The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards will be given out on Sept. 20, so we’re talking to pairs of nominated actors as we look ahead to the ceremony. (Whatever it ends up being.) For a full list of Emmy nominees and other coverage of TV’s top awards, visit nytimes.com/Emmys.
They know you love them. When they’re in character, they are women who love to be adored, who love to hear themselves talk and who might even let you get a word in edgewise — if it’s in praise of them.
But in real life, Catherine O’Hara — who plays the vainglorious Moira Rose on “Schitt’s Creek” — and Cecily Strong — a one-woman rogues’ gallery on “Saturday Night Live,” whose roster includes the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party — are not relentless spotlight chasers.
Both are dedicated and accomplished comic performers: O’Hara starred on the classic sketch series “SCTV” and in films like “Beetlejuice,” “Home Alone” and “Waiting for Guffman,” while Strong is an eight-season veteran of “S.N.L.”, where she also impersonates Melania Trump, Jeanine Pirro and Tulsi Gabbard.
O’Hara and Strong are also mutual admirers and longtime fans of each other’s work, and both are Emmy nominees this year. Yet, in a recent phone conversation, neither seemed especially comfortable being celebrated for her lasting contributions to the comedy canon; they explained why they prefer to play outrageously oblivious characters — and then slip out of these roles and back into their regular, unassuming selves.
Strong and O’Hara also spoke about their formative days as rookie performers and their relief that this year’s Emmys ceremony won’t be happening in person. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Where are you both right now?
CECILY STRONG I’m in the Hudson Valley. I’ve started gardening. I’m not great at it yet, but I’ve made some herb-dressing salads with some lettuce. So, yeah, things are happening.
CATHERINE O’HARA Are you on water?
STRONG No, I’m not on water. But there’s a hose. And there’s water nearby.
O’HARA Geography is not my strong suit. I’m in a cottage in Ontario, Canada, so I was imagining us looking at the same things. I’ll just pretend.
Have you met each other before?
O’HARA Yes, we have.
STRONG I went to an Emmys party last year and I saw you, Catherine, and I was like, I’m too nervous. I can’t say hi.
O’HARA I got up my nerve and came over.
STRONG Andrew Rannells was the one who said, “Catherine would like to speak to you.” We took a picture. And my friend wound up framing that picture for me for Christmas.
O’HARA Aw, get out.
Catherine, I was reading an interview where you compared yourself to Cecily —
O’HARA Oh, how dare I? [Laughter]
— and you said you were more of the Cecily Strong of “SCTV” while Andrea Martin was its Kate McKinnon. What did you mean by that?
O’HARA I’m flattering myself with that. I’m going to say something wrong but I mean this in all the best ways: Kate McKinnon has Kate McKinnon in all her characters, and Andrea has Andrea in all her characters. Although the characters are really strong and great, too. I feel like Cecily kind of disappears, beautifully, into her characters, and I try to do that, too.
STRONG I totally get it. It’s a huge compliment coming from you. I feel exactly the same. Even at Second City, the best compliment for me was when someone said something I did reminded them of you. And I was like, OK, I’m good. I can do this now.
Did you have similar experiences at Second City?
STRONG I understudied for their stages, but I really just did their touring company and then we did the cruise. I’m sure what you did was much higher-brow and funnier than an hour of sketch comedy on a cruise ship.
O’HARA Wow, I didn’t know you did cruise ships.
STRONG Well, I just did one. Not to brag.
O’HARA What was it like? Was it fun?
STRONG It was my first paying comedy job, so that was the most exciting part. But it was a four-month contract. It was like being on a vacation. Then the third month started. Then I was like, is this more of a prison? I just really wanted to spend a night on land at some point again.
O’HARA When I got into the Second City touring company — John Candy, God bless him, cast me in the touring company — I had just come out of high school. We went to do a show, we’d show up at the theater and we’d be locked out. There might be five people waiting to be in the audience. Once we had to scale a wall and break into a window upstairs to be able to do a show.
One quality that your best-known characters have in common is that they’re supremely ignorant about how they are coming across to other people. What do you find interesting about these kinds of characters?
STRONG I’m painfully self-aware and am always embarrassed, even if I don’t have a reason to be. So I’m always fascinated by those people — people who yell in public, people who get upset at a clerk at a store. You’re just like, oh my God, this is humiliating to watch, but I love it.
O’HARA I think we all are totally oblivious to the impression we’re making on others. The internet and social networking is all about trying to control the impression you make, and we have no control. And it’s never really going to work. We are all oblivious to whatever we’re presenting. But it’s really fun to consciously do it. You feel like you’re in some control of that madness when you get to play characters.
Catherine, this is likely the last time you’re going to play Moira Rose for a while. Do you miss her already?
O’HARA Yes, I do. I do. We did these live [“Schitt’s Creek” farewell] shows that, of course, were all canceled [or postponed after the pandemic]. But whenever I answered a question from the audience about Moira, I couldn’t help but do Moira, because Moira’s way more interesting than I am. It was like a way to wean myself off playing her. And the fun thing about her was that she was an actor, so I could, once in a while, get to perform or get to do an accent. Once you’ve had that in your life, it’s really hard to give up.
STRONG Watching Moira, there was just such a range and so much in there that you were doing. It never felt like one character who was going to stay the same. There was always some fun surprise in store.
O’HARA You have to work with people who allow that and encourage that. It really helped to be working with Eugene and Daniel [the “Schitt’s Creek” creators and co-stars Eugene and Daniel Levy] and have that freedom and have fun stuff written for me.
Cecily, the last three episodes of the “Saturday Night Live” season were all produced remotely. What did you take away from the experience?
STRONG All of it was really challenging. I wasn’t there so much for the first one. I didn’t quite feel ready. I had just been able to finally grieve my wonderful cousin that I lost. [Strong’s cousin Owen died of brain cancer in January.] And then that first week we lost Hal. [The “S.N.L.” musical coordinator Hal Willner, who died of complications from COVID-19.] But by the second show, I felt like, this is important that we show up for ourselves and for the audience and for New York. So it felt exciting to be a part of. I didn’t have anything to do with writing it, but getting to be in that last sketch we did in the last show, that “Dreams” one — we did a Zoom table read, and I just remember we were all so choked up by the end. It was so perfect. We miss New York.
This year’s Emmy Awards show is going to be produced remotely, too. Have they told you anything yet about how this will work for nominees?
O’HARA No, have you heard anything?
STRONG No. I assumed they’re not including me. I’m still waiting for them to tell me it was a mistake.
O’HARA The red carpets are just nerve-racking for me. The Emmys seem like they hit on the hottest night of the year. And you go to the red carpet and PR people are saying, “Come and talk to so-and-so.” Are you kidding? I’ve never sweat more in my life.
STRONG I’m a big sweater. I show up anywhere and I look like I’ve been running from the police.
O’HARA You might as well play that, though. Just play it as if you are running away.