Annie Murphy Is Killing It

The "Schitt's Creek} star is saying "byeeeeee" to Alexis Rose—the character who made her a household name—and stepping into an even bigger starring role.

Let me just tell you so you don’t have to wonder anymore: Annie Murphy is not like Alexis Rose, the character she played on Schitt’s Creek.

Who is? Few of us can say we survived being trapped in a sheikh’s palace during a regime change, or mourn the day we were expelled from the Pussycat Dolls for being “too pretty.” But Murphy faces a paradox—with exceptional performances, it becomes hard to separate the actor from the role. She so definitively parodied young, vain, self-absorbed women that my own mother stopped me during a visit and asked me if I was doing an impression of Alexis Rose. (I had to tell her that Alexis Rose is doing an impression of people like me.)

I know Annie Murphy is not Alexis because she begins our Zoom interview by apologizing profusely for keeping me waiting. (She is one minute late.) I know she is not Alexis because when I ask her to tell me honestly what it’s like to be famous, she leans, looking awed and a little disgusted by her own good fortune, and tells a story about receiving free caviar. I know Annie Murphy is not Alexis because when I ask if she’s considering moving to New York or L.A. now that she’s a star, she looks confused.

“I love being in Canada so much,” she says. “Not to brag, but…it’s Canada.” When I’m not immediately sold, she adds, “My friends and family are here, and we have, uh, health care.” Would she ever move to L.A.? “Over my dead, decomposing body.” She laughs as her flawless blonde curtain bangs fly away from her forehead and a golden light streams in through her apartment window. For a moment I can see Alexis, the socialite, the face that launched a thousand billionaire’s yachts.

Carlyle Routh

How do you move on from a role that manufactured joy and meaning for millions of people? The first role Kate Winslet played after Titanic was in a tiny indie movie called Hideous Kinky. Daniel Radcliffe’s first role after Harry Potter was in a horror film about a vengeful ghost. Sarah Jessica Parker’s first role after Carrie Bradshaw was in The Family Stone, as a cold, humorless business woman who struggles to make friends. 

And Annie Murphy, after six years of keeping her hands in the shape of an arcade-game claw, has taken a role in a show that is, in every way, unlike Schitt’s Creek. It is unlike any show, ever. It’s an ambitious comedy drama called Kevin Can F**k Himself. And this time she’s not a standout in a flashy ensemble. This time Annie Murphy is the star.

“I really wanted to prove to myself that I could do something different,” Murphy says of the role, in which she plays a working class New Englander named Allison. While Alexis is a woman who walks only because there are no henchmen to carry her, Allison is expected  to hold a full-time job, cook, run the house, and mother her husband. Alexis wore her self-regard like a crown (and literally wore jeweled headpieces to jog). Allison hasn’t bought anything nice for herself in years. She subsists, serving as her husband’s comic foil, custodian, and chef. Alexis is the kind of woman men kill for. Allison is planning to kill her husband, Kevin.

“I didn’t have to dig too deep to access those feelings,” Murphy confesses. “I think being a human on the planet in this day and age kind of gives you a leg up already in the anger and frustration department.” She’s generally a cheerful person, but when it came to her character, it was easy to find a desire for vengeance. “I have been very lucky in my personal relationships,” she says. “But I have been made in my life to feel significantly less-than by men, as I think most women have. I’ve doubted my own abilities, my sense of humor, my intelligence, my appearance, because of men.” 

There’s no part of Kevin Can F**k Himself, now streaming on AMC Plus, and available on AMC on June 20, that accuses men of being wholesale terrible, she explains. “That’s not at all how I feel! But I feel that kind of pent-up ’I don’t want to take this anymore.’” When the director called “action” and Murphy had to smash something, or sucker-punch someone—well, the rage came.

In the pilot Allison and Kevin are about to turn 35. “You’re lady 35, and I’m boy 35,” he explains to her. “I’m just hitting my stride, and you….” the laugh track fills in the rest. Kevin Can F**k Himself is an unlikely combination of Wandavision and The Wire. It parodies bring-me-a-sandwich-babe network comedies like Kevin Can Wait, the Kevin James CBS sitcom. It’s high concept, but simple—when men are in a shot, it’s a multicamera sitcom with a laugh track. When a scene features only women, the lights go dark and the show becomes a gritty drama.

It’s easy to join Allison in her rage. She’s living the way many, many American women live. She’s expected, essentially, to hold multiple low-paying jobs, accept that her cultural sell-by date was 10 years ago, and shut up and laugh along. When Kevin and his friends pal around, the studio audience roars. When Allison tries to make a joke, the other characters stare at her with confusion. It’s hard to imagine a woman who wouldn’t see herself somewhere in this story.

“What I found so appealing about the show is that it really asks you to question what it is we’re being told to laugh at,” Murphy says. “Because if you take off the shroud of laughter, it reveals a whole lot of sexism and racism and bigotry—it really is taking a toll on a human person.”

Carlyle Routh

Growing up, Murphy says, “I knew that Carol Burnett was funny, and I had a couple of funny women in my life. But it was like—men are funny. There are some women that are funny! But men are funny.” It’s crazy to realize that Murphy, who didn’t always think of herself as funny, went on to win the top award for comedy in her field. But her entire career has been incredibly unlikely. How unlikely? Let us count the ways.

She wasn’t originally cast in the pilot of Schitt’s Creek. She auditioned for the role of Alexis after the original actor, Abby Elliott, dropped out because of filming conflicts. She was far from the obvious choice—before she booked Schitt’s Creek, Murphy’s most recent TV credit was “Day Care Worker #2.” Days before the audition, her and her husband’s apartment burned down. (Local news reports, referring to Murphy, Kevin-esque, simply as “his wife,” noted that her teddy bear had been incinerated.)

In many ways Schitt’s Creek gave Murphy a new home. Life on set was “disgustingly idyllic,” she says. But multiple American networks passed on the show. It aired on Canada’s Pop TV and remained mostly unknown in the U.S. for two seasons. When The New York Times finally reviewed the show, they called it “nice for about five minutes. Maybe 10.”

Schitt’s Creek became the little show that could—it got picked up by Netflix in 2017, viewership surged, and in its final season, it swept the Emmys, winning six awards, including an acting statuette for each of the four Roses. The show captures, in 21-minute increments, a feeling of Christmas, sunshine, and good feelings, without the schmaltz. It’s Friends for people who lived through the 2008 recession.

And among the exceptionally delightful ensemble cast, it was Murphy whose phrasings and mannerisms inspired a world of fan art, a legion of imitators, a robust digital library of “Ew, David” videos. It was Murphy who wrote the lyrics and performed the song within the show, “A Little Bit Alexis,” and it was Murphy’s name on the charts when the song, released as a single, hit the Billboard top 100.

Maybe the most extraordinary thing Murphy did was redeem a kind of womanhood that has been a socially acceptable object of ridicule. She studied tapes of the Kardashians, the Olsens, the Hiltons, for the role—with their mammoth fortunes and miniature dogs, these women are not exactly tragic figures. But as their fame grew, exaggerated femininity became an accepted target of mockery. And that has been tragic for many women, expected as we are to either mimic their style or live in opposition to it.

Murphy got us to laugh with her. Her Alexis pawed at her hair, jerked her body to the beat of her own staccato voice, kept her hands perched perpetually in the shape of an arcade claw. “Eugene Levy and the ultimate angel, Catherine O’Hara, were schooling me every single day,” she says. “I don’t want to diminish what I did, but I just watched and learned and read my lines and tried to funny them up as much as possible.”

In Alexis Rose, vocal fry and uptalk sounded musical. The character grew throughout the show—eighty-six-ing her hobby for billionaires’ yachts and replacing it with the habit of selflessness. But she did not lower her voice, did not acquiesce to what is called professionalism but is in fact masculinity, did not abandon her preference for wearing couture to pick up trash.

It’s not that Kevin Can F**k Himself is the opposite of Schitt’s Creek, or that Allison is the opposite of Alexis. It’s that Annie Murphy likes to play women who are substantial, whether that substance comes in couture or a Gap dress. And more than Alexis, more than Allison, Annie is Annie Murphy’s strongest character. During the pandemic year, with ample time to reflect, she’s realized that she too doesn’t want to take shit from anyone anymore.

“People need to start being called out for being unkind or abusive,” she says. “It’s only in that, that things will start to change.”

It’s a pretty common sentiment for an actor to share in an interview, but Murphy actually lives up to it. In March dozens of former employees alleged that major Hollywood producer Scott Rudin has been harassing and abusing his workers. Despite stepping back from some projects, Rudin is still massively powerful. Murphy, a relative newcomer, has been more vocal in rejecting him than most A-list stars and producers. She’s not worried about losing out on opportunities over this.

“I don’t want to be in a Woody Allen movie, I don’t want to be in anything that Scott Rudin has produced,” she says, without hesitating. “I don’t think that’s going to impact my career, and if it does, then I don’t want to be in this business. I don’t want to have to work for people like that.” Maybe you just can’t compromise when your first major Hollywood experience is on a set where you made friends for life. Maybe when you play strong women, you want to support them too.

Murphy didn’t have a professional breakthrough until her 30s, and she knows that a lot of it was luck, and she doesn’t expect it to last forever in a business that can be so cruel on women. She wouldn’t change her early struggles, but, she says, “Now I feel like I’m in a position where I can feel fulfilled—ugh, it’s so douche-y to say! But I do feel fulfilled creatively.” It’s not douche-y—it’s the exact fulfillment viewers root for, for Alexis, for Allison, and most of all, for Annie.

“You never know if you’re going to be loved or not, successful or not,” she says. “I’m not going to take any moment for granted. I’m just trying to enjoy it while it lasts.”

Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter. 

This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Jenny Singer

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