Denis the menace

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Gay actor Denis O’Hare, TV’s reigning villain, is far less creepy than his roles

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AMERICAN HORROR ACTOR | Denis O’Hare adds grotesque intensity to Ryan Murphy’s creepy series, which wrapped it’s first season this week.

Meeting Denis O’Hare should be scary as hell. After all, this is the man who plays two of TV’s reigning supervillains: The horny vamp leader on True Blood and a mysteriously deformed psychopath who just suffocated a potential homebuyer on American Horror Story. But today, in the back of homo-hot-spot Saint Felix in West Hollywood on his day off, O’Hare doesn’t project any of that eeriness.

So far during the debut season of the smash FX show, O’Hare, as the scarred weirdo Larry Harvey, has doused a house in gasoline, killed another man’s mistress and fought fervently for a home that’s become a tough sell — and not just because the economy sucks.

“I don’t think he’s evil,” O’Hare says. “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 the Phantom of the Opera has a real reason: He was in love with someone, he was scarred, he wants love and revenge.”

O’Hare orders a smorgasbord of nibbles in between talking of Ryan Murphy’s AHS, the upcoming season of True Blood and the 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 year-old baby is 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 color baby on the wrong person’s lap — oh my god!”

And you thought Larry was scary.

Before getting the call from Murphy, who desperately wanted O’Hare to take on Larry, the actor was already creeping out audiences on True Blood as Russell Edgington, the ancient former vampire king of Mississippi.

Premiering next summer, Season 5 will see the return of the Master of Nutcases, when the 2,800-year-old bloodsucker makes a comeback 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, also 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, 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 down-to-earth and chatty, 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 next month, got his start while growing up in Michigan, where he sang in the choir and, in 1974, landed a chorus part in a community theater production of Show Boat. He parlayed his humble beginnings into a Broadway career — in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in 2004, then scoring a Tony Award for his performance in Take Me Out. In January, O’Hare heads back to New York stage where he’ll act in An Iliad, off-Broadway run, before heading back to L.A. for more of True Blood.

The best part of being in NYC? Seeing his family. O’Hare 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 adds, that once you do, it’s like wearing a gay yarmulke — “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.”

Part of  his hesitation is that common desire not to be defined by his sexual orientation.

“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. 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.

“I’ve met more lesbian gaffers on Ryan’s show than I’ve ever met anywhere else in my life!” O’Hare explains with delight.

When O’Hare was sent the script directly from Murphy back in March, just a few weeks before shooting was set to begin, 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.

“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 him with only half 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 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. “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 smile. “Not always, but for the most part.”

— Chris Azzopardi

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas