Death Becomes Denis O'Hare

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com June 18 2010 8:55 AM ET

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.

Advocate.com: 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.DENNIS OHARE BODY X390 (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COMEven before gay vampires were in the picture, True Blood’s vampires have widely been viewed as metaphors for gays and gay rights. Do you see Russell’s desire to marry Sophie-Anne, the vampire queen of Louisiana, as the ultimate marriage of convenience?
Yeah, it’s like any royalty. Edward II, who was probably gay, was married to a French queen who complained about his male lovers coming in. Those royal marriages were always power marriages.

I don’t understand why a gay vampire would choose to settle in Mississippi, which is about as red as red states get.
I know. I ask myself those questions as well. I actually went down there to Jackson and Natchez — my boyfriend, Hugo, and I stayed at a B&B where they actually weren’t very welcoming to a gay biracial couple — and some interesting things occurred to me. I noticed this thick coat of fog, and I thought that if I were a vampire, I’d want to be someplace where I’m not very noticeable and could skirt daylight, because the fog obscures you and keeps the sun from penetrating. These people had to hide all the time, so it was all about where you could hide the best, and a place that’s foggy, thinly populated, with large houses and incredible tracts of land between them is a good place to hide out. You’d also want to be in a place where people have a belief in the gothic, a belief in the very thing that you are. Another interesting thing for my character is that the ancient druids worshipped the oak, which was their totemic tree. All those plantations are just littered with massive oaks, so you can imagine this ancient Celt landing in this area and going, “I’m home!”

Russell has been dating his vampire boyfriend, Talbot, since the early 1300s, so he’s clearly a pioneer of the gay vampire community.
Oh, definitely. I think he’s always had various men. Theo Alexander, the guy who plays Talbot, and I spent a lot of time walking in Runyon Canyon fleshing out our backstory. It was kind of a push-me-pull-you arrangement, but we came to the idea that they met in Byzantium, where Talbot was some sort of Greek prince. They met at a costume party where Talbot was dressed as Alexander the Great and Russell was dressed as Augustus. Talbot was still a mortal when they fell in love.

You created your backstory while hiking? How butch.
Well, after the hike we’d have a salad and quiche at lunch, so it wasn’t that butch. We spent a lot of time hanging out, so we got really comfortable with each other. By the time we had our first table read, we had this incredible bond, which hasn’t gone away. I still talk to him about once every week or so, and we try to get together every two weeks. He’s really a delightful guy. Fleshing out our backstory was hilarious because I didn’t want to impose anything on him, but I definitely had my ideas. Theo would posit something, and I’d say, “Well, I’m not so sure Russell’s the bottom.”DENIS OHARE 3 X390 (HBO) | ADVOCATE.COMDescribe Russell and Talbot’s dynamic 700 years into the relationship.
What you’ll see is a marriage that’s well-traveled and a little frayed at the edges. These guys snipe and complain, but there’s always an incredible deep affection at the base of it. Theo and I worried that there were too many fighting scenes between us, but then we had this lovely scene later in the season, a lovely tender moment, where I finally get to put my hand on his cheek and basically talk about how much I care for him. It was a great relief to have that scene, because we kept talking about that every day of shooting: How do we show the love?

Is a hand on the cheek the extent of gay vampire lovemaking we’ll see this season?
You get some stuff between Talbot and somebody else, and you get a little bit of stuff between Russell and somebody else — the guy I get naked with. He’s played by a straight actor, a lovely guy, and early on in the scene I just grabbed him, put my hands all over him, and said, “OK, this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to do a little of this, and some of this.” I just had to break down any kind of shyness that he had, but he was great.

So Russell and Talbot have an open relationship?
Well, you know, after 700 years, you gotta keep it spicy. There’s also a sense of, You’re not going anywhere, so if you need to get that, you go ahead and get that. There’s a level of trust there that’s pretty strong, so Russell has no fear that Talbot’s going to fall in love with somebody else. Theo and I talked about the idea that they broke up for maybe 75, 80 years sometime around 1700. Russell went to the Dutch Indies to get involved with trade, and Talbot went to Greece to fight for his independence. Then they missed each other too much, so they got back together again.

You and your partner, Hugo, have been together for 10 years. There’s a big difference between 10 and 700, but has anything in your own relationship bled over into your True Blood relationship?
Not really. Hugo and I have a pretty fantastic relationship. We definitely have our frictions here and there, but we get along really, really well. At 10 years we have a great amount of mutual respect for each other, so we rarely descend into any kind of disrespectful sniping. The only similarity is that Talbot is obsessed with decorating and Hugo is an interior decorator.

OK, let’s get serious. When it comes to Sookie’s soul mate, are you on Team Bill or Team Eric?
Oh, gosh. I don’t mean to be a wimp here, but I have to plead the Fifth. Only because I need both of them in strategic ways, so it would be unwise for me to alienate either.