In the 13-episode, fifth installment of the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning franchise, American Horror Story: Hotel ventures into The Cortez, an infamous hotel in Los Angeles that is operated by The Countess played by international superstar Lady Gaga. Featuring an all-star cast including series regulars Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Evan Peters, Dennis O’Hare and Chloe Sevigny, the series welcomes in expanded roles Matt Bomer, Wes Bentley and Cheyenne Jackson. AHS was co-created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.
Dennis O’Hare is an Emmy and Tony award nominated actor with a career spanning film, television and stage. He co-starred in the premiere season of American Horror Story and has created some of the most iconic and notorious characters of the franchise. We spoke with O’Hare about all of his characters on AHS so far, bringing LGBT issues to the forefront with the character of Liz Taylor and what he’s learned from the international AHS fan base.
With shows like Transparent and now learning about your character’s backstory, it seems like transgender issues are really out there this year.
You know, it’s funny, I don’t think that’s why Ryan did it. Because he had this idea for a while, he emailed me back in January about it, and he had found an historical figure who had died in a fire in a nightclub and that was what he was channeling, I think… who was a famous doorman at the Chateau Marmont and that was also a figure who he was channeling. Ryan picks from really deep sources and that’s what he was working off of. That being said, you can’t ignore the fact that we are in this moment where transgender issues are really in the forefront and my own education has been interesting in this.
Did you get to choose which Grande Dame you’d be embodying?
There was definitely an evolution – they had one idea at the beginning, I don’t want to name the figure, but it was a figure who’s still alive but who had fallen ill and they were afraid that if they went with that figure, God forbid she dies in middle of the production, it feels tacky. So they really had a huge switch to Liz Taylor and at the beginning, I didn’t have that as a model, that came later. Looking back on it, it seems inevitable and perfect, you can’t imagine anybody better –
Just the make up alone….
Well, and also things like Butterfield Eight, what a crazy movie that’s both half good and half bad and I got to rewatch Cleopatra which I had watched anyway because we’re writing a play about The Bible and we wanted to watch Cleopatra and it’s actually a really good movie in many ways. We stayed away from Virginia Woolf which is unfortunate because there’s a lot of fun things in there. We talked a lot about wig, no wig, because so much of what Liz Taylor looks like is that hair. And not having the hair was a huge challenge and we talked about maybe having it and losing it at one point and Ryan was adamant, he said no, she’s always bald, but the turbans were a real nod to later Liz, the turbans and the kaftans. At one point he actually said, we can throw a little Agnes Moorehead in there and I’m old enough to remember Bewitched and I loved the idea of throwing a little Agnes Moorehead in there.
What is the American part of American Horror Story? Is it just geographical or is it cultural?
You know, it’s funny, I have tons of Brazilian fans, I have tons of Russian fans, I have a lot of French fans so obviously horror is not simply an American obsession. Every culture seems to have – I mean, look at Japanese horror, it’s incredible – that everyone has got a market in a way.
That being said, there are things about the American landscape that make it have a specific flavor of horror, a certain kind of horror. I think of Amityville Horror as being the exemplar – something about the east coast old-fashioned houses with attics, big rambling houses is very American. You think about a slasher movie where you’re in the middle of a plain, in a farmhouse in Kansas. I mean, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s great novel, is a horror novel in many ways and what makes it so horrible is that it’s about an ordinary town; these are normal people and things just don’t happen there. And America has a patina of wholesomeness whether real or imagined that I think this exploits. That you take the underbelly of America and you open it up and America prides itself on being so moral and so wholesome and so clean cut so to subvert that I think is a very American opportunity.
American Horror Story has just been renewed for season six – can we expect you to be coming back with it? What kinds of characters are next on your AHS bucket list?
The beauty of this show is that we never know anything so quite honestly, we don’t know if we’re going to live, we don’t know how many episodes we’ll be in, we don’t know who we’re going to play, sometimes we don’t even know if we’re alive! There have been seasons where we’ve had to turn and go, Am I dead? So to expect us to know if we’re going to be in season six, I mean we don’t even get acts of the show, we get one act of a script sometimes, so I have no idea. I would definitely want to come back. I love Ryan, I love his universe, I love the opportunity as actors that we’re given to play really amazing characters. And I don’t really have a type of character I want to play; I certainly didn’t think id be playing this character. This was not in my wheelhouse…
Because the show is so much about our fears, and this season deals with themes including rejection and grief, I wonder how this has been for you? And how is it working with Ryan Murphy who is so fearless?
I do think that it’s difficult to find the thematic thread in these shows until they’re over and you look back and it seems obvious. So, I would posit that what is unusual about this season is that it’s about family, it’s about parents and children. If you look at John and Alex and their obsession with their lost child Holden; I have a child who I abandon, I can’t say too much given what episode we’re in but other people have children. Iris and Donovan, that’s the dominant theme for her life, is her tortured relationship with her son. The Countess in a way makes children by making vampires and so there’s a fear attached to losing your children, to losing your family, but it also dovetail with the idea of identity. What are you running from in your identity? Who are you? As we’ll find, John Lowe is running from a lot of demons; he has to turn and face them. I, as Liz, run from a past, which at some point I’m going to have to deal with, probably. So many characters are looking at unrequited love or the wreckage of a past and they are fearful of facing that wreckage. It’s funny, it’s a really mature theme and it’s actually nothing to do with classic horror, fear of monsters, it’s fear of things within you that you haven’t resolved, in a way.
In terms of working with Gaga, Stephanie, she’s totally fearless. She’s had a number of sex scenes and people have remarked on how at ease she put everybody because she’s so at ease. She doesn’t make a big deal about it. I had a sex scene, my first one ever, which I was terrified by because I’m a character actor! I’m not called upon to flash some ass, and that was uncomfortable for me. And I tried to make sure my sex partner was always blocking me. ‘Can we shoot this like this?’
And you know, Ryan, yes, is absolutely fearless. Last week’s episode with the school children, that massacre, a lot of people were like, ‘That’s tasteless!’ and you go, well, what do you expect from American Horror Story? That we’re going to stop at that cliff and not go over? Come on! This is American Horror Story, of course we’re going to trounce every possible taboo.
Would you rather be behind the desk or in front of the desk?
Definitely behind the desk. You have the keys to all of the rooms, you know where things are, you know how to escape, you know where the bar is… Definitely, do not be a guest in this hotel.
Have you had any interesting interactions with fans?
I was amazed at the last one [convention]I did where I was in Atlanta, and so many people came up to me, women, who were admirers of Liz Taylor, who felt helped by Liz Taylor. The woman working with me had a transgender child who was transitioning from male to female, a lot of same sex couples, a lot of women couples – I was staggered at the amount of people who wanted to say something to me, who were empowered by or touched by or attracted to the character. I’m not in this to do social good, I’m an actor, that’s not necessarily our function, but when that’s a knock on effect, that’s a pretty nice effect.
How does working with costume designers and make up artists help your performance? Do you collaborate with them? Do you have input on those things?
I always let the costume and the make up teach me who the character is. Mike Mekash and Eryn Krueger Mekash, are out incredible make up department heads and they design it more than I design it and they may ask me what I think but it’s pretty much their baby and I maybe have a tweak here and there of something that I want, and the same goes with costumes, they definitely design it. I may have some input or reaction, or I may have an idea about something that I want, and they’re incredible. They are as creative as the scriptwriters, as creative as the directors, their input is the show.
For Larry for season one, that half face thing took me three and a half hours to get into. And even in the process of getting into it, I was getting into character. Same with Spaulding, I would let that make up dictate me and once I was in the wig and make up, I stopped speaking, I wouldn’t speak anymore because I just felt like I was being jokey if I went in and out of character like that. And Liz, the same thing, I’m not an outrageous, fabulous person in real life, but put me in heels and something happens, something comes out. I tend to be a little more aggressive than I normally am.
Was there anything intimidating about the idea of inhabiting Liz, in the dress and in the make up?
Absolutely. I am a 53-year-old gay man who had to come out in the 80s when it wasn’t fashionable. I am a Catholic, I was a Catholic, so I had a very, very, very painful experience with being gay. I was told my entire life that what I was was sick and bad and wrong. I live in a Republican dominated culture and my father’s a Republican. So, I had a very, very bad time of it, so part of the way that I fought back was to be masculine. Was to at least not be one of the things that you can accuse me of being. So the idea of any femininity was foreboding, that was not a way I was going to go. Not that I’ve cultivated masculinity, but I certainly eschewed anything feminine at all and I’ve been aware of that over the years, that that’s a form of homophobia, that that fear is sort of ‘letting the terrorists win,’ and so this role is putting its finger directly in that wound and forcing me to confront that.,,
It’s been a real challenge. And as I said earlier, I eluded to the fact that I had my own education about what is the transgender journey and I was very lucky to encounter a guy, a woman who transitioned to a man recently, and we just became friends he volunteered to me his experience and just listening to him, I released my judgment of it and my penitent for labels and thought, you know, what’s the point of trying to label people on this journey? They know what they’re doing so let them do it. In the meanwhile, let me accommodate them as best I can and let them educate me as to how I can best accommodate them.