By MARK KENNEDY
NEW YORK (AP) — There’s something inherently Irish about expecting the worst even in the face of good news. Just ask Denis O’Hare, who recently picked up the phone early one morning with a sense of dread.
The ID on the other end was blocked and the actor initially ignored it, thinking he was being hit up for money from a fundraiser. The caller immediately tried again and this time O’Hare decided to answer.
“I said, curtly, ‘What?’” he recalls.
“He goes, ‘Good morning. It’s your agent. Do you know why I’m calling?’”
“The first thing I thought of was, ‘Somebody’s dead.’ I’m Irish. I was like, ‘Who’s dead? Who is it? Somebody I know? Or did I get fired? Is it something bad?’” O’Hare says. “He goes, ‘You were nominated for an Emmy.’ I was completely floored.”
O’Hare, who had earned his first ever Emmy nod as a best supporting actor in the FX show “American Horror Story,” laughs at his tendency to quickly go dark, especially since so much in his life has been going so brightly in the past few years.
Besides that Emmy nomination, he married his longtime love last summer and both are raising a 15-month-old boy they’re in the process of adopting. He’s in three hit TV series, has been commissioned to write a play, and he’s currently crossing an item off his bucket list: starring in a show in Central Park.
“I don’t have any illusions that I am special. So I’m incredibly grateful for what’s happening,” O’Hare says over Mexican food at a restaurant on the Upper West Side.
O’Hare, who plays a creepy burned victim on “American Horror Story,” a vampire king in “True Blood” and a wacky judge on “The Good Wife,” changes gears completely this summer to play the Baker in “Into the Woods,” the second show of The Public Theater’s 50th anniversary season at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
The musical, written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is a re-imagining of beloved classic fairy tales and runs through Aug. 25. Amy Adams plays the Baker’s Wife and Donna Murphy is the Witch.
Though he often attends the free shows each summer at the Delacorte, O’Hare never expected he’d one day perform there, mostly because he gravitates toward Anton Chekhov, not Shakespeare. “Other people do it better, so I leave it to them. I kind of didn’t think it was going to happen for me. And then this came up.”
There was another stumbling block. O’Hare, who won a Tony Award in the play “Take Me Out,” has a love-hate relationship with musicals, even though he’s sung on Broadway in “Cabaret,” ”Sweet Charity” and “Assassins.”
“It’s not my natural thing. I’m a straight actor, for the most part. I don’t always like how musicals say what they say. I don’t always like the easy morals. I find them unsatisfying on an intellectual level,” he says.
He sat through three-quarters of a DVD of “Into the Woods,” turned it off and decided he wouldn’t do it. The next morning, he reconsidered making such a hasty decision and watched the last part.
“I found myself being so moved to the point of tears. All the themes begin to tie together,” he says. “I had that thing that happens to actors sometimes where you move from a place of oh-should-I-do-this? to a place of oh-I-have-to-do-this. Suddenly, the choice is taken away from you and you get this burning thing in your gut.”
O’Hare, a wiry, gracious man who turns out to be, thankfully, much less odd than many of his characters, has built a career that seems to have no boundaries. Off-screen, he’s a proud liberal who makes his own political T-shirts and eats breakfast all day. On the screen or the stage, he can play a judge, a vampire or a baker who encounters a giant.
Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director, calls O’Hare “hands-down one of our great American actors. He is a spectacular Everyman. There is a way that Denis seems like the most ordinary guy in the world,” Eustis says. “And yet, on the other hand, he is capable of revealing an incredible nobility and stature. It’s the ability to be noble within a common frame that makes him great.”
O’Hare, 50, is finding it harder to stay under the radar thanks to “True Blood,” in which he plays Russell Edgington, the vampire king of Mississippi, who in one fantastic scene in season three, bursts into a TV studio, rips out the newscaster’s spine and then gives a passionate monologue against humans — “We will eat you after we eat your children” — before smiling and saying, “And now for the weather. Tiffany?”
“‘True Blood’ definitely put me on the map in a way I didn’t expect,” O’Hare says. “It comes down to numbers. Five million people watch ‘True Blood’ every week. Factor in the repeats and DVD sales and global audiences and then fan sites — suddenly, you’re reaching 20 million people, 30 million people. That’s really crazy.”
He’s lately turned to writing, teaming up with Lisa Peterson to condense Homer’s 8th-century B.C. epic “The Iliad” into a one-man plea for peace called “An Iliad.” An off-Broadway run this spring attracted interest in a tour and the University of Southern California has commissioned O’Hare and Peterson to write another play, this time about the Bible.
“As a gay man in this culture, I’m obsessed with the way that the Bible is used against me, specifically, and the way the Bible is used in this culture for law. And so as a defense against that abuse, I find myself reading the Bible, arguing with the Bible and investigating the Bible,” he says. “So now I’m being paid to do what I was already doing — fanatically reading books about the Bible.”
As for future plans, he’s not so sure. Maybe he doesn’t want to tempt fate, that Irish streak. “I’m in one of those periods where I don’t know what’s ahead of me. It’s a blank canvas,” he says. “It could be a minimalist painting. It could be a Jackson Pollock. Who knows?”
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