Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara on Evolving Their Long (and Funny) Working Relationship for 'Schitt's Creek'

The comedians discuss their long-term friendship and how it informs their latest on-screen relationship.
Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara are no strangers to playing a couple onscreen, having paired up in Christopher Guest movies including Best in Show and A Mighty Wind after first meeting at Second City in Toronto.

"I understudied for Gilda Radner, God bless her, and Rosemary Radcliffe — the two women in the cast at the time," O'Hara told The Hollywood Reporter of her earliest days in comedy.

"I was a waitress and [Eugene] was in the cast, and I remember [him] having a marvelous, woven kind of hairdo. ... I auditioned for an opening that came up in the cast and got to travel in a car with Eugene, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd to Chicago [because] we did a trade where the Chicago cast played Toronto, and the Toronto cast played Chicago."

O'Hara ended up joining the Second City cast full-time when Radner went off to do National Lampoon, and her bond with Levy only deepened from there. That was four decades ago, in 1974, but this winter the dynamic duo of character actors will reunite for Schitt's Creek, the first original scripted series from Pop (aka TV Guide Network).

The comedy stars Levy and O'Hara as Johnny and Moira Rose, a wealthy but extremely out of touch couple whose assets are seized by the IRS, forcing them to pick up and move, with their two grown but equally hapless children, to the small town they once purchased as a joke.

THR caught up with Levy and O'Hara to talk about their longtime friendship and professional partnership as well as how they both inform their new show.

Coming up in comedy in those troupes often forms tight-knit bonds, but it's not as common for the performers to share so much time onscreen so far into their careers.

Levy: I think a lot of it is very fortunate circumstance, in a way, that we happen to end up teamed together. Certainly in the movies that I did with Chris, Catherine was the name that we both brought up — "We have to get Catherine O'Hara when trying to build a troupe!" In this kind of improvisational comedy, there are only so many people who are really quite adept at that, and Catherine is one, and we ended up eyeing her for those early. Of course, in Waiting for Guffman she was not paired up with me [romantically].

O'Hara: And in Best in Show, you guys had me playing another role [at first], and I said, "I don't know …" But there was the role of the wife.

Levy: You've got a memory! Boy, did that work out! That was one of the funniest couples ever, I think.

But it wasn't the only time you've played a couple. At this point, is your history a help or a hindrance when crafting new onscreen relationships?

Levy: We've known each other for such a long time that it's just a comfortable relationship. And when you're doing comedy, number one, you do want to work with the best people. It's hard when you're not working with the best people, so the bottom line is you want really good people who are quite skilled at this particular kind of comedy, [which is] character work. Quite honestly, it's so much fun working with her, [but I also] know I'm working with the best person I could hire for the role.

O'Hara: You can only bring what you know to any dialogue and any relationship, and you want to connect, and we don't have to worry about that as much because we've known each other for so many years that consciously and subconsciously, we draw on what is there — what you feel and what you know about the person. So that really gives us a lot to work with.

Levy: And we also have a mode of working which is very similar, so it's comfortable, and there's a big trust factor.

What have you learned from each other about comedy?

Levy: We approach our work the same way. We are both character actors who try to infuse our characters with humor in a very real, tangible way. We take our comedy seriously and have always done that. So I honestly don’t think we’ve learned anything from each other, but I certainly have admired watching Catherine’s approach to her work.

O'Hara: Eugene wrote more group scenes than anyone else on SCTV. His writing was and is very clean and precise. He's generous in his writing great material for others but he doesn't overwrite. His writing inspires and leaves lots to the imagination.

What makes the Schitt's Creek dynamic unique and fresh for you as performers?

Levy: Catherine's playing a great, really funny character that kind of dictated what this relationship would eventually be like. [My character] Johnny's kind of an easy-going guy, with a Dean Martin approach (laughs). But quite honestly it was Catherine homing in on her character and creating the character that she did that kind of made things open up for these two as a couple.

O'Hara: We do that for each other, I think, because you do want to have a solid relationship. You don't just want to be bickering. It would be easy to just blame Johnny for losing everything. It would be easy to just drive it home every day on him, but what would be the point [of that]? And that wasn't in the script anyway ... but you want to believe these two actually got married for a reason and stayed together and had kids for a reason, and there is something there. They're going through something horrible right now, but there is something there that maybe it won't always be there, but it's there now, and you can keep drawing on that and finding new ways to relate it.

Eugene, once Catherine was officially on board with the show, did the idea of who Moira is change?

Levy: We always knew Moira was an actress, an ex-soap star, who became a socialite, chairing major charity events around the world. But Catherine, who always brings something so creative to the table, added a very extreme affectation to her actress character that made Moira so much funnier than we had imagined her. It was a breakthrough touch that was totally Catherine.

How much room for banter and improv is there in a show like Schitt's Creek?

Levy: [There is] little to no improv in our show. It is completely a scripted show, but we do an awful lot of playing around with the lines when we get to the set. What looked good on paper doesn’t always play when you hear the words out loud. So, we do change things until they end up sounding right.

O'Hara: After the cast read-through, I'd submit my changes and/or new ideas to Eugene, Dan and the writers and we'd work everything out before shooting. I always felt free to play with dialogue from take to take, but we stayed very close to what was on the page.

From who or what did you draw inspiration for your Schitt's Creek characters?

Levy: For me, Johnny is probably the straightest character I have ever played [and that is] by design. To be the calm eye of the storm in this show, Johnny had to be very real and believable. So I think I probably drew more on myself than I ever have for a role. Similar in a way to Jim’s dad in the American Pie movies but [with] more of an edge.

O'Hara: I'd like to think our characters are still evolving — it scares me, the thought of locking myself into anything for a possibly long time — but I love people who have no idea of the impression they're making on others yet are obsessed with what people think of them. I probably just described most humans. It's that lovely combination of big ego/low self-esteem that's awful to live but fun to play. Of course what is on the page — the fact that the Roses have had their world ripped out from under them — is what is driving all our characters right now.

Johnny and Moira have very different approaches to their new situation. Who's the bigger fish out of water in the scenario, and who will be aware enough to actually experience some growth?

O'Hara: Moira will never adjust!

Levy: That's true; Moira will never adjust to being in the town. Johnny approaches everything the way he would run a business: You take things as they come. This is a particular hardship that involves the family, but Johnny's job is to make sure that nobody freaks out or loses it. And his goal is basically to get the family out of this. He's got the blinders on and is taking a step-by-step approach in a very pragmatic way to get them back on their feet, but he is dealing with what's in front of them. He wants to keep the family together and keep them calm.

And the dichotomy of responses is from where a lot of the humor can come.

O'Hara: Exactly. If we all just give in to it, what's the premise? What's the reality? This is not our life; this is not what we're used to. Although I can imagine [Moira] was very poor years ago; she was a scrapper— I don't know if that's true, I just imagine it. But [life in Schitt's Creek] is not what we're used to, and I'm not used to it, and I'm expecting Johnny to get us out.

Schitt's Creek premieres Feb. 11 at 10 p.m. on Pop. Are you excited to see Levy and O'Hara back together again? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @danielletbd

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