Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara have been collaborating for more than 40 years, first at Second City, the comedy theater troupe that evolved into the sketch television show “SCTV.” Between 1996 and 2006, they shared the screen in four Christopher Guest comedies — “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration” — each co-written by Guest and Levy.
Since 2015, O’Hara and Levy have played Johnny and Moira Rose on “Schitt’s Creek,” the patriarch and matriarch of a wealthy family forced to relocate after losing their fortune. Over lunch in late February to discuss the show, the duo quoted liberally from their joint repertoire of work, frequently making each other laugh.
After the meal ended and Levy and O’Hara left the restaurant, a couple at the next table asked whether they were married in real life, and seemed disappointed to hear that they’re not. (However, the questioners might have been delighted to know that 30 minutes after Levy and O’Hara seemingly exited the premises, they were still chatting before getting their cars at the valet.)
For Variety’s cover story on “Schitt’s Creek,” which has its series finale April 7 on Pop TV, the old friends discussed their favorite things about the show, how they created their characters and working with Daniel Levy and Annie Murphy, their on-screen (and off-screen, in the Levys’ case) children.
Eugene, what do you remember about Dan pitching you on the show?
Eugene Levy: I always wanted to hear something like that, and then just completely obliterated it from my mind because I assumed it was never going to happen. It didn’t make sense to me when he was in high school. He seemed to not need or want any help from me. When it finally happened, it was a complete shock to the system, and a very delightful thing to hear.
And at that point, Catherine, they had to convince you to do it.
Catherine O’Hara: No.
Dan said you said no!
O’Hara: Eugene called and said, “Catherine, we’ve got a deal with CBC.” That’s so great, that’s so great. “And we’re going to shoot in the summer!” [I said,] “Eugene, do you even know me?” Because I have a cottage that I like to be at in the summer with my family. He said, “All right, wait a minute.” I don’t know when you called back, how long it took, but you said, “OK! We’re going to shoot in the spring.”
Dan said you sat down together to really conceive the character of Moira.
Levy: It was the Moira makeover Catherine was dying to make.
O’Hara: I had this lunch with Eugene and Daniel, and I came armed with all these pictures, mainly of Daphne Guinness. She’s all black and white, she’s very avant-garde. You could see she is very conscious of the image that she’s putting out every day she walks out of her home. Really strong, a lot of it is like armor, the necklaces that she wears, and the heels. It’s so not your typical half-hour comedy wife.
Levy: It was so exciting to hear this vision. You can see, Daniel couldn’t write stuff down fast enough.
O’Hara: He immediately said, “Yes.” I thought, “Was he already thinking this?” We were immediately on the same page. But I always say this: It’s one thing to agree — about anything. It’s a whole other deal to execute it.
Did you know what you wanted her accent to be?
O’Hara: Not at first. I have the emails, and I’m saying to Eugene, “Someone who is learning a different word every day and tries to slip them into conversations as much as possible. Somebody who’s world traveled.” I now describe it as the result of Moira and Johnny’s world travels when they had money. Being the serious artist that she is, who observes people and culture and takes it all in, she then wants to share with the world. What you’re getting when you hear her speak are oral mementos of her world travels. I haven’t come up with a better way to describe it.
By email, you would say, “Why don’t we hear it?” I was giving you nothing! I was saying, “I don’t want to sound like a human,” basically.
Levy: The first time we heard it was knockout — unreal.
O’Hara: You have to work with lovely, smart, talented people who allow you to sound like an alien. Just to have that creative freedom is — I don’t expect to have it with other people. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to have done this with Eugene and Daniel.
Johnny and Moira have such a loving partnership. It’s not a bickerfest. How did the two of you figure that out?
Levy: We both had, in our own minds, an idea of who the character is. In my case Johnny Rose was a CEO who ran a very large business. I always wanted him to keep an even keel and deal with his family crisis like he would deal with a business crisis, which is: take one step at a time. That’s how he is in the relationship with Moira as well. She would tend, at times, to get maybe more excitable, but he couldn’t —
O’Hara: I love how you’re being careful with me even today: “She would tend to get a little more excited!” He’s such a gentleman.
Levy: But that’s true! It just seemed to naturally work that way, it wasn’t anything we mapped out together. What they thought was being good parents in the beginning was far different than when the series comes to an end.
O’Hara: Money disguised the fact that we were not actually parenting up until now. From my point of view, I always thought Moira escaped a town like this in her earlier days, so she is really more threatened than anyone.
When did you feel the show was gelling?
Levy: Almost immediately when we were shooting the first episode. The tone of the comedy was right where I had wanted it to be. By the time we hit show five, which is the show where David walks in and witnesses Johnny and Moira having sex — that episode was so hysterical to me. That one scene in particular, where we come back into the kids’ room to say, “What you’ve witnessed here is something —”
O’Hara: “Between two healthy adults!” Story wise, it was all there. Right away, you made me comfortable, Eugene, because you actually listen to my ideas. And you’re very calming. We were becoming our characters, basically, by email.
Levy: Also, the last scene in the first show as well, I just love the tag. After the doors were removed from the motel, and then the doors were there ready to be put on, and it was just him saying, “Help me with the doors, David help me with the doors!” “No, I’m not helping!”’ “Help me with the doors!” And then Alexis, “David, help him!” “You help him!”
O’Hara: Wasn’t my line, “Shut this coffin”? They were so good together, Annie and Daniel, right from the beginning. “You get murdered first!”
Levy: That was an exciting relationship — the parent/child relationship. Child — they’re 30!
O’Hara: Bébés to us! They were so raised in captivity. No day to day life experience other than whatever money bought for them. So great to watch them grow.
Eugene, you were in the writers room for the first two seasons?
Levy: I can’t honestly say, for me, it was the greatest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not used to writing in a room with eight other writers. I’ve always written on my own, even on “SCTV.”
It was the most fun to watch Daniel becoming a showrunner. Taking chances — the idea that he wanted his character to be pansexual. I remember having a conversation with him at the time saying, “Are you sure you want to go with pansexual?” He was adamant about it. I said, “Good. Then that’s what it is.”
That was a very strong episode, and really set a tone that kind of cast a glow over the whole series. Coming out and creating that world of positivity, and that world of there’s no homophobia in this town. It was key.
O’Hara: You know what was beautiful about it, though? Nobody ever said to me, “There will be no homophobia.” There just wasn’t. It’s just a world I believe Daniel wants to live in. And I’d like to live there too!
Catherine, I heard you took a pass at every script.
O’Hara: I mostly tried to stay in my lane with my character. But if you’re changing stuff, I would change some dialogue that affected other people in the scene, of course. I would try to slip in a joke for other characters, too. It was lovely to have the right to floralize and Moira-ize my dialogue.
They came up with everything — all the stories and everything else. So many great expressions: “disgruntled pelican.” Just absurd, funny, funny ideas.
Levy: The character just grew exponentially from season to season, in terms of vocabulary.
O’Hara: Sometimes I’ll watch myself, and I go, “Oh that’s too much, come on!”
Outside of the Rose family, which characters and scene partners did you enjoy the most?
Levy: I love Chris Elliott. He was in our pilot, and we wanted him for Roland. It was great fun, because Chris reminds you that you’re doing a comedy. Chris will joke right up until — and even sometimes a second after — you hear “action.” When cut is yelled, he’s back to messing around with the crew guys. I never laughed more on a production than I did on this with Chris.
I also love my scenes with Twyla [Sarah Levy], because it was just too sweet to be true.
Do you have a favorite moment for your characters?
Levy: The last show in Season 2, when they run into their old friends. You knew what it was on paper, but for some reason, it really just came together at that table. I could feel Roland and Jocelyn (Jennifer Robertson) sitting at the table with these people from our past who abandoned us after they were supposed to be our close friends. Although it was laid out in the script, it just at that table felt like it was a turning point for Johnny. He turned in favor of these people who are now going out of their way to help and befriend them.
O’Hara: You acted so beautifully, Eugene. You made me cry every single take, the speech: “This is where we live now.”
Do you have a favorite Moira scene?
O’Hara: I love intimate family scenes. In the episode when Patrick stays over night because his bathroom is destroyed, and they’re in the room and Alexis is in the room, and we go in and I get in the bed with Annie. I just love the intimacy of that.
I loved the first scenes, when we were getting to know each other. Who are these kids? Then slowly getting to know them, and at the end being so comfortable.
Levy: One of my favorite favorite Moira scenes is the scene you had with Stevie (Emily Hampshire).
O’Hara: The nudes?
Levy: The nudes. Moira’s nudes. That speech you had with her was so revealing.
“Take a thousand naked pictures of yourself now”?
O’Hara: Because I know what that feels like! Why aren’t we kind to pictures of ourselves now? I look at pictures from two years ago, “Look how happy I am! Look how thin.” Why can’t we do it now? And callipygian is a word I learned.
Levy: “Callipygian ass.”
O’Hara: It means having firm, round buttocks.
Levy: Oh my god. It’s such a great word, and it just rolled off your lips — “callipygian ass.” I do agree, family stuff was always the most fun scenes, the four Roses together.
I think “Schitt’s Creek” is a show that brings out the best in people. Since we live in hell right now, it’s just nice to visit there.
Levy: It’s true, and it’s had an amazing impact on people’s lives. I think the “Wine, Not the Label” episode was a big thing in helping kids coming out to their parents. There were a lot of letters that came in.
O’Hara: From parents too. Kids have quoted those lines, and it helps the parents understand.
How did it feel to know the show was coming to an end?
O’Hara: I remember hearing a little earlier through close family friends that we may end in five or six [seasons]. It seemed right to me. As it went on, I was really impressed with how well thought out all the characters were, and how beautifully and carefully they were all resolved.
I don’t tweet myself, but Eugene said two years ago, “You’ve got to join Twitter so you can read what people who watch our show say.” They’re so kind and loving. The response to Ted and Alexis, oh my god! I remember when I read the script, I was upset! They’re breaking them up, what! As a mother, a Moira mother, I’m thinking, it’s so sad. She loves him, but at the same time, I’m so proud of her for doing what she needs to do.
Levy: I’ve never experienced an audience so incredibly behind and in love with these characters. If you’re just looking at it as a job, it was the absolute best. You loved going into work every day with this cast, and we always had a great production team and crew. This could have gone on until the end of time. The smart thing to do is to get out while the going’s good.
O’Hara: The last read-through was the last two shows. I was weeping, along with many other people around the table. People ask, “Are you sad, are you sad, are you sad?” And I would say, “I think it will hit me around March, when I’d be going back.”
I watched the last episode, and then I texted Annie to say how much I loved her and Dustin in that episode, and to congratulate her. She said, “It made me teary-eyed, and I’m starting to really miss everybody.” I said, “Oh, that did it to me too!” In fact, I had a dream that night that I was crying to Annie that I wasn’t involved in her life anymore!
Levy: It’s pretty amazing, six years working with your kids.
Dan and Annie said separately how kind you both were in the first season, when they had no idea what they were doing.
O’Hara: How could you not be? Sometimes I’m the new person, sometimes I’m a little more experienced on a set. But you’re complete equals when you’re in a scene.
Levy: They came out of the gate almost as equals, in the sense that their characters were already quite vivid and funny and real. For newcomers to the acting profession, and Annie certainly was, she just nailed it with this character. And David became an almost iconic character. On the show, people don’t know where he’s going from one second to the next. It’s fun to watch.
Did you both participate in the show’s farewell tour?
O’Hara: Oh, yeah. Are you kidding? It makes me miss the show a little less because I know I’m going to see everybody.
Levy: There is a life after, in a way. We finished shooting last June, and yet come, January we have to do press for the season. Then we’ve got the live shows, where we get together and we’re sitting on stage. The fans are insane. We will be doing more shows this year, so it’ll be interesting to see next year’s Emmys, if we get any nominations.
There will be nominations.
O’Hara: Don’t say that! Don’t suck us into the game! We were in “For Your Consideration!”
Do you think you will work together forever?
O’Hara: Eugene has to give me another job, I guess. God forbid I create something that would give Eugene a job.
Levy: You’re good at creating things. Come up with something!
O’Hara: I owe you. Will you work with me again, Eugene? Please!
Levy: I don’t know if I’d want to make a multi-year commitment… It’s always great fun working with Catherine for a number of reasons.”
O’Hara: “VISUH VERSUH,” as Jennifer Coolidge would say. Didn’t she say that? I think it’s from “Best in Show.” Is it “Best in Show”? Or “For Your Consideration.”
Levy: “For Your Consideration.” No, “Best in Show”! Anyway, funny character, Jen Coolidge.
O’Hara: Sorry, so out of nowhere! She’s the best. Insane dialogue.
Are you kidding? I’m thrilled!
O’Hara: People are so nice to us. It’s hard not to take it personally! There’s gonna come a day when no one’s talking about the show anymore. Life goes on. Back to my usual life of nobody knowing what I’m doing.