A ‘Schitt’s Creek’ Love Story: Daniel Levy and Annie Murphy on Playing TV’s Best Siblings
With the final season of “Schitt’s Creek” underway, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy get emotional talking about how their lives changed playing siblings on TV’s most heartwarming comedy.
Daniel Levy is known for his brunches. You could maybe guess that, if you’ve watched the TV creator-writer-director-actor on his show, Schitt’s Creek, or read any of the profiles of him talking about the making of it. He’s a man of fashion. Of conversation. Of taste.
Annie Murphy divined all this just a few weeks after landing the biggest break of her life, playing Alexis Rose, sister to Levy’s David, on the hit series, which launched its final season on Pop TV last week. Wanting to make sure Murphy felt at ease on an intimidating set that saw her acting against legends Eugene Levy—Dan’s father and co-creator of the show—and Catherine O’Hara, Levy invited her to one of his brunches.
He didn’t ask her to bring anything, but she didn’t want to be rude. “I made the bold decision to stop by KFC and get a bucket of chicken,” she says. “Not that that’s what I connect with brunch. I just thought everyone likes KFC secretly deep down.” She shrugs her shoulders, not needing to defend her irrefutable statement. “So I showed up and Dan had this beautiful table set. There’s blueberry ricotta pancakes and candied bacon, and I plunked down this greasy bucket.”
“And what did people eat?” Levy interjects, rolling his eyes with such drama he likely ran a risk of straining an optic muscle. Murphy flips her hair in response, pleased with herself. “So I think that’s really what cemented our relationship,” she says.
“I think anytime you go through a life-changing experience with people, you are brought closer together,” Levy says. Murphy, who is sitting cross-legged on the floor, bobbing sporadically against her TV brother’s leg, uncoils in a spring of sheepish laughter. “That too.”
Fittingly, we’re piecing together a brunch of our own, though of the more tragic kind that results when you’re in the midst of a dizzying press tour and have to make do with what can be delivered to a makeshift picnic on the floor of Levy’s Manhattan hotel room. A publicist made the trek to procure gourmet donuts from 12 blocks away as a reward for a grueling schedule, Murphy picked up a salmon salad on the way back from another interview, and bagels have been delivered, though cream cheese was egregiously left out of the order.
In between hand-feeding Murphy a jelly-filled treat, Levy reclaims his crown as the “hostess with the mostest.” A selection of cream cheeses has arrived via Postmates, and room service is sending up knives to spread them. “I got it covered,” he reassures. Focus can revert to the important matters at hand, like the pair’s dual journeys from inexperienced actors to award-nominated comedy stars, crying together while shooting the final season of Schitt’s Creek, and how much they love Kelly Clarkson.
Clarkson, if you can believe it, plays a key role in all those talking points. Before Levy created and starred in a massively popular comedy series that inspires millions with its outlook on love and family, he was a host on MTV Canada. When he got the job, he, like any gay man might be, was tantalized by the prospect of one day interviewing the singer. When he finally did, she became his favorite interview.
Fast-forward a decade, and Levy and Murphy were nominated for Critics Choice Awards for their performances on Schitt’s Creek, the only comedy series to secure four acting nominations, theirs plus one each for Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. Clarkson presented the award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. Before opening the envelope, she editorialized that her pick was Eugene Levy, who she thought was funnier than anyone else who could possibly be nominated. (Bill Hader won for Barry.)
“He had a smile on his face for like 15 minutes afterwards,” Murphy says. Levy gushes, teasing that both he and Murphy—and hopefully, now, his father, too—will be appearing on the American Idol winner’s daytime talk show. “She’s the kind of person you want to get really rich,” he says. “You know what I mean? I root for her in a big way. I’m like, I hope you are loving your big house. I hope your kids have a nice pool to swim in.”
We don’t get into what kinds of pools may or may not be at their own respective houses, but the Canadian actors’ unexpected success is a dominant topic of conversation.
A co-production between Canada’s CBC and the then-fledgling Pop network, Schitt’s Creek premiered modestly in 2015.
In its first episode, the affluent Rose family has the rug pulled out from underneath them—literally; it gets repossessed and auctioned—after being defrauded by their business manager. Their one remaining asset is a small town named Schitt’s Creek, which they bought for their son as a joke birthday gift in 1991. Broke and cast out by high society, they have no recourse but to humble themselves and live in the town’s run-down motel.
In 2017, Netflix made the show’s first three seasons available for streaming, just as a fourth season depicting the swoon-inducing romance between Levy’s David and his boyfriend Patrick, played by Noah Reid, began airing. A heartfelt scene in which Patrick confesses his love for David by singing an acoustic version of Tina Turner’s “The Best” went viral (the director had to shoot around O’Hara’s weeping during the scene), and the show earned a swath of press celebrating its refreshing queer representation.
The Netflix deal, word of mouth, and the emotionality of that fourth season all collided and exploded the show’s popularity. By the end of the year, it was ranking on critics’ end-of-year Top 10 lists, its stars were blanketing the pages of magazines, and Levy was crowned a vital voice when it comes to Hollywood’s depiction of LGBTQ characters. The show was nominated for Best Comedy Series at last year’s Emmy Awards, and Sunday night, Levy, Murphy, and the rest of the Schitt’s Creek were nominated for Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards—as impressive a Cinderella story as there’s ever been for a small Canadian sitcom that went largely unnoticed for three years.
For its modern Green Acres-esque concept, Schitt’s Creek is ultimately a series of love stories.
There’s the love between Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara’s Johnny and Moira Rose, unwavering even as their lives are turned upside down and stripped of comforts. There’s the love between David and Patrick, the source of millions of ugly cries around the world as fans watched the couple hit milestones on the way to a final-season wedding. There’s the love between Alexis and her boyfriend, Ted (Dustin Milligan), who sees her layers in a way nobody bothered to before.
But perhaps most touching is the love between David and Alexis, brother and sister forced into intimacy by motel-room circumstances, but whose bond develops into what may be the greatest sibling relationship on television.
When the Schitt’s Creek cast appeared at a press conference earlier this month for the Television Critics Association, a journalist asked what kind of work Levy and Murphy had done together, if any at all, to coordinate mannerisms in order to make their onscreen sibling relationship more believable.
As the journalist asked the question, Levy and Murphy were seated, unknowingly, in the exact same position: left leg crossed over right, lounging diagonally into the back right corner of their chair, their left elbow perched on the arm rest so that their head could rest in a cradle created by their thumb and finger.
As I recount this to them a week later in Levy’s hotel room, they are staring at me in the exact same way: right eyebrow cocked to an almost cartoonish pitch, eyes wide and unblinking, and a pursed smirk rising slightly on the right side of their cheek, the kind of mischievous pucker of a person keeping a secret, or thinking about something naughty, or bashfully pleased with themselves, or maybe all three.
“I can’t explain it!” Levy says, then explaining that no conscious effort was made toward their synchronicity. “It was just in the air!”
When I ask when the two of them first felt truly close, like they were more than just coworkers, in addition to telling the story about KFC, they both insist that it happened almost immediately, at Murphy’s audition to play Alexis.
In one of those “you can’t make this up” stories that is perfect for magazine profiles and things like that, the house Murphy shared with her husband, Hollerado singer Menno Versteeg, burned down just weeks before she booked Schitt’s Creek.
She initially read for both the character of Stevie, the motel owner who was eventually played by Emily Hampshire, and for Alexis. Alexis had been played by SNL alum Abby Elliott in the presentation pilot. When scheduling issues prevented her from continuing with the series, Levy brought Murphy back in to read again.
“I remember being in the waiting room and Dan came out and I was so fucking nervous, but we had a little jokey back and forth and it suddenly felt OK,” Murphy says.
Levy says he knew once Murphy first auditioned that she was going to be in the show somehow. But his dad, “God love him,” couldn’t get past the idea of what Elliott had done in the presentation pilot and, more specifically, how she looked. “It took a minute for him to adjust,” he says. “I did say, um, dad, we can dye her hair if that is the make or break here.”
“It was a really hard character to cast,” he continues. “You needed someone who was going to bring an inherent likability to the part, so that people weren’t completely put off by the character.”
Alexis is the kind of character people tend to dismiss, a Paris Hilton type who most might assume brings nothing to the table outside of their looks and social capital. Alexis does have an eclectic past befitting a hot-girl socialite, with each episode casually revealing new details about her wild life: “Do I have to remind you of the time that I was taken hostage on David Geffen's yacht by Somali pirates for a week, and nobody answered my texts?” But the crux of her journey is proving her ambition, business acumen, and capacity for love and kindness.
Much as Levy’s performance as David is a very physical one, gesticulating his way through musical line readings as if he’s conducting each humorous inflection with his hands, Murphy complements her ace delivery—find someone else who can turn in multiple takes of the phrase, “Ew, David,” each funnier than the last—with a lived-in body language. For all the confidence and swagger Alexis presents herself with, she moves with a nervous energy, like a wind-up toy kinked up by her self-consciousness and desire to be seen for her worth.
Levy and Murphy bond over the fact that they were “green as hell” when they started acting on the show. The first scene each of them shot for the series was together, and the last scene they acted in was together. (Levy, who directed the finale, had another scene to oversee after he wrapped as David.)
When a sizzle reel showing behind-the-scenes footage of the show’s final table read and shooting days played before their Television Critics Association press conference, the entire cast was crying when the lights came back on. It’s going to be a long goodbye to the series. Production is over, but press is just starting for the final season, and the show will be eligible for awards through January 2021.
“I was mad that Annie wasn’t more emotional, mainly because I was like, I can’t be the mess,” Levy says, punctuating each word with a clap for emphasis. “And was he ever,” Murphy mocks, mimicking his staccato delivery.
During table reads, Levy would let out what Murphy and Noah Reid called “the sound,” a muffled moan “like some kind of swamp creature noise, like you were eating your own face” at random moments. Because he wrote the finale, he knew what was going to happen and would start crying about four scenes early during the table read in anticipation of the touching moment to come.
Any pretense that Murphy could keep it together evaporated when they rehearsed their last scene together, which devolved when she started heavily sobbing. When they wrapped, they clung to each other in a lengthy hug, as the whole crew surrounded them and applauded, “which didn’t help matters,” Murphy says. “The whole crew was gathered around and Dan and I were just koala-beared onto each other.”
The show ending means a chance to reflect on its legacy and impact, something that Levy still finds slightly strange. “In a way I feel like a fraud because I don’t see myself as doing anything impactful because it’s not intentional,” he says. “I’m just telling a story about my life.”
But the utopian joy of Schitt’s Creek has been impactful. It’s a world with no bigotry, where no one is cruel to each other. Where characters like David and Patrick can celebrate their love matter-of-factly. A fan recently reached out to Levy on Twitter to talk about a scene in which David and Patrick kiss each other in their store when a customer walks in. The person was terrified that something was going to happen, at the very least that the customer would recoil. But all that happened is they asked where to find a certain product.
“I was watching Call Me By Your Name recently, and even when I read the book, it’s like the Brokeback Mountain effect,” Levy says. “The last third of the movie I was expecting someone to find out and for it to all fall apart. The relief of just knowing that I was watching a love story was sad in a way. I don't want to have to feel relieved that people in my community have a happy ending. That's what we deserve.”
He and Reid recently went to visit the massive billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles promoting the show’s final season that features an image of their characters kissing, a first for a major network’s marketing campaign.
“That takes a team effort because there are not a lot of networks that would put an image of two men kissing on a two-story billboard on Sunset Boulevard,” he says. “Why? For fear of retaliation from, like, One Million Moms or some dumb hate group? I can’t. We’re fearful of the wrong people, ultimately.”
Murphy says that if the show has one legacy, she hopes it’s that a billboard like that, or even scenes like that in a show, will stop making news. “I hope that gay relationships can be portrayed in a very normal way, like Dan has done with this relationship.”
“Stories about love should exist in all shapes and sizes,” he says, as Postmates arrives and it’s finally time to unpack the cream cheese. “I do know in order to break through, you do need those people who somehow manage to get that door open for you to run through. And I’ve sprinted through it.”