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Annie Murphy On The Importance of Imperfect Female Characters, Life After Alexis, And Her Top-Secret Role On Season 2 of Russian Doll

by niesha davis

 Emmy-winning actor Annie Murphy became a household name in 2015 when she first appeared as Alexis Rose in the comedy hit Schitt’s Creek.Now, she’s applying her talents to two more feminism-inflected comedies—Kevin Can F**k Himself and Russian Doll. Here, Murphy opens up about how she landed the career-making role, asking for mental health help, and joining the cult of Peloton. -Niesha Davis 

Due to both COVID and the fact that we live on opposite ends of North America, I log on to Zoom from Mexico to connect with Annie Murphy in Canada. Before our chat, I fantasize about how exactly this will go. I’m having a particularly insecure day for no reason and wonder if she’ll be dressed to the nines, dripping in designer, with Instagram-ready hair and makeup. Should I slap on some foundation and a little mascara in the spirit of being “camera-ready”? Then I quickly remember that I work in feminist media, and besides, I left all that stuff in my other purse by accident. When she logs on, I am pleased that Murphy seems to be leaning in to #wfh attire as well. She’s sporting a black sweatshirt, with her hair in a topknot. If she’s wearing any makeup I can’t tell. Instead, the light from a nearby window gives her a natural glow.

For six seasons, from 2015 through 2020, Murphy, 35, played the role that made her famous—Alexis Rose on Schitt’s Creek—a performance that garnered her a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in the show’s final year. A fish-out-of-water comedy about members of a rich family who, after losing their fortune, are forced to start over in a struggling backwoods town, Schitt’s Creek gained a cult following as it bounced from Canada’s CBC to the U.S. pay channel Pop and eventually to Netflix. Murphy stole hearts as the flighty and spoiled socialite daughter of the formerly formidable Johnny and Moira Rose—played by Canadian comedy legends Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara.

Her character even coined a now-ubiquitous tagline, “Ew, David,” aimed at her hilariously irritable brother, played by Dan Levy, who co-created the show with dad Eugene. When I mention the show, Murphy tells me that she credits it not only with turning her life around during a particularly trying time in her career, but also with allowing her to flex her funny bone and finally prove herself as a comedic actor. Despite realizing in her early 20s that she had an interest in comedy, Murphy found herself being sent out mostly for dramatic roles before she was cast as Alexis. “It was a real struggle to convince agents and managers at the time to put me out for comedy for whatever reason,” she says. “That’s why I’m so grateful that Schitt’s Creek opened that door.”

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Rotate jacket and skirt; Secrets of ophelia hoop skirt; open edit earrings, liars & lovers rings

 Born and raised by schoolteacher parents in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, Murphy was a theater kid from a young age. With a coy smile, she describes to me her second grade acting debut as hyena number two in a play written by her teacher entitled Green Cheese Pie. It was in her later years at Elmwood School, however, that she was truly bitten by the acting bug. “I went to a high school that had a really awesome theater program and a particularly wonderful drama teacher named Mrs. Boychuk,” she says. “And so I was in the school play every year.” By the time she finished high school, Murphy’s mind was set. “I got to the end of high school and didn’t really have many other talents or passions,” Murphy says, laughing.

She’s fully aware of how lucky she is, given that her parents, despite being educators, wholeheartedly supported her thespian aspirations. “They were so encouraging. They weren’t like, ‘I’m sorry, what? Let’s choose a real career.’” With her parents’ blessing she studied theater at Concordia University in Montreal. After finishing her studies, Murphy, like many wide-eyed aspiring actors, set her sights on New York City. “I thought my big goal was to move to New York and do off-Broadway plays,” she explains. “That would have been the icing on the cake for me.”

Instead, her early career included stints in Los Angeles during pilot season and bit parts like “daycare worker number two” or “kid on phone” in Canadian films and television shows. When I ask her if she had any day jobs, she gives me an “Are you kidding me?” kind of look before rattling them off. “I was an usher at a theater, a nanny, a waitress. I even worked at a physiotherapist’s office for a while. I did a hodgepodge of things.” After two years without booking any gigs, the aspiring actor was down to her last few hundred bucks when the apartment building she was living in burned to the ground.

It was during this time that Murphy says she seriously considered leaving the world of acting. “I was getting auditions for more interesting characters and more exciting projects, but it seemed like it was getting down to me and a couple of other girls, and I would never be the girl to book the job,” explains Murphy. “I didn’t know what else I could do, but I knew that this wasn’t working out,” she continues. “It was like, ‘OK, this is it. I’m not going to be an actress anymore.’ It was literally the day after, or the day after that, when I got the audition for Schitt’s Creek. I saw Eugene [Levy] and I saw Catherine [O’Hara] attached to it, who have been idols of mine since I was a kid, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to do this one last audition. And if I don’t get it, that’s it,’” she says, giggling. “So I’m very glad it worked out.”

“Unfortunately, in 2022, we’re still in a place where there’s such stigma and negative connotations when it comes to these deeply important [issues around mental health] that most people deal with at some point in their lives.”

The role came at just the right time, both because of where she was in her career and because of what all that rejection was doing to her mental health. Murphy says she’s since developed a thicker skin, but confides, “It took a toll on my well-being, hearing so many ‘nos.’” Since stepping more into the spotlight after Schitt’s Creek, Murphy is open and candid about her self-care and mental-health regimen. “Oh, man,” she says with a sigh. “Unfortunately, in 2022, we’re still in a place where there’s such stigma and negative connotations when it comes to these deeply important [issues around mental health] that most people deal with at some point in their lives. The reason I want to be open about it is because I hope to do my small part in maybe making people feel like they’re less alone—to show that everyone deals with this, and it’s normal and OK to ask for help.”

For Murphy, help comes in the form of therapy once a week, antidepressants, seeing or speaking with as many friends and family members as possible, and engaging in one particularly trendy form of exercise. With a reluctant chuckle she tells me, “I became a member of the Peloton cult. I made fun of my friends for it for a very long time and they were like, ‘Try it, and then you can continue being an asshole about it.’ So I tried it and I was like, ‘Oh, fuck, I’m a Peloton person now.’ The exercise really helps clear my brain.”

When Schitt’s Creek wrapped in late 2020, despite her Emmy and all the critical praise she had received, Murphy’s phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook. “Let’s be clear,” she says, using a finger to punctuate, “there were very few offers. It was kind of like, back to the auditioning drawing board. I moved out to L.A. for a few months for pilot season, which always, like, gets my armpits and hands sweating. It’s a very anxiety-making place to be for me. But I was getting [offered] a lot of Alexis-adjacent type roles.” Of those roles, she continues, “There’s a lot of really shitty stuff that gets made and I wanted the challenge of a very, very different character, but I think people had their Schitt’s Creek blinders on for a lot of the time I was out there.”

Murphy gives off the vibe that she is grateful for what “la la la-la la la la…Alexis”—a snippet from the viral pop song “A Little Bit Alexis” that she performed in Season Five—did for her career, but it’s clear that stepping out of the ensemble box and moving into more leading-lady territory is next on her list. And after seeing her latest performance in AMC’s dark comedy Kevin Can F**k Himself, fans and critics agree she’s ready. “I had the best time playing Alexis; she was such a fun character,” says Murphy. “But after playing a very specific thing for six years, I was like, ‘Oh, man, do I have range anymore? Can I still do this?’ When Kevin came up, the role was such a dramatic shift from Alexis. I was genuinely scared shitless to start doing that show, because it was just night and day, but I’m glad I did.” On Kevin, Murphy plays Allison McRoberts, a disgruntled New England housewife in a mundane marriage to goofy Kevin, a prototype of every dim-witted sitcom husband you’ve ever seen (think King of Queens). One part drama, one part comedy, the show flips the narrative of the sitcom wife by showing a more somber version of her life. The dramatic scenes from Allison’s viewpoint are filmed single-camera style, while the sitcom parts utilize bright lights, a laugh track, and multiple cameras.

 After a betrayal in her marriage forces Allison to see things in a different light, she comes up with the bright idea to off her husband. “Allison is a person who has had her life dictated to her in the sense of, This is how you should behave, this is how you should carry yourself, this is who you should marry and how your life should look. She’s a rule follower and a people-pleaser who tries to get everything right all the time,” Murphy says, before explaining that it was the character’s imperfections that first caught her eye. “She’s really an angry, conflicted, oppressed, and sad human being. We’re seeing more of these fascinating, far-from-perfect female characters, and that’s what makes a person interesting—their flaws and gray areas.”


I ask if there might be stress involved with teetering between drama and comedy from scene to scene in the same show, but to my surprise, Murphy says there isn’t. Leaning toward her screen for emphasis, she tells me, “Mary Hollis [Inboden,] who is my dear friend, plays Patty on the show, and we love sitcom days. We basically get to sit back and watch the guys be funny. The women’s roles in the sitcom part of Kevin involve offering up the setups for the guys’ punchlines, or being the nagging, scolding wives.”

As a fan of Kevin, I fell in love with the show’s dry wit and unconventional take on the life of a sitcom wife, so I was bummed when Murphy told me the show would be wrapping after a second and final season. She isn’t sad, though. Instead, she says she’s happy and grateful that Allison’s story will be getting a proper ending. She is also keeping her fingers crossed that she’ll be able to explore a bit of Boston with her Kevin family before the show wraps. “We get one more kick at the can in Boston, and hopefully I can spend some time with the cast and crew because last season we were completely isolated.”

“We’re seeing more of these fascinating, far-from-perfect female characters, and that’s what makes a person interesting—their flaws and gray areas.”

Perhaps not wanting to ever go back to those unsure early days of her career, Murphy is showing no signs of slowing down. While she can’t tell me much about her character (just that she’ll be “a 1982 version of a woman”), Murphy is excited to finally be making her dreams of being a New York actor come true with a guest spot on Season Two of Netflix’s Russian Doll. “I got to live in New York for a month,” she says with excitement. “I felt like a real actress. I got to shoot in the subway, I got to drive down the streets of SoHo, and we shot in beautiful old brownstones. It was a very New York immersive experience.”

Stills that have been released from the show feature Murphy dressed in a variety of early 1980s fashions, including a chic all-black ensemble with sling-back kitten heels, Farrah Fawcett blown-out hair, and those big, square glasses the ’80s are known for. “The bras were uncomfortable and the silhouettes really unflattering,” she says, “but it was the closest I’ll come to time traveling.”

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Greta Constantine shirt, jacket, and shorts. Liars & Lovers rings. 

Besides getting to live the New York life, Murphy tells me she was just in awe of the creative process of Russian Doll’s creator (and former BUST cover girl), Natasha Lyonne. “She is one of the most fascinating, brilliant people I’ve ever observed,” she says. “She was wearing so many hats. She was show-running and writing and directing and acting. Her brain is firing on all cylinders all the time.”

Lyonne isn’t the only one wearing multiple hats. In addition to her acting work, Murphy is a spokesperson for Phexxi, a nonhormonal contraceptive birth-control gel. It’s a partnership that she says came about after she spent years struggling with side effects from hormonal birth control. “I started on the Pill when I was 16, and I was like, ‘Why am I crying and angry every day? What’s happening?’” she says. “Then I realized it’s because I was pumping my body full of hormones.”

As our time draws to a close, I ask Murphy if she’s a feminist, even though I think I already know what the answer is. “Yes, I am,” she replies, but with a caveat. “I get upset when feminism means, ‘Down with men.’ That’s not what it’s about to me at all. I think it means equality and respect.”

Murphy then gives me the rundown on two more of her upcoming projects before the Zoom clocks runs out. The first is a still-in-preproduction animated show called Praise Petey. Written by Anna Drezen, a former head writer for Saturday Night Live, the show will feature Murphy as the voice of Petey, a New York socialite who moves to Pennsylvania to take over a cult once led by her estranged father. “I’ve also written a movie with David West Read and Rupinder Gill [called Witness Protection],” she reveals. “It’s about a woman who is a dating chameleon, taking on the personalities of everyone she dates. She has very much lost her sense of self. After witnessing a terrible incident involving her boyfriend, she’s sent into witness protection at a retirement community.” The heart of the film, she tells me, is about her impact on the retirement community and vice versa. “It’s absolutely riddled with fart jokes,” she says, laughing. “It’s not for the awards circuit, I can tell you that. It’s very goofy, very silly, but it made the other writers and I giggle a lot.”





This article originally appeared in BUST’s Spring 2022 print edition. Subscribe today!


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