Catherine O’Hara on how to build confidence in your career

“Even before you’ve earned it, treat yourself and your career with the level of respect that you hope to one day deserve”

Catherine O’Hara

Catherine O’Hara at the New York Television Festival in October 2015. (Mark Sagliocco/Getty)

Catherine O’Hara is a comedy legend, with memorable roles going all the way back to her time on SCTV. Now starring in Schitt’s Creek, she gives us a lesson in career confidence:

You have said that your character on Schitt’s Creek, Moira, has a delusional confidence.

Oh, yes, but don’t we all? Who are we kidding? We’re going to die one day.

Do you think unfounded confidence can be an asset?

Sure! Have you seen The Big Short? It’s hilarious, and at the same time so depressing. At the end, you’re thinking: “Oh my God, how did we instantly go back to putting our money in the banks?” The truth is that it’s too overwhelming to consider reality, so instead we say, “Everything will be OK, cellphones are safe, my privacy is totally intact.” You need to have delusion these days.

What about in the early days of your career? How often did you find yourself in those “fake it ’till you make it” situations?

In an audition I would try to go that route, but I’m not a good faker. I would always end up revealing how scared I was. Speaking publicly as myself was never something I was comfortable with. I’m still not. I remember having to speak to other moms at [my kids’] nursery school; I’ve never been more nervous.

But you’re a gifted improviser. Couldn’t you just pretend to be someone who is comfortable in front of the nursery school moms?

I improvise well when I’m in character. When it’s me, that doesn’t work. I think the [best strategy] in those situations [in which you feel nervous] is to think of the other person. You get out of your own head by trying to make them feel comfortable and by empathizing with how they might be feeling.

You have often been praised for being choosy in terms of the roles you take on; in fact, you’re on record saying that choosiness is part of your job.

Yes! Isn’t it weird that I get credit for that? I think that started with an agent I had who just turned things around for me. Instead of saying I never got offers, [he] decided to say that I just turned everything down. But I do believe that it is my responsibility to take care of my gifts, and I think that everyone has that responsibility. It’s not that I’m not grateful to get opportunities, but when I read things that I don’t like, or if a situation doesn’t feel right, I really can’t fake it.

Do you think that people spend too much time trying to get others to want them, and not enough trying to figure out what they want?

Definitely. But I get it: When you’re starting out, you’ll take any job. And it’s so rough today; there is so much competition, and there is so much awareness of that competition because of the Internet. Still, I think it’s important to respect yourself from the start. Even before you’ve earned it, treat yourself and your career with the level of respect that you hope to one day deserve. Once you get off on the wrong foot, it can be tough to change direction.

Being the choosy chooser you are, what was it that attracted you to Schitt’s Creek? I’m guessing a certain bespectacled gentleman had something to do with it?

Of course! I’ve always loved Eugene  [Levy] and had a great time working with him. I think part of why we get along off-camera is because we’re both kind of private people. We’re friends and we can talk about anything, but we don’t have one of those relationships where we have to spill everything to one another. When you’re working on a series, it’s so important to have people that you can actually get along with because you work together every day. It’s not like a movie where you can say, “See you later.”

You also have worked repeatedly with the Christopher Guest troupe, and also more than once with Tim Burton. What’s the best part about returning to familiar territory?

There’s a shorthand, whether you’re aware of it or not. You don’t have to do that whole getting-to-know-you small-talk thing; you can skip all that and get straight to the work. I think having that familiarity and getting that feeling of support from the people around you creates a wonderful, creative environment. I don’t think I’ve pulled screaming diva trips on anyone, but when I get scared or I feel like I’m not being taken care of, I can turn on people.

When speaking of the similarities between the two of you, Levy has said that you “take your comedy seriously.” What do you think he means by that?

I think we are both very serious about writing. You develop a character and you believe in that character. You don’t do a bit just because it could be funny; it has to make sense and it has to feel organic to that character. To me, good comedy has everything a good drama has: a good story line, strong characters, conflict and resolution. But then on top of that you have to make people laugh.

You are frequently described as both a trailblazer and a role model for female comedians. Is that how you see yourself?

Oh, no! And I would say that a role model is different than a trailblazer. I imitated Gilda Radner for years before I developed my own characters, but I don’t think of her in terms of being a trailblazer. To me, a trailblazer is Gloria Steinem. Or Tina Fey, who was the first female head writer on Saturday Night Live, started her own shows and wrote a book. I worked with her once on 30 Rock and it was just amazing. She is so driven and such a machine when it comes to work, but she’s very easy and natural in person. Talk about using your gifts!

Amy Schumer said recently that in the comedy world, women are expected to “be sweet and likable and apologize for stealing oxygen from the world.” Do you relate to that statement?

That’s not comedy, that’s life! My mom would always say to me, “Don’t speak so loudly, don’t laugh so loudly.” We’re evolving, thank God—at least here in North America. I think the ultimate will be when we don’t have to talk about it anymore, when women can be sweet and lovely and still get their way.