These days in Hollywood, with awards season full steam ahead, Emmy-nominated comedy Schitt's Creek has gone from an underrated cult favorite to a breakout hit, the subject of giant billboards and feature articles in The New York Times. But for Canadian actor Karen Robinson, who plays the town's unsung hero, Ronnie Lee, daily life goes on much the way it always has.
"I'm still the person who shops supermarket flyers and heads down to the grocery store with my bundle buggy," she told The Advocate. "I love walking my neighborhood and using my local gym and taking public transit and riding my 30-something year old bike all over Toronto, and going to see theater and hanging out with my friends on porches and doing my gardening. That's who I am."
Beyond the occasional awards show and media event, the 51-year-old veteran of Toronto's theater and TV scene has no plans to change that — living an authentic life is too important, and she's "too lazy," Robinson claims, to be anything else. "You just decide whether or not you're going to play the game of trying to be what they want you to be, or are you going to walk heart first into who you really are. And I chose the latter."
As Schitt's Creek's sixth and final season airs on the CBC and Pop TV, she finds herself enjoying the episodes right alongside the fans, remembering plotlines she'd forgotten about since the show wrapped last summer. "I'm being surprised by it as much as you guys are."
According to Robinson, her character was best summed up by a fan of the show, an exchange student from India who recognized her on public transit in Toronto. "She said, 'I think Ronnie really cares, because if she didn't, she wouldn't go to all the parties.' And I thought to myself, 'Oh my god, you are absolutely right!'"
Ronnie is a member of the town council, a small business owner, a casually out lesbian with a longterm partner, and one of the few sensible people in charge — and sure enough, you can always find her showing up for things. Throughout the series, we see her going on Mayor Roland's annual turkey shoot, helping organize Moira's surprise birthday party, attending Open Mic Night at Rose Apothecary, singing with the Jazzagals and playing on the Bob's Garage baseball team.
When the eccentric Rose family comes to town, she's often the first and the loudest to call out these formerly wealthy socialites on their nonsense, though she becomes a loyal friend in her own way. In her first appearance in Season 1, she sizes up Alexis as she registers for community service for a DUI. "So, what's your deal? You're pretty, what's that like?" Ronnie says, dry but not unkind. "Lots of doors open up for pretty people."
The following season, she can't help but be impressed when Moira charges into a council meeting demanding a town beautification project. "You're a pain in the ass," she tells Moira, "but you get stuff done."
"She really is all about making sure you always bring your real self to everything," Robinson said. "That's why she calls people out on stuff — I don't think she has any tolerance for bullshit. She understands that it all comes together to form the wonderful, wacky world of Schitt's Creek, which is why a family like the Roses can come in and be integrated into the community's life. But at the same time, I think she's really good at nudging people, to say, 'Okay, I see what you're doing there. Don't bring that. Don't come with that.'"
The role allowed Robinson to trade some of the best one-liners on the show with comedy legends Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, along with rising stars Dan Levy and Annie Murphy and a supporting cast that seems more like family at this point.
"To a person, they are professional and wildly talented, in the most humbling of ways. I feel as though I have to come with my skills and my tools sharpened in order to play with these people. I learned from them every day. I trusted them to work with what I was doing, and to even suggest ways how I could improve what I was doing. It was really, really fabulous to be in the presence of all those people for the past six years. I think I’m a better actor coming out of it."
A particular fan favorite is the feud that sprang up last season between Ronnie and David's aggressively likable fiancé Patrick, played by Noah Reid. "Patrick is never as good at burning Ronnie as Ronnie is at burning Patrick," Reid told The Advocate. "Patrick just wants to be liked, and he can't figure out what's going on. She's like a puzzle that he cannot crack."
He said the rivalry was a lot of fun to play, because it let him explore the flaws in Patrick's personality and work closely with a theater veteran he's looked up to for years.
"We both have been involved in the theater community in Toronto for a long time, Karen for longer than I. I remember coming out of theater school and feeling like I was really lucky to get to do a workshop with Karen Robinson on a new play. Through the years we see each other at all kinds of stuff, and to finally have an opportunity to work together on something like this was so cool."
Many Schitt's Creek viewers have noticed that Ronnie and Patrick actually have a lot in common — both gay entrepreneurs with a fondness for sports and community groups — which only makes it more hilarious that they can't get along.
"I think it's less about Ronnie disliking Patrick, and [more about] Ronnie seeing this person come in and having a huge effect on someone she cares as much about as she does David," Robinson said. "Ronnie likes to take her time and figure things out, and err on the side of suspicion."
Though he's proved to be a perfect match for David, Patrick may have lost Ronnie for good after accusing her of slacking on the job during a renovation project at Rose Apothecary.
"You know when you kind of like somebody, but you don't really like them, and you're just waiting for them to do something to justify you not liking them in reverse order? That is exactly what happened with Patrick and Ronnie. He should not have challenged her on her business acumen. He made a mistake there."
This take on the argument got a big laugh from Reid. "You know, I think one of the things that makes Ronnie so special is that she has Karen's great actor mind working on her all the time. Karen is somebody who thinks and feels a lot, and she has an intuition about little moments and character things that you wouldn't even necessarily pick up on. But Karen is thinking about what that situation would be like, and 'how do I relate to this person?'
"I think a lot of that stuff comes from her work in the theater, filling these things out, in a way that sometimes on TV you don't get that level of consideration," he said. "It breathes so much life into what could be just a little moment, that becomes a rivalry. It's kind of awesome, and the writers pick up on it."
Any hints on whether the feud will be resolved by the end of the series?
"No!" Robinson said gleefully. "No, because I want you all to be surprised; I want you all to be charmed. I want you to experience it at the same time that I'm being reminded of it. Breathe. Be patient."
It's worth pointing out that Ronnie is a queer woman of color on a show that, for all its vital contributions to representation on TV, is predominantly white and focused on queer men — so it's important that Robinson has the acting chops to steal every scene she's in.
She's also a good example of how Schitt's Creek approaches identity. One of the few times the show directly addresses the queer community is in Season 2, when Moira is running for town council. Ronnie throws a campaign party for women in a "key demographic," which Moira assumes to be lesbians but is in fact the Women's Business Association. In the end Moira recovers and wins them over, but Ronnie still enjoys needling Johnny while he tries to explain how open-minded he is. "Moira and I have been very, very supportive of the LGBTQ community… Did I leave out a letter?"
That kind of stumbling conversation about diversity and acceptance is one of the many things Schitt's Creek gently makes fun of, Robinson said.
"There are a lot of letters because there are a lot of people out there who all want to be included in the conversation, so that list of letters has gotten longer and longer and longer, and even the most well-meaning of us at some point find ourselves unintentionally leaving someone out. I think it's good to point that up, but point it up with humor."
Here's the key philosophy of the show, as she sees it: "Big picture, everyone's welcome, if you're coming into it heart first. Even if that heart is scared or scarred or has a whole bunch of layers over it, which I think is how you could describe the whole fish-out-of-water experience that the Roses go through, you are welcome here. You choose the person, not the identity."
At the same time, Robinson has been an eager and supportive ally for LGBTQ+ fans, from engaging with them in public and on social media, to marching with her co-stars in the 2018 Toronto Pride Parade.
"As a Black woman living in Canada, I know what it's like to feel like you're on the outside of things; like public discourse, entertainment offerings, even the color of pantyhose in the department stores have nothing to do with you," she said. "So to see the responses from people who finally can exhale even for a moment, because they feel included, because they feel as though they can gather the courage to be themselves, come out or wait until they're ready, leave a toxic situation — any of the stories that have come back to us about what this show has meant to people, it makes it worth it for me."