Metro Weekly

Scream Queen: An interview with AHS Hotel’s Denis O’Hare

American Horror Story grand dame Denis O’Hare spills his guts about coming out, working in horror and heels, and life on the set with Lady Gaga.

American Horror Story Hotel - Denis O'Hare by Frank Ockenfels-FX

Denis O’Hare is gradually getting used to the heels.

“It’s a learning curve,” he says. “Stairways are treacherous. But I have to say I’ve gotten to the point where I almost don’t notice it. I’ll be in them and I’m actually not aware that I’m in them.”

O’Hare is part of the regular, go-to ensemble on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, having appeared in four of the five series. He played the facially-burned, mysterious Lee Harvey in the inaugural season, Murder House, following it two years later in 2013 with a gripping, disturbing performance as the verbally-challenged Spaulding in Coven. Last year, he created Stanley, a gay man with a rather sizable appendage and less-than-savory plans for the denizens of a travelling “freak show.” He received an Emmy nomination for his performance.

“I loved playing Stanley,” says O’Hare from his home in Los Angeles. “He was, to my mind, a version of the American spirit. He had that sort of ‘can-do, anything is possible, reinvent yourself, make the most of your life, pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ feeling that can turn into hucksterism. And Stanley didn’t kill anybody. He never laid a finger on anybody. Which people forget. He simply used his gift of gab and his logic and his persistence to get people to do things. In essence, he didn’t commit any crimes. That, to me, is the dark side of American ingenuity. He was Paper Moon gone wrong.”

Stanley was arguably O’Hare’s most chilling performance on the series to date — the banality of the character’s evil the undercurrent that provided Freak Show its gravitas, its tragedy. Until now.

In AHS: Hotel, O’Hare has been awarded the plum role of Liz Taylor, a towering, turban-sporting, cocktail-dress wearing figure whose full purpose to the whacked-out narrative has yet to be revealed. For the moment, Liz is lurking quietly, nefariously in the background, often judging the actions unfolding around her with an exaggerated lift of her thickly-mascaraed eyelids. Though Elizabeth Taylor is her namesake, Liz is equal measure Agnes Moorehead. O’Hare is unwilling to reveal any of Liz’s secrets, and will only tease with, “She’s got some good stuff coming up with Lady Gaga in episodes 5 and 6.”

An out actor since the start of his career, O’Hare has made a career out of forging memorable characters. “I’m a character actor,” he says. “My bread and butter is to basically inhabit anything.” His formidable credit list includes True Blood, on which he played a gay vampire, the films Milk and Dallas Buyer’s Club, and a regular stint as the liberal leaning Judge Abernathy on The Good Wife. O’Hare is also no stranger to the stage. He’s won two Tonys in his Broadway career, one in 2003 for his turn in Richard Greenberg’s gay baseball dramedy Take Me Out, and another in 2012 for his solo work in An Iliad.

But it’s television — and its power of immediacy and narrative — that currently has his tell-tale heart.

“I think movies right now are in a terrible state,” he says. “If I see one more Marvel Comics movie, I might kill myself. They’re so boring. I don’t understand the obsession with the Marvel Comics universe. And yet all the money is being sucked into those productions. And where is the amazing, cutting-edge, transformative filmmaking?” It’s on television, he posits. “We have these amazing creative minds like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes bringing new universes into birth.”

Still, even television has its downside.

“It speaks to our ever-shrinking attention-span,” says the easy-going, soft-spoken actor. “If you can’t sit for 20 minutes between commercial breaks and just watch something, what does that say about your ability to truly take it in? We, as artists, are trying to weave a spell. And part of that means that you have to pay attention, unbroken. That’s something a movie still can do. When you’re sitting in a movie for two hours at a stretch, you’re not getting up, you’re not tweeting, you’re not reading your email. But watching TV at home in your living room, god knows what you’re doing. You’re playing Candy Crush, you’re checking out your email, you’re tweeting while you’re doing it. You’re not getting the full experience.

“I have a hard time watching American Horror Story with friends when I’m at home,” he continues, “because if anybody speaks or anything, I’m like, ‘Shut up! Be quiet!’ As an artist, I want it to be experienced in a certain kind of way. At the same time, there’s an ownership quality to it when fans tweet immediately, when fans are so excited that they want to discuss things with their friends and want to jump in. That enthusiasm is not a bad thing. It generates a sort of cultural focus, which also doesn’t exist in films.”

As for Liz, he’s clearly having the time of his career — particularly with her tight-fitting, sequined apparel.

“It’s tough when we costume her,” he says, “because I have a bald head and I have big shoulders and I’ve got big hands — I’m not necessarily a feminine looking guy. I would say forty percent of what we put on we have to throw away because it just doesn’t work. But when we find the right thing, it’s just delicious.”

METRO WEEKLY: You grew up in a suburb of Detroit. What was your childhood like?

DENIS O’HARE: In many ways, it was extraordinarily ordinary. I have no regrets about my childhood. I have no bad memories. I had a pretty wonderful childhood. I am fourth of five kids, and I had a really great family.

That being said, I think I started displaying little signs of eccentricity, despite my parents attempts to keep me on the straight and narrow. I started playing organ when I was five. I just sat down and started playing, without really any lessons, by ear. I became a classical music freak at about six, because of “Peter and the Wolf,” which my parents had an LP record of. I used to conduct the orchestra in my living room. I would make up the signs for the different musical instruments and then point to them and “conduct” them.

I was hospitalized at eight for a weird ear infection and while there, I was given a book called Knowledge of the World. It was sort of a weird encyclopedia — a little bit of every language, every musical instrument, every flower, every tree. I read it cover-to-cover and vowed to play ten musical instruments and speak ten languages before I died. I wanted to work for the U.N. and be a translator. By the time I was about 12 or 13, I wanted to build my own harpsichord because I was deeply in love with Johann Sebastian Bach, and I wanted to emulate him. I played clarinet in grade school and oboe in high school. I took up vocal lessons and studied opera. I was accepted to the University of Michigan’s voice department as an opera student.

MW: Very musically inclined.

O’HARE: Yes, but I was also acting this whole time. I had fallen in love with acting at eight and started doing school plays. I was a pig my first venture out. My mom made me a Campbell’s Soup can nose — that was disgusting. I was also a heavy kid — what they call husky. So I was very aware of my weight and my look. Playing a pig was not the best way to launch your career.

MW: You came out in high school during the ’70s. That really wasn’t as heard of back then. I can only think of one gay student in my high school, and I’m not sure he was even fully out.

O’HARE: I knew what I wanted at five. I also knew to keep my mouth shut. Which is a strange thing to know that, at five, but I knew enough just to not tell anybody. I was messing around with my first boyfriend at 12. By the time I got to high school, I just wanted to start talking about it. I couldn’t handle it anymore. Part of what helped me was the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Because that was a milieu in which to express yourself and be accepted — the guy on screen is being celebrated as a transvestite and he was in love with a bodybuilder. It felt like it was kind of okay to be gay.

MW: How did coming out go at the time?

O’HARE: Both badly and alright. The badly part was that I came out to my psychology teacher, a man I will never forget — Mr. O’Brien — and I’ll name him because I hate him to this day. This was a Catholic boy’s high school, so there was also that going on. I’ll never forget, our psychology textbook, when they discussed homosexuality, showed a picture of a man flashing kids in a playground. That was the picture that went with homosexuality in a psychology textbook.

This guy was a psychologist and he was secular, I figured he would be at least broad-minded enough to listen to me. So I had a very intense conversation with him. I was 16 or 17, I honestly don’t remember. And I did a roundabout discussion where I told him I was having problems with girls. And he said, “Well, did you get somebody pregnant?” And I remember saying, “No, it’s the opposite.” And he was like, “What’s the opposite of getting someone pregnant?” I was like, “Uhhhhh,” trying to hint at anal sex or something. And when he finally got it, he was so horrified, he stood up and told me to shut my mouth and said to never talk about it again with anybody, ever. And then he walked away and left me there. That was the only adult interaction I had.

I came out to my best friend at the time, and he did not take it well. He was straight. But I also had a best friend who was gay who went to a rival high school. So we had this great support system. And my other best friend, who went to a different high school as well, he also was my support system — and my one-time lover. So I did have people who were with me in the same boat. And that gave me the courage more than anything, because I knew I had a ready ear, I knew I had compatriots. I knew I definitely wasn’t alone.

MW: It’s really alarming how the school psychologist reacted. It seems counterintuitive to his profession.

O’HARE: Well, you know, this is a high school where the swim coach taught psychology, the basketball coach taught religion, and the football coach taught history. This is the same football coach who told me that the Wall of Berlin was the Iron Curtain. And I told him, “No, the Iron Curtain is a metaphor and the Wall of Berlin is actual physical reality.” And he told me I was wrong, and made me come up to the front of the class and do 20 pushups.

MW: How did it go with your parents?

O’HARE: Not well. It was a long journey. I will say that today things are remarkable. I came out to my dad when I was a sophomore in college. It could not have gone worse. It was rough in the beginning. My mother’s no longer here — she died in 2008 — but accepted me a long time ago. She spent my high school years prodding me, trying to get a rise out of me by bringing up things like Anita Bryant — “That Anita Bryant certainly is doing good work in Florida” — and see what I would do. I remember I came home with Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar at one point and proudly threw it on the kitchen table. And my mother was smart enough to realize what it was. She was horrified that I was reading Gore Vidal, but also that Gore Vidal book.

MW: But things improved.

O’HARE: Yeah, things did improve. The one thing about Irish Catholics is that it would never cross their minds to cut off ties to their family. Family comes first. Family comes before country, before religion, before everything. And my father never ever, ever, ever gave me any indication that he would reject me. He was certainly struggling with it, but he never stopped loving me and made that abundantly clear to me. Within, I would say, four years he was staying with me and my boyfriend in Chicago in our house. And to this day, my husband Hugo and I stay in their house in the same bedroom together. He’s accepting of my son — he considers him his grandson.

MW: Looking back, was it worth coming out at an early age during that era?

O’HARE: I don’t think I had a choice, you know? I have a weird sort of integrity — I feel like I have to be truthful. In the case of high school, I couldn’t hide it anymore. And in terms of coming out to my father, I didn’t want to take his money anymore if I felt like I was taking it under false pretenses. So I would rather he cut me off my sophomore year in college knowing what I was, than to lie to him, take his money and then tell him later. If he was going to help me for college, I wanted him to help me knowing who I was.

MW: Could you have, at the time, even conceived of the advances we’ve made in the past 40 years?

O’HARE: No, absolutely not. I’ve been alive long enough to have seen a strange evolution. When I was growing up, the role models were Paul Lynde, or the characters from The Boys in the Band, or Doctor Smith from Lost in Space. That was the landscape — these very effete, bitter, acerbic, witty people. There was no other role model. And even then I was confused because that didn’t fit naturally on my body. That wasn’t quite what I was, but I figured, “Well, that’s what I have to be.” And if you look at Boys in the Band, which was a product of its time, it predicted for us a life of bitterness, unhappiness and loneliness. That’s what our future was. So to now be married and have a kid is pretty extraordinary.

But before we go patting ourselves on the back, let’s not forget that we have a country where people are trying to enfranchise religious discrimination against us. We still don’t have protections on the federal level to be fired from a job. We don’t have protections on the level of housing. We have people like Kim Davis who can openly mock the law and get away with it. And we have people who, every day, say awful things about us in public. On the radio. On TV. So we’re definitely not at a place of full equality. I still live in a world where I see people change their attitude toward me when they find out I’m gay. In conversation, they’ll say “Oh, you’re married. What’s your wife’s name?” And I go, “It’s not a wife, it’s a husband.” It’s a subtle shift. Not always, but enough times to make me feel like “Oh, okay, this is still a thing.”

MW: Do they visibly disparage it?

O’HARE: I’m alien. I’m not like they are. I’m different. Whatever commonality they thought they had with me has now been suddenly shifted in that revelation.

MW: Matt Damon recently made that statement about actors, claiming that gay actors should not disclose their sexuality because it ruins their their ability to play things and could impact their careers. You’re a gay actor, yet being out doesn’t seem to have impacted your career at all.

O’HARE: I love Matt Damon. I love his work. And I like his politics. I agree with him on most issues. I take the spirit of what he was saying, but rather than focus on Matt I think we should focus on the larger society.

In many ways, Matt is emblematic of the struggle that we still have to overcome, which is that we’re not the defaults, we’re the other. The default is straight. And that’s what Matt was, I think, unintentionally giving voice to. He’s representing in many ways the mainstream culture which still sees us as different. And you know, just like white privilege doesn’t know that it’s white privilege, straight privilege doesn’t understand that it’s straight privilege. It’s hard for them to feel it. I’m not angry at him, I don’t castigate him at all. I think if anything, it’s very helpful to realize that even someone as enlightened as Matt, as a straight man, is living in a world of straight privilege. And doesn’t understand that of course he’s out — he’s out as a straight person.

I don’t think Matt was being prescriptive — I think he was being descriptive. He was just telling it like it is. And I think he’s right: a young, leading man, who is 25, coming out may have an adverse impact on their career. I never had to make that choice because I’m a character actor. My job is to disappear into my character — I’m not asking the audience to imagine being in love with me. But if you’re a 25-year-old male actor and you’re playing a romantic lead, you’re asking the audience to be in love with you. Still, I’m not sure that it makes a difference — I don’t think it’s hurt Matt Bomer, for instance. But I think Matt Damon did us a favor in pointing out that there are certain attitudes that still exist in straight culture. And that even someone as great an ally as Matt can still be unaware of his own straight privilege.

MW: It’s occurred to me that this season of American Horror Story has the highest percentage of out opening-credit actors I’ve ever seen in a single show — you, Matt Bomer, Cheyenne Jackson, Sarah Paulson. And, of course, the creator Ryan Murphy is gay. It feels like the gayest show on television. When you have that many out actors on the set, is there a different kind of feel to it, a different kind of camaraderie?

American Horror Story Hotel - Denis O'Hare 1 by Suzanne Tenner-FX

Denis O’Hare in American Horror Story: Hotel – Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

O’HARE: What I’ll say is that I’ve noticed that sets in general over the past 20 years have changed remarkably. I don’t think that American Horror Story is any different. The Good Wife set is remarkable — it’s a fantastic working environment. True Blood is a remarkable set — very, very comfortable. It’s been a long time since I felt like a set was in any kind of way homophobic or scary. It’s been a cultural evolution. In California in general, the Teamsters — the crew guys — are great. I wasn’t quite as comfortable when we were shooting [AHS: Coven] down in New Orleans. But nothing bad ever happened and they were lovely people. So I would love to be able to say that American Horror Story is better than this or that set, but I think it’s not.

That being said, it’s nice to have somebody else on set with you who knows your shorthand. If I’m sitting with Evan Peters and Wes Bentley, I’m as comfortable as I am sitting with Matt Bomer and Cheyenne Jackson. It’s a pretty extraordinary group of people. I’ve never felt any sense that I have to change who I am now because of who I’m sitting with.

In terms of gay sensibility, I agree with you, it’s obviously because it has a gay creator that there is more of an opportunity to tell stories that are outside the straight and narrow. I would liken it to Shondaland. That when you have a black showrunner [like Shonda Rhimes] suddenly you have access to a wider pool of stories and that person is going to naturally gravitate toward stories that other people might not. I don’t consider How to Get Away With Murder or Scandal black shows by any means, but because Shonda is running these shows, we have a greater diversity in terms of storyline and a greater diversity in terms of casting and maybe even writers. I think that’s fantastic.

MW: We’re only a few episodes in, but there seems to be a strong emphasis on children in AHS: Hotel.

O’HARE: One of the most revolutionary things about what’s happened to Ryan Murphy in the past three years is he’s become a parent. And more than anything I think that American Horror Story is obsessed with children — and obsessed with the relationship between children and parents. The little vampire kids Lady Gaga has are surrogate children. There will be another child later in the show. Wes’ character’s relationship with his missing son is the driving sadness in his relationship. Chloe Sevigny’s character is a pediatrician. My character of Liz has a backstory coming up, which I don’t want to spoil. There is this huge new concern that Ryan has with kids. And a lot of the writers have kids and, oddly enough, a lot of the actors have kids. Matt Bomer’s got three kids. I have a kid. Wes Bentley has two kids. All of our kids are young. We spend a lot of time on the set talking about our kids.

MW: Speaking of kids, how old is Declan?

O’HARE: Four and a half.

MW: Are you taking him trick or treating?

O’HARE: Oh, of course. He loves dress up. He’s way into costumes. He’s been a Spider-man freak for two years and I think he’s just moving off Spider-man and now he’s moving into Star Wars. I think he’s going as a Stormtrooper.

MW: Are you one of those no candy parents, all healthy options like raisins and nuts?

O’HARE: [Laughs.] Oh, no. He gets candy. We tried, we tried, but you can’t stop it. It’s a tidal wave. We have a whole jelly bean reward system worked out with him. He’s very candy fixated.

MW: Your work on AHS is impactful in that each of your characters has been so absorbing in their own way, but Liz seems to be out of another world entirely. Can you talk a little bit about portraying Liz?

O’HARE: The first thing I’ll say about her is that she knows exactly who she is. And with that comfort and that security comes power. And she’s an incredibly powerful person and character because she has no secrets from herself — she’s not lying on any level. She is able to see others really clearly, and to articulate what they’re doing to themselves. She’s able to diagnose the world really, really easily. That being said, she has flaws, she has hopes, she has dreams, she has regrets, she has lots of darkness in her past, but she’s attempting to live her life and better herself and, in a weird way, stay out of trouble. You know, the hotel is a nest of trouble. And she’s just trying to stay out of it.

MW: There’s so much complexity to the character itself, just in terms of what you’re bringing to her. Would we classify her as transgender? A transvestite?

O’HARE: This has been an evolution for me — and I think an evolution for the writers. Like all things in American Horror Story, we as actors really never know anything. [Laughs.] Ryan himself works instinctively. So he’ll have a very strong image or thumbnail sketch of a character and then, as he and the writers move forward, they refine and explore and add. So they’re also figuring out who they are. My own evolution of understanding transgender issues has really been pushed along in this process. So I would say Liz is gender-fluid. She thinks of herself as a woman. She is on a journey of identity. She may be done with that journey, she may be going further. But she’s pretty solid with who she is. And I’m not sure that I could find a proper title that would satisfy her or anybody else. I feel pretty comfortable saying gender-fluid.

MW: Here’s hoping she’s not revealed to be the faceless creature with the metal dildo.

O’HARE: God, I hope not. That’s too much time in the makeup chair.

MW: You’ve done a lot of horror — this, True Blood. Do you enjoy working in the genre?

O’HARE: You know, I do. I also do The Good Wife. I’ve played a judge on that for years. I also did Brothers and Sisters, where I played a political operative. I play a lot of government types. That’s my other go-to guise. Really button down, really straight laced, really frustrated, angry government bureaucrats. I actually love those tightly button-downed characters. At the same time, what I love about the horror genre work is that the characters are bigger, the emotional palate wider, and the imaginative work richer. What you’re asked to imagine yourself doing is more outlandish. You know, if you’re doing a cop procedural, your range of emotions is going to be fairly constrictive, unless they give you a crazy personal backstory. I think about Law & Order, and it’s a lot of exposition. You play various emotions from intrigue to interest to cynicism to disappointment. But with horror, you’re asked to play things like the shock of being penetrated from behind by a metal dildo, the realization that your 500-year-old lover has just been reduced to goo and you’re feeling it from miles away because you’re a 3,000 year old vampire, watching the ghost of your burned children haunt you in a basement, being a butler who’s had his tongue cut out because of love for his witch employer. The imaginative work is sort of off the charts. And as an actor, it’s really, really exciting.

American Horror Story Hotel - ensemble by Frank Ockenfels-FX

American Horror Story: Hotel ensemble – Photo: Frank Ockenfels/FX

MW: I have to ask: what’s it like working with Lady Gaga?

O’HARE: You know, I gotta tell you, it’s pretty normal. She comes to the set with no trappings. She’s ready to do her work. She comes prepared, memorized, serious, having asked a lot of questions. She wants to do a good job. There’s no hullaballoo around her. She’s as down to earth as she can possibly be given the enormous celebrity surrounding her. And she navigates the set like any of us. She’s a worker among workers, which is the highest compliment that I can give to someone like that.

MW: Since this is our Halloween issue, I’m obliged to ask: Do you remember the first horror movie that you saw in a theater?

O’HARE: Yes! It was The Conqueror Worm.

MW: Oh, wow, the Vincent Price one.

O’HARE: Yep. I don’t know why I saw it. I think I went with my brother and my sister. I didn’t know what it was about. I was too young. Now I know it was about the Salem Witch Trials. Then, I just knew that it was scary, because Vincent Price was scary.

MW: What scares you?

O’HARE: Ann Coulter. [Laughs.] But I think what truly scares me are knives. And knives around my throat. I have a real issue with my neck. I don’t like my neck to be touched, I don’t like anyone to put their hands around my neck, and the idea of a knife on my neck is really, really awful to me. Just horrid.

MW: Is that a rider in your contract then? No knives to Liz Taylor’s neck?

O’HARE: It hasn’t happened yet, so maybe it’s an unwritten contract I send out. I send out some vibe.

MW: You know someone will read this and a knife will be put up to Liz’s neck.

O’HARE: Ai-yi-yi, no, no!

MW: I wonder if there are going to be a lot of Liz Taylors out for Halloween this year.

O’HARE: I hope so. It’s a great look, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of bald guys out there who can really work it.

New episodes of American Horror Story: Hotel air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Past episodes can be found on FX Now. Visit fxnetworks.com.

Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at rshulman@metroweekly.com.

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