Q&A with ACTRA National’s 2020 Award of Excellence recipient, Catherine O’Hara

People are just funny, whether they know it or not, and we’re all characters.
Question: As a performer, writer and improviser, how do you develop characters such as Lola Heatherton on SCTV and Moira Rose on Schitt’s Creek?

Catherine: I learned most of what I know about developing characters at The Second City and on SCTV. For the stage, we just kept our eyes and ears open, at home and on the street, for interesting, odd or funny bits of dialogue or moments between people, and let our imaginations take us from there. People are just funny, whether they know it or not, and we’re all characters.

For SCTV, we’d see as much TV as we could – there was no Internet back then – and either work on impersonations or invent original characters based on a number of personalities we’d seen. My cheesy Atlantic City performer character, Lola Heatherton, was very loosely based on two sexy singers I had seen on talk shows, Lola Falana and Joey Heatherton (I worked really hard on coming up with a name, didn’t I?). I stole my look from JH and my quivering lip from LF. My trademark line – “I want to bear your children!” – I stole from my brother, Marcus. He used it (successfully) to pick up women! Otherwise, I just imagined these women lived lonely lives in a tough casino world. When appearing with the guys on Joe Flaherty’s Sammy Maudlin Show, I just wanted to laugh louder than anyone to prove I (Lola) was happy.

Moira Rose on Schitt’s Creek isn’t that far off from Lola. She believes she still has so much to offer, if only given the chance. She too suffers a big ego and low self-esteem, though she eventually learns to get outside her own head and give a thought or two to her children.

You can build a character in your mind, knowing everything they desire and fear, where they’ve been and where they want to go. It’s another thing to open your mouth and let her be heard, or to decide what she looks like. That’s the fun part in comedy. Again, I steal from all the wild people I’ve seen and heard in my life. And it doesn’t hurt to work with amazing wardrobe, hair and makeup artists!
Catherine O’Hara as Moira Rose on Schitt’s Creek. Photo: CBC
You can build a character in your mind, knowing everything they desire and fear, where they’ve been and where they want to go. It’s another thing to open your mouth and let her be heard, or to decide what she looks like.
Q: What Canadian actors have been most fun to work with?

A: I’ve been so fortunate to work with, learn from, and happily laugh at so many hilarious and lovely people, from the moment I first started working: Martin Short, Andrea Martin (now a Canadian citizen!), John Candy, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis, Robin Duke, to name just a few, to my most recent job, working again with dear Eugene Levy, his ridiculously talented son, Daniel, and the great Canadian cast of Schitt’s Creek.

Schitt's Creek - The Final Season Trailer
Q: Do you have any advice for comedic performers who are starting out in this rapidly changing digital era?

A: The Internet has given a platform to so many performers who otherwise would have had no way to be seen by anyone, let alone the world. BUT...I can’t imagine having to deal with a whole wide world of opinions when I was just starting out, when I needed to fearlessly take creative chances, make mistakes and rework ideas to the place that only I, my trusted coworkers and a lovely live audience could thoughtfully critique.

If I have any advice, it is to try to take it all with a grain of salt. It’s challenging, and of course anyone would rather read something flattering (ha!), but if you’re going to believe the good then you have to give as much credence to the bad. I say none of it will ever mean as much as doing the best you can do and knowing it’s always possible to do even better.
Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy in Schitt’s Creek. Photo: CBC
Q: What was the best piece of show business advice you received during your career?

A: One of our SCTV producers shared with me some great advice for any relationship in life. Basically, it’s that one should take very good care to respect and honestly represent one’s self at the very beginning of a relationship because the foot you start on will remain the foot you stay on and it’s near impossible to change. Have you ever wanted something so much that you lowered your standards or downgraded yourself or played weak or cheap to get it, then only later acknowledged your self-worth and thought, “Hey, I deserve a little respect here!”? Good luck! Treat yourself with the respect you eventually hope to earn.

Catherine O’Hara as Lola Heatherton on SCTV. Photo: CBC
SCTV cast, sitting: Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin; standing: Eugene Levy, John Candy, David Thomas and Rick Moranis.
Catherine O’Hara and Neil Patrick Harris in A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Miserable Mill: Part Two. Photo: Joe Lederer/Netflix
Julie Brown, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O’Neill, Eric Stonestreet and Catherine O’Hara on Modern Family. Photo: ABC
Katherine Heigl and Catherine O’Hara in Killers. Photo: Lionsgate
Catherine O’Hara and Ryan Kwanten in The Right Kind of Wrong. Photo: Mangolia Pictures
Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Annie Murphy and Dan Levy in Schitt’s Creek. Photo: CBC
Q: Why does Hollywood love Canadians?

A: I don’t like to generalize but I’ll play along with this one. Perhaps it’s because they’re not threatened by us. They consider us underdogs, or the little engines that could. That’s fine with me. Let them think what they want. What they don’t know can’t hurt them, eh?!

Canadian performers will shine a spotlight on comedy icon Catherine O’Hara by presenting her with the 2020 ACTRA National Award of Excellence in L.A. on Saturday, April 18. For her work as the eccentric and hilarious Moira Rose on the hit CBC series Schitt’s Creek, Catherine has won four consecutive Canadian Screen Awards for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, the 2016 ACTRA Toronto Award for Outstanding Performance, a 2019 Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, and 2020 SAG Award nominations for both Outstanding Performance in a Comedy Series by an Ensemble and Female Actor. Other television credits include Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm and HBO’s Temple Grandin for which she earned Emmy, Satellite and SAG Award nominations. Catherine began her comedy career with Toronto’s Second City Theatre and, later with the troupe, which included fellow Schitt’s Creek star and 2010 ACTRA Award of Excellence recipient Eugene Levy, created the iconic Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV. Catherine earned four Emmy nominations and one win for her writing on SCTV. Catherine’s numerous film credits include Beetlejuice, Home Alone, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, The Life Before This, Where the Wild Things Are and many more. Catherine collaborated with Christopher Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy four times on the critically acclaimed mockumentary films Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.

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