Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Before he became a utility player in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, Denis O’Hare was a staple in procedurals like Law & Order, where he was cast as everything but a hardened detective. Among all the variation, some clear trends emerge: O’Hare has a flair for the historic and Gothic. His versatility is hidden by an everyman quality, but it’s helped him land roles in everything from the supernatural (True Blood) to the biographical (Milk). But the Tony winner will also admit that he caught one of his first major breaks thanks to his beard and hair—or rather, lack thereof.
O’Hare now stars in PBS’ American Masters: Buried Alive—Edgar Allan Poe, which premieres tonight, in which he helps bring to life one of literature’s most controversial figures. But as we learned in our conversation with him, the actor doesn’t think that notoriety ever did Poe much good.
American Horror Story (2011-present): Larry Harvey/Spalding/Stanley/Liz Taylor/Dr. Elias Cunningham/William Van Henderson
The A.V. Club: It feels seasonally appropriate to tackle your recurring presence on American Horror Story.
Denis O’Hare: That was sort of out of the blue. Ryan Murphy just called me up—we had no prior relationship—and he said, “I want to give you a pilot,” and I read it, and I was really baffled. I didn’t quite get it, but I was intrigued by the idea, and there’s something about the monologue that he wrote that was so interesting, and I liked trying unusual broad characters, and so I signed up. I totally went for it.
AVC: Does being a part of a now-established world appeal to you? You get to work with a lot of the same people, but it’s always in different circumstances.
DO: You know, when I signed up for Murder House, it was not a known quantity. Nobody knew what it was. No anthology had been done in that way before, where the cast is the same, but the characters change—that had not been done. We had no idea what we were getting into, so it was the farthest thing from comforting, but I like taking risks. I’m not really attracted to establishment creations. I’d rather be in something that’s absolutely new. I was really interested by the idea of moving through this uncharted world.
AVC: How did that affect preparing for each new role? Because you went from a really off-putting look to full-on glam as Liz Taylor in Hotel.
DO: I think it differs for each role. Some characters are very dependent on the costume, makeup, and the look, you know? It’s a process of figuring out what people are like on the outside and determining what the character looks, feels like, how he moves, and then from there putting that character into the world, and how they behave. You’ve got a lot of considerations, a lot of versions of what you do.
I would try things out, audition things in the costume fitting, whether it was a movement, or a look, or a walk before we even shot a frame. Doing these promotional photographs, you’re forced to make quick, thumbprint decisions about who the character is, and that can be very helpful in a way, forcing me to quickly finding a character. I don’t need characters to speak to have impact. With Spalding in Coven, I was thrilled to not have lines to speak. I loved it.
AVC: Are you a big horror fan in general?
DO: I definitely like horror, but I have narrow tastes in what I consider interesting in horror. I like old-fashioned vampires, I like werewolves, I like Frankenstein. But I don’t like zombies. I don’t get them. I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead. I find it boring and repetitive. My thinking is [watching that] just “Run, run faster.” And I don’t like torture porn, never have. I don’t like Saw. I just don’t like shows where it’s mindless killing and gross-out horror. I like an intelligent, twisted, interesting villain, like the Phantom Of The Opera. You wonder, why does he have a mask? Why does he play the organ? Why does he live there? That’s interesting. A guy with a chainsaw cutting up co-eds having sex? It’s just not interesting to me.
A good ghost story I like as well. The Shining is an amazing movie. The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist—those are good movies. I really enjoy Stephen King novels, because there’s usually some sort of underlying myth or supernatural story going on, whether it’s an Indian burial ground or a car that is possessed. That’s all interesting to me.
AVC: What was it like playing the vampire king of Mississippi?
DO: You know, it was a great character. But as he was written in the books, he wasn’t as interesting, so I’m really happy that Alan Ball took the great thing that Charlene started and twisted it, and gave him something else. I love how powerful he was, I love the sense of humor, I love the sleaze and charm. I just thought it was such a great, unhinged, uninhibited character and so much fun to play.
AVC: Vampires are more interesting than zombies, but are they scarier?
DO: Here’s my take on zombies. They’re brainless. You can’t talk to them, you can’t interrogate them. They have no decent stories, no empathy, no struggle. A good story, a good villain, has a struggle. They have something going. The vampire struggle is simple—they can’t go out in the sunlight—but that’s an amazing obstacle. What does it mean to never be able to see the daylight again? There’s a romantic longing about that. With vampires, there’s an automatic attraction to them even though we know that they are deadly and horrible. There’s a tension that’s built into the very creation of the vampire. It doesn’t work with a zombie. Nobody wants to have a sex with a zombie.
AVC: I think there was recently a romantic comedy about zombies called Warm Bodies, where someone human fell in love with a zombie.
DO: Oh sure, and 28 Days Later is a great movie, there’s no doubt about it. So there are definitely exceptions.
AVC: True Blood had a serious concentration of vampires in one town. Did that cause any confusion behind the scenes? Did you ever put on someone else’s fangs?
DO: Oh, no, no, no. They were all custom-made so you couldn’t. We used both hard fangs and soft fangs. The hard ones were porcelain and very sharp and dangerous, and the soft fangs were not quite as well made, but you could still bite somebody with them. In the very last episode I was shooting, I got killed by Eric [Alexander Skarsgård], and I was out in a field. In one of the last takes, I gritted my teeth too hard—I was making some kind of motion or grimace, and I snapped one of my fangs off. They’re not too replaceable. They would take at least four or five days to make, and they’re really expensive. I was like, “Oh, my god. We’re done with my close-ups because I just broke my fang.” I had to shoot with the soft fangs, which unfortunately don’t look as good on camera.
Law & Order; Law & Order: SVU; Law & Order: Criminal Intent (1993-2013): Various roles, including Phil Christie and James Smith
AVC: You’ve also had multiple roles across multiple Law & Order series. Did that help prepare you for American Horror Story?
DO: It’s funny, because that’s the thing about being a character actor—you start to think how often can you show up as other people before somebody goes, “Wait a minute, weren’t you the priest he killed?” There’s an upper limit of how much of that you can do, and I think I definitely pushed the envelope. I think there were seven [parts] between all the franchises, and I was definitely a priest twice, so that’s confusing.
But as an actor in New York, being in Law & Order was kind of a rite of passage. Everybody wanted to be on it at least once, and a bunch of us were on more than once, and there are some very iconic performances from some great U.S. actors. I did one of mine with Ann Dowd, who’s a major actor now. She played my sister in one of my favorite episodes [“Pro Se”], and she went on to win an Emmy for The Handmaid’s Tale. I was so happy, but also so proud that Ann and I intertwined early Law & Order careers. She’s also from Chicago, and I started out in Chicago.
AVC: In the “Nullification” episode of Law & Order, you played this militia man, Phil Christie, who’s along the lines of Cliven Bundy. That story was obviously ripped from a much earlier headline, but it’s interesting to look back and see how that resonates today.
DO: The episode title was made up of two ideas. One was that private citizens have guns, something that I’m opposed to, by the way. And I couldn’t have disagreed more with the character’s rationale. Then the other idea was nullification, that [as the jury] you would refuse to acknowledge the authority of the court, another idea I find abhorrent. But, as an actor, it’s a good story. It’s a good character, it’s well-written. If there’s an intellectual rigor to it, I’m totally down. I will play a character I disagree with and do my best to represent them properly and not make fun of them.
AVC: This was your first TV role.
DO: That was 1993, I think it was. There were so many great things about doing that show. I remember that David Hare directed the episode. I’m like, “David Hare, the playwright?” And so of course I was interested. I think the reason they cast me was because I had my head shaved and I had a weird beard, so I looked kind of odd and like somebody who could fit into that ’20s era. I had a look that appealed to them. I never auditioned, I never met the people there. I was terrified throughout, thinking, “I don’t even know the people I’m working for. What if they don’t like me? What if I’m terrible? What if I can’t do this?” I’m a theater actor, and I started off in the theater, so I didn’t really understand the process of TV.
So I spent the entire time basically terrified, but I got to meet some crazy amazing actors. I worked with Cyril Cusack, Joseph Summers, Jeroen Krabbé, Michael Maloney, Michael Kitchin. They’re all interesting, fantastic actors.
AVC: Your first big movie role, and it’s a Woody Allen movie. But it was also the first time you worked with Sean Penn.
DO: Yes, I ended up working with Sean later on Milk and 21 Grams. I think he’s a really interesting guy and a really fantastic actor, and I’ve always been very impressed with the way he works. Woody Allen is eccentric and he’s crazy. I wasn’t—we didn’t become friends. I found that process very constipated. I felt like I had my wings clipped on return, and it wasn’t ultimately an incredibly joyous experience. I’m happy to have been in it. I’m happy I have one Woody Allen movie. I don’t think we’re a match made in heaven.
AVC: The movie has a great ensemble, with John Waters and Uma Thurman.
DO: And Samantha Morton who is just fantastic. It’s actually a really interesting story, and I think the movie was really good. I really do play clarinet and had been on Broadway. So I got to play a little during the shoot. That was fun for me, being able to play a musician.
AVC: In Milk, you played a real-life bigot and politician, John Briggs. How does portraying real events differ for you? Do you prefer something more historical to the fantastical?
DO: I spend a lot of my time reading history, so I like doing these kinds of projects. The challenge of playing a historical character, it’s always a little bit tricky. You can’t just make him be shallow, where all you’re doing is grabbing their dominant characteristics and repeating [them] ad nauseam. That’s not a real character. That’s a facsimile of a character. We always have to go to the family, and with someone like John Briggs, I had a lot of video to watch, and I would study it and try to get his voice and try to get his mannerisms, but ultimately I had to figure out what animated the man.
It’s less about impersonation than it is finding out what makes him tick. And again, I don’t believe in judging a character. You have to always be in the thought of a character. So you know, I’m a gay man, and I was playing a pretty disgusting homophobe. I had to find what I could understand about what animated him. I homed in on something that was his concern, even if it was an ignorant concern. He bought into this idea that gay teachers would be harmful to students, and therefore his motivation was to protect students. It’s just like with Anita Bryant. Anita Bryant is a horrible human being who did damage to a lot of people, but I don’t believe she was evil, because I believe she was motivated by a misguided sense of purpose. She really did believe that she was affecting and helping people, even though she was, again, ignorant and misguided. In a question of a character like that, you have to come from a point of view of how can I understand them? How can I get behind this in a way that works for me?
AVC: You’ve been in several LGBTQ-centered works, from Dustin Lance Black’s miniseries When We Rise to Dallas Buyers Club, which delved into the history of AIDS treatments. Is it important for you to help shine a light on this part of our history?
DO: On the one hand, I say yes to projects that are just good projects. I’m happy to be part of them. They just happened to coincidentally be about things I care about. Dallas Buyers Club is an interesting example, because while I think it is an interesting exploration of the AIDS epidemic, it certainly wasn’t the dominant story. Straight people were not particularly affected by AIDS for the most part during that time, and so to tell [Ron Woodroof’s] story is maybe a little perverse, because it’s such a small part of the overall experience, and that character was a conspiracy theorist who I disagreed with. We definitely butted heads over the script early on, because they consulted an HIV denialist, and they explored the idea that AIDS is not caused by HIV, which is garbage science.
That’s an odd project in terms of telling the truth, because there was a real tension in the script and the selection of that very subject. I got in trouble for talking about it, by the way. The publicist on the movie they gave to me wants me to backtrack on something I said, and I was like, “You’re asking me to recant? No.” Because I was playing a doctor, and they’re trying to make the doctor the villain. I kept pointing out this is the way culture works, we have a thing called double-blind studies for a reason. If you give everybody medicine with no placebo, you can’t measure the effect, and that character is not the victim here. They made their point in the credits ultimately that AZT did end up being effective, even though it was toxic at the beginning. The movie played fast and loose, I thought, with some things, and it irritated me.
AVC: I remember reading after the movie came out that doctors later learned that they just had to change the dosage. They were desperate to find some kind of treatment, so they prescribed too high a dosage early on.
DO: The director, Jean-Marc Vallée, was so amazing, but my big argument was with the writers. I kept saying that my character wasn’t the villain—he was just doing his job. What they were doing was ultimately the way the system works. You can get mad at big pharma and say big pharma shouldn’t make money off of drugs, but they do, and they’re not going to develop drugs if they don’t make money off of them. That’s just a reality. The government wants to take that horrible business and fund it. You’re not going to get a private organization to be a charitable organization at the same time.
AVC: Here you played kind of a fictionalized version of John Landgraf, the president of FX. He’s quite a character—he’s almost as recognizable a figure as some of the folks on his shows.
DO: I loved doing that. I loved that whole project. I love John. I felt very shy about in any way doing a version of him, but he’s such a good sport. I thought the writing about him was so good. Again, I wasn’t trying to do an impersonation of him. I was trying to do a version of a character who’s like him, but I definitely studied a lot of his mannerisms and studied a lot of his video footage. I think he’s a remarkable guy, by the way. I love that whole project so much.
AVC: You also have this pair of films you’ve made with Clint Eastwood, also based on real-life stories. What was it like working with him?
DO: I love him. I had a great time with him. I think he’s a really gentle soul to be around and really knows how to let actors do their job. He had a lot of confidence in us. He was a little enigmatic. You have to come with your own plan in many ways. He doesn’t labor or give you a lot of notes, but I really like working for him. I love Angelina Jolie. I think I’ve done a couple movies with her. She’s such a committed, confident actor, and a real pleasure to be around and to work with. Amy Ryan, who’s a friend of mine, was also in [Changeling]. It was fun to be slapped by her. And I did J. Edgar just because I wanted to be involved in a project again with him.
AVC: This has another fun ensemble, with Parker Posey, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Alan Cumming—who directed—and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I understand it was shot under some serious time constraints, but it doesn’t look that way at all.
DO: That was a notable movie for a lot of reasons. One was it was one of the first movies on digital in using the new lighting setups. I’m wanting to say John Bailey did the lights.
We all stayed in one big house, with a shared dressing room. A very communal closet. It was very family oriented. It was a great atmosphere for a set. I love Alan, I love Jennifer, I really enjoyed it. I think I got a little overwhelmed, because I had not done that many movies, and I still didn’t quite know what I was doing, but it was a really great experience to watch other people work at the same time. Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, my friend John Benjamin Hickey was in it. I have a really fond memory of that.
AVC: There’s a plot point where they end up taking ecstasy, which is an interesting place for an anniversary dinner to go.
DO: Well, it’s funny. When they offered me the part, they were like, “Hey, we’re writing a part for you in our movie. It’s about an angry sober guy.” I said, “Oh, you thought of me, because I’m sober and I’ve been known to have a bit of a temper.” So it was great for me because I was not into drugs, and I don’t take drugs. I’ve been in those situations many times where I’m the odd man out, and it’s not fun. I find it really boring. So there wasn’t a whole lot of acting involved. I was able to really channel what I really experience, which is complete isolation around a bunch of people on drugs, and the people on drugs think they’re interesting and they’re not. To the sober guy, they’re really boring.
AVC: Now this is just a tad weepier than some of your other TV projects.
DO: I do think that this is a show that’s earned its tears. I don’t think it’s maudlin or overly melodramatic. It creates situations and characters that we really empathize with and that make us feel. I think that’s a great achievement for TV.
AVC: It’s certainly clicking with a whole lot of people every week.
DO: I’m a little bit, I think, surprised at its scope. It’s funny, because there are all these twists and flashbacks, but I’m set to come back in November at some point, I think. I hope that happens, because I would love that.
AVC: You were a fan of Poe’s before you were approached?
DO: Oh god, yes. I’m definitely a big Poe fan—mostly his short stories, not so much his poetry. I was always a very precocious reader. I was reading very complicated literature by the time I was 6, 7. There was a series called Drama In Real Life, and it was probably around a 10-page story, but they were for adults. And as a 6-, 7-year-old, I was reading them. I graduated to Poe when I was 7 or 8 probably. Not that I understood everything I read, but I took up reading Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit when I was about 9 or 10. Some pretty adult novels when I was about 8 or 9, I remember.
AVC: Something the docuseries addresses is how some of the misconceptions of Poe came to be. Basically, his literary rival wrote his obituary, which helped shape that mythology of Poe being this unhinged, unsavory fellow.
DO: Poe was obviously a complicated person, and there’s more than one view on him. I do think that Rufus Wilmot Griswold did a huge disservice to him. They always say don’t speak ill of the dead, but I don’t agree with that, and certainly Griswold didn’t agree with that either. He spoke ill of the dead specifically.
All that being said, there’s a lot of evidence out there that Poe was a pretty polarizing figure. It’s not just Griswold. There’s a lot of people who had evidence of being crossed by him, or this is saying one of his drunks or being at a salon in New York where he melted down. He showed up drunk on his tour at one point when he was giving lectures. It wasn’t just Griswold. I think the context the movie makes, which is a strong point that the very first version of history, and these are the ones that stick in people’s minds. Griswold created a caricature of the man.
AVC: At the Television Critics Association summer press tour’s Buried Alive panel, Poe was described as being the “Justin Bieber of dinner party guests.”
DO: I think the point was well taken, that it’s hard for us to understand the scope of his fame. It’s tough for us to understand exactly how widespread his reputation was in the popular culture. There was, I think in a biography I read, some certificate about the fact that almost every school child from 1849 on read “The Raven.” You ask kids today in grade school, high school who Edgar Allan Poe was, they’ll probably come up with something, and they’ll probably come up with “The Raven.” It’s a pretty amazing feat that even to this day this man is so well known. He really was a rockstar, someone that everybody knew. Everybody could quote him. But the problem with patent law and copyright law at that time was that nothing was protected, so people just ripped it off.
AVC: It says a lot about how we think about our legacies, whether or not we’re famous. No one really expects to be remembered 300 years later, right?
DO: I’ve always found Poe’s return of fame pretty irrelevant. He lived a miserable life, he died poor and unhappy, and it doesn’t do him do any good that we’re talking about him today. It doesn’t do him any good at all, and the fact that his Aunt Muddy who survived him, she also had a miserable existence after he lived, and his sister Rosalie who survived him had a miserable existence. They got no money from “The Raven.” They got nothing from it. So many people who have created things haven’t benefited, but the traders, the agents, the experts, the critics have made money off of them, and I find that appalling.