Grab your favorite wig and some drop-crotch pants because Schitt’s Creek is back, baby, and we have one last season to revel in the wonder that is the Rose family. If you haven’t watched yet, I cannot help you (except that I totally can: Binge the whole thing on Netflix like I did a month ago). The tale of an uber-rich family that finds themselves penniless and living in a town called Schitt’s Creek is wild and lovable and a lot of fun, all thanks to a cast of eccentric main characters who anchor the whole thing. And since I started watching, I haven’t stopped thinking about one particular thing: Moira Rose’s accent. I know this is not a new or brilliant revelation—I am late to the Schitt’s Creek game, after all—but still. The way Catherine O’Hara speaks in her role as the family matriarch is so singular, it’s impossible not to linger on her every word.
For the show’s fandom, it’s always been a discussion. There are entire Reddit threads dedicated to her speech pattern, with one person writing, “I always thought that it was a [sic] upper class Canadian person pretending to be British.” The Atlantic has explored how O’Hara’s Moira “adopts an affectation that transforms monosyllabic and disyllabic words into something simultaneously lofty and ridiculous.” The site Junkee even consulted a professional voice coach to learn more about Moira’s specific way of speaking.
To satisfy my own questions, I turned to Samara Bay, a Hollywood dialect coach who has worked with the likes of Gal Gadot and Penelope Cruz. While Bay had never seen the show before, I sent her a handful of YouTube clips to get her properly entrenched in the world that is Schitt’s Creek.
Some of the previous press around Moira’s speaking voice references a Mid-Atlantic accent, which Bay describes as “the sort of shorthand for this strange half-American, half-British sound that existed almost 100 years ago in Hollywood.” But Bay says that’s not exactly what’s happening here. Instead, O’Hara is bringing in both Britishisms and Canadianisms to craft the specific voice of Moira Rose.
“There are all kinds of lovely additional things that go into how humans communicate,” Bay explains. “But to break it down to the most basic, it starts with vowels and consonants.” Vowels happen when our mouth stays open and there’s an uninterrupted flow of air, whereas consonants occur when one of our articulators—our lips, teeth, or tongue—closes to make a shape.
When it comes to Moira, Bay says one of the sounds that stands out most are her Ls: “I like to say that there’s an L that the entire English-speaking world does. Then there’s an American L. She’s doing the non-American L.” In short, non-Americans make an L sound by touching the tip of the tongue to the alveolar ridge, aka right where your teeth meet the roof of your mouth. “If your L happens right there at the beginning of a word like ‘live,’ it sounds suddenly British to us…Catherine O’Hara is doing a very British L.” She also notes that O’Hara does a sharp T near the end of words with an -ity spelling, like “equality.” “It’s not the most obvious kind of vowels that we would associate with British, Mid-Atlantic, old-timey Hollywood. Some of these funny little quirks are totally just Catherine.”
In terms of vowels, there is something O’Hara and Annie Murphy, who plays daughter Alexis Rose, both do. According to Bay, Americans mostly make a short O sound like an open AH sound, for example saying the word “not” like “naht.” O’Hara and Murphy do a more covered, Canadian-sounding O. (Both actresses are from Canada originally.)
But what makes O’Hara’s accent so unique, Bay explains, is that it’s not so unfamiliar. “It has hints to each of those really specific sounds that I just talked about [that] we’ve all heard in other people’s mouths in other contexts. But [she’s] putting it together in this particular way, and with some musicality, like when she makes syllables really short and then other syllables really long.” Bay continues, “Really amazing comedy is broad and big but also has a huge kernel of truth. When we’re talking about this accent stuff, to see Catherine O’Hara’s accent as both extreme and also really understandable—[it] inevitably just feels right.”
“Every single human communicates differently from every other human, partly because our life experience is reflected in our voice,” Bay says. “Our accent or our mannerisms come from where we come from, but then every single one of us gets influenced in ways that are both conscious and unconscious through our entire life: who we dated, what we liked to watch when we were younger, a formative iconic figure for us during the era that we were growing up, what our age is, who we wanted to hang out with, where else we’ve lived in the world. There is a conscious and unconscious way in which our voice tells a story of who we are.”
O’Hara has even confirmed that she views Moira’s voice as a concerted effort on the character’s part to represent herself in a specific way. Talking to NewsWeek, she said, “I’ve met people whose accents have nothing to do with where they were born or raised—they want to reinvent themselves. Madonna did this for a while with the English accent. Everything about Moira comes from the potential she believes she has. I didn’t do this intentionally, but it’s almost like she wants to sound somewhere between Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.”
And in keeping with Bay’s explanation, Murphy has mentioned in interviews that she came up with Alexis’s vocal fry-ridden voice by watching different reality TV shows about “certain rich, famous people.”
It’s fun to have Moira and Alexis together on screen, Bay says: “Two wildly different communication styles just co-existing…It’s also how reality is. They are products of two different intentions. That’s an interesting way to think about it.”
Schitt’s Creek airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST on Pop TV.