From an awkward first encounter with Eugene Levy, to cottage plans with Catherine O’Hara, to sneaking beers and hotdogs at the Emmys – Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy recently spilled all the juiciest, behind-the-scenes tea during the latest instalment of Toronto Film School’s In Conversation speaker series.
The online event served as a mini reunion between Murphy, who just received her first Emmy nomination for playing riches-to-rags socialite Alexis Rose on the CBC hit comedy, and Toronto Film School’s Executive Producer in Residence Andrew Barnsley, who served as the show’s executive producer.
Previous guests of the In Conversation speaker series – which is co-hosted by Barnsley and Writing for Film & TV Program Director Adam Till – have included Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Atom Egoyan, 30-year veteran stand-up comedian Caroline Rhea, Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated writer and actor Nia Vardalos, Beverly Hills 90210 star Jason Priestley, and Emmy-winning actor Tatiana Maslany.
Here’s what Murphy – a Canadian Screen Award-winning actor who will next star in AMC’s upcoming Kevin Can F*** Himself – had to say during her July 23 chat with Toronto Film School via Zoom:
On her motivation to pursue acting
“I think, for me, (my acting career) wasn’t as motivated by passion as much as it was about, kind of, like, FOMO…This is a super cheesy answer, but I really think this is why: I remember feeling, at a really young age, the anxiety that we’ve only got one shot at this – one life. And I thought the way of cheating that system was to become an actor, because then I could live all of these different lives and have all these different experiences and live in different times. It was more of a wanting to do everything, and that’s kind of why I got into it – to experience as much as I possibly could.”
On her parents’ support of her acting career
“I was lucky enough to have parents, who for some crazy reason, were, like, ‘Go for it! Be an actor! as opposed to saying, ‘This is an insane choice, we’re going to need you to try to go to law school.’ Looking back at it, I wonder what they were thinking letting me do that? I’m their one kid! But, oh god, they’re over the moon now, especially because neither of them come from this world at all. So having them come to set and be amazed by everything going on, and my dad just posted up by the craft table and shooting the shit with Eugene Levy – it’s a pretty special thing to give back to them.”
On her most uncomfortable audition
“I went in for Being Human – that show about the ghost and the witch and the werewolf. I was auditioning for the role of the ‘hot werewolf,’ and this particular scene was just action, and the action was – I’m literally having heart palpitations right now telling you about it – the action was, ‘You get stuffed into the trunk of a car, the trunk closes, and then, as you’re in the trunk of the car, you turn into a werewolf.’ And that was the whole scene.
“So, I walked into the room, and there were four people who were, like, ‘Go ahead, turn into a werewolf in the trunk of a car!’ It was horrible…There was no car, no trunk – you just had to climb onto a chair, pretend you were in a trunk and look like the biggest moron in the history of the world.”
On writing, producing and starring in the CBC digital series The Plateaus
“I actually think The Plateaus came to fruition very shortly after the ‘hot werewolf’ experience, when I was, like, ‘I hate this. I hate this so much. This is not what I signed up for.’ My good friend Matt Raudsepp was going through the same thing, so we started brainstorming ideas so we could make our own thing…
“The idea we came up with was about a band whose lead singer creates this incredible, banger hit and they just soar to the top. They’re at the absolute top of their game, and then the lead singer gets electrocuted and dies, and the three remaining band members are complete morons who are thirsty for fame, but have absolutely zero talent. So it’s about them trying to keep the momentum going and keep the dream alive…
“We got an IFC grant to do the show and it was a really, really interesting and important learning experience for me, because it kind of went from Matt and myself to a bunch of other people joining on. It became kind of a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and what we initially started out with and what actually got shot were two very, very, very different things.
“For all the ladies out there who may or may not be able to identify with this, it was a situation where I kind of felt, like, ‘Okay, this is my thing, but now there are all these other brains in the room and maybe my brain isn’t as good or as experienced as their brains, and so maybe I won’t speak up as loudly as I should.’ So, I just kind of sat there silently stewing a lot of the time, thinking, ‘This isn’t what I want, this isn’t where I want it to go.’ And, you know, the outcome was really fun and we had such a good time shooting it, but it really was an experience of not knowing how to be, like, ‘This is how I think should happen and here’s why,’ and not feeling like you’re being an asshole, but feeling like you’re asserting yourself and taking charge of the situation.
“But it was so much fun and such a confused, stupid premise, and we had all these rad people, like, Elisha Cuthbert and Jay Baruchel and Sam Roberts and Fred Penner and Dave Foley. It was a really fun group of people we were able to wrangle, and I think everyone had a really good time doing it.”
On her writing process
“Let’s be honest here, I’ve co-written one thing (The Plateaus), so I’m not touting myself as a writer. But I do a shitload of eavesdropping. When the world was normal, I would go and post up at a bar with headphones in, with nothing on them. I’m sorry, this is a lot of information that makes me sound creepy, but I listen to people’s conversations and get ideas from there, and I think that is, like, the most fun way of getting characters.
“I also like collaborating very much. I think having someone kind of depending on you to get a script back by a certain date is very good for me. Sitting alone in a room just writing isn’t my ideal environment. I like having someone to bounce ideas around with and use their brain as much as I can.”
On the importance of networking in school
“It really was the (Canadian Film Centre’s Actors Conservatory) that got me into this community in Toronto – like, Rosemary Dunsmore and so many incredible Canadian icons that were able to impart their knowledge to us. It really was networking through them and having different people come in and talk to us. I’m such a novice, and I was so, so green going in, so it was a really cool opportunity to learn kind of the more technical side of things. Giacomo Gianniotti was in my year, and he’s now Dr. McHotBoy on Grey’s Anatomy. So, you meet people, and you can keep connecting the dots with those people, so it was a really cool opportunity to have gone there.”
On the disastrous state of her pre-Schitt’s Creek life/career
“Everything had kind of hit the fan: I hadn’t booked a job in almost two years; I was broke; my house had just burnt down. It was a gloomy time and I was really, really discouraged…so it was a boost getting into the (CFC’s Actors Conservatory) and that was great, and we ended up living in my husband’s parents’ attic while our house was ashes.
“When I finished the CFC, I went right to L.A. for pilot season and just as I got there, I got my very first screen test. It was for a big show on NBC – do you guys remember that old classic Constantine with Keanu Reeves? They decided to turn that into a TV show, and I got a test for it, and I was, like, ‘This is the best job of my life! I have to get it!’ And then I just shat the bed on my screen test. Like, literally went in with my sides in my hand because I was so nervous, and even with my sides in my hand, I was, like, ‘I don’t know this. I don’t know my words, I don’t know this scene.’ It’s a nightmare to replay.
“So that happened, and I was, like, ‘Well, all signs are pointing to the fact that this is not for you, and you need to do some serious reconsideration of your future.’ So I had this big snotty cry in the ocean, and I was trying to weigh my options, but I have no other skills, basically, so I was, like, ‘Well, I’m doomed.’ And then literally the next day, I got an audition for Schitt’s Creek.”
On the Schitt’s Creek audition process
“I was so excited. I immediately saw Eugene (Levy) and Catherine (O’Hara) were attached to it, and I was, like…‘These are my comedy idols. These people have been inspirations to me since I was, like, 10 years old’…
“So I worked and worked and worked. I never worked so hard on an audition before….And honestly, it was the first and only audition – even to this day – that I walked out of thinking, ‘I did my best. I did everything I wanted to do. If it doesn’t go my way, at least I’m happy with what I did.’
“A couple of days later, I got a call from Dan (Levy) saying that he wanted me to come in and read for the role of Stevie. So, I flew back to Toronto and I ended up testing for both Stevie and Alexis – and Eugene was there, and that was one of the most wonderful moments of my life. I went into the room and I was so nervous….I had my winter coat and all my stuff, and I really nervously just threw everything down onto the floor. Then I hear Eugene go, like, ‘Ohhh…Uh, wanna hang up that coat?’ And I was, like, ‘No, no, no, it’s all good, don’t worry about it!’ Now, knowing Eugene and how specific he is, I could just see on his face that the audition was not going to happen until my coat was hung up. He actually got up, came around the table, walked to my coat, picked it up, brushed it off for me, then hung it up on the coat rack. And that was my first experience with Eugene Levy.”
On taking risks in her audition for the role of Alexis Rose
“The breakdown of the character was super, super helpful to me, because there will all of the stereotypical ‘blonde, ditzy, socialite’ and all those wealthy, rich girl stereotypes, but at the very bottom of the breakdown, it said ‘A young Goldie Hawn’ – and yes, she may be all of those things, but she is also this beautifully effervescent, charming, smart, engaging, multi-layered human, and so it was really important to me to not just play the ditz card with Alexis.
“That said, as a young and deeply inexperienced actor at the time, I was like, ‘I guess actors do research. What can my research be?’ So, I got stoned and went on YouTube for hours on end and watched Kardashian stuff and Lindsay Lohan and the Olsens and all of those socialite ladies. And I kind of stole bits and pieces from them: their beautiful vocal fry and the way they hold their purses and their arms.”
On getting the news she’d landed the role
“I waited the most excruciating three weeks of my life to hear anything at all, and then finally got the call from Dan (Levy), who was such a dink on the phone. He played such a mean, shitty game. Because after two weeks go by, you think ‘I don’t have the part’ and if you do hear something, it’s going to be someone saying ‘Thanks so much, you’re not it.’
“So, he called, and he was, like, ‘Hey, I just wanted to say thanks so much, and we really appreciated you coming in.’ And then he just stopped talking. So, I was going through the emotional array of trying to be fine and trying to thank him for the opportunity, while swallowing the hugest lump in my throat. And then, just before we hung up, he said ‘Hey, just one quick question: How would you like to play my sister on the show?’ And it was truly, as cheesy as it is, it was a genuine, life-changing minute.”
On first day of shooting Schitt’s Creek
“I think I was riding so high on the fact that I booked a job with my comedy icons, that I coasted on that for such a long time that. Then, literally the day before, one of my friends was, like, ‘Tomorrow you’re acting with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara,’ and I was, like, ‘Oh shit, you’re right.’ I didn’t sleep at all, I was so nervous and so anxious, and just wracking my brain for some excuse as to why I couldn’t come into work the next day. Unfortunately my brain was not creative enough to come up with something, and so I went into work and I was such a mess.
“Luckily, at that point in time, I had more experience acting than Dan did, even though he created the show – so he was just as much of a mess as I was, so it was nice to have two trembling bodies together going into the scene…and Eugene and Catherine are two of the most kind and inclusive and welcoming and supportive human beings I’ve ever met in my life, so after getting the first couple of rocky takes out, it felt like a family. They never made me feel like I was the new one. Especially Catherine, who loves so much to be, like, ‘Okay, how about we try this?’ It was so collaborative and fun and full of energy. So, honestly, after that first really spooky-feeling day, it just felt good.”
On how a little bit of Alexis rubbed off on her
“I would often come home and still be talking a bit like (Alexis), until someone would be, like, ‘I need you to just stop.’ But to get into a more cheeseball answer, I’ve tried to take just a little bit of a lesson in confidence from Alexis. She believed in herself far too much – it was insanity the confidence she had – but she did and she had all this belief that she could do it and she did it. So I think I tried to absorb just a little bit of that.”
On how it felt to watch first episode air
“For the premiere, we rented out this deeply sketchy bar on the outskirts of the Junction that was a local haunt, and we just packed it full of drunk friends and family, and (Andrew) Barnsley and his parents. So, it was this boisterous thing – there was this one tiny, shitty TV up there and everyone was shushing each other when the show came on, and it was so, so special.”
On Eugene Levy
“Eugene is a really serious dude. I mean, he loves a good laugh, loves to tell a story, loves to break out in harmony with Catherine on set, but he’s not a joke crackin’ cross-eyed goofball. He’s not doing his bits…He really is kind of Jim’s dad-ish (from American Pie) – he’s just this sweet, earnest man and he wants everyone to be okay.”
On shooting Schitt’s Creek in Canada
“I’ve only ever worked in Canada, and I have loved every second of it. Having the opportunity to work with so many incredibly talented Canadians on such a special, wonderful show has been incredible…especially going to Goodwood, where our Schitt’s Creek was, and being so accepted by the people of Goodwood. They were so proud to be Schitt’s Creekers and so welcoming, and would, like, bring out lawn chairs and watch us shoot. I remember at one point, one of my favourite moments was this shirtless dude, who had just been cutting these lawns, came over and he stood with his beer behind the monitor and just watched, and then we got the take and he was, like, ‘Yep, that’s the one.’ Then he flip-flopped back across to his garden. Somehow that feels like a uniquely Canadian experience.”
On attending the Emmy Awards with her Schitt’s Creek castmates
“It was just wild. It’s something you dream about as an actor, and once you’re actually there, it’s all chaos and noise. You see all the behind-the-scenes stuff – people running around in a panic and, like, celebrities sweating on a carpet trying to look beautiful.
“I think most of us (on Schitt’s Creek cast) have very little chill – like, I think we’re all very Canadian in the sense that we all felt like we didn’t belong there…Nicole Kidman would walk by, and we’d all be, like ‘Agh!’ and Dan (Levy) would be the only one going, ‘Guys, stop it. Just chill, okay?’ Meanwhile, Dustin Milligan and I would be punching each other under the table. It is a very cool experience, but you still kind of feel like it’s so surreal that you’re still just at home watching it on TV.
“I was with Emily (Hampshire), Noah (Reid) and Dustin (Milligan), and we were sooo hungry and so in need of a drink, so we walked out on a commercial break, and the only things that they had to offer were, like, $15 hotdogs, and $30 double-tall cans. So, we ended up standing in the lobby with a tall can and a hotdog…and that was our kind of classy/non-classy Emmy experience.”
On the lasting connection between Schitt’s Creek cast members
“I’m texting with everyone all the time, and I have it on my list of to-dos to invite myself up to Catherine’s cottage this summer, whether she likes it or not. But we genuinely love each other so much, and have created – I’m full of cheesy shit today – lasting, life-long friendships.”
On what’s next in her career
“I think the most important thing to me is continuing to either create or be a part of fun, interesting projects with cool people with great brains. I want to do as much as possible. I’d love to do theatre again, and I’d love to do voice work, and I’d love to do super, low-budget indies in a weird place on the planet. I have no end goal, really, I just want to do as much as I can.”
On her upcoming lead role in AMC’s Kevin Can F*** Himself
“It’s kind of from the perspective of the sitcom wife who is so often ignored and passed over and the butt of the jokes. The series is an hourlong dark comedy and it’s from her perspective more or less, but what’s really cool is it goes back and forth between a multi-cam set up, but when she’s on her own, we go to this gritty, beautiful single cam, like kind of more dramatic. So it’s going to be fun and it’s so different from Alexis, because I’m a hard-livin’ Bostonian, so I have an accent, which is really interesting and we’re shooting just outside of Quincy in Massachusetts sometime, who knows when, but I’m super excited and just the cast is so cool and I’m scared shitless and I can’t wait to see what happens.”
On the importance of taking on meaningful projects
“I think if you have the opportunity, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to create, why not create something that’s important, something that cheers people up, something that has a positive impact on the world – because we are so desperate for it right now. I think sending messages of goodness and kindness and inclusivity and love are very important things, but I also think that creating opportunities to tell both sides of stories, and letting the bad in with the good and having those conversations is also very important, too.”
On her work with CARE Canada
“My experience in Jordan was absolutely incredible. I went there for three days and met incredible people and played a small part in raising awareness for CARE, the organization that sent me…It was the wildest trip of my whole life. They took my mom and I around their facilities. They do work from educating kids and doing after-school programs, to finding people housing, to finding people doctors, to finding women jobs in the community – and most of the people they’re helping are Syrian refugees…and incredible human beings who are making the absolute most out of a very, very hard life.
“On the very last day, my mom and I went to the Azraq refugee camp, which is almost entirely Syrian refugees there in the middle of the dessert. We met a few families there and saw what CARE is doing there, and it was just, like – it was a really weird experience coming home. I came home, and then I went to the Emmys right after that, and it really put things in perspective and made me realize what the important things are. It really is as cliché as it sounds, but it’s really only when you see it with your own eyes that you realize what much of the world actually is and how deeply, deeply, deeply privileged we are in our little bubble.
“It is so important – especially, especially now, when everything is so fucked up – to stand up for what is right.”
On what she’d tell her 20-year-old self
“Don’t give up, even after that whole werewolf experience. Just keep trying, keep plugging away…Also, I learned a good lesson after coming very, very close to getting a role on Bomb Girls. I wanted it so bad. It was a period piece and I wanted to do period piece so much, and it sounded like such a cool premise. It came down to me and Jodi Balfour, and when Jodi got it, I was so sad, I was heartbroken. But if I had booked Bomb Girls, I wouldn’t have been able to do Schitt’s Creek. So if you’re able to look at in that way, there’s always going to be something coming down the pipes and, ugh, I almost said ‘If one door closes, a window opens,’ but it’s kinda true.”
On how’s she coping during the pandemic
“I’m a-okay. I was supposed to start work on Kevin Can F*** Himself…on March 20, so that kind of came to a screeching halt. So yeah, I’m posted up in Toronto just kind of waiting to see when we’re going to get back to work…I wish I could say I was like all those sourdough-making people and people that build canoes now. Instead, I sat dreamily looking at those people for a week and a half going, ‘I’m going to be that person,’ but basically all I’ve accomplished is I’m now on season 4 of 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days. I mean, it’s something. It shows that I’m a committed audience member and a passionate world traveller from my couch.”
On advice to younger generation
“Keep creating and entertaining yourself and entertaining your friends, and watching things that make you happy and that challenge and excite you. I know these times are what they are, and it’s really, really tough, but I think it should be a big dose of inspiration to put good out there, however you want to define that.”