The Killer Charm Of Annie Murphy
Her dark new role couldn’t be further from Alexis Rose. But she’ll still say “Ew, David!” if you ask nicely.
Annie Murphy was walking in New York City one day this spring, drinking a coffee, when she came upon a big, sidewalk-obstructing flock of pigeons. Then she noticed a strange tourist on his knees, holding a high-end camera. “Oh, this weird man is, like, feeding and then taking portrait mode shots of these pigeons,” she remembers thinking. Suddenly, the man stood up, and the flock scattered.
“He was like, ‘Thanks, Annie,’ and then gets into this shiny Mercedes and takes off,” she tells me over Zoom, shaking her head in a mixture of bemusement and disbelief.
Thus concluded the 34-year-old actor’s first run-in with the paparazzi, her induction to a category of celebrity that comes with new protocols. Her publicist advised her to stop carrying her hotel’s umbrella, which tipped photographers off to where she would be. Natasha Lyonne, with whom Murphy was filming Russian Doll Season 2, gave her the names of paparazzi that had historically been good to her and those she should ignore. “I no longer will just assume that men are taking photos of pigeons,” Murphy says.
When the world shut down 16 months ago, Murphy was enjoying the success of her breakout role on Schitt’s Creek, a Canadian sitcom with a fervent cult following in the United States. Then Schitt’s Creek became a COVID-era phenomenon, the streaming equivalent of comfort food, and Murphy’s Alexis Rose became a member of Netflix subscribers’ quarantine pods. As the world opens up, Murphy, now an Emmy winner, is promoting her first post-Schitt’s project, AMC’s genre-bending Kevin Can F**k Himself, and catching up to exactly how famous she is.
Alexis — with her sprawling backstory, her contagious intonation, her seldom-uttered but beloved catchphrase (“Ew, David!”) — is the kind of part so vividly drawn it wins the actor fans for life. But it also risks overshadowing the rest of an actor’s career, pigeonholing them into one particular comedic persona. Which is what made Murphy’s next move so intriguing.
Kevin Can F**k Himself, which stars Murphy as Allison, a working class Worcester, Massachusetts housewife, is a tightrope walk of a show that is part family sitcom satire and part gritty, revenge drama. The show moves between the multicamera style of network sitcoms, where Murphy plays Allison’s marital gripes for intentionally uncomfortable laughs, and the single camera style of prestige TV, where Murphy reveals Allison to be homicidally frustrated by her domestic and financial situation. It’s dark, thought-provoking stuff that critics are calling her second pitch-perfect performance in as many years.
According to Schitt’s Creek co-creator Dan Levy, Kevin is evidence of the artistic range that was apparent from Murphy’s first audition. “She has that rare movie star quality, that intangible light that you can’t help but be drawn toward,” says Levy. “Very few people can balance comedy and drama with her kind of ease. And those people are generally only referred to by their first names: Julia, Sandra… you know where I’m going with this.”
Murphy says the mental and emotional challenges she faced over the past year set her up to do the dramatic work Kevin demanded of her: “After this past year, so many people have really taken a step back and gone inward and asked themselves, ‘What the fuck do I want my life to look like?’ It was really exciting for me to tap into that and shockingly not have to dig too deep to find that.”
“I smashed the glasses really well,” she says. “I didn't work too hard [to channel] that anger.”
The only child of Ottawa teachers, Murphy began performing locally at a young age and studied theater before trying to break into Hollywood with small, one-off parts in shows like Rookie Blue, Beauty and the Beast, and Flashpoint (Daycare Worker #2). She flew from Toronto, where she still lives, to Los Angeles for pilot seasons, nearly nabbing role after role and, in between jobs, went on tour with her husband Menno Versteeg’s band. Prior to Schitt’s Creek, Murphy almost threw in the towel on acting altogether. With just dollars left in her bank account, she auditioned for Levy, then known mostly for his Canadian TV hosting gigs, who showed the tape to his co-creator (and father), Eugene. Weeks later, the younger Levy called to tell her she’d been cast as his sister.
During her six Schitt’s seasons, Murphy nurtured Alexis from entitled socialite to lovable oddball. “If you were to read what was written on the page, perhaps you’d see a very unlikable, spoiled 20-something that has been given everything her whole life,” says Schitt’s co-star Sarah Levy. “What Annie did with Alexis was create a character that was so endearing you couldn’t help but look past that potential unlikability. You want Alexis on your side. That’s a quality few can bring to the table.”
But the show’s conclusion meant a return to job insecurity, and her first LA pilot season in six years. Even talking about it stresses her out. “I've started to sweat just thinking about how anxious it makes me,” she says. “Even though I was coming off the huge and mind-bending success of Schitt's Creek, I still had the very vivid memory of my life before Schitt's Creek, when I wasn't getting any work at all.”
Unlike prior pilot seasons, Murphy says, her phone was ringing this time. “People didn't have the fucking time of day for me for such a long period of time, so it was a real 180, having that attention.” But presented with a series of “dare I say, mediocre at best” scripts, Murphy sensed a trend. “It was very clear that people wanted to see me as Alexis, or they’d say, ‘Oh, it's definitely not Alexis. She has brown hair this time,’” she says. “It was really, really important to me to do something as far away from Alexis as possible, even as just a challenge for myself to see if I could do something else after doing one very specific thing and succeeding.”
When Kevin Can F**k Himself came along, Murphy says she knew from the first script that she’d found her next project. Plus, she says, “the thing that really sold me was, closer to the end of our meeting, they were like, ‘We just want you to know, we have a very, very strict no assholes policy on this set.’”
Even though Murphy’s character on Kevin Can F**k Himself has “all of this insane anger boiling inside of her,” Murphy says, “she has this sense of optimism. She's optimistically trying to kill her husband.”
Most of the characters on Kevin, though, are assholes. In the pilot, Allison discovers Kevin has blown nearly all their savings without telling her, leading her to begin a season-long plot to kill him as a means of escaping her dead-end life. Hijinks — quitting her job, cheating on her husband with an ex-flame, snorting cocaine behind a car mechanic’s shop — ensue.
“Even though she has all of this insane anger boiling inside of her, she has this sense of optimism,” Murphy says. “She's optimistically trying to kill her husband.”
In its name, Kevin seems to take aim at the two-season CBS series Kevin Can Wait, a Kevin James comedy that killed off its protagonist’s wife after 24 episodes and then barely thought to mention her again. But Kevin Can Wait is just one of the many shows in the genre that were unremarkable in their sexism: The King of Queens, Rules of Engagement, Two and a Half Men. “There were days that we were shooting the [traditional sitcom scenes] where I would go in to merely be spat on or have things spilled on me,” Murphy says. “I’m so grateful that we have the single cam, because it really is walking in the shoes of so many women before us who only had the multicam.”
As Allison, every aspect of Murphy is transformed, from her dropped R’s to her frumpy outfits. “We knew that a fitting had gone well if we turned and looked at me in the mirror and went, ‘Oh no,’" she says. Between takes, she’d duck into Massachusetts grocery stores to eavesdrop on shoppers’ accents.
What Allison and Alexis — and Annie — do have in common is that each has realized she controls her own fate. Murphy’s “aha” moment came when she realized what she wanted out of a post-Schitt’s job. “I don't need to live up to people's expectations,” she says. “If it was an indie film, if it was a piece of theater, if it was voice work, whatever that was, for whatever the paycheck was, I just really, really wanted to do something for myself that was a challenge and that I had fun with, that was about something important to me.”
Because of Alexis, people expect Murphy to be bubbly and light, always on, and, last year, she felt anything but. During the Schitt’s Creek live farewell tour in January 2020, Murphy says she could barely perform. Noah Reid (who played Patrick) would have to help her get her “brave face” on; afterward, she’d go home and cry. “I think I have a big dose of my dad's Irish melancholy,” she says.
“A lot of people are going to think that I sound like I'm playing a tiny violin for myself. Oh, you're rich and famous. Why the fuck are you sad? You have nothing to be sad about. But I'm not going to post photos of me covered in my own snot, lying on the floor, unable to get up. I don't want people to have to see that.”
Shooting was set to begin on Kevin in March, shortly after a planned vacation to visit her parents in Canada. Instead, after she flew home on March 12, lockdown started. “My mom was like, ‘You're crying 12 times a day hysterically, to the point where your teeth are chattering. That's not normal,’” she says. She saw a therapist, who diagnosed her with depression. “I was like, ‘Damn it, I'm depressed,’” she says. “Ugh.”
“A lot of people are going to think that I sound like I'm playing a tiny violin for myself,” she says. “‘Oh, you're rich and famous. Why the fuck are you sad? You have nothing to be sad about.’ But I'm not going to post photos of me covered in my own snot, lying on the floor, unable to get up. I don't want people to have to see that. [And] as excited as I was to get this huge part on [Kevin], I do not think if I had gone to work when I was supposed to go to work, I would have been able to do my job.”
With the help of regular therapy and antidepressants, she says, “I do not cry every single day on the floor 12 times… I am able to focus on other things in my life. Now, honestly, if a friend's like, ‘I'm having a really hard time,’ I'm like, ‘Get on drugs. Get on drugs!’ You don't have to be on drugs for the whole time, but they truly, truly saved my life in the sense that I was not a functional human being and I was able to be a functional human being.”
She flew to the Kevin set the day after winning her Emmy last fall and was pleasantly surprised to feel herself working hard, making friends, and having fun. “Not to toot my own horn because I fucking hate that, but I do feel a sense of resilience, both from Allison but also being in a real messy mental state going into it,” she says. She gave the showrunners notes and feedback on Allison — like having the character put a garnish on Kevin’s dinner to show how much of an effort she’s been programmed to put in, even after she’s decided to kill him. “It really was a concern of mine that with a sitcom being so funny and the guys being so good, that the single cam could feel heavy and naggy and a little like women complaining, and that's not at all what we wanted the show to be,” she says. “It was important for me for Allison to have a sense of humor, to show that she's become a shell of herself over the years.” The result, she says, is a portrait of marriage that’ll hit close home.
“We got to all watch the first couple of episodes together over Zoom,” Murphy says. “We finished the first two and Ray Lee, who plays [Allison’s high school hookup] Sam, was like, ‘I’ve got to go call my wife.’ And we were like, ‘What's going on?’ He was like, ‘I just saw a little bit too much of myself in a couple of these male characters and I have some apologizing to go and do.’ And he called his wife and they had a big old chat. To me, that's a success.”
Just a few days after shooting wrapped, she drove to New York to film Russian Doll’s second season alongside Lyonne, about which she can say only “it’s a real departure from Allison, who's a real departure from Alexis. It was a scary challenge.” Her month in New York overlapped with the earliest stages of reopening, putting Murphy — costumed in a “great wig and great pumps” — directly in the paparazzi’s celebrity-starved crosshairs. “I felt like a real actress,” she says. “I drove an Alfa Romeo down the streets of Soho and I shot in the subway and I shot in this beautiful, old brownstone on the Upper West Side. But I really realize how much I took privacy for granted.”
Coming into fame in her 30s means that a certain innocence has been preserved in Murphy; she’s too fully formed to be altered by the spotlight. “I mean, money changed,” she says. “I made money after being very, very poor for a very long time. But I think my family and friends have remained the exact same. I don't think I'm at risk of taking off into my own world of ego in Hollywood.”
In separate remarks, Dan and Sarah Levy independently described her as ego-free, someone who instantly makes you feel like you’ve known her for years. It’s the charm that makes her characters so winning, even when they’re at their worst. Lyonne agrees. “Annie has such an incredible presence with so much heart,” she says. “In addition to being a ridiculously funny person, she is truly a good person. Both of these characteristics radiate through the screen and were proven to be even more true in person on the set of Russian Doll.”
Soon Murphy will be known for a variety of performances, and then an image of Murphy herself will start to take shape in the public eye. But, for now, she’s still happy to be a little bit Alexis once in a while. Last month, she was sitting in a park in Toronto, and a guy ran up to her to ask that she say something from the show. “I was like, ‘What's your name?’ And he was like, ‘Stephen.’ And I was like,” — here Murphy pauses and assumes a scrunched facial position only deployed in character — “‘Ewwwwwww, Ste-phen.’ And he could not believe what had just happened to him.”
She knows what it’s like to need a refuge and find it in a fictional world. “I think Schitt's Creek has become a show like The Office was to me — a safe place,” she says. “I don't ever want to deny someone T. rex arms or an ‘Ew, David’ or whatever, if it's going to cheer them up.”
Top Image Credits: Rosetta Getty swimsuit, Marni skirt, Leigh Miller earrings, Tiffany & Co. by Elsa Peretti cuffs
Photographer: Beau Grealy
Stylist: Tiffany Reid
Hair: Mara Roszak
Makeup: Kara Yoshimoto Bua
Manicure: Thuy Nguyen
Bookings: Special Projects
Videographer: Sam Miron