Getting down to earth with one of the scariest men on television
Meeting Denis O’Hare should be scary as hell. But today, in the back of homo-hotspot Saint Felix in West Hollywood on his day off, O’Hare doesn’t project the eeriness he does as a horny True Blood vamp and mysteriously deformed man who just suffocated a potential homebuyer on American Horror Story.
So far during the debut season of the smash FX show, O’Hare, who plays Larry Harvey, has dosed a house in gasoline, killed the-man-of-the-house’s mistress and fought fervently for a home that’s become a tough sell – and not just because the economy is sucking.
“Murder House,” as it’s called, is a freaky L.A. residence with a dark past and a new family: the Harmons, a threesome hopeful for a new start. But what’s up with the neighbors, including Jessica Lange’s crazy super-mom Constance? And who’s this Larry guy and why is this house so important to him?
O’Hare leans back after taking a sip of his cranberry/orange/seltzer water concoction – his “incredibly demanding diva drink” – and tells us. “I don’t think he’s evil. He’s acting out of a particular desire for something. For me, all characters have a justification for their behavior; they always think that what they’re doing is necessary for a reason. Even Phantom of the Opera has a real reason: He was in love with someone, he was scarred, he wants love and revenge.”
O’Hare, at this very moment, just wants some food. He orders a smorgasbord of nibblers that he eats in between talk of Ryan Murphy’s AHS, the upcoming season of True Blood and the new foster child he’s caring for with husband Hugo Redwood, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Holding his phone up, O’Hare flips through photos of his family, looking for the one of the kid flashing his happy-as-can-be grin. Like O’Hare’s partner, the actor’s nearly-1-year-old baby’s black, and when he comes upon one pic – of the boy atop O’Hare’s lap and a friend’s child, who’s white, sitting on Redwood – he finally breaks into a maniacal smirk.
“We’re the right wing’s worst nightmare,” O’Hare says. “Wrong colored baby on the wrong person’s lap – oh my god!”
And you thought Larry was scary.
Before getting the call from Ryan Murphy desperately wanting O’Hare to take on Larry, the actor was already doing creepy on True Blood as the ancient former vampire king of Mississippi, Russell Edgington.
Premiering this summer, season five sees the return of the Master of Nutcases, as the 2,800-year-old bloodsucker makes a return to the set after skipping out on the last go-’round. What’s to become of him after rising from the cement he was buried under?
“Nothing I can share,” O’Hare says, noting a recent lunch he had with out True Blood mastermind Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under. “We talked about what’s going to happen and I was definitely surprised. It’s good stuff. It’s always good stuff. With him, and with Ryan (Murphy), they don’t go to obvious places. They go where you wouldn’t expect them to go.”
And so does O’Hare. The actor, who’s actually so down-to-earth and non-creepy that he offers to share his food during our hour-long chat, is good at playing bad. He was relentless at getting Sandra Bullock kicked out of the country in rom-com The Proposal, and played way against type in Milk as Sen. John Briggs, who proposes a California ballot initiative to outlaw gay and lesbian teachers. Recently, O’Hare had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene in the Hoover biopic J. Edgar, a chance to work again with Clint Eastwood (O’Hare starred alongside Angelina Jolie in Changeling as, what do you know, a psych ward bad guy).
O’Hare, who turns 50 in January, got his start where most actors do: on the stage. Growing up in Michigan, he was in choir and, in 1974, landed a chorus part in a community theater production of Show Boat. Then it was Broadway, where he played in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in 2004, scored a Tony Award for his performance in Take Me Out and was part of the revival of Sweet Charity.
In January, O’Hare heads back to New York – and back to the stage. He’ll be doing An Iliad off-Broadway through March, when he returns to L.A. for True Blood.
The best part of being back in N.Y.? Seeing the family. He married Redwood, an interior designer, over the summer, and the two have been caring for their foster child since April.
“I could’ve gone to my grave without having kids, but I came around to liking the idea,” O’Hare admits, noting he warmed up to the thought after seven years of talks with Redwood. “As a gay man, I find my biggest stumbling block was my own homophobia, my own sense of feeling that gay people shouldn’t have kids. I felt pressure from society that we’re not supposed to have kids” – not to mention, he says, that once you do, it’s like wearing a gay yamaka – “and I was also shy about being a spokesperson for gay adoption.”
And now he’s the gushing father who’s looking for just the right pic to show off the kid’s smile. His foster child laughs a lot, but how could he not? “I speak to him in bad French,” O’Hare says, “and he dies.”
O’Hare’s encounters with gay couples and their kids helped him shake off his internalized homophobia, something he says is difficult to diagnose in ourselves, and he finally accepted the idea of having his own with Redwood. “It’s been normalized for me,” he says, deliberating. “But it’s like being married.
“It’s so hard to say the word ‘husband’ at first. I say ‘partner,’ and then suddenly realize if I say ‘husband,’ it might be aggressively political – but then it’s like, what the fuck? What else am I gonna say? He’s my husband. We are legally married.”
And how do other people react? “People are a little shocked at first, but they’re gonna get the fuck over it and pretty soon it’ll be normal – because it should be normal!”
Part of it, however, is that O’Hare doesn’t want everything about him to be “gay.” Especially not his acting.
“For me, an actor is an actor. Years ago someone said to me, ‘How do you feel about being a gay actor?’ I said, ‘I’m not a gay actor. I’m an actor. I’m Irish. I’m an atheist. And a bridge player. I ride my bike. Oh, and I’m gay.’”
He fits right in on the set of American Horror Story, one of the gay-friendliest projects he’s ever worked on. No surprise there: This is a Ryan Murphy production, after all. “I’ve met more female lesbian gaffers on Ryan’s show than I’ve ever met anywhere else in my life!” O’Hare says.
Because Murphy’s schedule is nuts, with Glee now in its third season, he doesn’t come around the AHS set often. But when he does, “he’s a great spirit” – no pun intended – “on the set. He’s the kind of guy who believes in a world of possibilities. He makes things happen.”
“Crazy” is what O’Hare calls the set, shot in the Paramount lot in L.A. right behind the infamous Hollywood Cemetery (as if the show wasn’t creepy enough).
“We never really know what we’re doing until the day before,” he says. “Everyone’s cool with it. The scenes, even when they’re intense, are fun.”
When O’Hare was sent the script directly from Murphy back in March, just a few weeks before shooting, he was immediately intrigued. The show takes cues from many of his favorite horror classics and the legendary names behind them: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi and Martin Landau.
“What I think is great about the show is that Ryan’s kind of consciously quoting from great works,” he says. “‘Don’t go in the basement’ is one of the biggest horror tropes, or ‘don’t open the door’ – they’re all horror tropes, and he’s using all of them in a really cool way. And I hear some people say, ‘Well, it’s unrealistic. Who’d stay in the house?’ That’s just a given. Let’s just let them stay in the house.”
Now he’s starting to sound a lot like Larry, who’s so insistent that the Harmons stick around you wonder what the dude’s got up his sleeve. “I think Larry has a very clear overarching goal, which is redemption and release,” O’Hare says, “and that is all tied up in the house.”
For O’Hare, the role requires three-and-a-half hours of makeup, transforming the actor’s face into the questionable burn victim and leaving O’Hare with half of his hearing and sight. On the first day of shooting, Murphy walked him through Larry’s limp and shriveled arm. “He’s got the vision in his head, so he had to be very clear about what we should to do,” O’Hare says, “and I like that about him – he’s a very clear director.”
That helps, but with True Blood, O’Hare knew what he wanted for Russell Edgington.
“I felt no need to make Russell act gay, because he is gay,” he says, adding that because the vamp’s so ancient, homosexuality didn’t even really exist then, “and I know as a gay man I don’t have to demonstrate that I’m gay. The fact that I’m sleeping with a man is the demonstration.”
And that’s gay?
O’Hare smiles big and non-creepy. “Not always, but for the most part.”