Denis O’Hare is one of the busiest actors on TV. You’ve seen him heaps of times – name a popular show, he’s been on it. Brothers & Sisters, several incarnations of Law and Order, The Good Wife and The Good Fight, This is Us, for starters. But it’s especially for American Horror Story (it got him two Emmy nominations) and True Blood that he’s in Sydney this weekend for Oz Comic-Con.
He spoke to us by phone last week from Brisbane, where he was doing that city’s Comic-Con.
You’ve said: "If something scares you, you have to do it.” What were you specifically talking about when you said that? “You know I was talking about [executive producer, co-director, co-writer] Ryan Murphy offering me the part of Liz Taylor in Hotel, season 5 of American Horror Story because it just wasn't a part I felt equipped to play. Nor was it one I’d ever imagined myself playing. And I was sort of like, oh God, I don't want to do that. But that lasted for all of five seconds and I said sure, absolutely, I’ll do it.
“I remember years and years ago a play I was offered about the Austrian painter Egon Schiele [1890-1918] in Chicago and I turned it down mostly because he's nuide in a lot of the play and I didn't really like his art, I still don't like his art, and the play was very scatalogical and explicit but I have to admit it's always felt like I was a coward, ever since then, I was like 23, and ever since then I've said to myself the next time something comes up that scares me like that I'm gonna do it, I'm not gonna say no. That's what that quote means to me.”
At what point did you get the confidence to grab the part of Liz with both hands? “I was tentative in imagining what I was going to do but the minute I got into my costume fittings I sort of arrived fully formed, like Athena coming out of the head of Zeus. I felt like I knew exactly what I was doing and the costumer and I, Lou Eyrich, such a great costumer, we did a little video, a snapshot of the character. I’d worked out a whole routine and they sent it round to Ryan Murphy and some of the producers and writers and they're like, oh, my God, we saw your camera test, and I said it wasn't a camera test, just me doing a little video. But I sort of knew exactly what I wanted to do the minute I got my head shaved and I got in my high heels and I got into my first great outfits.”
Did she feel strange or did she fit like a glove? “Strange, definitely. I'm a gay man and I've been out since 12 or whatever so I have no problem with my sexuality but I'm also a gay man of a certain era where it was very important not to be effeminate. I had to fight the survival fight of not letting people know what I am which meant eliminating any trace of any sign. So after all that survival training, I had to to toss it out the window and tell myself not to worry about showing any sort of feminine characteristics. I didn't really want to do it outside of the set. I explored it on the sat and I explored it in my dressing room but it wasn't something I found myself doing at home because this is very tricky territory for me, you know? Because historicqlly of where I am and who I am and how I had to confront my own identity in a culture that was not very helpful.”
One thing about marriage equality is that if I’m talking to someone who's married there's no question about their being out. In the past a journalist has had to tread carefully but to be married you have to be out and proud. “I agree. We got married in 2011, two days after the law became enshrined in New York, and we've been together 17 years, married six. I must admit I remember being on a plane with an old lady next to me and she says, oh, you're married? I say, yeah. And she says, is your wife not with you? And I just thought, oh, God, I don’t have the energy, it's six hours on a plane with her if this goes badly. So I just say, no, I'm traveling alone. So I lied by omission. But that's the only time I've done it.
“For the most part I just jump head-on in. If I’m talking with someone I might say, yeah, my husband's at home, and occasionally there's a flicker across somebody's eyes and they say, o-o-oh! But most times people don't. I've never had anyone react negatively. I am aware sometimes people shut down a little and I know some people assume saying that is some kind of aggressive act of politics. But it's just me answering someone. Other people get to say ‘my wife’ or ‘my girlfriend’ – I'm just doin' the same thing.
“I do feel being married is a huge political act and I do feel we’re forcing the culture to deal with us. It’s advanced our equality significantly over the past five, six years.”
What do you think of the situation with marriage equality here in Australia? “I'm shocked it isn't the law of the land already. It's hard to keep track which countries have gone this route. I'm hopeful it'll become the law of the land here. I’m a little stymied why it’s being done with this postal survey process because as we said in the US my rights are not up for popular vote. They're not something to be decided by someone's whim, you know, like I don't like pink, I don't like yellow. I hope it passes here. That would be amazing.
“But, you know, France is so forward-thinking in so many ways but in France as a gay couple you can't adopt. And Italy won't allow same-sex partners who have a child from a previous marriage to adopt that child. So all these countries have these bizarre sort of half-measures. Sure you can get married but you can't have kids. Sure you can be together but you can't call it marriage. It's just weird, kicking and dragging into the 21st century.
“Oh my God! The fear in America is it's gonna be taken away from us. I mean, we're all terrified at what's happening in our country. We're going backwards so fast it's hard to keep track of it.”
Brothers & Sisters broke a lot of ground with gay leading characters who didn't have to come out and explain themselves, they just existed. Sally Field had quite a hand in that and at the time no one knew she had her own son, Sam, in the process of coming out. “Yeah, that’s right. And David Marshall Grant, one of the show-runners and writers, is gay. Jon Robin Baitz, the creator of the show, is gay. I did a play of his and he's a very out and proud playwright turned TV writer. Ken Olin is a wonderfully committed person, he's not gay but he's incredibly fluent with everything in our country and our culture. You're right, it was done in a way that was organic, it just happened. A character in the family happens to be gay, move on, no big deal, what's next. And that was really refreshing.
“To me equality is when you don't bat an eye when someone says this is my husband and it happens to be a man, you don't bat an eye when a gay character is a serial killer. I’ve played lots of serial killers and most of 'em are straight but you know we gay people should have the luxury of being shallow and villains and behave just as badly as everybody else in TV. It's a huge burden for any identity group to have to behave as role models in a public forum because you're terrified it’ll bring shame on the whole lot of you.”
You’ve also said: "My art is my activism." How so? “I've always maintained that all of this, to use a buzz word, intersectionality can be used as a cudgel or it can be used as a key to understanding. It's always best when it's used to promote understanding, not looking at the world and saying I dare you to offend me. But you're looking at the world and saying, oh, here let me help you a bit, help you navigate. I’m an atheist, I’m a fierce liberal, I’m an Irishman, I’m a gay man, I’m a climate-change activist, I’m an advocate for the homeless. My big issues tend oddly enough not to be gay issues, I'm interested in equality and what we're doing to the planet.
“If someone asks me about being a gay actor I’ve always said, well, I'm an actor, I happen to be gay. I don't want to diminish either. I'm also a parent, you know, I'm not even a gay parent, I'm a parent. I find as a parent of a six-year-old my commonality with other parents has to do with our kids and that's pretty much it. It doesn't matter if they're gay parents or straight parents we have the same issues – kids don't sleep, kids are talking back to us, kids won't eat enough.
“I understand if you’re in a community where you're not getting support how vital it is to see role models. Being out is the proper form of activism but, personally, as a human being I have so much in common with other human beings I don't want to cut myself off from anybody. I think it was Seneca, the Roman philosopher, who said nothing human is alien to me.”
Which character have you enjoyed most, broke the most ground with, or brought you the most payback? “Liz was definitely the character where I finally got the chance to express the totality of a character. She was big enough in the season to have a full story, with a background, a love life, a trajectory, a death scene. But she wasn't the character I enjoyed playing most. She was a very painful thing to play, I dreaded a lot of whatever I had to do because it was painful, it cost me a great deal. you know.
“One of my favourite characters was Spalding. I just love Spalding. I understand him in a way I can't articulate I really love the fact I had no lines because my tongue had been cut out. It was such a great gift. People asked what are you gonna do, you have no lines? But, see, acting is not speaking, acting is reacting. So I had lots and lots of things to do. I loved choreographing physically what this character is thinking and feeling. It really was a great experience.”
Of all the wonderful shows you've been on and all those memorable characters it's going to be the guy without the tongue and the guy with the 13-inch penis and the trans guy dressed as a woman and the 3000-year-old gay vampire that people will want to meet at Comic-Con. “Absolutely. And I don’t mind. I love it. The thing is they're great acting challenges. You know, what you're asked to do when you're playing a 3000-year-old vampire whose lover of a thousand years was just reduced to goo and you felt it strike your soul from 15 miles away and you flew into the air and now you've landed and walked into the room! You know, that's acting! It's like Greek theatre. It really calls upon all your technical training and the fierceness of your imagination.
“Oddly enough at that moment I remember I was listening to Schubert's Die Winterreise, a piece I love, and I'd just seen it performed in LA so I had it in my head and on my iPhone and I’d play a couple of the songs from it, particularly dark and moving, and it really really put me in the right place.
“So you know the idea that it's a silly vampire show is just not correct. We're asked to play such massive emotions that you have to bring all of your chops to bear and that goes with all the characters on Horror Story. In season I adored that Larry had this monologue in the pilot talking about how he killed his family, he burned them alive, an incredibly moving monologue which I believed because Ryan Murphy never tells you anything and it wasn't until episode 7 I realised it was a lie – I didn't do it after all. I was like, what?!!
“And again, you know, having a scene where I get to see my dead children having a tea party and I confront my dead wife – that's really rare, again it's Greek, it's Shakespeare, you rarely get to confront that stuff as an actor. You're often asked to be a lawyer in a courtroom scene – that's got its colours but it just isn't as technically flourescent as some of the other stuff we're asked to do!”
What was Gaga like to work with? “Great. She has training as an actor, she went to NYU. She's a quick learner, she’s an incredibly hard worker, she put her mind to it. She never showed up unprepared, she came to play and we're a cast that's famous for not fooling around, going for it immediately, and she fit right in.”
What’s it like when you have a pick up a difficult scene after a break in shooting? “Well, funnily enough the director on Horror Story, whom I love but who I was so mad with at this time, said I had to go back after lunch to pick up a difficult scene with crying in it. I said, you've gotta give me a second here. So I got in a place and sat down and I just, well, it wasn't happening, it just wasn't happening, so I said forget it, just get Mike, he's my makeup guy, and get the menthol out. I'm not gonna sit here and make you all wait for me so I went out to find Mike. Well I couldn't find him and I thought, oh my God, he's not around and I said to the director give me literally three minutes, I just need silence. And they were amazing, the entire crew – you know, of 50 – were silent and I went and I found a place somewhere on the set and I just reconnected to whatever we’d been doing. You know, when you finish a scene you get rid of it, you know what I mean? You expel it from you body, it's done, and I’d done that so to have to get back to what I was doing . . . but I managed to get back there and I went back to my chair and I sat down, no one said a word, no one looked at me, the director put his finger in the air to indicate they should roll, we started rolling, no one said a word, we shot and that was it, we got it.
“I have to give kudos to the whole set because the cameraman, the props guys, the gaffer, the best boy, everybody was indulging an actor and allowing an actor some space and, you know, time is money on those sets, big money, and I was aware of that, and you know I was thinking this may not work, I mean I might not be able to get there but I think if I have three or four minutes I can do it and they let me do that and that was a real honour.”
- Oz Comic-Con Sydney is at the new International Convention Centre Darling Harbour, this Saturday and Sunday, September 30 and October 1. Details, tickets: here.