Life for Denis O'Hare has changed significantly. Vampires and their ilk took care of that.
O'Hare has always worked as an actor, ever since graduating during an especially fertile period for Northwestern University and arriving on the Chicago theater scene in the 1980s. He first attracted attention in 1985 as a cast member of John Logan's "Never the Sinner" for the now-defunct Stormfield Theatre. That led to work at such legendary Chicago companies as the Remains Theatre, Body Politic (he played Edgar in "King Lear" in 1989) and Victory Gardens Theater Company, which in turn led to a move to New York and Broadway berths in shows like "Take Me Out" and "Sweet Charity."
Then again, most of the people salivating over his work as Russell Edgington, the 2,800-year-old, not-dead-yet vampire king of Mississippi, in the HBO series "True Blood," or as Larry Harvey in Fox's "American Horror Story" are unaware of that history.
"I used to get stopped on the street once in a while," O'Hare says in a coffee shop near the New York Public Theater, to which he has biked for our interview from his home in Brooklyn. "But I'd go weeks between. Now I get construction workers shouting at me: 'Hey you, Larry!'"
But O'Hare, who is 49, shrugs it off. "It was not what I was looking for, but nobody will remember any of this in five years anyway," he says, as someone close by tries to summon up the guts to approach him. "I've been watching 'Lost' on DVD recently. I keep thinking, where are those actors now? Nobody knows."
Of course, O'Hare is very much in the middle of his few minutes of fame — or few seasons. And that exacts a toll, if only in terms of schedule. One of the shows that O'Hare did in 1990 was Robert Falls' Goodman Theatre production of "The Iceman Cometh," an iconic Eugene O'Neill drama that Falls will stage again in 2012, with Nathan Lane. Falls wanted O'Hare back for the new "Iceman," and O'Hare says that he really wanted to come back, but his TV schedule for "True Blood" did not permit it.
And then there is the matter of Homer and the "Iliad."
Amid all the TV madness, O'Hare was approached by a director, Lisa Peterson, with the idea of helping her craft a new, freewheeling version of the Homeric epic telling the story of the Trojan War. "She said that I was the most anti-war person she knew," O'Hare said. "So who better to grapple with a war poem?"
They set to the task, holding workshops, paring down those 25,000 or so Homeric lines and developing their approach. The original idea had been that O'Hare would perform this one-man show himself under Peterson's direction. But to date, O'Hare has not actually had the time beyond the workshops.
"An Iliad," which opens this weekend at the Court Theatre starring Chicago actor Timothy Edward Kane, has thus gone on without O'Hare. Stephen Spinella premiered the piece in Princeton, N.J., in 2010 under Peterson's direction. And in Chicago, Charles Newell will direct Kane in the piece (there had been initial excitement over O'Hare, Newell said in an interview, but there is similar delight over the chance to feature Kane in this kind of solo showcase).
O'Hare will finally get to perform the piece himself at the New York Theatre Workshop early next year. In an unusual but intriguing arrangement, he and Spinella will share the role.
Actually, the plan is for them to offer very different takes on the Homeric character, even down to different light cues and staging. "But Court has it before that," O'Hare says.
O'Hare clearly remains a creature of the theater — dances with vampires aside — but you can sense how his work on those populist shows has shaped his thinking. He has wanted, clearly, to create an "Iliad" with an appeal well beyond classicists. He knows better than ever what gets Americans juiced up.
"Our guy is Homer," O'Hare says, eyes flashing a little under a hat pulled low. "He has been alive for 3,500 years. He's telling his story to anyone who wants to hear it until he doesn't have to tell it anymore.
"And when he no longer has to tell it, he'll cease to exist."
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