By Mostafa Ismail
Photos courtesy of D-CAF
This past month Cairo saw Tony Award winning actor Denis O’Hare perform at AUC’s downtown Falaki Theatre as part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival. Taking a moment out of his busy few days in Cairo, Denis O’Hare discussed his career in acting, why he chooses certain roles, and his advice for upcoming actors.
Better known for his roles in the TV shows True Blood and American Horror Story, as well as for his movie appearances in Dallas Buyers Club and Milk, it was his performance in An Iliad – an adaptation of Homer’s Iliad that he co-wrote with Lisa Peterson – that struck me the most. The 100-minute monodrama tells the story of the Trojan War with a modern twist, and O’Hare delivered a remarkably emotional yet humor-filled performance.
After the play, I got the chance to speak with Denis about his life and his work.
You career began in theater but then progressed to TV and film, how did working in other fields affect your theater career?
I feel like the kind of acting you do on stage can sometimes make you lose perspective. I did a musical called Cabaret for a year and a half, and about ten months into it I went away for two weeks. When I came back to the stage I found myself asking, why is everybody yelling? The acting felt so big. I’ve found that that happens if I go away to do film or TV for a long time and then return to theater. Likewise, if I do too much TV or film, I start falling into bad TV tricks, and it’s only when you leave that you start realizing. In TV no one uses their body, they act with their face, in theatre you have to use your whole body. So going back and forth is really great, you break the bad habits of each.
Can you tell us a little about preparing for a role?
There are different techniques that apply for theater and others for film, however I believe that acting is acting. The way one learns to act is similar to sports, where the basic skills are acquired first. If you play football, you have to learn how to handle the ball and pass it with your feet in order to pick up these little skills first. It’s the same with acting, where one of the first skills we learn is observation. How do you create a character? What are your character’s shoes like? What is their posture? How do they rest? How do they walk? You learn to imitate people; you learn to feel what they feel and think what they think.
Then you analyze the text; you analyze the play and how to read the script. The language may change as well, for example, the playwright George Bernard Shaw writes in long sentences that never breathe. So in doing Shaw you have to learn to speak in really long sentences without stopping. Then there’s Harold Pinter who is the opposite. His lines are much shorter: ‘Yeah… Well… Right.’ There are hugely different techniques and you always have to have to be prepared for these different texts and approaches.
I’ve noticed you often play characters that are goofy or quirky. Can you tell us more about your role selection?
Sometimes it’s a bit of cop-out taking those roles because playing normal people is really hard; playing a hero is the hardest thing in the world. When you see someone playing a hero in a movie and he does a good job, then that’s a remarkable actor.
It’s hard because they’re so boring, there’s nothing to grab onto. But with a villain or somebody crazy, there’s lots of stuff you can really sink your teeth into when acting. I’ve always played villains, I love villains; they usually have something odd going on. One time I decided to play an average person, I played a priest, but when my mom saw it she thought the priest was creepy, so I can’t seem to win.
Right now I am very careful though, I am trying not to do any more horror movies so that I don’t get stuck in that genre. I just played an immigration lawyer in a film where the character was a high powered lawyer, it was a great character. I’m also going to be playing a funny CIA station chief in an upcoming movie with Nicholas Cage.
What is the most embarrassing thing that happened to you on a set or a stage?
Well, I had my first and only sex scene on American Horror Story and it was with the young actress Emma Roberts. I love her and we get along perfectly but it was still really uncomfortable. In the scene I was supposed to be bored and was smoking a cigarette, they shot it from behind. They give you something to wear so that you’re not all exposed but the way they had placed the camera, I ended up being exposed anyway. After I finished the scene, I found everyone behind the monitor with their hands on their mouths. Thankfully they didn’t actually show it since it wasn’t right for the character. I was so happy to spare myself the discomfort!
What advice would you give young upcoming actors in the Middle East?
I don’t know if it would be any different than what I’d give to an American actor, but I would tell them to know why they want to do it and not to be confused about an underlying agenda. I say that because a lot of the time in the US people think that they want to be an actor because they love acting, but all they really want is to be famous or make a lot of money. That to me is dangerous if you think it’s one thing and it’s something else. As long as you know what you’re doing it’s fine; if you want to be famous and you know you want to be famous, that’s great, go for it. If you want to make a lot of money by being an actor and you have an idea of what that means to you, great, but be honest with yourself. Make sure you match your motivation with your desires and keep them in the same place.
Since this is your first time in Egypt, what was your first impression of Egyptian culture?
It’s a lot more hip and evolved than I would’ve thought; it’s relatively familiar to me. I love graffiti, so I was pleased to see really cool graffiti everywhere that to me speaks about a certain type of nature that people have, which is this desire to express irreverence – that odd revolutionary spirit that is very interesting. I expected it to be a lot more careful and a lot more shut down and it doesn’t feel that way to me. Maybe it is to you, but it sure doesn’t seem so to me.
Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov
“I like a lot of people; I like Johnny Depp a lot, I like Matt Damon – I think he’s superb. I also like Sean Penn, I think he’s great. But going back in time, I’d say James Mason. I think he’s a phenomenal actor. And for actresses I’d say Gena Rowlands.”
“That’s so hard; I am thinking about a movie that might have changed my life, but it changes with time, from the movie that changed my life when I was ten to the one when I was twenty. I am trying to think about the last really good movie that I saw that blew my mind, and that would have to be Birdman – I loved that movie. It was unique, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It had its own rules. I dig that the reality wasn’t real and it had a really strange tone; great performances too. I also like Boyhood, I saw it twice.”