Denis O’Hare On “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive” – Exclusive Interview!

Denis O’Hare On “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive” – Exclusive Interview!

By Abbie Bernstein

Denis O'Hare Edgar Allan Poe Buried Alive InterviewDenis O’Hare knows his way around horror. The actor has appeared in all seven seasons of FX’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY, earning two Emmy nominations for his work there (as the arsonist Larry Harvey in the first season, “Murder House,” and as homicidal con man Stanley in the fourth season, “Freak Show”) and he played vampire king Russell Edgington on multiple seasons of TRUE BLOOD. He’s also acclaimed for his non-genre work, receiving yet another Emmy nomination for the previous season of THIS IS US and winning a Tony Award for his featured performance in TAKE ME OUT. O’Hare is also a writer and director, who has toured with THE ILIAD, his one-man show about the Trojan War that he scripted with Lisa Peterson.

So it’s not too surprising that when writer/director Eric Stange decided to make a film about Edgar Allan Poe, who is considered to be one of the fathers of modern horror as well as the detective story, O’Hare wound up in the role. The movie, EDGAR ALLAN POE: BURIED ALIVE, debuts on PBS on Monday, October 30, the day before Halloween.

During PBS’ portion of the summer 2017 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, O’Hare sits down to discuss his work as Poe, and more.

For starters, O’Hare explains that EDGAR ALLAN POE: BURIED ALIVE is not traditional as either biography or drama. He is not in scenes with other actors; rather, the film has scenes with O’Hare playing Poe, interspersed with commentary from real-life Poe experts. “It’s a scholarly mash-up with reenactments, with Poe reading some of his poems, Poe being in his environment biographically, and then reflections on what’s happening from people who know a lot about Poe – talking heads, basically. So it’s not your straightforward biopic recreation thing, which I think is actually nice.”

O’Hare says his involvement with EDGAR ALLAN POE: BURIED ALIVE began when filmmaker Stange approached him. “It had been a project that he had been working on for a long time with [Wallace Coberg] in Baltimore, and then they came to me and wanted to talk, and I loved the idea and I was scared of the idea, but I had read the script and I was willing to meet with them and talk, and so by the end of the conversation, I said, ‘Sure, I would love to do it.’”

Poe was already a subject of interest for O’Hare. “I knew a lot about him. I was raised reading him and being a fan of all things horror. He was one of my guys. But I wasn’t as familiar with his criticism, and his literary essays and his salon life, I didn’t know the extent to which he bounced around between Richmond and Baltimore and Philadelphia and Boston and New York, I wasn’t aware of all the times he tried to start magazines, I wasn’t aware of his volatile personality and how many enemies he made in the literary world, Rufus Griswold being the worst example, the man who did the hatchet job on his biography when he died. [Griswold] immediately wrote a terrible obituary about him. I knew that he sort of was the inspiration for the detective genre, but I didn’t realize it was such a direct inspiration, that he is considered the father of every single procedural TV show we’ve ever seen out there, including Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot. I didn’t realize the depth and range, to put it bluntly.”

Although O’Hare is interested in the scholarship surrounding Poe, he didn’t get to talk to the experts who appear in BURIED ALIVE. “It was very compartmentalized. I did my work separate from theirs. It’s just the nature of shooting. It would have been very difficult to get everybody together. That would have been great. I would have loved to have done that, I would have loved to interact with them.”

As to where the film was actually made, “We shot in a military fort in Boston from the eighteenth century to nineteenth century that Poe was actually stationed at, so that was an actual location where he had been. It was great because we could rebuild in that fort evocations of Baltimore, evocations of his literary office in New York. But we didn’t want to do it on location – it’s too difficult to travel – Poe was peripatetic, he got everywhere, so we wanted to sort of keep it localized.”

O’Hare says he researched Poe by reading “probably three big books like this.” He indicates a thick Poe biography by Kenneth Silverman, resting on nearby on the table. Also, I read a lot of his poetry again, I’d already read a lot of his literary works, read some of them again, read the essays for the first time – I hadn’t read a lot of his essays, or criticism – and just discussed with other people, and then pondered a lot about him and what the life was like. But most of the biographies, I think, were pretty helpful.”

Although there is a lot of poetry in O’Hare’s THE ILIAD – “One section is all Homer, as translated by Robert Fagles – ‘Achilles dashed through the city/Heart racing …’” O’Hare quotes – it turns out this was not good practice for reciting the poetry of Poe. Why not?

“Greek poetry is very, very different,” O’Hare explains. “It’s epic, it’s action-based, it’s not in meter – it’s vaguely in meter, because it’s a translation of Greek into English – it doesn’t rhyme. Poe’s poetry is heavy-duty structurally formal.”

He then recites Poe, very rhythmically, “ ‘It was many and many a year ago/In a kingdom by the sea/That a woman there lived whom you may know/And her name was Annabel Lee.’ It’s very almost sing-song. But what I think is great about his poetry is that it has a structural integrity and beauty that pulls you forward as a listener to the inevitable conclusion. It draws you in, which I think is great.”

There are no other performers on screen with O’Hare in EDGAR ALLAN POE: BURIED ALIVE. Is that more difficult than doing scenes with other actors?

“Other actors feed you in a different way,” O’Hare replies, “and the fact that you don’t know what they’re going to do is always great, because it can be inspirational. But when you’re doing a solo performance, you’re not necessarily alone. You still have the implied other character. So, for instance, at one point, we have Poe reading letters to people. If he’s reading a letter to somebody, he’s talking to them. All his letters are that way. Even his essays are talking to the world, in a way. Many times, he’s talking to his wife, or lover, Virginia, or Helen. And even in a scene where he’s ostensibly alone, he’s thinking about other people. So in that way, he’s not alone. You’re never really alone as an actor, even in a solo piece. It’s a whole different layer. You have an actual interlocutor, which is the camera. The camera becomes what I call the all-loving eye.”

How did O’Hare develop his interpretation of Poe? “When I come at a character, I don’t come at a character with any kind of agenda. I try to fulfill what I think is who they are based on research. So I would go through a book like this,” he indicates Silverman’s Poe biography, “and I would underline anywhere where it had direct action and motivation. Like somebody said of Poe, he was the kind of person who, when you walked into a room, you knew something was going on in his head. He was always looking beyond you, or, ‘Mr. Poe seemed very disoriented and anguished.’ Certain words pop up all the time, so you start to build a character from that. I have no interest in imposing my external idea on him; I want to do justice to who I think the person really was. You do that by doing as much research as you can, and getting as many clues as you can.”

Is there a difference between portraying someone who’s a writer and someone who isn’t a writer?

“Well, playing a writer, you get to actually say what they wrote – that’s interesting,” O’Hare observes with a laugh. “He’s a good writer, and so being able to say his words is really a joy. It’d be awful to play an insurance salesman and read his writing. That would be boring. Can you imagine? Or an actuarial. ‘If the antecedent predeceases the wife by more than five years, and if the policy has not been enacted, then the ten-year …’ That would not be fun.” He thinks it over and adds, “However, Wallace Stevens, the great poet, was an insurance salesman, and Charles Ives, an amazing composer, was also an insurance salesman.”

As to what he thinks the audience will be most surprised by about the POE piece, O’Hare says, “I think his fierce intelligence and his really deeply considered aesthetic philosophy, this idea about what he thinks literature should be, the fact that he was as much a critic as he was a writer, the fact that he was in the gutter, slugging it out with his contemporary fellows, and how mean he could be. Oh, my God. In his writing, he could be so mean and so vicious to other people. That’s something I wasn’t aware of.”

While some actors dislike each other, they seem to have fewer ferocious enmities towards each other than writers do (the example of FEUD notwithstanding). Is O’Hare relieved by this aspect of being a thespian? “It’s funny – in the acting world, you’re never really competing against somebody else, really. You may have the illusion that you are, but you’re not. It’s not a zero-sum game in the same way, because actors are ultimately interpreters of work, rather than generators of work. It’s a little different thing. We don’t own the work we’re interpreting. We’re not show runners.”

As a joke, O’Hare offers the example of, “Ryan Murphy versus Shonda Rhimes.” Murphy and Rhimes are of course not feuding, though O’Hare quips that he has a title for a dramatization of such a conflict: “HOW TO GET AWAY WITH AMERICAN HORROR STORY.”

Meanwhile, O’Hare has also written and costars in a film directed by his TRUE BLOOD colleague Stephen Moyer, which features fellow TRUE BLOOD alumnus Anna Paquin (who is Moyer’s wife).

O’Hare reveals that the film, THE PARTING GLASS, is autobiographical. “It’s about my little sister’s suicide, and my family basically going on the road and, in one day, trying to go and collect all her belongings and pack up her life, and close up shop, in a way. But also, in that day, figuring out what happened to her and reliving our own memories of who she was and those memories don’t always match, so there’s inherent tension. So it’s very funny at times, it’s very grim at times, but ultimately, I think, very moving.

“I wrote it, I spent, gosh, six, seven years trying to get it made. Cynthia Nixon is in it, Melissa Leo, Ed Asner plays my father, Rhys Ifans, a wonderful Welsh actor, and Anna Paquin plays my little sister. We shot it in Toronto and we’re done, picture locked, everything. We submitted it to festivals.”

Had O’Hare written THE PARTING GLASS with the idea that Moyer would direct it? “I knew that Stephen and Anna had a production company, and that Stephen is a good director. And it turned out to be a very good marriage. Cerise Hallam Larkin is one of the producers, and Mark Larkin is the other producer at Casm Films, and it’s beautiful. I’m so happy the way it came out.”

Did Stange want O’Hare for the project partly because of O’Hare’s fan base from AMERICAN HORROR STORY and TRUE BLOOD? “I honestly don’t know,” O’Hare responds. “You’d have to ask Eric. I think they knew me from both worlds. The funny thing is, is that I do horror conventions, and I’m in the horror world a lot, and it’s a very compartmentalized world. And oddly enough, the Poe people are a very individual set, who don’t necessarily cross over. Just because you like horror, you like AMERICAN HORROR STORY, doesn’t mean you’re going to be a Poe fan, or vice-versa. Although I think there’s a lot there to attract all parties.”

Speaking of the fan convention circuit, how does O’Hare feel about his experiences with it? “I love it,” he declares. “I really love it. I think it’s a really honest interaction with the people who support us. Without the fans, we don’t exist. And they’re the ones who are really passionate about what we do, but they’re also the ones who interpret what we do and take it back to their lives. I’ve always been amazed at how much it means to them, and how much it helps them. I think that’s really interesting as an actor, to know that your work is not simply frivolous entertainment, but it brings meaning to people’s lives. And I think that’s really cool.”

O’Hare says he has encountered quite a few fans who cosplay as his AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL character, ghostly desk clerk Liz Taylor. “Oh, God, yes! Lots. When I go to conventions, people are mostly Liz Taylor fans. I would say it’s eighty percent Liz, and then Larry and Spalding [from AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN] and Stanley. I’m always surprised at how many Stanley fans there are.”

There are also, of course, Russell Edgington fans. “Lots. In fact, I just got on a flight the other day – I was flying from the Dominican Republic back to New York, and I walked on and the stewardess/the flight attendant immediately said, ‘Oh, my God, Russell,’ and gave me a huge hug, and then she apologized to the whole flight and said, ‘I never do that.’ said, ‘It’s fine. Luckily, my fangs aren’t in now’,” he laughs.

“It’s nice to know that your work is being seen and appreciated, and it’s nice to hear from people what they think. There’s nothing wrong with having a complete stranger say, ‘I love you, you’re great.’ What’s wrong with that? If they walked up and said, ‘I didn’t really like you in that …’, that’d be different. But they generally don’t. Some people do. There are times when it can be overwhelming, when you’re just trying to get from Point A to Point B. I have a six-year-old son and I may be with him in public – that can be a challenge, juggling him and juggling a fan who wants to have an interaction. But as I always say, there will come a day when nobody will care, and so I’m going to enjoy it while I can.”

What does O’Hare’s son think of his father’s career? Is the little boy in fact aware of it at all, since much of O’Hare’s work is aimed at adults?

“He has watched none of it,” O’Hare relates. “He has a vague idea what I do, but he’s never seen anything. So he won’t see it until he’s much older. He will not see anything until he’s at least fifteen.”

Does O’Hare think that EDGAR ALLAN POE: BURIED ALIVE is too mature for a child? “I think it’s more that it’s probably going to be too adult for him, that it’s too much talking and not enough action. So I think in that regard, he would probably have a hard time following it. I think he would probably not pay attention after a bit. But I might show i

t to him. I’m not killing anybody in it.”

Besides THE PARTING GLASS and the current season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, does O’Hare have anything else coming up? “Gosh, I have a bunch. It’s been a crazy year. I did a movie called LIZZIE BORDEN with Chloe Sevigny, an AMERICAN HORROR STORY alum, and Kristen Stewart. I did a movie with Rachel Evan Wood called WORTHY COMPANION, I’m very excited about that. I did a movie with Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, I think it’s for Netflix, and that should be coming out, and I just finished a movie with Chris Morris, the wonderful, wacky British director who did FOUR LIONS, and it’s untitled as of yet, but it’s with Anna Kendrick and Anne Thompson and James Adomian, amongst others. Danielle Brooks from ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is in it. And, yeah, it’s been kind of a crazy, busy year.”

What would O’Hare most like people to know about EDGAR ALLAN POE: BURIED ALIVE?”

“That Edgar Allan Poe is such an important literary figure for American literature, but also for world literature, and has such an outsized influence for his time and place, and I think that we all are still living in his shadow. Think about every single cop series, every single procedural – he’s the father of them. He’s the father of Sherlock Holmes. He’s the father of Agatha Christie. He’s the father of Columbo and C.S.I.. That’s him. He basically created the genre, which is kind of extraordinary.”

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Denis O’Hare On “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive – Exclusive Interview!
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Denis O’Hare On “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive – Exclusive Interview!
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So it’s not too surprising that when writer/director Eric Stange decided to make a film about Edgar Allan Poe, who is considered to be one of the fathers of modern horror as well as the detective story, O’Hare wound up in the role. The movie, EDGAR ALLAN POE: BURIED ALIVE, debuts on PBS on Monday, October 30, the day before Halloween.
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Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker. Besides Buzzy Multimedia, her work currently appears in Assignment X.
Abbie Bernstein