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True Blood actor Denis O’Hare: ‘Being a theatre geek is not really nerdy – it’s still got sex appeal’

Best known in the UK for television series such as American Horror Story, actor Denis O’Hare has always had a passion for theatre. Now appearing in the NT’s Tartuffe, he tells Hugh Montgomery about his projects to adapt ancient narratives for the stage and explains why risk-taking British productions are so appealing to US stars

When Molière’s Tartuffe premiered in 1664, the satire about a religious con artist was denounced by the Catholic Church and banned from public performance for five years. Four centuries on, the religious themes may not be so inflammatory, but the National Theatre’s latest production still looks set to provoke. “This is definitely a Tartuffe for Brexit England,” says Denis O’Hare, the American stage and screen actor playing the eponymous anti-hero.

In John Donnelly’s modern take on the play, O’Hare’s Tartuffe is an Eastern European vagabond turned self-styled spiritual guru: “He’s a little bit Buddhist, a little bit Catholic, a little New Age-y, and a little bit Scientology. Whatever works.” Meanwhile Orgon, the nobleman whose household he inveigles his way into, is now an affluent Londoner, living in Highgate.

The creative team made Tartuffe Eastern European to provide a subversive way of addressing the anti-immigrant sentiment that has taken hold over here and in the US, O’Hare says. “Here is that person who is coming in and living off your largesse, possibly trying to take things from you. The production really does exploit that paranoia.”

‘At the National, you can work without the pressure of having to ‘hit it out of the park’ – US institutional theatres live and die by money’

In playing on xenophobia, though, is there a danger of playing to it? “That’s the tightrope we’re walking,” says O’Hare, but, as he explains, this production will very consciously toy with the idea of who is a villain and who is a victim. “Tartuffe has a weird integrity and at the end of the play – I don’t want to give too much away – but your sympathies definitely shift towards him.”

This marks the third London stage appearance for the 57-year-old actor, who is best known in this country for his roles in TV shows such as True Blood, The Good Wife and American Horror Story. The last time he worked in the UK was in 2002, when he starred in the Donmar Warehouse’s world premiere of Richard Greenberg’s baseball drama Take Me Out – a production whose Broadway transfer landed him a Tony award.

Q&A: Denis O’Hare

Denis O’Hare in Take Me Out at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002. Photo: Tristram Kenton

What was your first non-theatre job?
I did everything: I was a paperboy, I cut grass, I shovelled snow, I worked at McDonald’s as a maintenance man. I was a waiter, a bartender and a legal secretary. I had some awful jobs.

What was your first theatre job?
Out of college, I did a miserable little play on the upper floor of a theatre in Chicago that maybe 12 people came to. It was set in Oklahoma and I had a terrible Oklahoma accent and had to wear a bathing suit and smoke a cigar. It was so cold. I was shivering the whole time.

What is your next job?
I’ve got two gigs possibly lined up, though I can’t really talk about them.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t read reviews because they’re not meant for you – and you have to be happy with whatever you’re doing.

Who or what is your biggest influence?
A combination of great painting and great music. If I were to name one musician and one painter, I would say Bach and Velázquez.

What is your advice for auditions?
Please yourself. Prepare as well as you can. Don’t go in half-assed. Really work on it. Memorise it and own it and then please yourself. You have no idea what they want and so you can’t try to please them.

If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Some version of a priest.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I won’t whistle. I don’t believe in peacock feathers on stage. I say: “Break a leg!” Yeah, I have all of them.

O’Hare follows Bryan Cranston and Cate Blanchett as the latest Hollywood actor in recent months to appear at the National, rather than on a commercial West End stage. His reason for doing so is clear: the UK’s subsidised theatre culture, and the risk-taking it supports, is the envy of America. “The National feels a place where you can truly do your work, without the pressure of having to ‘hit it out of the park’ – whatever that even means. Even our institutional theatres like the Roundabout or Lincoln Center live and die by money.”

He recently moved to Paris with his husband and young son, prompted by his horror at the US political situation. “I’m afraid for my son because the guns are out of control. The racism has not been addressed. I want him to grow up in a global community where he’s able to identify himself away from the sort of awful conversation that’s happening there at the moment.”

O’Hare first knew he wanted to act back at high school in Detroit. He says: “Performing was a way to find a safe place, in a big school, where you may not fit with the jocks, and you may not fit with the nerds. Being a theatre geek is not really nerdy, and it’s still got some sex appeal,” he laughs. He describes his career as a “slow evolution”: after some classic Stanislavski-based training at Northwestern University, near Chicago, and some time spent on the city’s theatre scene while moonlighting as a bartender, he came to New York in 1992, and built a steady CV for himself on and Off-Broadway.

It was the Tony success in his early 40s that marked the beginning of a new career phase for him. “A lot of TV writers love theatre, so it gave me a handle on which people could hang me. An award is just a convenient way to explain somebody and set you aside.”

Since then, he has flourished on screen, becoming known as a master of the macabre. On HBO’s True Blood, he played the vampire king of Mississippi, while through four seasons of the gleefully tasteless anthology series American Horror Story, he has taken on roles from a sinister burns victim to a mute, Lurch-like butler.

In 2017, O’Hare even appeared as Edgar Allan Poe, in a docudrama on the PBS channel. And the preponderance of horror on his CV is no accident, he says – he naturally gravitates towards playing monsters. “For me, they are always sympathetic. They’re always the outsiders and always the broken ones who would be whole, if only they could find love.”

‘As an actor, the most paralysing thing to do is wait for work. So I wrote a play for myself’

On top of his acting work, O’Hare is also a prolific writer. He began writing early in his career as a means to an end: “As an actor, the most paralysing thing to do is wait for work. So I thought I’m not going to wait, and wrote a play for myself. It’s actually pretty good, even though it never got done.”

These days, he tries to complete five pages every morning. Recently, he had his first film screenplay produced: The Parting Glass, a very personal drama inspired by his sister’s suicide.

While the demands of TV filming have meant his stage appearances have been infrequent of late, O’Hare has moved into making his own theatre. A few years ago, alongside director Lisa Peterson, he co-founded Homer’s Coat, a “creative collective that explores foundational literature”. They develop, write and edit the pieces together.

They have produced two shows so far, inspired by the ultimate ancient narratives: An Iliad, a one-man adaptation of Homer’s wartime epic, in which O’Hare also starred, and The Good Book, an exploration of the history of the Bible, which opens in a new production at California’s Berkeley Rep in April. Although O’Hare is an atheist, the show is “equal-opportunity”, he says, and looks at how we got “from a pre-written society with creation myths to the Gideon Bible sitting in a hotel room in New Jersey”.

For future projects, the company is thinking big. “We’re working on a third play, which is about the fall of Rome. I want to do Dante’s Inferno, I want to do The Decameron,” he says, eyes flashing with excitement.

For a man with such heavyweight tastes, however, O’Hare wears them lightly. In person, he combines a learned gravitas with a showbiz twinkle that should be put to good use as Tartuffe’s charismatic huckster – and could make him a great presenter for a Netflix show.

And indeed alongside all his other projects, he’s working on potential pitches for the streaming platform for two different travelogue series. “One’s about card-playing and one’s about opera,” he says. “I’m a huge opera buff and I want to travel the world and talk about it and bring fancy friends with me.”

CV: Denis O’Hare

Born: 1962, Kansas City
Training: Northwestern University, Illinois
Landmark productions:
• Cabaret, Studio 54, New York (1998)
• Take Me Out, Donmar Warehouse, London (2002); Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (2003)
• Assassins, Studio 54, New York (2004)
• Sweet Charity, Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York (2005)
• An Iliad, New York Theatre Workshop (2012)
Awards: Tony, Drama Desk and Obie awards for Take Me Out (2003); Drama Desk award for outstanding featured actor in a musical for Sweet Charity (2005); Obie award for An Iliad (2012)
Agent: Gary Gersh at Innovative Artists

Tartuffe runs at the Lyttelton, National Theatre until April 30 [2]