An interview with passionate American actor Denis O’Hare, seen recently on stage in An Iliad, and on screen in Dallas Buyers Club.
Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won acting Oscars this year for their performances in Dallas Buyers Club. Denis O’Hare was similarly compelling playing Dr. Sevard, a bigger (but less sympathetic) role than Leto’s. The dynamic Tony Award winner was recently in Wellington for his An Iliad, a potent recital of the oldest story at the New Zealand Festival. Witness the virtuoso riff on resonances with Syrian conflicts since. In person O’Hare is passionate, perceptive, and charming. At a cracking New York pace, he was bracingly honest discussing recovery, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, and the problem with Dallas Buyers Club. Illustration by Hikalu Clarke. Photography by Catherine Bisley.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Congratulations on Dallas Buyers Club. There were three strong male performances.
DENIS O’HARE: Thanks. It was a nice part. I liked it. You know, it was funny because I happen to know a lot about AIDS and about HIV, and I know a lot about the early day of AIDS because I was around then. As a gay man, I had to be thinking about it—what do I do to protect myself? How does the virus work? My first boyfriend died of AIDS in 2000. He was on all the medications and it still didn’t manage to work for him. A cousin of mine is a long-term survivor of HIV and there were some things in the movie that were frustrating for me because it’s not that they were inaccurate, but that they weren’t promoted.
The story they were telling was not about the doctors, for instance. So the doctors become reduced to cardboard characters a little bit. I fought against that. The director and I tried to make the character a little more well rounded but when it comes down to it, it’s not the doctor’s story; it’s Matthew McConaughey’s story and his character is really against the system. But the system wasn’t entirely wrong. In order to test a drug, you have to have a double blind study—that means somebody’s not getting the drug. That’s how you test drugs. Call it immoral and unethical, but it’s scientific. In the movie, that’s presented as an evil thing but it’s not an evil thing, it’s the way medicine works. They also show the experimental protocol that he goes to Mexico to see as this very positive thing and the doctor was very, very nice. Well guess what? They didn’t work. He died. And now historically we know that they didn’t work-
AB: He survived way longer than the thirty days your Dr. Sevard dramatically gives him-
DO: Yeah, partly because he stopped drinking and stopped abusing his body and started becoming healthy. Who’s to say if he hadn’t taken the AZT medication, who knows if he would have lived longer? AZT was toxic in the early stages, but it became the gold plate standard of medication later, in combination with other drugs. The movie doesn’t really tell that story. It was not the story it was telling, but I also feel that people could draw the wrong conclusion—to think that AZT was evil. It wasn’t evil. It became the thing that saved many, many people’s lives.
AB: I did see that brief little endnote at the film’s conclusion.
DO: Which was put in because of an activist named Peter Staley who got involved in the end parts of the film and he insisted that they correct certain things. Thank God for that.
AB: As actors, what makes McConaughey and Leto special to work with?
DO: I didn’t work with Jared, so I really can’t speak for him, although I will say that we shared a van more than one day and he was always in character and pretty much kept to himself, which is interesting. I saw him in a couple of scenes and he was always in character. Matthew is a really intense guy. He’s the best kind of narcissist; meaning that he only cares about what works for him and his character. But that’s what all actors really need to focus on. He takes care of himself in performance. He’s intense to work with. I mean, I got thrown up against the wall by him eight times in a row and even with all that weight he’d lost, he was still powerful. I have souvenirs.
AB: A skinny Texan is still a Texan?
DO: Exactly. There you go.
AB: I’ve been very impressed by your film supporting roles for years. Milk, Charlie Wilson’s War, Changeling, Michael Clayton—that was a fantastic scene with Clooney (“A miracle worker”).
DO: Thank you. That very fun scene was shot at three in the morning on Long Island in the house of a big Republican donor. I’m not Republican, I’m Democrat and so was the director. We’re all very liberal. So this guy was nasty; a part of the homeland security apparatus who made lots of money off of producing spy materials for America. He was an awful human being.
I remember I started talking about how much I hated Bush and the director was like [gesture hand over mouth]. And I was like, “What?” And he said, “Not now!” He goes, “I hate being here but we need this guy’s house.”
AB: You’ve played these unsympathetic characters that are completely different to you. In Milk you portrayed John V. Briggs, the Californian politician best known for 1978’s Proposition 6, which tried to sack all gay and lesbian school employees and their supporters.
DO: Yeah. When you do a character, your first duty is to be consistent and to be true to the character; to not make fun of them. And, if you do a good job, then the audience can decide. When it came to Milk and Sean Penn, I had a lot of scenes with Sean and I was arguing with him. He needed a good opponent. He needed somebody to be “the character.” The real person, he’s kind of stupid, and so I didn’t make him smarter than he was. I let him be as stupid as he really was. He was a man who really couldn’t finish his sentences properly so I tried to capture that [laughs].
AB: Sometimes—staunch liberal that I am—I think some of our ‘colleagues’ are over-the-top: instead of fully realised characters that leave space for people to decide for themselves they demand sledge-hammering-
DO: Their point of view-
AB: -every five minutes.
DO: Exactly. It’s funny because our show, An Iliad, I wouldn’t say that it’s overtly anti-war, but it’s very difficult to think about murder and violence and war, and walk away from it thinking it’s a good thing. We try not to hammer home a message but if you listen to the piece, you’re going to come away with a certain feeling, I think.
AB: Obviously you’re personally very anti-war but you’re creating an artwork that’s exploring our culture’s interest in violence and death, so it needs to have a complexity to it?
DO: Lisa [Petersen, co-writer and director] and I worked off of two theses. One was that war was a waste. The other one was that human beings are violent, and violence is a part of our makeup. We don’t excuse it, we don’t try to explain it; we just show it. Also, I think it would be hard to argue with the statement that “War is a waste.” War produces massive amounts of casualties—waste. It wastes human bodies; it wastes physical environments; it wastes opportunity.
AB: My silly journalist question for this interview, is there a connection between Dallas Buyers Club and An Iliad?
DO: I would say there’s no connection, honestly. But what’s interesting about being an actor and doing theatre is that, for me, being able to do film is fantastic. I love doing TV. I find the work really challenging. I love the medium of film, but theatre is what I was trained to do and theatre is a complete medium. It’s where the actor is king. In TV, the writer-producer is king, and in film, the director is king. But in theatre, the actor is king. You’re on the stage in front of an audience and you can do anything you want to. You can go off text. You can decide to stop. You can melt down. It’s live. It’s crazy. That doesn’t happen in film and TV and that danger in theatre is an adrenalin [rush]. I think all actors are adrenalin junkies on some level and I certainly am an adrenalin junkie when it comes to theatre. I just love that. I love being able to pop back and forth between these different mediums and feel the different skill levels you need; the different skill-sets you need.
AB: I’ve been cut up about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
DO: Oh I know. I didn’t know Phil well, but I knew him well enough to say hi to him and talk to him. In fact I wrote him an email a few months back because I had a film I wanted him to be in. I understand now that him not writing back is probably a function of his life being out of control. I worked with him on Charlie Wilson’s War. We had a lovely time together. I spent a very memorable day with him in the souqs of Marrakesh. He was a very decent, good, considerate guy, who was really interested in all forms of filmmaking and art and theatre. He had a theatre company which friends of mine are part of. It hit all of us pretty hard.
I’m in recovery. I’ve been in recovery for 24 years. I don’t battle the same demons that he does, but I have my own demons, my own substances. So I certainly empathise with the temptation and the struggle but I’m sad that he couldn’t have found his way back to recovery. It’s heartbreaking because there are a lot of us in recovery who manage to stay in recovery and I wish he’d stayed in recovery.
AB: It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? That relationship between great theatre actors plumbing the depth and managing to remain balanced as people?
DO: Well, you’re assuming that they come into the business being balanced and I don’t think that’s true. I mean, actors are as varied as flowers. You get everything. You get people who have good common sense and are really decent people and you get people who are not decent and do not have any common sense. I don’t think there’s any weird formula of what makes a good actor. I think sometimes it’s genetics, I think sometimes it’s a trick. I don’t know.
I do think there’s a dangerous fallacy that you have to be fucked up to be a good actor. I do think it’s a dangerous fallacy that people who get drunk and get high can therefore explore darker parts of themselves. Since I’ve been sober, which is 24 years, my work has probably been darker than it ever was before. I’m able to do things. I’m also able to realise my limitations; there are things I won’t do. I’ll say no to projects because I don’t wanna go there. I honestly don’t wanna go there and I will say no.
I’ve acted before I got sober. I’ve acted after I’ve got sober. The difference is that before I got sober, when I was acting I didn’t know what I was doing. I was all instinct and no craft. Now, I am both instinct and craft. It’s like inspiration and perspiration. Any good athlete will tell you that you’ve got to have that raw material, but until you hone it, who cares? You’re not consistent. Any Olympiad you look at has trained an innate ability, a great instinct into a performance. In film it’s interesting because anybody can give a good performance once. Anybody. Walking down the street, everybody on the street can give one good performance. I guarantee you. It’s repetition that shows who’s the master.
AB: So being a good actor is like being a good doctor; you’ve got to have both the instinct and the craft.
DO: Absolutely, or you kill people.
AB: What’s your advice to people who are in recovery?
DO: Well, anyone who’s in recovery will say that same thing: that whoever got up the earliest has survived the longest today, because it’s only a day-by-day thing. You’re only as good as that day. It doesn’t matter how much time you have—it matters what you do about it today. At any given point unfortunately any of us could decide to cash in our chips. Stay humble, live in the moment, remember your basics, and if you get into trouble, talk to somebody else.
AB: Philip Seymour Hoffman seemed so happy playing that Charlie Wilson’s War role. That inspired scene—I guess everyone who’s had an office-based conflict appreciates it—he just goes in and smashes the boss’ window again. I thought that film was hilarious.
DO: So did I. Gust Avrakotos, what a great character! Amy Adams is a pal of mine. I met Amy in that movie too. We ended up doing Into the Woods in Central Park as part of the Shakespeare festival.
AB: I enjoyed Amy Adams at the New York Film Festival for Her media activities. She was impressive in that film, as ever.
DO: She’s so good, always. I love The Master. Not everyone did. I thought what a great show of Joaquin Phoenix’s talents and Amy Adams’s talents. What an incredible range.
AB: I’m interested in your own projects as a writer. You mentioned you approached Hoffman about one?
DO: It’s a movie I’m making with Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer, who have a production company. I met them on True Blood. I wrote a movie about my sister’s suicide. It’s a weird road movie where my family and I had to go and figure out why she killed herself. We had to collect her life, pack up her life from this rental apartment she had in Missouri.
Anna and Steven loved the script and so we’re working out a deal right now where Stephen would direct. I would be in it. I wanted Philip for one of the parts. I think I’ll try to go to Paul Giamatti who’s a friend of mine and who I love and think is a great actor. We hope to make it next year. We’re just trying to figure out financing; who’s going to make it and all that.
It’s a double whammy. I get to make a film I want to make, and I get to work with my friends who I love, Stephen and Anna.
AB: In 25th Hour, she and Hoffman were memorable. Isn’t it the great post-9/11 New York film?
DO: It is. He was always good, and so is she.
AB: What about films about war? One of my personal favourites is Apocalypse Now Redux.
DO: Great movie. I also love the documentary, Heart of Darkness. Oh my God, I love that movie so much.
AB: Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Have you had any notable problems on set? I guess nothing that spectacular, but any creative enterprise has its less good moments.
DO: Absolutely. I’m trying to think of the worst project I’ve done recently. I’m lucky that every production that I’ve worked on, I’ve had a good time. There’s always bad points here and there. There are always rough days. I did a movie called The Eagle. We shot it in Budapest, wearing a Roman kilt at four degrees Celsius—at three in the morning for a long time. It wasn’t comfortable, but not life threatening. My favourite war movie is actually Paths of Glory, the Kubrick film. It’s such a gorgeous movie and actually a pacifist statement.
AB: When I came out of the theatre, I felt incensed, a level of outrage that I hadn’t felt before after watching a film.
DO: We should all always be outraged at war. It should be the last resort. It should never be the way to resolve disputes. I think it should only be defensive, when you’re trying to save yourself. I think it’s a failure of imagination and a failure of civilisation. I have no problem being called anti-war. I find it bizarre that somebody should take offense that I’m anti-war. We should all be anti-war. I just don’t understand it.
AB: There’s a great book by Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.
DO: Yes! I love Chris Hedges. I disagree with some of his conceits.
AB: I don’t think he’s as good recently, but I did love that book.
DO: It’s a great book. It’s actually a specific book to him and his life about how he experienced things. He’s certainly experienced more than I have and I have to give that to him. I would broaden it to say that crisis is something that gives us meaning. We tend to come alive, for instance 9/11; everyone in New York can tell you exactly where they were. Those few days after 9/11 were filled with intense meaning in a way that our lives don’t always have intense meaning. I think people who live in warzones would eventually become numb to that meaning because it’s just too intense to maintain.
Welcome to Sarajevo is another great film. I love Michael Winterbottom; he’s one of my heroes. I did a movie with him, A Mighty Heart, and I just love the way he makes movies.
AB: That was another of your excellent, memorable supporting roles, playing Daniel Pearl’s Wall Street Journal editor. A Mighty Heart is one of my favourite Winterbottoms.
DO: We shot it in Bombay, acting for Islamabad. It was very fun to do. Intense movie, though. I loved that.
AB: Speaking of intensity: when you’re onstage you can forget every problem?
DO: We call it “Dr. Theatre.” I remember having fights with somebody before going onto the stage and after you get off you go, “What was that about?” You literally are stepping out of your own life; you’ve not time to think about your life so you are away from your own thoughts, your own concerns for two hours. When you come back to them they feel different. If you’re sick, adrenalin takes you through. If you’re injured, the performance will take you through. You come out the other end and you’re usually a little different.
AB: How was your visit to Weta Studios before this interview?
DO: I like Middle Earth and all that. I’m not a geek about it, so I wasn’t like you know [acts nerd geekin’out].
AB: It’s kind of “When in Rome…” isn’t it? You fly all the way down here.
DO: Yeah. I think I’ve auditioned for Peter at least three times. He’s never hired me. He’s come really close to hiring me, but he never has so it’s kind of funny to be here. It was kind of like [jokes] “Hey Peter, hire me.”
AB: What roles did you audition for?
DO: I did an audition for King Kong years ago, playing a small part and didn’t get it. And I auditioned for a thing called The Lovely Bones—a part that Stanley Tucci got [the horrible psychopath]—and I think I was in consideration for a bit.
Denis O’Hare in ‘An Iliad’, © Joan Marcus. Courtesy of the New Zealand Festival.
AB: Are you informed by the New Zealand Wars at all for An Iliad?
DO: Absolutely. An Iliad’s relevant to every culture. We always try to make it specific to the place. So we added the Land Wars for New Zealand and Gallipoli for Australia and New Zealand which is very important. We also lean on the Boer Wars, because that’s important. We actually added specific towns for New Zealand. We had rewritten one section for Australia and then we had to rewrite it again for New Zealand which I’m still, in my mind: Whangarei, Gisborne, Hastings, and Auckland. The Kaimais, the Tararuas. The beaches of Waihi and Ninety Mile Beach.
AB: To close, what do you think might surprise people about An Iliad?
DO: It’s really funny. It depends on the audience, but on any given night there are sections that are pretty funny. It’s a combination of our writing and also the absurdity of what we’re talking about. We have a horse joke in there that’s pretty spectacular that Lisa wrote. And the poet is funny at times. He gets less funny as the evening goes on because [chuckles] it just gets a little heavier.
I think people will also be surprised by how the evening is not daunting. You don’t need to know anything about The Iliad; you don’t need to know anything about Greek literature; you don’t need to know anything about anything. You walk in and we tell you the story. It’s an entertaining evening where we hand you everything. So, no fear.