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For her next act, Annie Murphy took the road that led from ‘Schitt’s Creek’ to Worcester

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 6/10/2021 Christopher Wallenberg
a woman talking on a cell phone: Annie Murphy as Allison McRoberts in "Kevin Can F**k Himself," a role she calls a 180-degree turn from Alexis Rose in "Schitt's Creek." © Jojo Whilden/AMC Annie Murphy as Allison McRoberts in "Kevin Can F**k Himself," a role she calls a 180-degree turn from Alexis Rose in "Schitt's Creek."

Shedding the skin of an iconic role can be a monumental challenge for any actor who’s become synonymous with one character. Just ask Annie Murphy, who won an Emmy last year as Alexis Rose, the glam fallen socialite whose flamboyant family bolts for the boondocks after they go broke, on that cultural phenomenon “Schitt’s Creek.” For six years, Murphy became ingrained in viewers’ minds as the lovable, hair-twisting sass-machine, prone to pursed-lipped zingers, “Ew, David!” exclamations, and tales from her misadventures as a wild-child celebutante (booty calls with Zac Efron and being held hostage by Somali pirates on David Geffen’s yacht!).

“Before ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ [my career] was very bleak for quite a while. So that fear was still lurking within me,” says Murphy, peering through the screen on a recent Zoom call. “I was feeling anxious and wondering what would come down the pipes.”

Her typecasting detector began going off as she read scripts and mulled auditions for her post-”Schitt’s Creek” career move. The first offers she got were “eerily similar to one Alexis Rose,” Murphy says, with a smirk.

“As much as I loved playing Alexis, it was really important to do something different, honestly just to prove to myself that I had range and that I wasn’t stuck in this over-the-top praying mantis form forever,” she says, referencing Alexis’s iconic limp-wristed hand gesture, which she once described as “a T-Rex playing the piano at an old-timey saloon.”

So when she got the script for “Kevin Can F**k Himself” — which debuts its first two episodes on the AMC+ streaming service Sunday, followed by its cable premiere June 20 at 9 p.m. on AMC — she was both relieved and elated. The audacious high-concept series, set in Worcester and filmed in Massachusetts, explores the secret, off-stage world of the proverbial put-upon sitcom wife, who’s long suffered in silence, is oft-portrayed as a miserable harpy, and rarely gets to be funny. In this inventive series, that stereotype gets overturned as it follows Murphy’s dissatisfied, frazzled Allison McRoberts — married to a buffoonish man-child (Eric Petersen) — into the dark realities of her own world, in which she dreams of a different life and starts making some disturbing plans.

“The script was so exciting and so refreshing, because Allison McRoberts couldn’t be more different from Alexis Rose,” says Murphy, 34, who grew up in Ottawa. “She is lower class. She is angry. She is frustrated. She has a terrible fashion sense — and a real doozy of an accent, too. So I went from one doozy of a vocal fry with Alexis to a heavy Worcester accent.

“It seemed like the kind of gritty, 180-degree turn that I really wanted to challenge myself with.”

A hybrid of two familiar genres, the show shifts between the heightened world of the multi-camera sitcom where Kevin resides (marked by bright lights, a laugh track, and boorish antics) and a single-camera drama, in which Allison decides to rebel against the injustices of her life and starts breaking bad. (The bleeped-out title is a callout to the 2016-18 Kevin James sitcom “Kevin Can Wait,” which unceremoniously killed off his TV wife, played by actress Erinn Hayes, between seasons.)

“Allison is a woman who has spent her life apologizing and saying ‘thank you’ and being very polite and doing things the way she was told that they should be done,” Murphy says, “and that hasn’t gotten her anywhere.”

Suffering through the indignities of her husband’s selfish and misogynistic behavior has done her real damage. “Her life isn’t going the way that she wanted it to go, and she [assumes] that she’s the one who’s failing,” Murphy says. “So we meet Allison at the point when she realizes it isn’t her that is failing. It is her that is being gaslit by her husband, and it is him that has been keeping her in the same place for 10 years — and that is a place of very deep unhappiness.”

As the series progresses, the character veers from Debra Barone to Walter White territory. “This is a lady who’s at a bit of a breaking point mentally, who’s not thinking in the most rational fashion, and who will continue to make bad decisions,” Murphy says. “But in making those mistakes and acting irrationally and acting out of anger and frustration, that makes her very human — and hopefully very relatable.”

The show’s creator, Valerie Armstrong, grew up loving family sitcoms, but she now views them through a fresh lens — and can’t stop seeing toxic behavior. “My hope is that the minute you know that Allison is a real person with feelings who you should be looking at, you will watch all of our sitcom scenes a little differently,” she says on the joint Zoom call with Murphy.

While Kevin’s dim-bulb best friend, Neil (Alex Bonifer), and his doltish father, Peter (Brian Howe), are always egging on Kevin’s meathead antics, the heart of the show is the burgeoning friendship between Allison and sullen, chain-smoking Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), Neil’s sister. Despite being neighbors for 10 years, the two aren’t close. But after Patty reveals a hard truth to Allison, they begin to recognize their mutual disappointment and rage, and their bond grows.

“It’s not a show about a toxic marriage. It’s a show about how women can get each other out of toxic situations,” Armstrong says. “I get this extreme pleasure as a viewer when I watch two women start from this place of animosity and realize they’ve been pitted against each other and in actuality they could be allies.”

“It’s so gratifying to me,” she adds, “for two very repressed New Englanders to give the smallest acknowledgment of liking each other.”

Armstrong, who is from Milford, Conn., considered setting the series in Boston, but that felt too obvious. Then she remembered Worcester, where her brother’s college roommate was from. “He knew all its faults, but he also described it with utter love and appreciation.”

The show did most of its location shooting in Brockton, Hingham, and Quincy, and Murphy says that filming the series in Massachusetts helped inform her portrayal of Allison and her eccentricities. Still, she admits the locals mostly gave a collective shrug to the fancy Hollywood folks invading their towns. “It was great being surrounded by people who were not impressed by us one bit,” Murphy says. “We shut down a Dunkin’ Donuts for a couple hours, and I remember it was a [production assistant’s] job to stand out there and turn people away, and they suffered so much verbal abuse from these people who just wanted their Dunkins.”

With an Emmy on her shelf and a juicy new role in hand, Murphy seems poised for a long career. So it’s hard to imagine that fans would not have gotten a chance to see her as Alexis or Allison if she had followed through on a vow to give up acting. Her apartment had burned down, her bank account was nearly empty, she’d spent two years getting rejected for parts she really coveted, and then had what she calls a “train wreck” screen test. She wondered if the universe was trying to send her a message.

“It was very bleak, and I ended up having a hysterical, snotty cry in the Pacific Ocean and proclaiming to whoever would listen that I was going to quit acting and become I don’t know what . . . because I honestly had no other skills,” she recounts. “Then the next day, I got the audition for ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ and everything turned around. So you really never know what could be around the corner!”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

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