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Monday, March 22, 2010

Deeper Dish with Denis O'Hare

Photo credit: Alex Berg
I've been a fan of actor Denis O'Hare since I saw him in the play, Lloyd's Prayer, at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 1988. Since then he has appeared in such films as The Anniversary Party (2001), Milk (2008) and Edge of Darkness (2010) and on the television drama, Brothers & Sisters, as Rob Lowe's campaign manager, Travis March. The openly gay actor has also found great success on Broadway in the musical revivals of Cabaret (1998), Assassins (for which he received a Tony Award nomination in 2004), and Sweet Charity (2005). However, O'Hare's most memorable stage role has to be his Tony Award-winning performance as Mason Marzac, a gay business manager who falls in love with the game of baseball, in Richard Greenberg's play, Take Me Out (2003). He stole the show - even from the hunky naked actors taking a shower onstage.

And now Denis O'Hare's career is going to reach a pop culture high as he has joined the cast of HBO's hit vampire drama, True Blood, in which he will play Russell Edgington, the Vampire King of Mississippi in the upcoming third season. I can't wait to see him on the show - and I am delighted to have this amazing actor here on the Dish today to discuss his career and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let's begin with True Blood. Were you a fan of the show before you were cast?
I was a huge fan of the show and still am. I was introduced to the show via a bootleg VHS that had 4 episodes on it. My boyfriend Hugo and I started watching one Sunday night around 8 and by midnight we were so completely hooked that I was on the phone with Time Warner in New York begging them to give me HBO on Demand NOW. I have to watch the rest of season one NOW, don't you understand?

What can you tell us about your character, Russell?
Russell evolved through conversations with Alan Ball [the show's creator], lots of research and hikes with Theo Alexander who plays Talbot, my vampire boyfriend of 700 years. Initially Alan told me that Russell was pretty old and was very charming and had a southern accent. We decided eventually that Russell was older than the character of Godric and so that puts him at around the 2700-2800-year-old mark - he was "made" sometime in 800 BC. He's an ancient Celt. The Celts originated in the Carpathian mountains and then started migrating West in search of the bed of the sun. In 55 BC they were defeated by Julius Caesar in Gaul. So, obviously, Russell has worn many masks and his latest "incarnation" as a southern gentleman is just another mask.

Now let's go back a few years: How long did you live and act in Chicago?
I was at Northwestern from 1980-1984. I stayed after school and waited tables, bartended, temped, acted, and eventually moved to New York in 1992. I feel like I learned how to act in Chicago - doing doing doing plays - just trying on characters. I once did three plays overlapping at Court Theatre. It was Fuente Ovejuna, What the Butler Saw and Caucasian Chalk Circle (with the fantastic Linda Emond). I would rehearse one play during the day, nap in the back of the theatre on the floor and then perform at night. I was making two salaries, and I remember that I was like, "Whoaaaa, $800 a week - This is living!"

What was your favorite thing about living in Chicago?
Well, my least favorite thing was waiting for the North Avenue bus late at night in winter to go back to Wicker Park. I swear there were times when I thought, "Oh, I'm just going to die...I've got around seven minutes left in me and then that's it..."

As far as favorite things go: Ann Sather's cinnamon buns, of course. I used to go to free concerts on Wednesdays at the Chicago Public Library (the old one) and heard a bunch of great music - mostly pianists but sometimes singers. It would be me and 90 old ladies and this one very tall transvestite who always wore a red wig and a red dress. I lived in Wicker Park back in 1986 or so before it really was rediscovered. I loved the Busy Bee. Amazing sausage. Great bike-riding in Chicago.

What was your favorite show (or shows) that you performed back then?
Sneaky Feelings, which was a collection of 3 one-acts. I met Linda Emond on that show who remains a great friend. Also met Lisa Petersen who I am still working with to this day. Hauptmann by John Logan - I did it originally at Stormfield Theatre with Terry McCabe who remains one of my all-time favorite directors - a great guy. John Logan and I did four plays together in all - Never the Sinner, Hauptmann, Music From a Locked Room and Showbiz. I loved working with John - still do. I think my favorite had to be Hauptmann - just a great marriage of part and actor. I really do think that as actors, we are lucky to find a great fit with a part. If you find that great fit, anything is possible.

What is your fondest memory of performing in Take Me Out (besides all the guys in the shower)?
Oh, dear. So many. As far as the showers go, I really only saw those scenes once or twice. As I told one of the guys one day, "You know, first of all, I'm with someone - second of all, not all of you are my type and thirdly, I'm reading novels up in my dressing room - I don't have time to run downstairs every show to watch the shower scene."

My favorite memories of Take Me Out have to do with card games. Lots of card games backstage. I think we played Hearts mostly. I tried to teach them bridge but it was hard to concentrate with everyone running away to make entrances. I visited a lot of the guys in their dressing rooms, and we had many a lively political battles with the one Republican in the cast (I usually won).

Are you a baseball fan?
Nope. An opera fan.

Did you play the clarinet before you appeared in Cabaret?
Yeah - I actually was a musician for much of my life. I started playing clarinet in grade school and then moved on to oboe in high school. I still play the piano and the recorders - I've got aound three of them. I played violin for a bit - my uncle was a violinist with the Detroit Symphony. My mom was a church organist and pianist so I grew up playing the organ at home and in church. I was actually fired from a church organ gig when I was around 19 because the priest said I did not engender enough respect. Can you imagine? He was a schmuck - always playing golf and courting the richest parishioners. Ohhhh, let's not go down that path. But back to Cabaret - I was very rusty when we started up. Those first band rehearsals were so bad that we all used to crack up while playing and couldn't even get through the overture. Patrick Vaccariello, our brave conductor, would just continue smiling and conducting as if nothing were wrong. Hilarious.

You've appeared in many other interesting film, television and theatrical projects over the years. What is the first thing that pops into your mind about:

The Anniversary Party?
Love Jennifer and Alan.

A riot. That was really really fun. Sort of the perfect job.

Sweet Charity? Hmmmmm...hard but I'm proud of what we did. Christina is great.

Once Upon a Mattress (the 2005 TV movie)?
What can be better than having Carol Burnett and Tommy Smothers as your parents and Tracey Ullman as your love interest?

Brothers & Sisters?
Good people. Fun cast. Had some great guest directors - Ken Olin, David Paymer, Laura Innes just to name a few.

Oh my. My heart. Sean. Gus. Lance.

What are Cornell boxes? And how did you become involved in making them?
I first came across the idea of them in a novel - a William Gibson book called Mona Lisa Overdrive. I was so taken by the description of them that I started seeking them out and found that Chicago has one of the best collections in the country so I would go to the museum and feed on them. They are these sublime dioramas. Scenes. Little collages of life and attitude. I started making them during Cabaret as parting gifts when folks left the show. I continue to make them as gifts for most opening nights of plays I do. They are not always good. My favorites are Stephen Sondheim's box for Assassins and Ron Rifkin and Blair Brown's gifts for Cabaret. The boxes I made for Pig Farm are fun, and the Uncle Vanya boxes were all pretty great. When I did Major Barbara, I think I made around 25. They were all small but took a lot outta me.

In high school I was:

My favorite comfort food is:
Spaghetti and meatballs

The last good book I read was:
2666 by Roberto Bolano

When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
Bewitched, The Wonderful World of Disney, and Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett - all shown back-to-back on Saturday nights.

Today I never miss a television episode of:
Project Runway and Top Chef.

If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
The Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould - 1982 recording), Gulio Cesare - (Beverly Sills New York City Opera recording), Indian Raga music (vocal and instrumental), Joni Mitchell or k.d. lang - whichever one would come with me, Chopin Études Op. 10 & 25 (Clauio Arrau).

Three of my favorite movies are:
So hard to say. For instance, I used to say Annie Hall, but I think I saw it too many times and the last time I felt like, "Ohh, it's really dated". I think I can only talk about movies I've seen recently, like say in the past two years. So, with caution, I'd say In This World (Michael Winterbottom), Pather Panchali - The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray), and just to mix it up and reach far back into my childhood, I'd have to say Funny Girl. I used to tape movies - you know, put the old cassette recorder right there in front of the TV and then fall asleep listening to the tapes - dialogue, music, everything. I think I taped Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, Funny Girl and On A Clear Day.

If I could star on Broadway in any role in any musical or play, I would be:
Definitely would not be a musical. As far as plays go, I love new plays and even though I would kill to do any role in The Three Sisters or Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, I think it would be a role in a new play as yet unwritten.

If I could have anyone in the world - living or dead - be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
J.S. Bach, Charles Darwin, Caesar Augustus. I know they are all three fairly restrained people but I'd still love it. Oh and I'd make Sarah Palin be our waitress.

Photo credit: Alex Berg
If you could go back 25 years and give your younger self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
Calm the fuck down - it'll all work out.

What's next for Denis O'Hare?
Don't know really. I never really know. I've been working on this one-man version of Homer's Iliad with Lisa Petersen, and we are looking forward to finding theatres who are interested in producing it with us. I'd like perform it in a bar or a military base or even in a prison. That seems interesting to me. I love working in movies and am looking forward to a couple of movie projects that might happen in the summer - and, of course, if True Blood sees fit to keep me around, I'd love to continue working with those wonderful people. 

Thank you, Denis, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about Denis O'Hare, check out his groovy website at

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