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Catherine O'Hara: A humorous heart-to-heart with a comedy icon

BY Simon Button

29th Jan 2024 Celebrities

5 min read

Catherine O'Hara: A humorous heart-to-heart with a comedy icon
Star of Home Alone and Schitt's Creek Catherine O'Hara opens up about family, improv and the importance of laughter
Interviewing Catherine O'Hara is a breathtaking experience. She's animated one minute, deadpan the next, vocalising ten to the dozen as anecdotes and insights tumble over one another. At one point she apologises for being so garrulous, saying: "I just keep talking, hoping something that makes sense will come out at some point."
But I wouldn't have it any other way, as all the iconic characters she's played—from the literally haunted sculptress in Beetlejuice to Kevin's desperate-to-get home mother in Home Alone, via her improvised hilarity in all those Christopher Guest mockumentaries to, of course, the side-splittingly eccentric Moira Rose on Schitt's Creek—flash before my eyes.

A comedy legend

Now 69, O'Hara is such a familiar face with so much on her CV it's perhaps no surprise that many people have a hard time placing her when they spot her in public. "I get that a lot," she grins. "For the most part they say, 'Hey, why do I know you?' I don't want to say, 'I'm an actor,' so I'll go, 'I don't know, from a restaurant maybe?'"
Eventually they realise they've seen her in films or on TV. "They'll go, 'Well, what have you done?' You're standing there giving your resume and they'll go, 'No, didn't see that.' They lift you up and they take you down, which is as it should be."
"Interviewing Catherine O'Hara is a breathtaking experience"
We're talking on Zoom some 30 minutes later than planned because "I asked for an extension so I could rush home and get some make-up on." Wearing a pink jacket over a white shirt, her dark-rimmed specs are as stylish as the kitchen she's sat in and she is, as I say, the most garrulous of interviewees.
"But I love listening, I swear to you," Catherine insists, "and I hope the people I work with would agree. I love being off-camera and I love watching other people work." She laughs. "I mean, obviously I can go on and on but I don't think I'm really saying anything."
Catherine O'Hara in Argylle
That's probably just as well when it comes to her latest film Argylle, a high-octane action comedy directed by Matthew Vaughn in which Bryce Dallas Howard's spy novelist Elly Conway is plunged Romancing the Stone-style into the world she's been writing about. The script hinges on so many twists and turns that O'Hara isn't at liberty to say anything about her character beyond the fact she's connected to Elly but not in the way we're initially lead to believe.
Violently over-the-top, it's not something you'd expect to see her in, but that was part of the appeal. "It's great when you get a phone call with an offer to do something really different," says the woman who got her start in improv and doesn't do the expected in any of her roles. "I love Matthew's artistry with action. It's not the kind of thing I've done before. It's a new adventure."
Catherine O'Hara in Argylle
She's very funny amidst all of Argylle's mayhem, but then she is one of the funniest people alive and has been that way ever since her childhood in Toronto as one of seven siblings. "It was just a given in our family," O'Hara says about wanting to make people laugh. "Both my parents, God bless them, are gone but they were both really funny. Mum raised seven kids, then she went into real estate, and at dinner she would impersonate the people that she met that day. And my dad worked at the Canadian Pacific Railway and was such a joke-teller he would get in trouble for laughing too much at work."
"She is one of the funniest people alive and has been that way ever since her childhood"
She smiles at the memory. "Being funny was a way to get attention at the table but I'm not sure we even thought of it like that. It was just the way you had to be if you wanted to get a word in." Then in high school there was a theatre arts teacher who encouraged improvisation. "We were given the freedom to come up with our own ideas and characters, which was just wonderful." 
After school, O'Hara joined Toronto's Second City improvisational comedy troupe where she understudied for Gilda Radner, of whom she says: "Gilda was wonderful and ridiculously talented but with us she was just this regular, lovely person. I thought, Oh, a real person can get a job doing comedy and make some kind of living out of it. She really opened the doors. I don't think I'd ever have had any kind of acting career if I hadn't met Gilda." 

Getting started in acting

Catherine became a regular on Second City's SCTV sketch show, did voice-overs and other TV work and found herself being directed by none other than Martin Scorsese in her fourth film, 1985's dark comedy After Hours, in which she played a somewhat unhinged ice cream truck driver. "That was fun," she recalls, "shooting in New York and staying up all night, which back then I did anyway."
She went on to work with Mike Nichols on Heartburn, Tim Burton on Beetlejuice and Warren Beatty on Dick Tracy, then played Macaulay Culkin's mum Kate McCallister in Home Alone. "It was such a lovely experience, with such a perfect script by John Hughes, and Chris Columbus is a great director who had a big family himself, so he really knew the dynamics of that."
Catherine O'Hara in After Hours
Asked if she realised during filming that it was going to be a huge hit, she shakes her head. "No but you never know what's going to work and what isn't." And is the mother of two anything like Kate in real life? "No. My hair moves!"
"You never know what's going to work and what isn't"
In the mid-1990s, O'Hara began a fruitful collaboration with Christopher Guest, who has directed her in the likes of Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind. "People always ask, 'Did you improvise some of that?' Every word of dialogue was improvised." As was her crazy injured-knee walk in Best in Show, although she confesses: "That's my dad's walk. He used to do that when walking ahead of us. All the kids in our family, we all do it but I got to do it in a movie. Lucky me."
Catherine O'Hara with Annie Murphy in Schitt's Creek
It was also Catherine's idea to pronounce "baby" as bébé in Schitt's Creek. "I did that by mistake and everyone laughed, so then they kept writing it into the script." With her weird way with words and out-there fashion sense, Moira was the role of a lifetime but when it came along in 2015 she wasn't sure she wanted to sign on for a long-running TV show. "I was so insecure about it that I kept asking, 'What if I wear wigs all the time?' and 'What if I have a different accent?' Playing a person who was inconsistent gave me such freedom and it was really joyful."
In real life she's a wife to production designer Bo Welch and a mother to grown-up sons Matthew and Luke. "I love to hear their opinions," she says of her boys. "I love to hear what's in their minds and what's going on in their heads. I love laughing with them and I love laughing with my husband and my friends." This most chatty of actors smiles again. "I just love sitting around talking."
Argylle is in cinemas from February 1
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