Sunday, August 12, 2007

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Actor Denis O'Hare ("Rocket Science")

For those not in the know, Denis O’Hare is an extraordinary gifted actor who’s seen tremendous success on Broadway in plays and musicals alike, and has received two Tony nominations, one of which he won (for Richard Greenberg’s play, “Take Me Out.”). He’s simultaneously been doing film work, in small parts—usually a handful of scenes—and infuses them with much more than what’s on the page. In the past he’s made memorable appearances in “Sweet and Lowdown,” “21 Grams,” “Garden State,” “Heights” and “Half Nelson,” to name a few.

Truth be told, I’ve long been a fan of O’Hare’s stage work, most notably his performance as Charles James Guiteau, the man who tried and failed to assassinate President Garfield, in Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant “Assassins.” But he’s also been brilliant in “Take Me Out,” “Cabaret” and “Sweet Charity” (where he co-starred with Christina Applegate). A month ago, he finished a run of “Inherit the Wind” with living legends Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy. I’ve always found O’Hare to be fascinating to watch and one of the most versatile actors I’ve seen on a stage.

O’Hare recently appeared in “A Mighty Heart,” stars in two memorable scenes in this week’s “Rocket Science” as our protagonist’s father, and this fall will be seen in “Michael Clayton” with George Clooney, as well as "Charlie Wilson’s War” with Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Incredibly gracious, Denis responded to an e-mail I sent him asking him to be interviewed here and agreed. It’s not a terribly lengthy one, but we got to talk a little bit about “Rocket Science,” his stage work, “Sweeney Todd,” the Clooney, his thoughts on “Chuck & Larry,” and a few other things. Enjoy:

Rob Scheer (Me): Given that it's the only one of your recent crop of films that was independently made, how did you get involved with “Rocket Science”?

Denis O’Hare: I auditioned for Jeff Blitz back in 2005, I think. I auditioned for one part and then Jeff had me go back out and look at the part of the dad.

RS: What was the general feeling on the set, and for that matter, how long did you work on it?

DO: I was only on the movie for 2 days but the set was fantastic. I became friends with Vince Piazza—one of my sons in the movie—and we actually are both in the movie "Stephanie Daley". Jeff is funny and great and I was happy to just be able to hang out with him for a little while. Reece [Daniel Thompson] is also terrific.

RS: Your final scene with Reece is arguably the most moving in the film, and a catharsis of sorts. Did you approach it as any other, or did the two of you prepare/rehearse more extensively than usual?

DO: We shot that scene at about 5 in the morning. I had a performance that night, and I traveled down the Jersey Shore and showed up while we waited for the sun to rise. The scene sort of takes care of itself.

RS: When you're playing a character so pivotal to the central character and the film itself, but who has such minimal screen time, do you approach it any differently than you might otherwise?

DO: In movies, you're at the mercy of the director and the editor. You just have to focus on doing the best, most truthful job you can and then you hope for the best.

RS: Opening against yet another “Rush Hour” movie, and amidst dozens of bloated, over-budgeted blockbusters and sequels, what sort of alternative do you think “Rocket Science” offers?

DO: I think this late in the summer, folks are ready for something a little more thoughtful.

RS: As someone who is obviously so frequently busy with performing, how often do you actually get to go out and see theatre and/or films? What have you seen lately that you particularly liked/disliked?

DO: I have to admit that I haven't really gotten to see much theatre of late as I've been traveling around a lot. I've been reading mostly, although I did catch "Harry Potter" (B-) and “The Simpsons" (B+). I'm looking forward to seeing the “Bourne” movie because I’ve liked the other two.

RS: You’ve said in the past that you're only interested in being in musicals when they’re dark and twisted, to some extent. Do you still feel that way, and do you have your eye on anything?

DO: Don't have my eyes on any thing at the moment. I'm sort of focusing my efforts on film and T.V. I do still feel that I only want to do a musical if I can find an interesting take or angle on it. I tend to like the twisted ones for that reason.

RS: Can you talk a little bit about your role in “Michael Clayton” and what the experience of making that film was like?

DO: Once again, a funny audition story. I went in for one part—a fairly large part—but I didn't feel like I was right for it, and I asked the director at the audition if he thought I could pull it off. He looked at me like I was out of my mind. I didn't get that part but I was called back for another part—only one scene, but a pretty good one. I play a rich, arrogant asshole who calls upon George Clooney's character to get him out of a jam. It was pretty odd to show up on the set and yell at George Clooney—especially as he arrived to the shoot fresh from his Oscar win in 2005.

RS: I admit, I’m someone who worships at the altar of Clooney. Can you tell me anything to burst my bubble?

DO: Alas, I cannot. He is a lovely guy. We sat and chatted over "lunch" at 3:00 a.m.

RS: Having appeared in a revival of a Sondheim work [“Assassins”] and being a self-professed fan of the source material, do you have any reservations/excitement for Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd”?

DO: I’m looking forward to it. My friend, John Logan, wrote the screenplay so I'd been hearing about it for a while. I think Johnny Depp is not the first person you'd think of in the role but he's a total actor and always throws himself into everything, and the results I'm sure will be interesting.

RS: Though most critics, and the audiences who actually went, seemed to really appreciate it, why do you think “A Mighty Heart” wasn't more successful at the box office?

DO: I think the timing was bad. I hope that it gets re-released as we get closer to Oscar season. Angelina gives a remarkable performance and I think [she] will get nominated.

RS: Do you tend to read your reviews?

DO: I never read theatre reviews. I’ve been reading movie reviews because it's not quite as personal.

RS: I know it's reaching back a couple years, but can you muster any memories of what the whole experience of doing “Assassins” was like?

DO: "Assassins" was a perfect show. The cast loved each other, we had fun doing it, we all did good work and it was profoundly received. The only downside was that it closed too early.

RS: “The Ballad of Guiteau” may be my favorite musical number ever, particularly for the way it ends and the way audiences react to it (i.e.: their discomfort). It's such a powerhouse and a tremendously performed number that they have to applaud, but due to the timing/staging, they usually applaud as Guiteau's dead hanging body drops down. How did you find the experience of performing that number 8 times a week?

DO: While it was fun to do the part, it was emotionally draining and physically bruising. The ending was very odd for me. I never felt like I "ended" the number as I’m offstage when it happens and the fact that the audience was so stunned at the final image, I never could really tell if they liked it. That being said, it's a great spiritual exercise to work for the purity of performance and not to pander for applause.

RS: I usually don't succumb to “what was it like working with __________” questions, but I think this can be my one-ever exception: what was it like working with Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy on “Inherit the Wind” this year?

DO: Great. Both great guys. Dennehy is a real mensch and Plummer is wickedly funny.

RS: Having won a Tony for “Take Me Out,” which dealt with the stigma of a public figure coming out of the closet, do you find being openly gay has affected the way you work at all, or being cast in certain projects?

DO: Not at all. Being gay doesn't really figure into my choices of work. And I suppose it's a measure of progress that I never feel like my work will be affected or that I'll lose a job because I'm gay.

RS: And as one of the few openly gay actors starring in both stage and screen, do you have any particular take on “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry”?

DO: I auditioned for it and I think it's harmless, [though] I find it odd that they decide that the easy way to get health coverage is to pose as a gay couple. I've been trying to get Hugo on my insurance for 3 years now and I'm still trying to fulfill all of their requirements. I do think that it's a measure of how far we've come that all the valuable moral lessons in the movie are drawn from the gay people and they are all positive.

RS: What sort of weight does being a Tony winner really bring each time you start a new show?

DO: Oh, not too much. I suppose everyone has a different take on this. I tend to take these things as they come. There is a little pressure on you to be "good," whatever that means, but I don't let it go to my head. When you're in a show, you are just one member of the cast- just one part of the ensemble.

RS: When doing a strenuous schedule of eight performances a week of challenging live performances, do small parts in Hollywood films seem like cakewalks?

DO: Nooooooo. Whenever you show up on a film set, you feel like you are at the first day of school... will they like me? Will I be good? Will they fire me? It's very stressful. Doing one or two days on a film is a very hard thing.

RS: Are there any directors (film and stage) you¹d particularly like to work with? Or any screenwriters/playwrights whose works you particularly admire?

DO: One of my dreams already came true: working with Michael Winterbottom (“A Mighty Heart”) and Mike Nichols (“Charlie Wilson's War”). I’d love to work with Charlie Kaufman. I love working with Doug Hughes, Joe Mantello and Dan Sullivan and would like to work for them again.

RS: What’re you working on at the moment or in the near future?

DO: I filmed "Baby Mama" with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey last month, and I'm shooting a movie called "Pretty Bird" with Paul Giamatti and Billy Crudup. I'm also doing a recurring role on "Brothers & Sisters", playing Rob Lowe's campaign manager. I'm going to be doing a small role in an upcoming DeNiro/Pacino film called "Righteous Kill".

There you go. “Rocket Science” is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, and expands throughout the country later in the month. “Michael Clayton” opens nationally October 12th and “Charlie Wilson’s War” opens on December 25th.


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