with. "And then to be able to have this great wardrobe and then to be able to play with wigs…Daniel and the writers would give Moira great opportunities to perform or great storylines that I would jump in to perform…What an opportunity. What a lovely, fun opportunity," O'Hara continued. "It's like all my training, all my experience and all the great people I got to work with–especially Eugene—in my working life, I got to use it all. Tap into all of it for this. And it sure helps to have great scripts."
A veteran of classic sketch comedy series SCTV, O'Hara has played hundreds of characters throughout her storied career, including roles in Beetlejuice, Home Alone, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Best in Show. O'Hara credited her time in Second City and SCTV with preparing her to portray Moira Rose in a way that has surprised and connected with viewers.
"Eugene and our cast mates at Second City and SCTV, we were lucky to learn how to develop characters, invent characters," she recalled. "Basically, when you invent characters, you're taking whatever you've been lucky enough to experience in life and the people you've been lucky enough to meet and see, to watch from afar and be frightened of or laugh at. It's a conversation that I've heard on the bus or subway in Toronto or at parties. You're fortunate if you can remember, if you can sort of save those somewhere in the brain and be able to tap into them when it comes to creating a character."
"We gained confidence doing that in our early years, and so to be able to get to do that, at my age still to create a ridiculous character—I don't think I should say I'm most proud of it, I'm actually grateful for it," she added. "And the fact that the show turned out to have such a loving audience, it's a big fat bonus. Just doing the job was fun."
When the show wrapped production, O'Hara was offered some keepsakes, including some of Moira's wardrobe and wigs. She said she wanted to clear up the notion that she stole anything: She was offered everything she took home. The wigs are not yet on display, however, that does not mean O'Hara doesn't treasure these mementos. In 2019, during a particularly stressful evacuation caused by the Getty Fire in Los Angeles, O'Hara took the important belongings: passports, documents, baby photos and some of Moira's wardrobe.
"I kept running by it thinking, 'No, I can't. No, I can't—Yes!' I grabbed some of it," she revealed. "We took it to a hotel—luckily we got into a hotel here—and then I realized, 'Wait a minute, [Moira] was evacuated. The Roses were evacuated from their lives.' And it's weirdly appropriate, the episodes, the show is strangely appropriate right now because while being stuck together in one building, the Roses learn to be a family. And I think a lot of people, if they're fortunate enough to have homes and be together...It's a test for all families right now."
Over the years, the Roses learned how to be a family, but each individual family member also had a significant character arc. Moira became involved in local politics, joined a singing group, directed the local production of Cabaret, eventually dipped her toe back into acting and had success with The Crows Have Eyes 3: The Crowening. The Crows Have Eyes success then gave her the upper hand to negotiate a sweet deal for her return to the revival of her TV soap, Sunrise Bay. It's been a long journey for Moira, and O'Hara said she's quite pleased with the choices her character made—and to have had a say in them while working with Dan Levy.
"We would get to collaborate a bit on how her growth would happen. I'm glad we held it back for Moira," she said. While Moira's husband worked to hold the family together and get back at least some of the lifestyle they were accustomed to, kids David and Alexis discovered confidence and purpose in Schitt's Creek because "it wasn't just handed to them," O'Hara said. "And Moira's growth was a lot slower. I think Moira was always in love with her husband and thought she was a good mother, but I loved how every typical mother-child dynamic was completely alien to her and to them, because they were alien, they were totally fresh for them. And that was so great to be able to play that."
Though the show has ended, it's safe to say Moira Rose and Schitt's Creek will be an enduring part of O'Hara's already impressive entertainment legacy, a fact that's quite OK with the actor.
"I've never had this kind of experience with this loving audience, this fun-loving, loving audience that we've had. I've never had what we have with Schitt's Creek. Just never experienced anything like this before, and don't expect to again," she said. "And I'm really grateful that I got to be part of it."
This story was originally published on Tuesday, April 7, 2020 at 9:30 a.m. PT.