InDepth InterView: Denis O'Hare Talks ELLING, TRUE BLOOD, THE EAGLE, ANDREW JACKSON & More
Today, we are talking to the versatile and multi-talented Tony-winning actor who has recently found television superstardom following his turn as the Russell Edgington, King of the Tennessee Vampires, on HBO's hit series TRUE BLOOD, but he has also proven himself to be equally at home on the big screen - as can be clearly seen in his impressive turns in 21 GRAMS, GARDEN STATE, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, MILK and more. Discussing his penchant for the dark side as well as his musical comedy side - such as his unforgettable performance in Joe Mantello's ASSASSINS and opposite Christina Applegate in the recent revival of SWEET CHARITY - Denis O'Hare makes clear his adoration for the theatrical form and his undying - make that undead - devotion to his craft. This extensive chat certainly gives us a lot of grist and meat to chew on. Be sure to catch O'Hare eight times a week on Broadway in ELLING, which opens today.
Acting With Teeth
PC: What's it like being back on Broadway?
DO: It's great. You know, I did a play called UNCLE VANYA back in 2009, Off-Broadway. So, I haven't been exactly idle - theatrically - but, it has been three years since I've been back on Broadway.
PC: Three years too long!
DO: You know, Broadway is a different thing. It's very exciting. The houses are bigger, the bustle and energy of Times Square is overwhelming - but, I love it.
PC: What are your favorite translations of UNCLE VANYA or Chekov in general? Mamet?
DO: No! I hate Mamet. I despise Mamet on all levels.
PC: Oh, really? What version did you do?
DO: It was a version by a Russian scholar, Carol Rocamora. You know, the problem with people like Mamet - and even some of the British translations by Eric Bentley and those people - is that they don't translate; they rewrite.
PC: That's true, in many respects.
DO: I don't really want to hear David Mamet's point of view about Chekov. I disagree with him about everything - including everything about acting - so, I don't want to hear his thoughts about Chekov.
PC: Too translator-influenced.
DO: You know, it's like, give me a translation - give me a fairly straightforward translation - and let me decide how to act it. But, don't tell me how to act it and do your Chicago bullsh*t school. I hate him.
PC: Speaking of authorial opinions, I interviewed Stephen Sondheim earlier this month for this column and he cited the Broadway production of ASSASSINS that you did as the most perfect production of one of his shows.
DO: Wow! That's so great!
PC: What was your experience doing that show like - in particular, at the time in history in which you did it?
DO: I'll tell you, it was one of those crazy, serendipitous shows in that we were meant to do it before 9/11 and we had a reading with Joe back in 2000. A lot of the same people were in it, but some were different - I remember we had Raul Esparza playing the part of Zangara - and we did this staged reading and it was just fantastic. So, then, we were all set to do it. In the wake of 2001 we were all ready to go, but, then it fell apart - mostly because it wasn't the proper climate, I think, to hear that kind of material.
PC: Probably not. Thank goodness it ended up happening at all.
DO: Yeah, it got postponed until 2004 and we lost some people and gained other people, but the people that we got for the cast were kind of perfect. I always joke that it was a cast of a lot of people with really healthy egos who really managed to become a perfect ensemble. There was just enough for everyone to get their limelight and have their little moment and everyone was satisfied. It was kind of a magical ensemble, it really was.
PC: So, you had a great bond with the cast?
DO: It was a joy to come to work. We all used to hang out in one dressing room every night before the show and eat. It was truly one of those rare experiences.
PC: Where do you place that show in the pantheon of Sondheim?
DO: Well, I have to say that I am partial to A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC - just because I am very sentimental about that piece. It was the first piece I came to know when I was sixteen or seventeen and it has a kind of beautiful maturity to it, I think.
DO: But, ASSASSINS is right up there with me. (Laughs.) It has a really bizarre, hard-edged, clear-eyed historical point of view which I think is really, really unusual.
PC: It's anomalous in so many ways.
DO: Stephen's work tends to be, I think, more personal about the actual people and this is a piece that is so much bigger than just, you know, people in love or just dealing with day-to-day life. It's something really historical.
PC: And the structure is so revolutionary - it's really a half-play/half-musical.
DO: Yeah. It's really fascinating. I think the structure is, on the one hand, a little baffling - but, it works!
PC: Like gangbusters!
DO: I like to look at it like a sort of... serial... piece.
PC: A "serial" piece, pardon the pun!
DO: Yeah! (Laughs.)
PC: Did you find that role taxing to do every night? It's quite an athletic role!
DO: I actually didn't find it taxing because I was so in love with it. When you do something you love, you don't even notice the expenditure of energy. It sort of gives back more than it takes. I found the group stuff at the end - with Oswald and then going into the final thing - that took a lot of energy. I found that taxing.
PC: So "Guiteau's Song" wasn't ever too much for you to do?
DO: Guiteau's number was, literally, like flying on air every night.
PC: On a rollercoaster - almost literally, as well, given the set!
DO: Right. Also, I love working with Marc Kudisch. He was so effective in threading together a really consistent character for the carnival guy. And, Neil Patrick Harris is a total joy. I loved hanging out with him.
PC: Sondheim told me that it was really Joe Mantello's idea to expand Marc's role and to make it sort of the second narrator.
DO: It was a great idea!
PC: It was one of the best productions of anything I've ever seen, in no small part due to your performance!
DO: Thank you, thank you.
PC: Tell me about SWEET CHARITY, which I also loved you in, though it had quite a tough road to Broadway, didn‘t it?
DO: You know, I only have good memories of it. I kind of blotted out the negative parts. It was tough on the road - I think it's always tough on the road. We chose the winter tour for some reason. So, we went to Minneapolis in February and then Chicago in March and Boston in April - which kind of guarantees you will be miserable, purely on a weather basis!
PC: You got that right! It's hell. But, what about when you finally got to town?
DO: By the time it came in, I think we had a really strong ensemble. I had a great time doing it with Christina Applegate. I thought she did a very lovely job.
PC: I agree - with or without the broken ankle!
DO: It is kind of a troubled book and it was a troubled production [originally].
PC: What do you think of Neil Simon, in general, and his take on Fellini?
DO: Well, he's a master. Obviously. He's such a crazy, brilliant man when it comes to getting inside the neuroses of funny characters, but the problem is that when you marry him with Fellini... (Laughs.)
PC: An odd marriage, to say the least!
DO: Yeah, it's really a shotgun wedding! It's not a normal pairing! If you look at the original NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, there is nothing funny there!
PC: Not at all! Very dark. Beautiful, but dark.
DO: The idea of making it into a musical comedy is such a weird idea... (Laughs.)
PC: Not unlike ASSASSINS, but significantly less successful in its execution.
DO: It was never finished, you know. Bob Fosse kind of tried and then gave up and then Neil Simon came in and tried to fix things. It's not like you had one vision - you had three people cobbling together this very strange hybrid.
PC: Do you find you get the community vision more than the single, pure artistic expression of an individual artist?
DO: I think every production of every play ends up being massively collaborative. I think, especially, the good directors in New York tend to be like dramaturges on the run. They tend to shape and cut - I mean, I'm thinking of directors like Doug Hughes and Dan Sullivan, and even Joe. You know, people who have their own personal vision and aren't afraid to suggest changes or cuts or structural re-ordering.
PC: Structure is all, after all.
DO: You know, there's this famous story about WOYZECK. I remember doing WOYZECK years ago with JoAnne Akalaitis. Directors love to direct WOYZECK because it has no real structure. It exists in so many versions that a director is free to cut and paste and make it their own version. That happens with a lot of shows.
PC: Moving to TV: did you know that your character on TRUE BLOOD would have the impact that it did? It's now one of the modern iconic TV characters. It's so epic, so magnificent.
DO: Thank you for that! (Pause.) No, I had no idea. I mean, you never know when you are filming. You read scripts and things and you always try to give your character his due. It's your job to see how the character functions. But, you're also working in the framework within the scripts.
PC: There are a lot of characters on TRUE BLOOD! Yet, you stand out.
DO: I sat in the table reads. I loved what everyone else was doing. I didn't particularly think that I would be... but, there was one moment in Episode 9 when I pull the spine out of the newscaster and we all kind of knew that this was like, "Oh, wow. Here's a great sort of platform for this character."
PC: You can say that again! That is such a terrifying, thrilling moment.
DO: I had no idea how the character would sort of grab the imagination as the season went on. There are so many great actors on that show and so many interesting storylines that it is hard to predict which storyline is going to catch fire.
PC: That's one of the great TV moments of the last ten years. Maybe ever. It reminds me of Paddy Cheyefsky's speech for Peter Finch in NETWORK - that mad fury.
DO: It's so funny you say that!
PC: Why so?
DO: Well, Alex Woo - who is the writer of that episode and is a Yale graduate and a playwright - when I got that script from him I almost fell on the floor. I was so blown away and excited and intimidated by that monologue. I just said, "Oh. My. God." When we started working on it - I am always very open to any notes or suggestions - and Alex Woo said to me at one point, "You should look at NETWORK." And, I said, "I love NETWORK." And, he said, "Well, just look at it again."
PC: No way! It came through, that influence.
DO: Yeah, I looked to Howard Beale. You know, it's not all applicable since TRUE BLOOD is a different sort of thing.
PC: Of course. Tell me about the character.
DO: Russell is not mad. He's not crazy. He is an ancient creature with different sort of thought patterns and a different moral code. He has a moral code.
PC: And he'll live or die - again - by it!
DO: It was helpful to look at NETWORK up to a point, but what I found really great about the speech is that it was not just a showpiece, but it was deeply, deeply rooted in this guy's belief systems. And, deeply rooted in his existentiAl Anger at the notion that humans and vampires are equal. What a massive, offensive insult that was to him. I just love that.
PC: Do you think having an insight into the dark side helps you find a character like Russell? You play really unlikable guys in MILK and CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, as well, after all.
DO: Yeah... unfortunately, I am not a perfect person and, depending on when you catch me, I can be fairly formidable. My default is pretty nice, I think. I think we all have... (Laughs.)... some bad guys in us.
PC: Without a doubt! No light without dark.
DO: The great things about bad guys, in general - or villains, in general - is that they are always more complicated. They always have something else going on. They always have some sort of tension in them between what they feel they should do and what they know they should do. What's holding them back, what's propelling them forward - that conflict.
PC: That fuels you.
DO: Try as you might, in heroes that conflict is always watered down. You can always do a dead wife for the hero or a revenge fantasy or something, but it's hard to make them the same sort of rich characters that villains tend to be.
PC: From gothic drama to absurdist comedy, tell me about your new show ELLING and working with Brendan Frasier and Jennifer Coolidge.
DO: It's a great play. It really is. The play kind of exists, I think, on two levels: it has this specific level which is about these two guys who are roommates in a insane asylum - or a mental hospital - who are not deemed ill enough to stay so they are given the chance to get back in the mainstream and get an apartment and live together. It's their trials throughout that process to become "normal".
PC: As if that exists, right?
DO: Right. But, on the universal or the metaphorical level, the play is about any of us. It's about our fears and our anxieties and our struggles and the courage it takes to try to make connections and try to transcend your limitations. In that respect, audiences seem to be just eating it up.
PC: I interviewed Ian McKellen earlier this month for this column and he had such wonderful things to say about Brendan Frasier. Tell me about working with him onstage and off.
DO: Ditto! I think he's a great guy. I find him easy, easy, easy. And affable. Incredibly fearless about jumping in and doing anything. No ego about the work. He has been one hundred percent disciplined. He's just great. Really, it's been a real joy and we've become a real team. I love that.
DO: They're fabulous. There's five of us. There's also Jeremy Schamus who plays Frank and one of the poets. Richard plays Alfonz, the poet. Jennifer plays four female parts. They are all really great and you couldn't ask for a better cast. Everyone is just eccentric enough to be interesting, but not too crazy.
PC: Is it absurdist?
DO: It's very hard to typify. We've all struggled with trying to figure out how to describe it. Because it's European and it's Norwegian, it definitely has its own unique structure and its own unique template. It's very difficult to make it fit into something else. I would say it's Beckett-meets-Albee-meets-Neil-Simon-meets... (Laughs.)
PC: Sounds like a great combination, whatever it is! And it opens this Sunday?
DO: This Sunday!
PC: Break a leg! But, moving to your film work: 21 Grams with Benecio Del Toro and Sean Penn.
PC: I absolutely adore that film. Innaratu is a genius.
DO: That's a great movie. I love that movie. I had a good time on that. It was a little bit scattershot because they shot it over a period of three months, so I came in early and then came back late. So, it was weird to come back to shoot.
PC: I bet! The film is all out of sequence, anyway.
DO: It was my second time shooting with Sean Penn, too. I had done SWEET & LOWDOWN with him.
PC: Another great film. Woody Allen.
DO: Sean's such a remarkable guy. He remembered me from that even though I only had a bit part. He was so generous and so nice and it really helped put me at ease. The cinematographer - who always works with Alejandro Innaratu - he's just a totally cowboy cinematographer. He would be laying on his back between your legs shooting up on your face... you know, all that free-form cinematography that I really love. And Alejandro Innaratu was the same way.
PC: That's what makes his movies so original - that look.
DO: Really creative. It was a great experience. We shot it in Tennessee, in Memphis.
PC: How appropriate for the king!
DO: (Laughs.) Yeah, actually it was in the hospital where Elvis died. That was creepy.
PC: I love an indie film you did a few years ago called HEIGHTS. Do you remember doing that?
DO: Oh, yeah! It was a lot of fun. It was a bit crazed. I remember Merchant Ivory were involved in some way. I remember meeting them and being really blown away by the fact that they were involved. They are such icons. It was just like, "Wow!"
PC: And that cast!
DO: Yeah, but, for me, it was a very strange, rushed production. I had to do it in one day. I was doing a show and I remember running from a rehearsal and shooting for, maybe, five hours and then running back to make curtain. And, that was it!
PC: And it lives forever on DVD!
DO: It's weird when you do things like that! (Laughs.)
PC: Do you have other memories of that happening, one shot like that?
DO: I did the same thing on GARDEN STATE. I shot it in the morning before I did a matinee of TAKE ME OUT. That's always a surreal experience.
PC: The last scene of HEIGHTS has one of the most powerful depictions of homosexuality in film. It's so moving and unexpected.
DO: It really is. I like when a movie is not a topical movie and a subject can be introduced in a way that is sort of, I don't know, tangential in a way. That, to me, lends it more power - when you don't have such an obvious agenda. I thought that was really effective about that piece.
PC: Do you have any comments on this week's New York Times piece on you? Did you anticipate it would be so raw? It was quite unflattering.
DO: It was my first experience with the Times and my first experience with what I would call an investigative journalist. I found that many times she seemed to be digging for something, as if I was hiding something. I didn't quite understand it. And, she also wanted to focus on sex and I didn't understand that either. I was definitely a little bit surprised that, of all the things we talked about, she tended to focus on what I consider to be trivial things. We talked about a lot of things and very little of it made it into the piece. You know, I mean, what's a life? How do you reduce somebody into an article? The best you can do, I suppose, is to have a point of view and to make a narrative - and that's what she did. I had a very nice time with her. She was lovely. I am grateful for the piece. I thought it was flattering of them to choose me. It's not the story I would have written, but... (Laughs.)
PC: So, you're clearly not angry about it, then.
DO: I sympathize with her. She has to make a story. She has to make a structure out of what is, essentially, a non-structural experience. How do you reduce somebody to a story? It's very difficult. So, you pick some high points that you find provocative and you hang the narrative on that.
PC: You give us too much credit! I always print almost the entire interview. As you said, so often so little of the real conversation is used. It all seems like a huge waste of time for all involved to create a sensationalistic story.
DO: Exactly. Exactly. It's a strange beast. What can we say? It's a symbiotic beast.
PC: What do you think of internet advertising and journalism? It's really the most effective way to get your show any promotion these days.
DO: It's interesting because, obviously, everyone is interested in control. So, producers are trying to control the message and directors and actors want to control what's said about them and when. The old notion of an opening night is becoming more and more difficult to maintain when you have people who can Tweet about seeing a show at its first preview or on a message board. You know, a message board can begin to create momentum - or negative momentum - for a show even before it gets reviewed. That's an interesting phenomenon.
PC: Undoubtedly. And quite new.
DO: Again, I think there's no going back. It is what it is.
PC: It's a new era.
DO: You just have to make the best of it. It's all fascinating. It's nice to have a world where there is not one opinion dictating everything. That being said, sometimes on the internet you don't know who the person is. Is it some fifteen year old girl from Far Rockaway with some grudge (Laughs.)? Or, is it someone who has a more informed background and has spent a lot of time thinking of theatre?
PC: Do you read your own reviews?
DO: Never. I have in the past, but I haven't since 1997, I think.
PC: Why do you think that is?
DO: I can't do it. I can do it on movies and TV because the work is done and it doesn't matter - you can't go back. But, in theatre, it's a living thing and you're still doing it and to read reviews means you are trying to please someone who is not a part of the creative process. If you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. You ultimately just have to stick to your own guns and do what you did in rehearsal.
DO: It's the old joke about reviews. You know, the bad ones stick with you and the good ones are never good enough. The bad ones still hurt you more.
PC: Were there any shows you have done that you feel the critics just didn't understand? Or audiences?
DO: Oh, yeah. I did a play called THE DEVILS at the New York Theatre Workshop. It was definitely a challenging piece, but I thought it was phenomenal. Everyone who came and saw it loved it. But, uniformly, the press just despised it. A weird, weird disconnect. I mean, some people who came to it and loved it were actors and actors aren't always reliable, but they loved the theatricality of it all. But, the press just couldn't have hated it more.
PC: What a shame. Any others?
DO: There's a play I did called PIG FARM which I loved. I thought it was really strange and fun, but it never really landed on the press and on the audiences the way we hoped. They never quite got it. You never know. It's weird.
PC: What's next? Have you been asked back for TRUE BLOOD yet? I know filming starts for the new season next week.
DO: I have not. I have been in contact with them about other things, but they have always said informally that they are definitely interested in having me back. They just have to figure out this season first. So, I don't know. I am definitely... (Russell Voice.) underground and in the dark.
PC: What movies do you have in the can?
DO: I have a movie coming out in February called THE EAGLE. It's a movie by Kevin McDonald starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell and Donald Sutherland. I shot that in July of 2009 in Budapest. It's a Roman movie set in 1 AD. I get to play a centurion! It's pretty fun! I had a great time. I get to ride a horse and I get to kill people!
PC: In a more human way than on TRUE BLOOD, I would guess.
DO: The old fashioned way! (Laughs.)
PC: Not much!
DO: I did a very smart thing because, in the first week of rehearsals, I realized I was with two of the funniest people of all time so I thought I had to just be the straight guy. I can't be funny. I just have to lay back and give up. And, I did. It was the best thing I ever did! (Laughs.)
PC: It has that Disney bubble of a magical kingdom, too. A great set.
DO: Exactly. I had such a good time. Edward Hibbert, too. I had a wonderful time.
PC: What have you seen recently on stage that you enjoyed?
PC: Any musicals?
DO: I saw BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKON. I thought that was really a hoot.
PC: What do you think of real rock - of the 21st century - being on Broadway?
DO: I think it's really cool! I think it's really cool that Broadway has room for that. And, I think it's really smart. It's healthy to embrace all audiences. You don't want to alienate people. I think Broadway survives for a reason - because it is always evolving. Not everything is high quality and great ideas, but some things - like that - are just fantastic.
PC: Define collaboration.
DO: Wow! (Pause.) I guess collaboration, to me, means the process by which: you come to consensus; no one takes individual ownership; everyone is free from destructive forms of ego; and, your only goal is to produce the best work possible.
PC: Disney family films to ASSASSINS on stage to TRUE BLOOD on TV and epic big-budget popCorn Movies - you certainly do it all, Denis!
DO: I'm telling you... (Laughs.) Thank you, thank you.
PC: Did you ever think you'd hit this peak? A multi-hundred million dollar film in the can, the biggest villain on TV and starring in a brand new comedy on Broadway.
DO: You know, I always say that I'm a Capricorn and we're slow climbers. I'm 48 and I've never been in any hurry to get anywhere. I've just been really happy to work my entire life. I'm a little surprised of where I am, and I am incredibly grateful and I just hope that I get to continue to work.
PC: I can guarantee you that that is going to happen! You've never given a bad performance. This was awesome. Thank you!
DO: Thank you very much! Bye.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride/WM Photos