Staging a Coup
Versatile actor Denis O'Hare is equally adept on Broadway, television, and film. He talks about growing up in metro Detroit, his famous co-stars, and the thrill of his Tony Award.
Hour Detroit reached O’Hare by phone while he was in L.A. for a costume fitting for his upcoming film, The Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood and featuring Angelina Jolie. That same day, he auditioned for and won a role in Gus Van Sant’s film Milk, starring Sean Penn. The following day, O’Hare planned to begin shooting Quarantined.
Kansas City-born and brought up in suburban Detroit, O’Hare lived in Southfield and Bloomfield Hills. When he was 15, the family moved into a house on Wing Lake where he spent summers canoeing and sailing, as well as going to Bob-Lo, Cedar Point, and Buddy’s Pizza in Detrot while working a string of teen-age jobs.
What kinds of jobs did you have?
I was a paperboy for The Detroit News. I worked at McDonald’s all during high school. During college [at Northwestern], I came back and worked every summer. I worked downtown at Blue Cross/Blue Shield doing kitchen maintenance work. The summer of 1982, I spent pulling weeds and painting garage doors at a huge apartment complex in Farmington Hills.
So what did you do for fun growing up?
I went to Brother Rice for high school and my two best friends, David Assemany and Steve Wisner, went to the rival school, Catholic Central. We were all musicians. Every Friday night, we’d dress up and go with a whole group of people to The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Prudential Town Center. We must have gone at least 40 times. If we didn’t go to Rocky Horror, we’d go to Farrell’s [ice cream parlor] for the tin roof sundae.
When did you get started in theater?
It wasn’t until 1974, when I was 13 and I auditioned for Showboat at the Southfield Civic Center and got a chorus part. I loved it. The following year, I auditioned for Carousel and got the part of Enoch Snow. I did musicals all through high school at Brother Rice. The first one I did was Once Upon a Mattress, in 1977.
That’s ironic, since you were in the TV remake of Once Upon a Mattress almost 30 years later with Carol Burnett and Tracey Ullman.
[Director] Kathleen Marshall asked me to audition for the role of [Prince] Dauntless, so I did. They hired me, and I had a great time. We shot it in Vancouver in 2004. Carol Burnett was incredibly sweet and personable and very professional. I had a great time with Tracey Ullman. She’s a riot.
In June of 2003, you won a Tony for the Best Actor Award for your role in Take Me Out.
It was a lovely thing to win, a great honor. Up until that point, for 20 years, I’d always played murderers, including [Nathan] Leopold of Leopold and Loeb, [Bruno] Richard Hauptmann, Richard Speck, and Charles Guiteau in [the Broadway musical] Assassins [which earned a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor]. I played many crazy killers on Law and Order.
What was going through your mind when they were announcing your name at the Tony Awards?
The whole season leading up to the Tonys is very strenuous, just like the Academy Awards. The worst part about it is the press starts speculating on who they think is going to win, and they were naming me. So I was incredibly relieved [when they called my name].
You’ve done theater, TV, and movies. Which is most difficult?
Theater is the hardest. You’re in a show eight times a week. You never really get time off — only Mondays — and you spend the day trying not to fall behind on anything. And you’re never just doing a play. In 1998, I was doing Cabaret on Broadway and shooting Sweet and Lowdown with Woody Allen at the same time. When I was doing Take Me Out, I shot Garden State in the morning, before a two-show day. That same year in 2003 while we were in tech rehearsals for the Broadway leg of Take Me Out, I had to leave rehearsal early and fly to Tennessee to finish shooting 21 Grams with Sean Penn. I got there at 5 a.m. and shot my scene until 11 a.m. I got back to New York at 4 p.m. and did my first preview that night at 8.
In 2007, you played Rob Lowe’s campaign manager in TV’s Brothers and Sisters. You were in three movies the past couple of months — Charlie Wilson’s War, Michael Clayton, and A Mighty Heart, and are shooting three more. Do you plan to do any theater?
I will definitely go back to Broadway. For an actor, the best possible world is to do all three mediums because you use different skills. So it’s good to keep bouncing back and forth.
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