Death Becomes Denis O'Hare

As True Blood’s new vampire king, Denis O’Hare explains why it doesn’t suck to be old, gay, and sometimes naked.



Just when you thought True Blood couldn’t get any gayer, in drops Denis O’Hare as Russell Edgington, vampire king of Mississippi, who has a handsome afterlife partner of 700 years. One of Broadway's brightest gay stars, O'Hare won a 2003 Tony for his performance as the gay manager of a gay baseball player in Take Me Out. But when it comes to his impressive film and television résumé — including featured roles in The Proposal, Changeling, and ABC’s Brothers & Sisters — the Out 100 honoree is better known for playing straight antagonists like California state senator John Briggs, Harvey Milk’s homophobic nemesis, in Milk. Now happily sinking his teeth into half of True Blood’s first gay vampire couple, O’Hare spills the secret to keeping a same-sex relationship spicy after seven centuries. It’s great to see you playing a gay character in True Blood. You’ve played gay before in Take Me Out and An Englishman in New York, but you rarely take on gay roles, especially for an out actor. Has that been a conscious decision on your part?
Denis O’Hare: No. Years ago I went in for As Good as It Gets, that movie with Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear. I auditioned for the gay part, and after I finished the audition the casting director rolled her eyes and said, “This is a gay character. I’m so tired of people playing gay people like they’re straight. This is a gay man.” I was like, “OK. Should I do it again?” She goes, “Yeah, make it gay!” So I went a little more in that direction, and it was fine, whatever. When we finished, she said, “So how’s your family? You’ve got a wife, right?” I said, “No. I have a boyfriend.” She said, “You’re gay? I thought you had a wife!” It was really revelatory to me that she had some weird assumption about how gay people were supposed to act. Somehow, because I wasn’t acting that way, I couldn’t possibly be gay. It was such a bizarre experience. So I guess to some straight casting directors, I’m not gay enough to play gay.

You’ve definitely played your share of straight jerks. So what did you think about Ramin Setoodeh’s Newsweek article?
I must admit I didn’t read it, so I shouldn’t even speak to it, but of course I have an opinion anyway. It annoyed me, but I thought it was more complicated than the ensuing discussion. I don’t think his point was that gay actors can’t convincingly be straight in roles; I think his point was that once the knowledge is out that those actors are gay, the audience is unwilling to suspend their disbelief. So I felt there was a finer point there that got lost in the stampede. His point has less to do with the ability of actors and more to do with society’s ongoing prejudices and our inability to cut a gay man the same kind of slack we’d cut Julia Roberts if she were playing a nuclear scientist. We could suspend our disbelief for that, but we can’t suspend our disbelief to accept that Sean Hayes is interested in sleeping with Kristin Chenoweth? That’s a problem.

You played the romantic lead opposite Christina Applegate in the 2005 Broadway revival of Sweet Charity. Did you hear any complaints that your performance devolved into unintentional camp?
No, I didn’t. The only complaint I got was that my character ended up being a bit of a villain at the end because he dumps Charity. I was like, “Look, she lied to him about the fact that she was a hooker. He had every right to dump her!”

Is it a special treat for you when you do play gay?
Well, it’s certainly home territory. You can kind of relax a bit because you’re not lying. In acting there’s always the feeling that you’re being a fraud — like someone’s going to catch you and go, “You don’t chew gum! You’re not a doctor!” So to be doing something that’s your native posture feels like at least one level of authenticity. I do like playing gay characters, but a character’s sexuality, even if he’s gay, isn’t necessarily the most important attribute to me. In the case of Russell, he’s a power-hungry ancient druid who has a serious concern for the stewardship of the earth. Not to downplay it, but being gay is just another aspect of his life.

To use the As Good as It Gets casting lady’s words, did you and True Blood creator Alan Ball have any conversations about how “gay” Russell should act?
No. Alan Ball is a gay man talking to another gay man, so we didn’t feel we needed to have that conversation. Because, you know, when I’m in a scene with a good-looking man, there’s no doubt that I’m looking at him.

I can’t give away too much, but you’re surrounded by hot naked men in your very first scene.
Oh, yeah, and believe me, it was a really fun shoot. I was like, Wow, this is going to be a fun job.

True Blood is known for its gratuitous male nudity. Would you get naked for a scene if asked?
I was asked, and I’m in bed with somebody in episode 10. It’s just from the waist up, but I was wearing a teeny jockstrap thing. I’m 48, so I wasn’t quite hoping that’s the way my career would go, but I’m proud of how I look. I can’t compete with 25-year-old bodies, but I’m in pretty good shape. I did spend the previous two weeks doing a little extra at the gym.

And Russell is, what, 3,000 years old?
Well, 2,800, but what’s a few centuries between friends?

Russell isn’t a major character in Charlaine Harris’s “Sookie Stackhouse” novels, so I’ve read that Alan Ball gave you some license to flesh out his backstory. Has Russell always been openly gay, or did he come out late in his vampire life?
He’s a Celt from somewhere east of the Danube like the Carpathian Mountains. I’ve done a fair amount of research on Celtic culture, and since he’s so old, from such a different culture, and probably a pagan, he probably has a different sense of moral code and cultural behavior than what we would understand today. I’m not saying there was a ritual of homosexuality in Celtic culture, but certainly in ancient cultures there was a very different idea about what people did in bed — like the older man-younger man sexual relationships in ancient Greece. But given all that, I just think it’s his taste. That doesn’t mean he didn’t marry women when he had to or pursue powerful women over the years.

Tags: television