Catherine O’Hara is many things to audiences. She has played the comic foil in a cavalcade of Eugene Levy-Christopher Guest films from “Best in Show” to “A Mighty Wind.” And she is also the mom from the “Home Alone” movies — yes, the one who left her kids home for Christmas.
But O’Hara portraying Jessica, a mother of this sort is new for the actress. In the modern fairy tale “Penelope,” O’Hara is at once an evil step sister, helping hand and holder of ancestral answers to Penelope’s fate.
“I like to channel over-the-top human beings that I’ve met in my life,” O’Hara said recently while sitting in a Beverly Hills Hotel suite. “Penelope is a bit of an extreme story, but within that story you have to look at the reality. You think, ‘What would I do? The daughter that I dreamed would be so beautiful as a representation of my beauty, turns out to get the curse that’s been in his family of being born with a pig’s nose.”
For O’Hara, her eccentric maternal characters arise from the same place. “It’s all the protective mother. Somehow it is a reflection on you. The things that are right in your world you want to give to your kid. And all the things that are wrong, you want to save them from. Jessica thinks she has taken some licks in life and now she’s got this poor thing with a pig’s snout. She’s going to protect her from this horrible world. For me playing Jessica, it’s all from a place of doing what’s best for Penelope. That world will never be able to accept you. They won’t love you for who you are like I do.”
So, after her birth, Jessica locks Penelope in the house for 20 years. The only time she has contact with the outside world is when her parents decide its time to — somehow — find her a suitor.
MORE THAN A MESSAGE
The message of inner-beauty was not the pull for O’Hara to the “Penelope” script. “I read it and I just thought it was great — funny, sweet, really great lines,” she said.
Casting also drew O’Hara to the film. Surrounding herself with British and American talent proved a pleasure for the veteran thespian. “I love Christina, and Richard E. Grant (plays her husband), I’d never met him before. He’s intimidating in how smart he is, and such a fun, silly, beautiful guy – lovely to work with.”
MUTUAL ADMIRATION SOCIETY SET
O’Hara’s chemistry with Christina Ricci is clearly evident on screen. She found the film’s star to possess the rarest of gifts. “She’s just here and not here at the same time, in her own moment. She’s otherworldly and grounded, completely talented,” O’Hara said. “She’s a cool girl.”
Ricci believes that O’Hara is incomparable as an actress, but especially in one arena. “Nobody does a drunk like she does,” Ricci said. “On the set, she taught me how to find my inner lush. She’s fantastic.”
“Penelope” producer and co-star Reese Witherspoon has a little musical envy when it comes to the Canadian born actress. “I thought I was pretty good at the autoharp when I learned it for ‘Walk the Line.’ But Catherine just blew me away,” she said. Witherspoon, it seems, is a little competitive. “She played for us and I wish I could be that good.”
Another piece of the “Penelope” fantasy is James McAvoy — and O’Hara marvels at their film’s good fortune catching the British actor at the beginning of his meteoric rise through Hollywood.
THE MAGIC OF MCAVOY
“We had no idea,” O’Hara said. “When we were shooting, he won the newcomer award at BAFTA. He came in the next day. He was so mellow about it. He was appreciative, but unaffected. He was engaged to his girlfriend at the time and now he’s married. I hope he’s not to affected by all this attention. There is so much talk about him. It’s a lot to deal with. But you’re dealing with a grounded guy — a really good actor.”
What sets O’Hara apart from the pack of veteran comediennes is how her timing and acting skills are timeless. Whether she is lighting up the small screen in the late ’70s on SCTV or addressing the camera with the most collagen injected lips in cinematic history at the close of Guest’s last film, “For Your Consideration,” O’Hara’s is an actress who always makes audiences laugh.
When asked if she had any inside scoops for the next Guest-Levi film, she winks. “I don’t know,” O’Hara said leaning forward. “I do know that Eugene (Levy) is in town and he and Chris have been getting together for the last month or so. Yeah, something is happening.”