Interview: Denis O’Hare Discusses Being The King of Mississippi
Russell Edgington is a prime example of a great villain. Not only was he smart and calculated, but he also had the power and strength to get things done on his own. And when Edgington got down and bloody, he looked cool doing it. The vampire king was one of the few vamps on True Blood that seemed interested in actually having fun. He always looked as if he was going to a party and simply looking for a good time, especially with the help of his slick 70s style wardrobe.
Sadly, Edgington isn’t around this season, but don’t fret. As actor Denis O’Hare says below, the plan is for him to return. Things didn’t end well for Edgington last season, but the King of Mississippi had persistence and ambition, so there was no real reason for us to be doubting his return.
While Denis O’Hare isn’t on this season, the actor was still kind enough to make the time to discuss his role on the show. Throughout my whole chat with O’Hare he wore his love for Edgington on his sleeve. From discussing the character’s past to his childlike wonder, the actor remained enthusiastic.
Here’s what Denis O’Hare had to say about Russell’s back-story, the tone and writing of True Blood, the curse of being a character actor, and what to expect from Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar.
And, although this bit didn’t make it into the piece, I told O’Hare I’d make sure to mention a great film he’s proud of that practically no one seems to have seen, A Mighty Heart.
To start off, it was disappointing to hear that you’re not coming back this season.
I know, I know. It was up in the air. They were definitely bringing me back, it was just a matter of if they wanted to bring me back the last couple episodes or bring me back at the beginning. So they decided to do it at the beginning of season 5.
That’s good to know. An interesting thing about Russell is that he just felt like a character so unhinged. For you, was there ever a limit as to where Russell could go?
I think there is no limit. It’s funny because when we started talking about the character, obviously characters evolve, and part of the reason he evolved was they kept making him older and older. At first he was supposed to be like 1,100 years old, and so I was doing a lot of research about Charlemagne and all these people and figuring, “Oh, he must have been in Charlemagne’s court.”
And then he kept getting older, and finally he got to like 2,800–3,000 years old. I was looking at history about where he might be able to come from, and there’s only two sources. He can come from the Levant’s from Palestine, or what they call Philistine, or he could have been somewhere really interesting like the Danube. I just thought, “Let’s not make him a Roman or Greek. Let’s make him something else.”
So we made him this Pagan Celt. They are just wild people. They have a very different relationship to everything in terms of nature and in terms of their own belief system. I just love that. That kind of helped make him just a different kind of character.
It’s funny, you mention how old he is, but there’s a real childlike quality to him.
Yeah! I always, as an actor, have a private back-story which I never tell anybody. One day I will. But his back-story is really fascinating. He came from a very weird place. I think the thing that you think about vampires is you think about them being urbane and sort of like lethargic and really cool, and very, very, unflappable. I thought it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s nothing written in the vampire rules that says they all have to be really slick, styling people.
And I love that Russell has this intense passion for life; literally a passion for living and a passion for life. I think that actually forms his kind of childlike quality.
I think that’s exactly right, because when he comes out into the sun, he just says how beautiful it is.
Yeah! I mean can you imagine being that old and that’s incredibly touching, I think, about that is that for a Pagan, especially a Celt, their whole thing was sun worship. And the Celt’s God is Lugh. There’s this festival called Lunasa, which is an Irish festival, which is a festival of the sun. It’s still practiced till this day.
The Celts went looking for the place that the sun went to bed. So they kept watching the sun go to bed and they kept literally moving West. So they moved from Danube to the Roman territory into France, ultimately to Ireland and they got stopped by the water. But that’s why they are there, because they were looking for where the sun goes to bed.
So for Russell to have the ability to come back and see the sun is religious. It’s a big thing for him.
You mention that not all vampires need to be cool and slick. Wouldn’t you say that Russell is kinda cool and charming?
Well, we talked about that as well, and one of the things that we talked about early on was where is Russell getting his sense of style from? And the answer is he’s getting it from Talbot. When Russell and Talbot met, which is 1300 A.D. in Disanthium, I would say that Russell was sort of a rough character. He was basically a mercenary knight for hire running around and killing people. And Talbot was a prince; he was the Greek prince.
So he brought a certain refinement to him. So Talbot was the one who made Russell civilized. When Talbot dies, there’s a sense in which Russell reverts. He no longer has that governing force and he goes back to his native identity.
After Talbot dies, Russell carries around his blood. When you reading an idea like that on the page, do you realize that you’re in something pretty unique?
[Laughs] That whole bit was developed by a guy named Alex Woo, the writer… or maybe it was Bucky. Whoever it was, the minute that the writer created that thing, he knew that had to be handled by every subsequent writer. We call it the “Jar ‘O Talbot”.
For Russell, it was Talbot. It was his essence in that he had a plan to bring him back to life. So it wasn’t simply a gesture, it was an actual plan to bring him back to life. And it was Talbot as far as he was concerned.
I think moments like that really showcase how Alan [Ball] and his writers got down the tone. Even if the situation is a little outlandish, there’s still seriousness there. Script-wise, do they have that down pretty well?
They do. I mean some of the writers have, in parenthesis, very funny things. Bucky, one of our writers, will always put in parenthesis preferences to other movies. He’ll go, “Like that movie that I hate with Julia Roberts” or something. Or, “Like that movie that was terrible with Ryan Reynolds.” Like, “He freaks out madly in that movie.”
That’s kind of a sense of how to play it and also commentary. But everybody loves the characters and no one is making fun of the characters. Everyone is trying to treat them consistently and well. I think the writers all have their strengths and they all take the characters in slightly different directions. But they all have their eye basically on the same prize.
I also love the fact that they even make fun of themselves. The fact that if the line were, “Sookie makes fun of Bill and Sookie.” You know, literally making fun of the line reading of some other actor. It’s hilarious. It’s acknowledging that they’re out there in this world, this notion that people make fun of Sookie. I think that they’re great that way.
A good bit throughout the show is Russell calling certain characters crazy or sick. Would you say the fact he doesn’t seem to be the most self-aware made him a greater threat?
No, that’s the thing about anytime you are playing a character, the characters always think they are right. They have no ability to be objective about themselves. If you are in a fight with the credit card company, you can’t see yourself and how shrill you’re getting. And you can’t see how crazy you are being over the $25 charge. You are simply right.
So I think these characters don’t understand that they may come across as crazy as the people they are talking about. But I must say in defense of Russell, I don’t think anything he did was actually crazy. I think everything he did was incredibly logical and incredibly calculated.
I think he improvised after a while. Once Talbot gets killed, his plans go off the rails and he starts improvising. Up until that point he had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do and a very clear idea of how to achieve it. This is somebody who’s been alive long enough to have dealt with setbacks and dealt with strategies going awry. So he’s very, very good at that kind of long-term planning.
And the thing that’s great about him is that he’s not just content to sit around, accumulate wealth, and bite virgins. He actually has a game plan about what he wants out of the world and how he wants the world to change. That’s where his consistency and his passion comes from.
The thing I don’t think is true about Russell is I don’t think he’s a sadist. I don’t think he inflicts pain or injury simply because he enjoys it. I don’t think he does enjoy it. He wants what he wants, and if somebody gets in his way, he has no patience. Because why should he?
And there’s a great scene where Russell was counseling Bill not to fall in love with Sookie because he basically was saying, “Look, I’ve been down that road. It doesn’t work. They don’t last. They don’t live. You just break their hearts. You break your own heart. Stick with one of your own or turn her like I did to Talbot all those many years ago.”
I love that scene because it’s this idea that it’s not that they are contemptuous as humans, it’s just that humans live such short lifespans that it’s not worth getting into relationships with them. So they’ve learned from experience not to mingle.
When it comes to filming, do you have to put a lot of trust into a director to say, “I hope this doesn’t look too ridiculous or this is played as straight as it should be”?
The only discussions we ever had and I only ever heard were basically what’s happening in the scene, and everything is always taken very seriously. No one was ever sort of faking an emotion. If a big scene calls for big confrontations, people weren’t play acting. They were going for it. It was like an absolute confrontation.
I had a great scene with Eric at one point where he didn’t know whether I was going to kill him or adopt him. There was this great sense of menace throughout the scene. We finished it and we go, “Whoo, that was creepy.”
But the point is that we were trying to always do the work as best we could. There was never any sort of playing at it.
Is it a very tight environment, or do you kind of get a lot of space to create or come up with new ideas?
It’s very open creatively. It’s just that everyone’s got their opinions. And the writers, they usually get the last word because they are the ones who are creating it. They are the ones who are trying to keep it consistent. You do have to respect, also, the fans. You’ll lose fans if suddenly a vampire does something that’s inconsistent. You know, suddenly if you decide they can walk out in the sun, they go, “What? You can’t do that! You can’t change the rules!”
So it’s established that vampires are cold-blooded and tend not to engage in the same kind of human gestures. It helps that everybody does that.
That being said, you can always have an exception. And I made an exception for Russell in some ways. It was like, “You know what? I think he is so old and has such different understandings of his own world and life that he may not necessarily court everyone else’s behavior.”
Do you always try to stick to what’s on the page?
I come from theater, so our training is the script is done; it’s the Bible. You don’t change it. You wouldn’t think of changing it. You wouldn’t change Shakespeare. You wouldn’t change Shaw. You wouldn’t change Chekhov. So you’re not going to change this guy’s writing.
I find that if you are changing writing it’s usually because you are confronted with something that doesn’t make you comfortable. That probably means that you need to go ahead and face that thing or work through that obstacle. If you are always changing things to make it comfortable, you are not either playing the character correctly or you’re not actually reaching to create new acting stuff for yourself. I just find changing writing is a very, very lazy way of acting.
You always hear horror stories about an actor getting involved in a movie and then having it be rewritten to fit their needs.
Yeah, it does happen. That’s a little different in that you’re talking about a movie star ‐ somebody who has an image that doesn’t vary very much from script to script or from movie to movie. So in that case they’re protecting their brand. I’m a character actor. I don’t have a brand. [Laughs]
I remember you saying how being a character actor is kind of a savior and a curse. Could you elaborate on why it’s a curse?
It’s a curse because you have a certain level of fluidity and anonymity, which means that nobody knows exactly what you are. For instance, I’ve never been able to, in my entire life, land a TV commercial. I wanted to at a time in my life when I could really use the money and was desperate to land one. And when I walked into a casting office, they basically didn’t know what I was. You know, am I the way I acted? Well, what do you want me to be? I can be anything. But they’re saying, “No, no, no. We don’t want you to be anything. We want to know what you are. Are you a young dad? Are you a nerd? Are you a fat science geek? What are you?” I was like, “I’m an actor.” And they’re like, “No! We’re not hiring actors! We’re hiring young dads today. You need to be a young dad.”
So that’s the curse part of it ‐ that you’re not easily put into a niche, therefore it’s harder to hire you. I feel that going into films. I’ll walk into film auditions and I’m not quite right for this part, not quite right for that part. But through my acting I will attempt to convince them that they need to hire me. And depending on the director, they will go, “Absolutely. I love that.” Or they’ll go, “No, I want someone who’s a little more…” just that thing. When you walk in they go, “Oh, I know what that is. That’s the CEO. Oh, I know what that is. That’s the used car salesman. I know what that is. That’s a doctor.”
I think one director who doesn’t see you that way is Tony Gilroy.
I love him.
What’s he like as a collaborator?
It’s funny. He writes them and directs them. He’s very much about changing things on the fly. And doing that movie [Duplicity] we had really crazy rewrites. I remember at one point, Kathleen Chalfant, who plays the ultimate betrayer, but she was working for me. We had a scene with Paul Giamatti where she had this big monologue to Paul and I was there in the background listening. Tony said, “You know what? I don’t want it to be a monologue. I think it should be both of you guys. You guys go into your dressing room and cut up the lines. Just divide them. Divide the monologue into a dialogue. Go back and forth.”
So we did. We went to the dressing room like an hour before shooting and I had to memorize the lines. She had to re-memorize the lines. And we divided up the lines and we turned it into a dialogue with Paul Giamatti. It was hilarious.
How does Clint Eastwood compare to that type of process?
He works with the same crew all the time, same DP. So they’ve got it down. They know what they want to do. And he trusts his DP a lot. I’m not sure they storyboard, but they certainly always have a very clear idea what they want to do. There’s not a lot of second guessing.
We did Hoover recently… It was the first time I’d ever worked with him where we did more than one take. And we did sometimes nine or 10 takes because it was a different kind of movie. It was different needs. He’s adaptable. He’s not going to be just a slave to his past working passion. But he’s great. I absolutely love him. He’s a really charming, funny, intensely warm guy.
Is Eastwood going to show Hoover’s more unflattering characteristics?
You definitely get the pathology behind the guy. There’s no way you are going away from the movie going, “Oh, he was kind of a nice guy!” You’re going away going, “My God! What a disaster of a person!” But he’s also allowing J. Edgar Hoover to, in a way, show his point of view, which is always interesting. He had a lot of self-doubt based on the script. It’s a very interesting script. I’m interested to see it myself. I was in such a small part of it I feel like I didn’t get a chance to really get a grip on what they were doing.