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.