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Interview with Denis O'Hare
Kansas City born, Michigan raised, Parisian resident, The Good Wife judge and star of Broadway plays and movies is in London to take on Molière. He spoke to Michael Burland during rehearsals for Tartuffe
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
First published in the March/April 2019 edition of The American magazine
Buy Tickets: to April 30, 2019
Denis, thanks for taking a break from rehearsals for us. First I have to ask about your name - Denis O'Hare is already a pretty Irish name. But Denis Patrick Seamus O'Hare – is that about as Irish a name as you can get?
Hah! I did one of those DNA tests recently and there was nothing else in the woodpile. Nothing, nothing, nothing! And I have an Irish passport through my grandfather, who came over to the States in the ‘teens. We can trace back his family not very far, because they were farmers and all the records were lost in fires and things. My mother’s family are Kennedys and they came over a little earlier and the Irish married the Irish – there’s not a lot else going on in my family. I’m a dual national and I got my Irish passport years ago more as a matter of pride than anything else, but lo and behold it comes in very handy when you need to escape Trump! My son, who we adopted in America, is from New York and I also had him adopted in Ireland so he has an Irish passport as well.
And you can escape Brexit too.
I know! But we landed in Paris and the gilets jaunes started up in November, so it was like, out of the frying pan into the fire. I don’t know where you’re going to go in the world right now where you’re not going to encounter some sort of conflagration.
Why choose to settle in Paris?
We’re both Francophiles, we both speak the language – it’s very important to me to speak more than one language and I speak Spanish, French, English, and a little bit of Arabic and Russian. Our son had been going to French school since he was three and we thought it was important to continue that. We could have chosen anywhere to live outside the United States, but Europe was a must because of the passport and Ireland is amazing but too small, I think, for us. Paris feels like New York in many ways – the Parisians are as unfriendly and hard as the New Yorkers can be and really wonderful underneath when you get there. I felt a kinship to the city.
You can obviously handle the commute - where is most of your work?
It’s funny, I never know where it’s going to end up being. I’ve already had an offer here that I had to turn down, and I just got another offer for a small movie that’s shooting here, so I may end up in London more than anywhere else, which I’d be very happy about, I love London.
I’ve read that you could have been a musician, or even a sportsman.
I don’t know about a sportsman. I could have been a priest! I was high up in the lists for a long time until I was 18 or so. I was definitely a musician. I studied opera and I played piano, church organ, oboe and clarinet. When I was sixteen I really got bit with the acting bug and I went to a Stanislavski camp in Michigan – which sounds like a Wes Anderson movie. That gave me the idea of immersing yourself in a character and I fell in love with acting. I saw my first play ever in downtown Detroit – it was Equus – and then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This was 1974, so it wasn’t long after those shows had been first performed. And in Detroit you’re also exposed to Canadian media. I was raised on Canadian TV and radio and visited Canada quite often, and they had a culturally more broad mandate than the US. They had Monty Python, which I adored, and weird dance pieces where people were nude – things you’d never see on American TV.
My mom is a musician, a very gifted pianist, her mother was a musician on the radio, her sister was a cellist and my uncle a violinist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra – I used to sit in on their rehearsals when I was twelve. My father, for being a by the book businessman, was very tolerant of allowing us to explore whatever we wanted to. It was a rich cultural background. Then there were high school musicals, that’s where I got my first taste of musicals.
You’ve worked in TV (The Good Wife, True Blood and many more), movies (including The Eagle and Milk) as well as theater (Assassins, for which Denis won a Tony Award, Inherit The Wind, Elling, Sweet Charity, Major Barbara, and Cabaret). Is it a silly question to ask which you enjoy most?
No, because they’re all very different. I’m a theater animal first so I always come back to that. I have a one man show called An Iliad, which I wrote with my collaborator Lisa Peterson, about the Trojan Wars. [the script is available at www.dramatists.com – ed] I’ve done that several times a year since 2012, recently in Romania and we’re doing it in Shanghai in August. That keeps me limber in theater. I love the process of working on a play with a troupe of actors whom you become close with. In film you have the opportunity to perform in a different way, to promote different parts of yourself. I’ve been criticized by certain directors for ‘making the words superfluous’, which means I do well in the silent parts – a lot of film is not about the language, it’s about existing in the space and being comfortable with a camera. I do love being in front of the camera. TV is a strange mix of the two, you’re oftentimes in an ensemble, you know the other actors, it’s a continuing project not a one-off. The work in TV is more fast and furious, you shoot more pages per day. You tell the story in a different way.
In your blog you talk a lot about writing, yet say you’re reluctant to call yourself a writer – why?
I guess I’m getting closer, but it’s only because I respect writing so much. I get annoyed when a football player does one film and says ‘I’m an actor!’ - no you’re not an actor, you got lucky! I suppose at a certain point I have to admit that I am a writer.
Do you write every day?
I do. I get up every day and I write. I only wrote four pages today but my goal is five. At any given point I have three of four projects that I’m working on. I give my attention to the one that is the most deadline driven or the one that I’m most inspired by. Lisa and I have written another play, called The Good Book, which is about the history of the Bible. We did it once in Chicago and now Berkeley Repertory Theatre is doing it. Right when I go on hiatus from Tartuffe in March, I will jet off to Berkeley to start rehearsals for that, then jet back to do two performances of Tartuffe, jet over to Pittsburgh for a fan convention, back to Berkeley, back to London to finish Tartuffe, then back to Berkeley for the opening. Oh, and my movie, The Parting Glass, has just been picked up by Sony Classics and it’s going to be distributed, which is very exciting.
Do writing and acting inform each other?
Absolutely. I was a poetry major for a couple of years at Northwestern University until they said I had to declare and I panicked and chose acting. I’d been taking acting classes all along, but mostly literature courses, history, French and poetry writing. I found that the way you talk about writing, the methods of writing and the way you think about it is very helpful for writing. Theater and film is writing, you’re trying to honor and interpret another writer’s work, and I’m the last person on the set to want to change the lines.
That leads on to Tartuffe at the National Theatre. Have you done it before - perhaps in French?
I haven’t. I read it years ago and did a bit of it at college but I had no idea what I was doing! I didn’t get it at all. It’s hard to understand Tartuffe when you’re twenty years old. Everyone I know seems to have played one of the parts in Tartuffe - except Tartuffe. It’s one of those plays, like Shakespeare, that says more about our current climate than the play itself, it’s a device to make social commentary. I don’t think you do the play a disservice to use it that way, that’s its function. It talks about religious hypocrisy, but even in the original it is the family’s hypocrisy. Tartuffe is an impostor and a conman, but he’s also completely legitimate, whereas the family has all sorts of levels of denial and pretence. His chaotic romp through their lives exposes to them that they are actually the problem. The ending is quiet cynical because no-one learns anything. Tartuffe gets his comeuppance and is chastized and chastened but nobody else is punished. That’s an odd thing, but realistic. In the original three act version, which was banned, Tartuffe won – he successfully fleeced the family and walked away happy, but the King said no, no, no, that will not do!
How are you approaching the play?
It’s modern dress. It’s an adaptation, not a translation, and John Donnelly has written a Molière play, in the spirit of Molière as if it was written now. It’s quite beautifully executed, John’s writing is extraordinary. The cognates are apt – it’s pre-Brexit England, the family live in Highgate, they’re very wealthy and may or may not have been involved in government scandals, and Tartuffe is homeless. He’s an outsider, Eastern European, and he’s threatened with being expelled after Brexit. He’s a fringe person, who no-one likes, but he also has an odd, gleaming belief in something, and he inspires Orgon and provides him with answers. The relationship between Orgon and Tartuffe is the most interesting one in the play, they only have one big scene alone, but it’s really beautiful. The play hits all the highs and lows. When it’s funny, it’s farcical, silly and ridiculous. Other times it’s not funny, it’s gutting in terms of what it says about people, society and culture. The ending is truly disturbing. Most comedies of the time come to an end with a marriage and this pays lip service to that, but the ending is a lot more brutal than that.
Actually I don’t know if the word Brexit is said, but you can’t help but feel it. We will be doing the play across the imaginary line of March 29th so we’ll see what that feels like!
Finally.. what’s the best thing about being Denis O'Hare?
I have an amazing extended family. My brothers and sister, my father, my cousins... I have a rich family life. I’m married and my husband and I have been together for nineteen years and we have a gorgeous, difficult, intelligent son. My life is not without bumps and real challenges and some tragedy, but I’m grateful for my family.
The National Theatre's productiuon of Molière’s comic classic, Tartuffe, starring Denis O'Hare as Tartuffe, runs to April 30, 2019, at the Lyttelton Theatre. You can buy tickets at https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/tartuffe