Befitting a comedienne of her talents, Catherine O’Hara is many different things to fans of different generations. To most in her peer set and perhaps six or seven years in either direction, she’s best known as an award-winning writer and performer on “SCTV,” the influential sketch comedy show which started north of the border and eventually migrated to NBC. To plenty of younger fans, she’s Kate McCallister, the beleaguered matriarch of the “Home Alone” films. Urban cineastes and others probably know her best, meanwhile, from her four ensemble collaborations with multi-hyphenate Christopher Guest. And then, of course, family film fans will recognize her distinctive voice, from animated movies like “Chicken Little,” “Over the Hedge,” “Monster House” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
That last title is also related to another main thread or ribbon running through O’Hara’s filmography — her relationship with Tim Burton. She first worked with him on 1988’s groundbreaking “Beetlejuice” (and also met her husband, production designer Bo Welch, on the project), and then “Nightmare,” which was produced by Burton. Now, in Burton’s new stop motion-animated “Frankenweenie,” about a misunderstood boy who uses his love of science to re-animate his beloved, recently deceased dog, O’Hara voices three different characters. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had the chance to speak to the Canadian-born actress one-on-one, about Burton, “Beetlejuice,” “Frankenweenie,” how she muffed an audition to play Robert De Niro’s wife and, yes, even her thoughts on health care. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: “Frankenweenie” is based on a live-action short film of the same name from 1984. Was it a big deal to Tim that you see that beforehand?
Catherine O’Hara: He didn’t ask if we’d seen it. Maybe Alison (Abbate), the producer, did? There was no assumption made — that’s part of him being a regular guy, really. He wasn’t like (assuming a professorial tone), “Well, I hope you’ve seen the film,” or “I’m going to send it to you.” I went in the first day and they have these big boards with some storyboards and character ideas — all spread out on easels, because that’s a nice way to present it — and they show you what they’re thinking of. I saw the short years ago — I can’t remember when. Maybe around the time of working on “Beetlejuice” someone showed it to me? And then I saw it again as part of the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) show (spotlighting Burton’s work).
ShockYa: Everyone talks about Tim is an ordinary guy. But I’d be interested in your perspective on his career, because there’s this notion that he’s the misfit child of Disney —
CO: But maybe he’s not. (laughs) Like, we think of Disney as light and Tim as dark. But maybe they’re the perfect parents for him, film-wise?
ShockYa: Well, more often than not he’s aiming at a target that’s a bit off-center. Was there a sense, on your part, during making “Beetlejuice,” that he was going to have such a long and successful career?
CO: When I saw “Beetlejuice” I just loved it. I remember going to a screening when it opened — not a premiere, but with real people, not fake showbiz people (laughs). And I remember the “Day-O” scene, which was so much fun to shoot because even though we had a choreographer we shot for three days and all got to throw in stupid (dance) moves. There were guys with the shrimp gloves coming up and grabbing us, and that was never cued exactly as you thought it was so they scared us every time. When I heard (Harry Belafonte’s) “Day-O “was going to be the song, though, I thought, “Gosh, can’t he pick something cool, like some reggae song?” I was big into reggae at the time. So I was totally wrong about that! And when I saw the movie, the ending of that number, the editing and the way it all came together — by the end of that number, the audience was almost on their feet applauding, and I felt that way too. I loved it, but I didn’t look at it (at the time) and say, “This guy is going somewhere.” I guess I don’t judge people that way, unless maybe it’s a child, and I think, “Oh, this kid is good, they’re going to work again.” Sorry, this is a long answer, but at the time I was just really happy when I saw the movie. And then when I got called about “Nightmare Before Christmas” — even though Henry Selick directed it, it was by way of Tim — I said, “Yeah, please! And why haven’t you called earlier?” (laughs)
ShockYa: Casting back to your own adolescence, was comedy a big love? Were you always hamming it up?
CO: Well, no, not that way. I hope I didn’t scare anyone. But when you’re sixth of seven (children), definitely the way to get attention at our dinner table was to have something funny to say. My dad was a great joke teller, and my mom would tell stories and imitate all the people in the stories. And so I got those two schools of comedy from them, and I swear all my sisters and brothers are funny too. A sense of humor was definitely encouraged. I did some acting and writing in grade school, thinking that I had something to offer. (laughs) And then in high school we had a great theater arts teacher who just kind of let us fly — anyone who was really into it could do what they wanted, and I was one of those kids. And then when I wanted to actually become an actress, it really scared my parents, I think — they were totally into getting laughs, but that was something you do at home and then you go get a job. My dad wanted me to go get a job at the CPR, the Canadian Pacific Railway, where he worked. Well, that didn’t last. I tried (being) a secretary for my brother-in-law, who was a lawyer, and that lasted two weeks, maybe. And I kept saying, “No, I really want to be an actress.” I was really lucky, because my brother was dating Gilda Radner, God bless her, and she got into Second City from “Godspell.” That’s where I first met Marty (Short), too, actually! Gilda got into Second City, and I said, “That’s what I’ve been wanting to do!” I didn’t know it at the time, but I really lucked out.
ShockYa: A question, then, about that audition process. Knowing a little about the workshop process on the movies you’ve done with Christopher Guest — that sounds great, and like a lot of fun. But did the sketch comedy work on “SCTV” make you comfortable with auditioning, or —
CO: Oh no, I’m terrible at it, and in fact it took me until a few years ago to realize that when you go for an interview you’re actually auditioning. When you get to even the low level (of success) I’ve been at as an actor they’re sometimes embarrassed to (ask you to) come in and audition because they think you’ll be insulted. So they say, “Come for an interview,” and I realized that when you interview or have lunch with somebody you really do need to show them that you can actually play the part. I would always just go as myself to a meeting, and just be (makes a series of goofy noises), my stupid, goofy self. And I wouldn’t be comfortable because I’d still be being judged, but I didn’t what I was supposed to present. I would be myself and that would never get me the role! Pretty recently I realized that you have to find the part of yourself (laughs) that — well, this sounds so “Duh!” to any other actor, and probably you too — but you find the part of yourself that relates to that character, and show them that. But for the longest time I just didn’t know! I remember auditioning to be Robert De Niro’s wife in something, when I was first starting out, and I was reading a scene where they were in bed. So I was sitting in a hard chair and I tried (laughs) to make myself lean back (approximates a 40 degree angle on the couch we’re sharing).
ShockYa: My ability to feign horizontalness will convince them!
CO: Yeah, like they can’t imagine me being in bed unless I actually in that position! (laughs) So I just think of me doing that whole scene from that angle. (laughs) It was really, really sad.
ShockYa: Wrapping up, you’re a naturalized American citizen, with dual Canadian and American citizenship. As a quasi-outsider at least, what’s your impression of the United States’ political process?
CO: Well, as I understand the Canadian government you can get a majority government, so you can actually get something done. (laughs) And the system here is that you can get in and run the party but you can’t get anything done because from the moment you get in the other party is campaigning and they’re going to try to block everything you do to make you look bad. But the thing that I could go on for hours about is socialized medicine. It works, and the insurance companies have Americans so brainwashed, to think that you’re going to be lining up for hours and you can’t get a good doctor. They’re lies, I’m sorry. They stand to lose everything — I don’t know if your family is in insurance, I’m sorry — but they stand to lose everything, and so they’ll fight it to the death, to a lot of people’s unnecessary deaths. That kills me. I really wanted Hillary (Clinton, four years ago), I’ll be honest, but I voted for Obama, of course. I’m glad that Obama is trying to get things changed, in a gentle way, but it’s such a big brainwashing, I swear to you. My parents would have been wiped out for instance (without government health care) — I had a brother who was between jobs at the time, unemployed, and had a heart attack. He went to the best hospital in Toronto, called the Queen of Hearts, and had the best heart surgeon. They would call him and say, “You need to come in so we can do this for you,” it’s not like he had to line up. I had another relative who was in an accident and broke their jaw and had a great plastic surgeon. I remember when my mum died, God bless her, she was 81, and in the same ward they brought in another guy who was in a terrible motorcycle accident. And so I saw what life support is because the machines were keeping him alive, and yet within 24 hours his body was back to supporting itself. My mum was 81, her body was breaking down and as the days wore on the machines were doing more and more every day. And the doctor finally came in and talked to the family, six brothers and sisters, and he said, “You have to think about her quality of life, the prognosis, and the availability of these machines for another patient.” And I was like, “Wow.” That’s where the socialized medicine comes in, and that probably scares people, but it also makes you feel part of the world and humanity, and something bigger. They weren’t taking her off of them, they (were asking us). My dad was 81 and had a stroke — he eventually died when he was 83 — but he went to best rehab hospital in Toronto, and was surrounded by professional athletes. This is what socialized medicine is, and I can’t stand that Americans don’t have it. Even though it’s not perfect, it’s better — it’s better than what we have.
Written by: Brent Simon