SHOW FOLK: Denis O’Hare on Gods, Warriors & Other Crush-Worthy Co-Stars
Once a month, a member of the theater community will pull up a chair to our cyber table and join us for a little conversation. I’ll edit the transcripts (removing the truly libelous parts) and post the results here every second Wednesday. For March, things are getting epic…
Tony-winner Denis O’Hare has entered the pantheon. Literally. In his tour de force (and very well-reviewed) An Iliad, he may be alone on stage but, with a turn of the head or a sly vocal inflection, we see Hermes and Athena–not to mention all of the warriors and women of the Trojan War. As both an actor and co-author of this modern adaptation of Homer’s classic tale, his work is an act of virtuosic storytelling that is passionate, at times funny and always deeply engrossing. Of course, television viewers know that O’Hare is no stranger to larger than life characters, although from more contemporary mythology like his haunted Larry Harvey on American Horror Story or the villainous (and perhaps rising again) Vampire King Russell on True Blood.
Currently alternating performances with Stephen Spinella through March 25 at New York Theatre Workshop, O’Hare took a breather from the battle cries to give us some insight into the challenges of performing a one-man show, rehearsing in traffic–and focusing on work when surrounded by hunky co-stars.
An Iliad is incredibly enveloping and moving as an audience member but what is the experience like for you to live those stories both physically and emotionally as a performer? Is your preparation for this show different from other shows because of those demands?
It is a massive burden this show – the thought of doing it begins to descend on me about 4 hours before hand and I find myself unable to really concentrate on other things. I tend to get to the theatre about 2 hours before curtain. I need to settle into the theatre – say hi to everyone backstage, have a little tea and then I go out on stage and do 30 minutes of Yoga and then about 10-15 minutes of vocal warmup. I usually run through at least one chapter onstage and I always run the List of Wars. Because I ride my bike everywhere, I find myself rehearsing while I’m riding. No one really notices when you talk to yourself on a bike.
Each show has its own requirements. Because of the massive text here, one of the requirements is constantly looking at the lines – I make around 200 errors a night in lines alone. I get a lot of notes from Stage Management and from the director and I’m always thinking about ways to improve and get cleaner.
Which of the mortals and gods was the easiest for you to embody, the one you thought immediately “I know this character”? Who was the hardest for you to “find” as an actor?
I had a tough time with all the characters -there wasn’t one which came to me easily – well, except for Hermes – he’s sort of Cali surf boy (not my usual niche but it was fun). I came to love doing Achilles best–Achilles and Agamemnon. And actually, if I’m honest, I’d say Agamemnon came fairly easily to me – from my years living in Chicago. I still struggle nightly finding Helen. Go figure.
As a co-author, what does the writer side of you think of your performance? Are there aspects of what you imagined on the page that you still find yourself challenged to achieve on the stage?
One of the biggest challenges of this whole process has been keeping the divide between writer and actor clear and strict. It is very tempting to solve a textual problem with acting bluster and it is very tempting to blame the text for an acting impasse. Lisa, my co-writer and director, has also struggled with this issue but we have constantly checked in with each other and I think for the most part we’ve managed a healthy balance. The hardest part for me was mimicking my own speech patterns and idiosyncrasies. The script was partially developed from improvs that Lisa and I did and those improvs were directly transcribed from tapes. These transcriptions then became around 1/3 of the script and they are filled with ummm, you know, uhhh, they they, the only, the thing…..LIKE THAT. It’s very tough to memorize those accidents.
What is it like to watch Stephen Spinella’s performance in the same role?
I haven’t seen Stephen’s show since I saw him at the McCarter in the fall of 2010. Stephen hasn’t seen me either. I think he’s coming to my show the last weekend and I will see him the last weekend as well.
I can’t help but see a thread that connects the full-bodied storytelling of Homer’s Iliad to the larger than life, serialized stories you’ve recently been a part of for TV like True Blood and American Horror Story. What do you see that connects them? Is there something writers today could learn from Homer?
I wish I could say that I planned my career but like most actors, it’s mostly dumb luck. I am attracted to big narratives however and I love the huge emotions and the dramatic situations that shows like True Blood and American Horror Story contain. As far as what anyone, any writer could learn from Homer: Detail, empathy, objectivity, discipline.
I hope you’ll indulge a moment of silliness; we at The Broadway Blog like to mix our serious theater talk with a little boy watching. Between the True Blood guys, Dylan McDermott & company on American Horror Story, Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell in The Eagle (and heck, all the way back to Take Me Out), you seem to have a knack for being involved in projects with some seriously chiseled and barely clothed hunks; can you at least admit that it can be just a little bit fun?
Of course it’s fun – the hard part is that I have a great amount of respect for my fellow actors and the minute someone is my “colleague”, I sort of turn off the part of my brain that can indulge in enjoying their, um…..natural gifts. That being said, I’m not blind…
Of your co-stars, who do you think is crush-worthy and why?
Crush-worthy….hmmmmm. I’d have to go with Jamie Bell. Mysterious.
What does your husband think of you being around all these half-naked, attractive men?
Hugo, my husband, doesn’t mind. He knows he has my heart and my mind. And every other body part.