Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on screen. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.
Next up, we're speaking to The Nevers star Denis O'Hare.
Denis O'Hare is the kind of actor who requires a separate wiki page to list all of the award recognition he's received, which, FYI, includes a Tony win along with three Emmy noms. A rundown of all his performances on stage and screen is even longer, and there's a good reason for that.
"I say yes to almost everything," Denis tells us. "If someone asks me to do a weird, experimental, German-Israeli art film in a hotel in Chelsea, I'm there. 'What do I do? I’m playing a drone pilot? I’m in.' Go to Venice to do a silent film about the plague? 'OK. I'm your guy. I'll do it.'"
As Denis puts it, "Saying yes always gets you to really interesting places," and we're glad he does say "yes" so often, because otherwise, we wouldn't have the likes of Spalding and Russell Edgington on our screens — or at least, not as we know them.
And that's true of so many other beloved characters that Denis has played too. From Milk and Sweet Charity to This Is Us and The Good Wife, Denis has consistently set the bar high across TV, film, and stage for over three decades.
Digital Spy recently caught up with Denis to discuss his creepy new role in The Nevers, and of course, it didn't take long for us to dive even further into the macabre with questions on True Blood and American Horror Story.
What first drew you to The Nevers?
I love anything original, and I love anything that's not, you know, a police procedural [laughs]. Something that's a little more unreal. I love sci-fi, and this is a great mash-up of fantasy and sci-fi, because it has elements of both.
I like characters who are immediately contradictory. So here we have someone who's humming and singing at the same time as they're doing brain surgery. I just love those sort of opposites.
And oddly enough, how I got involved with it was that I was doing Tartuffe at the National in 2019 with Olivia Williams. I was playing Tartuffe, she was playing Elmire. On our first preview, we're warming up, and she tiptoes over and she goes, "I got you a job!"
She was old friends with Joss [Whedon], and they had worked on Dollhouse together. My name had come up, and she was like, "Oh my God, he's in London. You have to see him."
How did Joss Whedon's departure impact the project for you personally?
We were done shooting, oddly enough. We finished in November. So on one hand, it didn't impact us at all. We're on schedule. We're doing exactly what we were meant to do, which is to come back in June, and start shooting the back six.
I think we were all worried, and thrown for a loop when it happened. I don't tend to be very good at current events and gossip. I tend not to read things, just because it's not where I put my energies. So I was completely in the dark about anything that was swirling around him. And honestly, we don't really know what happened [laughs]. We were told, "He's leaving."
That being said, Philippa Goslett, who's taken the show over, seems like the exact right choice. I think there's some writing staff that's remaining the same. Whenever they're changing a writer, God let alone a showrunner, you don't know what's going to happen to your character.
So I think all of us were sort of scrambling. We all had Zoom meetings with Philippa. We were all scrambling to go, "Hi! I can tap dance! I can also sing and play piano! I can be really dark, I can be really funny, I can do a backflip. Hire me! Don't kill me!"
Whatever plans were afoot for the first… who knows what's going to change? We have no idea. I think Philippa will make it her own. She will imprint it in her own way. I think she'll keep the best aspects of the madness of the world, and perhaps go in the same direction but in a different lane.
You mentioned earlier the draw of contradictory characters. Is that why you like to play villains so much on screen?
Yeah. I've never played heroes. Whenever I've played someone who's sort of good or passive or heroic, I'm totally lost. I don't know what to do. God forbid, you play Edgar in Lear, and what do you do, besides Poor Tom? Edmund is very clear. Iago's a great part. Caliban's a great part. Othello is a hard role because he's a hero. Yes, he gets to engage in his rage and his jealousy, but it's not the best part. Mercutio is the best part in Romeo and Juliet.
"Villain" is a really broad term, but somebody who is, according to the storyline, not in sync with the hero, that person is always a block or an impediment. They always have interesting reasons for doing what they're doing. They always have very clear motivations.
So I find villains are really well-drawn. Within all of that, there's always a tension. They don't think of themselves as being bad. Even in the movie Joker, which I detested – I hated that movie so much. Oh, God. It's an awful movie, I thought. Even in that movie, it has the formula of: "Oh, let's show his backstory. Let's show where he came from to explicate why he became what he became." That's the worst portrayal of what a villain could do.
The reason why I didn't like that movie was because he had no compunction. He didn't play a moral price. He didn't suffer for his actions. He was a psychopath. To me, an essential component of any of these characters is to have some kind of tension, some kind of other voice in your head.
Do you find it hard to switch off sometimes once you've finished filming one of these roles?
I usually have no problem laying my parts aside. That being said, I always retain something from a character – a gesture or a moment; something that I can usually use in a different character. Many times, a character, which is a creation, opens up a door that I can go through again. They show me the way to create another character similarly. I do all the hard work.
The one character I think that I had the most hard time shaking was Liz Taylor from American Horror Story season five, but she was also a character I had no interest in revisiting, because she was a complete story.
Whereas there are other characters I feel like, "Oh, I didn't quite get to really explore that person completely. I would love to go back and do more." With Liz, I feel like she had a great story, it was finished, done, and put to bed.
Is there any American Horror Story character in particular that you would like to revisit one day?
Yeah. I felt like Spalding never got explored in any depth to a great extent, and he had a lot going on. I felt like Larry from season one was put in jail for a crime he didn't commit – and then what? Does he get out? Does he do a musical in jail? Does he ever reunite with his love? What? So I felt like that was a real cliffhanger for him.
I did The Good Wife for six seasons, and I did The Good Fight for a couple of seasons. I played a character called Judge Abernathy on that. That was great, to be able to come back to him again and again and again – and also a character who grew from being very idealistic and green as a judge, to being a little more skilled in his job and a little darker and a little more cynical and a little grumpier.
It was fun to let him do that, because at first I was like, "Oh, God. No. It's eight years he's been doing this. He's getting grumpier. He's getting a little impatient with these lawyers." But that was fun, to be able to feel that kind of growth.
Now you're back for season ten, I was wondering if you took a conscious break from the show for a few years or were you just busy with other shows?
No. It's the mind of Ryan Murphy. God knows how he does it. He juggles so many things in his head. He's got so many shows going on. I think he gets inspired by certain people, and runs with them for a while, and then I think his attention turns to somebody else, for whatever reason. So I was available, but I was suddenly not in the orbit anymore.
I was like, "OK. Well, I'll just go do other things."
That being said, I love working on American Horror Story. I also love working on the other things I've gotten to do. And I'm excited to be back. I guess the lesson is: who knows how long I'm back for? I don't know if this will turn into something else. It doesn't matter.
Is your new season 10 character different from those you've played before on the show?
He is pretty different. He's not a main driver of action – because I came in late. And he's definitely got some comic relief aspect, which I love. He's very funny, I think. I have great costumes. I have wonderful costumes. I'm really excited about that.
I was shooting a scene with Evan Peters, and I just had a couple of great lines. It's a great joy to watch that, during the take, he was cracking up. And I was like, "I love that."
I ended up doing four episodes and as I was shooting, the writing, I thought, sort of blossomed a bit. I don't know if they were thinking of me suddenly, but I love the writing I've been doing lately. It's given me a lot more to chew on, in the script.
Another genre show of yours that the fans love is True Blood. What's it like to look back at your role as Russell Edgington now? And especially your epic death scene at the end of season five?
I love that show so much. It was a great set. Great people. I'm a very good friend of Stephen Moyer to this day and Anna Paquin. Whenever I see Alex Skarsgård – I could take all week. Sam, Rutina, Chris Bauer… It's a great group of people. A really friendly set. I loved it.
The seasons were very, very different. Season three, I thought was a great storyline, and the fact that I had so much power and wealth, and was living in that place. And then season five, the storyline was a little odd – you know what I mean? – the idea that it was the vampire authority. But I went with it.
Then I really grew into it, and I loved having that whole love affair thing. He was a hard character to kill, because you build him up to be so powerful, and he's lived so long. How do you kill him? It had to be a surprise like that, and it sort of had to be subterfuge. Alex Skarsgård, when he had to kill me, read the script, and was like, "Oh, no! I have to kill you! Oh, God!"
The day we shot that – we have a hilarious picture, of me and Alex, and he's holding the stake, and we both had sad faces on, because also I was leaving the show. I died once. I'm not going to come back again. But I loved the whole epic. Russell getting teeny, and turning into a little doll, and then growing. That was such an amazing idea [laughs].
Have you heard about the potential reboot that's being made?
Yeah, I have. I mean, I can't imagine any of us will be involved, because vampires don't age. So what do you with that? I could probably get away with it because I have a wig, and I was already in my late 40s, early 50s. But, you know, it's a tall order to ask people not to age.
Plus, a show like that, I don't know what they intend to do. I'd be curious to see what they intend to do – if Alan Ball's involved. If he's not involved…
Because so much of the quality of that show is Alan Ball. Speaking of creators, it is hard sometimes to copy a voice like that. I think by necessity, it will be different. I'm not quite sure I want to revisit a show I loved so much. I don't want to be in it myself, I don't think. It depends on what they offer to me. If they offer it to me.
Looking more broadly now at your career and the industry, do you remember the first time you saw queer representation on screen? What impact did that have on you?
I was born in 1962. The first representation I saw was The Boys in the Band, which is a play I still don't like. I just don't like it. I think it's very corrosive, and it did damage to me. It was not positive. It presented a bleak, bleak, awful world.
There weren't a whole lot of positive role models. I don't remember a positive gay movie. Maybe… I'm trying to think. Withnail & I, kind of. Were they gay? I don't know if they were gay… I'm just trying to remember anything else that stands out as hopeful. There weren't a lot of hopeful things, you know?
I read you came out quite young in high school. Did being out ever create any obstacles for your career?
Not for me. It really didn't. I'm a character actor, and so I've been lucky that it's rarely been a consideration. I've probably played more straight characters than gay characters in my life. I remember not getting a job once, where I wasn't gay enough. The casting director assumed I was straight. I was like, "We come in all shapes and sizes and representations!"
Early on in my career, I definitely wasn't interested in playing anyone hyper-gay. I didn't avoid it, but I was sort of relieved, because I didn't want to, I suppose… Actually, you know what it was? It's more that it wasn't in my wheelhouse. I personally, myself, had not been that flamboyant. And so that's not a thing that I am super-good at. I've gotten better at it as I've gotten older, and now enjoy it.
I suppose that's a version of internalised homophobia, of not wanting to do that. Because we are also products of our culture, and I definitely have gone through revelations of, "Oh, that's homophobic. I'm actually homophobic. I've internalised all this stuff."
You've accomplished so much in your career so far. Which achievement are you most proud of?
I think the hard parts are what I'm proud of. I did a play called The Devils years ago. It's four hours and 15 minutes long. That got scathing reviews across the board. Nobody liked it. I played a really difficult character who's unlikeable. People used to walk out on my last speech. I loved doing a play that people hated, that I didn't succeed in.
And lately, I suppose it's writing. I was always a writer. I started writing when I was 12. Even though I majored in poetry at school, I ended up getting a theatre degree, and ended up putting my writing in the backseat. And so I'm proud that I've had a working relationship with Lisa Peterson now since 2003 as writers, and we've written three plays.
I'm writing a novel right now. I wrote a TV series, and no one bought it, so I thought, "You know what? I'll write it into a novel." So I'm writing a novel version.
I think the writing is something that I'm proud of. I wrote my first movie called The Parting Glass, which was about my sister's suicide, and the fact that that got made is a miracle. Stephen Moyer directed it. Anna Paquin was in it. Cynthia Nixon, Melissa Leo, people like that. So in a weird way, making stuff is more satisfying.
This month, Digital Spy Magazine counts down the 50 greatest LGBTQ+ TV characters since the Stonewall riots. Read every issue now with a 1-month free trial, only on Apple News+.
Interested in Digital Spy's weekly newsletter? Sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox – and don't forget to join our Watch This Facebook Group for daily TV recommendations and discussions with other readers.