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.
Pat Cerasaro is a playwright and screenwriter currently in pre-production on his first feature film.|