Annie Murphy on Life After Schitt’s Creek, Her “Biggest Heartbreak” and Dan and Eugene Levy
There isn’t much that’s similar between Annie Murphy and Alexis Rose, the spoiled yet lovable little sister that the Ottawa-born actress plays on CBC’s Schitt’s Creek, particularly in the wardrobe department. Murphy describes her style as “bag lady chic,” whereas Alexis’s wardrobe is just chic. And expensive. But I think I’ve discovered the one piece that could be the sartorial bridge between the two: a pair of grey cashmere sweatpants.
Murphy spots them on a rainy afternoon at Courage My Love, a vintage store in Toronto’s Kensington Market—a place it’s safe to say Alexis would not set one high-heeled foot in—and holds them up with an “Ooh.” The pants in question, soft and slouchy, fit perfectly with Murphy’s relaxed style, but they’re also something Alexis could very well be spotted lounging in at the Rosebud Motel. (They’re cashmere, after all.)
Over beer and guacamole at El Rey Mezcal Bar, Murphy confesses to not having much of an eye for fashion, but after six seasons of working alongside Dan Levy (who plays her brother, David, on the show), she couldn’t help but pick up a few things. “I’ve learned that fashion is something I really do love and appreciate; it’s art,” she says.
“I’ve learned that fashion is something I really do love and appreciate; it’s art.”
“Taking care and pride in how you present to the world and deciding what that’s going to look like—I find that all so fascinating. And it’s amazing to see how it changes the way you carry yourself. But I also find it incredibly daunting. I would love to be super-fashionable, but there are so many options and so many combinations of things, so I just resort to my comfy everyday look.”
Today, that look involves an oversized black-and-white floral maxi-dress with a denim jacket draped over her shoulders and well-worn Chuck Taylors. Her hair is swept up in a messy topknot, her crimson nails are chipped and her face is devoid of any trace of makeup aside from a few swipes of mascara. It’s a contrast to Alexis, who blow-dries and styles her hair every day, thank you very much, whose nails are always glossy and perfect and who never lets her surroundings or schedule dictate the kind of clothes she feels like wearing that day. (A fully-sequined silver mini-dress with thigh-high socks for the first day of community college? Why not?)
That said, the openness, radiant friendliness and candour you see in Alexis are clearly evident in Murphy, too. This may be the mark of an actor who is still fairly unaccustomed to talking endlessly about herself, but for every five questions I ask her, she asks me one about myself: what I’m bingeing on these days, what my favourite restaurants are in the city and what my theories are on the fox in Fleabag (which she recently downed on a plane and was blown away by). It’s as if no one told her that the standard rules of social engagement no longer apply now that she’s on a beloved television show.
“I remember being quite young and having this feeling of panic that you’ve only got one life.”
Much has been written about Schitt’s Creek, which has been nominated for multiple Emmys and served as Murphy’s big break. The show belongs in the same camp as Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which is to say it’s nice); its humour never comes at anyone’s expense. Yes, there’s narcissism, selfishness and ludicrous behaviour aplenty (not to mention avant-garde designer threads), but there’s also warmth. The town of Schitt’s Creek is a no-judgment zone.
In particular, David’s pansexuality and the matter-of-fact way in which his romantic relationships are depicted onscreen are a breath of fresh air. Fans from all around the world have sent letters and tweets about how the show has changed their lives. It has encouraged people to open up about their sexuality; gotten others through rough patches in their lives; helped families understand one another better; and generally provided a joyful place to escape to at a time when kindness, love and empathy seem to be in short supply. So while everyone is bingeing on Schitt’s Creek to preserve their sanity, what does Murphy turn to?
Lately, she’s been watching Broad City, but The Office is her “go-to safety blanket and has been for a long, long time.” The books she has been reading, however, are anything but cheery. She just finished The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s epic story about a young boy who loses his mother in a terrorist attack; Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, about the violent period in India’s history known as The Emergency, is one of her favourite books; and she just started Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a book filled with such anguish that anyone who has ever read it will offer words of caution to others about to embark on the same sorrowful journey (as I do with Murphy). “I’ve just started it, but from all accounts it’s literally going to get exponentially worse every chapter I read,” she says. “I don’t know why I’m doing this to myself, but I’ve got The Office to balance me out.”
“She’s not a bad person; she’s actually quite a good and kind and selfless person. But it was all really deep down and had to be mined out.”
Books, incidentally, are what got Murphy interested in acting in the first place. Her parents, who still live in Ottawa, were both teachers, and her father read to her a lot when she was a child. “I remember being quite young and having this feeling of panic that you’ve only got one life. I think books are the first step to kind of overcoming that, because you can be a different person and live different lives in different places and have different experiences all through books. And then acting is an extension of that—being able to be another person for a while.”
Murphy fell in love with acting in high school and subsequently enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., which she abandoned a year later in favour of a better theatre program at Concordia in Montreal. She loved the experience and the city, but work opportunities were slim, with auditions for roles as juicy as “hot werewolf with no lines” coming her way once every couple of months. So after six years in Montreal, she moved to Toronto, where she starred in The Plateaus, a 2015 web series about four insufferable musicians, which she also co-created. “That was kind of the scene I was living in at that point,” she says. “My husband was in a band, so I was constantly surrounded by band dudes and band stories and that whole scene. It’s all so easy to laugh at, especially when people are taking themselves too seriously, which is often the case.”
“My house had just burned down, I hadn’t booked a job in two years, I had $400 in my bank account and I’d absolutely shat the bed on my very first screen test out in L.A.”
Finding the humanity and relatability in difficult people is clearly a Murphy specialty. “On paper, Alexis is a bit of a handful and incredibly selfish, and she could be taken as a ditzy blond. But it was really important to me to not have her be unlikable because I think so much of who she is is based on her surroundings and her environment,” she explains. “She’s not a bad person; she’s actually quite a good and kind and selfless person. But it was all really deep down and had to be mined out.”
“I think a lot of my idea for Alexis was formed when I met Annie and when I saw her take on the character,” says Dan, who co-created the show and also shares wardrobe duty with costume designer Debra Hanson. “As soon as I saw her, I knew we were going down a path of high-end, easy French design, like the Isabels and the A.P.C.s and the Chloés, you know—softer pieces from those collections.”
“To be able to wear these absolutely outrageous outfits every day was such a treat,” says Murphy, who kept a chunky Isabel Marant sweater and snakeskin Gucci sandals from Alexis’s wardrobe when the series wrapped after its sixth season (which is set to premiere on CBC in January 2020).
“It was a serious lesson in losing things, but it was an even bigger lesson that things are just things and can be replaced in one way or another.”
Twyla Sands, the Café Tropical waitress played by Sarah Levy (yes, she’s Dan’s sister), may be the eternal optimist on the show, but Alexis also has a way of always looking for a silver lining, which is evident in Murphy as well. “I think our similarities lie in our desire to find the good in a situation and to try and spin things toward the positive instead of the negative,” she says. It’s what helped Murphy get through the “very, very bleak” period right before her Schitt’s Creek audition.
“My house had just burned down, I hadn’t booked a job in two years, I had $400 in my bank account and I’d absolutely shat the bed on my very first screen test out in L.A.,” she explains. Although she and her husband were out of town when it happened, that fire was a learning experience, but it took its toll. “When my place burned down, it was a serious lesson in losing things, but it was an even bigger lesson that things are just things and can be replaced in one way or another,” she says.
“I realized that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel; you just don’t quite know when you’ll be bathed in it.”
“That said, my biggest heartbreak was losing my teddy bear named Worthington that had been my buddy since I was born. We’d seen some shit together, so he was a tough one to lose.” She was all set to throw in the towel and give up on acting but serendipitously got a call to audition for Alexis two days later. “I realized that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel; you just don’t quite know when you’ll be bathed in it.”
Now, after nearly six years in a life-changing job, it’s time for Murphy to go back to the drawing board. “A different drawing board,” she concedes, but a daunting one nonetheless. A drawing board that’s got “co-starred with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara” tacked to it, though, isn’t a shabby place to be, and Murphy is quick to point out how invaluable the experience was.
“They’re people I admire as professionals and as human beings. I really want to try and model myself after them as much as possible.”
“It was a schooling every single day from two of the best comedic actors in the world,” she says. “I hope that I took something away with me through osmosis. They’ve been working together for 45 years, and they’re absolute professionals, but they have so much fun—they’re so playful and so kind to everybody and so respectful of everybody. They’re people I admire as professionals and as human beings. I really want to try and model myself after them as much as possible.”
O’Hara, who plays Murphy’s mother on the show, is equally effusive in her own praise. “Annie is truly funny, on and off set. She’s quick-witted and has a great sense of humour, not just about the world around her, but about herself. Annie has made Alexis a naturally funny, sweet, vulnerable, unique character, so that no matter what her scenes require, she is always hilarious and touching and totally believable. She really makes me laugh.”
While she looks for her next project, Murphy is using the free time she has to do a bit of writing (she hopes to write something of her own—“a show or a play or a short”—soon) as well as reading (obviously), taking long walks and…eavesdropping. “It’s one of my very favourite things to do,” she says. “At a bar or a café, I put one earphone in, pretend to read and just listen to the conversations around me. I have a long list of notes on my phone. Ideas, things I heard, stories I heard, collected from people who didn’t know I was listening…so stolen, really.”
The victims of her theft likely wouldn’t be too offended. Over the course of my afternoon with her, at least four sets of people came up to us to politely—but effusively—tell her how much they love the show. It’s something she says she’s still trying to get used to. But it’s a helpful reminder that the show’s message of love and kindness resonates with people around the world. For Murphy, it’s reinforcing something she has long known and practised. “I love being nice,” she laughs. “It’s one of my favourite things.” There’s even an homage to it tattooed on her body—a silhouette of Jimmy Stewart with his arm around his imaginary friend/rabbit from the heartwarming 1950 film Harvey.
It’s a reminder, she says, that people should be free to believe in whomever and whatever they like, as long as it isn’t hurting anybody, and to always lead with kindness and empathy.