On Season 3 of the hit HBO television series True Blood, actor Denis O’Hare plays Russell Edgington, the flamboyant and deadly vampire king of Mississippi. As one of the oldest and most commanding vampires on the continent, the King is both terrifying and dangerous, with little regard for others, unless they benefit him, in some way.
After the shocking events of the last episode, Episode 9, “Everything is Broken,” sees a grief-stricken Russell vow revenge against his foes, vampire and human. His actions will make him a very different character, for the remainder of Season 3. In a recent interview, Denis O’Hare spoke exclusively to Collider about how he was offered this role on the series without having to audition, developing the look and sound of the character, working with this incredibly talented cast and getting used to talking with fangs.
He also gave some hints as to what viewers can expect for the rest of the season, revealed that his storyline is definitely left open to return for Season 4 and talked about his role as a Roman soldier in the upcoming feature film The Eagle of the Ninth, which he had been shooting in Budapest when he was cast on True Blood. Hit the jump to read all about it:
Question: How did you get involved with True Blood? Had you been a fan of the show?
Denis: I was a big fan of the show. I started watching it a little bit late. It was already eight episodes in, and I had heard of it and was like, “Oh, god, vampires. I read Dracula in high school. I’ve been around vampires forever. What could be good about this?” But, I love Alan Ball. I was a big fan of Six Feet Under. So, I got a bootleg copy of the first four episodes on videotape, watched them and was instantly into it. During the first episode, I was like, “Eh.” By the time I got to the second one, I couldn’t watch them fast enough. I got on the phone that night, called Time Warner cable and ordered HBO right then. I was like, “I have to have HBO right now. I need to have HBO On Demand right now. I must see these shows.” So, then I caught up and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Did you have to audition for this role?
Denis: I didn’t audition. They put out feelers for the King of Mississippi around last July, and I was doing a movie in Budapest, called The Eagle of the Ninth, which comes out in February 2011. It was a straight-up offer. One of my agents had called HBO and said, “You should hire Denis O’Hare,” and they said, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” And, that was it. It was just an offer. It was crazy.
Did you decide to read the books for background on the character, even though he’s very different on the show?
Denis: I read two of the books. I didn’t have a script. When I was offered the role, there was no script. I didn’t see a script for awhile. So, I read the books that Russell was in. The whole thing with the books and Alan Ball is that they seem to have a really interesting symbiotic relationship that isn’t exactly parallel. The world is the same and sometimes the characters are incredibly alike, but sometimes they diverge radically. So, I read about Russell and realized that, plot wise, it made a lot of sense, but character wise, they were totally different. I didn’t find it that helpful for me because we were doing a different thing, so I let it go. But, I wanted to read them just to get the flavor and see if there were any tidbits.
When you’re creating a character, you’re looking for information. Russell, in the books, was not well-developed. He wasn’t an interest of Charlaine’s, whereas he was an interest for Alan. I don’t know how much they plan ahead. I think they have a general idea about where they think things are going to go, but then they react to circumstances, they react to us and they react to how it progresses. But, they obviously wanted Russell to be powerful, from the beginning. They’ve given him a lot of plot driving. He’s a major plot-driver for the season. He doesn’t necessarily get what he wants or control it the way he thinks he’s going to control it, but it’s fascinating.
How collaborative was it when you were deciding on his look and his accent?
Denis: Alan had a very strong idea about a couple of things. He said, “Russell is a Southern gentleman. It is very important that he has an accent. And, he is charming, charming, charming and deadly, deadly, deadly.” That was great. That was enough to go on. From there, I hired a dialect coach that I worked with, and then I did my own research. I would ask Alan questions like, “How old is he? Where do you think he comes from? What do you think about this?” And, I felt very strongly about Russell having other accents and things.
He’s 2,800 years old, so his name is not Russell Edgington. I know what his name is. I can’t tell you, but he’s got another name. He’s from a different place and he spoke many different languages before he landed in America and started speaking English. If you were a vampire before the Revelation, you had to hide, so he would fit in and adapt to the culture, adopt a new name and take on their accent and language. But, who he really is, is somebody much deeper and darker. In the show, sometimes I’ll come out with a German dialect. That’s one of his personas that he had the longest. His real identity is an ancient Celt who was a druid Pagan from the Carpathian mountains, but he probably lived in Middle Europe from about 300 or 400 A.D. until about 1300 A.D., so his language would have been a Germanic form. He’s had this massive history. It’s hilarious.
When you’re playing a character who’s lived for so many years and you don’t have that personal experience to identify with, are there specific things that really help you understand him?
Denis: When a character is alone, sitting in a room or staring out a window, for me it’s about where their mind drifts. What are the things that are their deepest fears and desires? That’s what character is. He has a real energy and passion for life, oddly enough, for being a dead character. He has all of these ideas about what he wants to do, and it’s not just about acquiring things. He will make sure he protects himself, at all times, and he’s looking for somebody he can trust, love and that he can actually talk to, and that’s very hard to find.
No one really knows him. No one ever gets to really know who he is. What’s brilliant about the way the season develops is that Russell defenses get stripped away and he becomes incredibly exposed and emotionally bare. There are scenes we did in Episode 9 and 10 that were really gut-wrenching and emotional for him. He loses his cool. He definitely loses his composure.
Are there particular episodes that you’re really looking forward to people getting to see, during the remainder of this season?
Denis: From Episode 9 onward, he becomes a different character. He goes into overdrive and actually reverts to a Pagan self. He sheds his veneer of charm and he becomes incredibly dangerous. He loses his control and the mask comes off.
Do you enjoy the wardrobe you get to wear on the show?
Denis: I get to wear incredible things. My clothes are fantastic. I get to wear Ted Baker, Vervatos, Versace, Hugo Boss and just beautiful stuff. Where I end up in the end of the season, my look is very, very different. My house is a beautiful house, but I end up in a very different place.
How much actual interaction did you get to have with the real wolves?
Denis: I love wolves. I’ve always had a huge fascination with wolves, and I’m a huge dog freak, so I was really looking forward to that. The wolves are very, very skiddish. They’re not dangerous, they’re just high-strung, so their handlers are very protective of them. They want to keep the wolves away from us, rather than keep us away from the wolves. But, we got to meet a couple of them. They were around backstage during some of the scenes, and they’re freaky. They’re not dogs. They are a different creature. They’re wild animals. You just look at them and you can see that they’re really smart. You see a whole different thing going on behind their eyes. The yellow eyes are kind of freaky.
The actual wolves are so sensitive that they’re very difficult to work with because they’re taking in so much, all the time, and they’re so hyper. They never calm down. It didn’t matter how quiet the set got, the wolves were jumpy, so they had to work with hybrid wolves that are half dog/half wolf that are much easier to control. It’s not that wolves can’t be trained, it’s just that they have a different relationship to humans. They don’t need humans, in the way that dogs do, so they don’t really get what’s in it for them. They’re like, “Why do I have to listen to you?” They’re great animals.
You also got to do some horse riding, didn’t you?
Denis: I started off my season on horses, so I did a lot of horseback riding and training for the horses. I spent a lot of time around horses and a lot of time around wolves. It’s pretty funny. I loved it.
How was it to get used to wearing the fangs? Was it a challenge to learn how to talk with them?
Denis: Everyone has a different experience with them. I would say that I wasn’t a genius and I wasn’t a failure. Everyone wants to be the person where everyone goes, “Wow, you’re so good!” People were like, “Yeah, you’re going to have to come in and do some ADR and looping on your S-es.” They’re not impossible, but you want clarity. When you’re acting, I don’t think about how I’m going to talk. I want to just think about what I’m doing, so inevitably words get blurred, here and there.
If an audience doesn’t understand a word, it’s not good. They have to understand every single word. You don’t want the audience straining. So, you do a lot of fang work to clear up the dialogue. Of course, we have to say things like Sookie Stackhouse. That’s hard to say anyway, let alone with the fangs in your mouth. They also can hurt. They can pierce your lip. They’re very, very, very sharp, so you have to be very careful about it.
Denis: I’m 48, and I have been in love with vampires since I was six. I was born in 1962, so I’ve been through three or four waves of vampires. When I was growing up, we had vampire shows and movies. We were still dealing with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and the old Christopher Lee vampires. And then, there was Frank Langella in “Dracula” on Broadway, and that was the first time you had a sexy vampire. Then, we had Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows.
So, I’ve been around vampires a long time and I lose track of what iteration we’re on of the vampire craze. I read the Anne Rice novels and loved those, so I was around for the Interview with a Vampire craze. I’m always surprised that it still has this much power and interest, but it continues. And, Charlaine Harris has done a very different, very unique thing with it, with the innovation of making synthetic blood. Now, we get to talk about vampire-human interactions and integration. That’s fascinating.
Did you have any idea what you’d be getting yourself into, when you decided to do this?
Denis: I’ve been acting for a long time and I’ve done a lot of things, and I’ve been maintaining my anonymity pretty well. I get recognized once a week, at most, here and there, so I’m reluctant to give that up. I was recognized more at Comic-Con than I ever have been, in my life. It’s definitely fun. You feel a little protective. You don’t want to get swallowed up by it. I’m not Stephen Moyer, Anna Paquin, Joe Manganiello or Alex Skarsgaard, so I’m lucky. I can live a normal life. We’ll see. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Coming out around the same time as Twilight, don’t you feel like True Blood became the adult alternative for people interested in the vampire genre?
Denis: Yeah, exactly. I saw the Twilight movies. I really enjoyed the first one, didn’t like the second one that much and haven’t seen the third one, but I totally got it. It’s incredibly passionate, almost in a weird, chaste, 19th Century way, which is definitely not True Blood. We’re a Monster Truck rally, compared to that, which I love.
And, there is equal opportunity nudity on the show, wouldn’t you agree?
Denis: Completely. It’s not sexist. You get a lot of male nudity. You get a lot more this season. There’s a lot more coming up. I even get half-nude.
How do you see Russell Edgington?
Denis: When you play a character, my thing is that you cannot judge the character. All characters are right. Every character thinks they’re right and thinks the way that they see the world is correct. They don’t see themselves as the antagonist. They see themselves as the protagonist.
Russell has incredibly valid reasons for doing everything he’s doing. He has a different morality. He has a very ancient morality. He has principles, motivations and agendas, and they may collide with other people. What may seem cruel to an outside viewer, to Russell’s point of view is completely justified. He sees himself as a guardian of older values that he feels are being squandered. He wants to bring things back to a form of justice that is much more ancient and much more Pagan. He’s more of a Biblical character than anybody else. The Old Testament is a cruel, bloody world, and Russell is much closer to that.
Are there times that you have to make sure you don’t go too over-the-top with this character?
Denis: My feeling about going over-the-top is that, as long as you are grounding it in a real emotion and you have a valid reason for doing what you’re doing, it can never go over-the-top in a bad way. You can go over-the-top and be big. I’m a theater actor. We’re not shy of big emotions. People in real life have big emotions. People in real life are over-the-top. Just because you’re on TV, it doesn’t mean everything has to be all shaded eyes and whispers. Not everybody speaks in a whisper.
What is the most fun thing about playing this character and have there been any big challenges in figuring him out?
Denis: There are definitely challenges. The fun thing is that it’s great to play a character that’s incredibly powerful and has incredible physical power. The thing that’s difficult to figure out is that, like anybody else, he’s blind to some of the things that are happening. Occasionally, I think, “Why doesn’t he know that Sookie is in Mississippi, if he’s this incredible vampire? Shouldn’t he know that she’s there?” Well, he’s not a mind-reader, he’s not a telepath, he’s not omniscient and he can’t see through walls. There are limits to his power. Yes, he can kill you with the flick of a wrist. Yes, he can fly. But, he can’t talk to animals. There are things he can’t do. So, why would he know that Sookie is in Mississippi? Why would he have the power to know that? He can’t know everything.
The challenge was trying to figure out the limits, and getting fooled. Russell gets fooled, in the season. People do things behind his back that he doesn’t get. I would be like, “That’s not right. Russell should know that,” but how would he know that? Eric can fool him, Bill can fool him and even Sookie can fool him. And, he has to sleep during the daytime and has entrusted his security to handle things while he’s unavailable, but they’re dumb. They’re brutes, especially his particular wolves. When your security is creatures that don’t always think very quickly, things are going to happen. People are going to get around them. Those have been challenges. I try to figure out, plot wise, why Russell has gotten himself into this position and justify it.
Being the new guy coming into the show, what’s it been like to work with this cast?
Denis: Actors are actors. When you get in the room, all actors tend to become equal. You give them respect and they give you respect, and you feel out each other’s level, ability and way of working. We’ve all been up and down, and in hard places, and actors tend to love each other and give each other a lot of room. This cast was incredibly generous. I never felt any sense of a divide between old people and new people. Everyone was very, very welcoming.
Like everybody, we had to figure out how each other worked, what the rules were and what the protocol and tradition was. It’s a very hard-working set. It’s a very serious set, in a good way, but very fun, in another way. People don’t fool around, just to fool around. They fool around when they have time for it and they deserve it. They come in ready and they do their work very well. I was always made to feel very welcome.
Can you talk about developing the relationship between Russell and Talbot, and what it was like to work with Theo Alexander?
Denis: Theo and I worked very hard on that. We met before we started filming and started talking about that relationship. We talked on the phone and then we met in L.A. We used to walk around L.A. and take hikes, and work out our backstory. We became very comfortable with each other, by the time we got to the first table read. I said to him, early on, “You have to have authority over me and I have to have authority over you. You have to feel comfortable putting your hand anywhere on me – on my head, my neck, my chest, my ass, it doesn’t matter. We have to own each other, in a way, and be completely at ease.”
Because we spent so much time together, when we got on the set, we were each other’s best friend and ally. We were a team against everybody else, in case things didn’t go well, and that really shone through. We would talk before scenes and after scenes, I would go to his trailer and make sure he was okay, and we would eat together. When you put that kind of time in, it shows. Even if you don’t get a chance to have a scene, it’s there. We would definitely check each other out, and it was correct for the characters as well. Since Russell is Talbot’s maker, he actually can read his mind, and Talbot can feel Russell’s emotional state because he’s his maker. Also, you get to know somebody pretty well in 700 years.
What is Eagle of the Ninth about and who are you playing in that?
Denis: It’s a great filmmaker, Kevin MacDonald, who I think is a really cool director. It’s a historical movie, which I like. It’s about the Roman Legion in 140 A.D., and it’s based on an English novel. After the disappearance of the Ninth Legion, a young man sets out to find out why his father was lost, erase the blot on this family name and deal with the ghost of that. Channing Tatum plays that part, and Donald Sutherland is in it as well.
I love history. I’m a big history nut. I read a lot of history and I know a lot about it, so I wanted to be able to do a historical thing. Also, I’m a character actor, so I get to play a lot of different parts, and I’m playing a Roman soldier. I get to play a big, macho Roman soldier who gets to kill six people. I have sword fights that I did sword training for. I had to ride horses. I love that stuff. It was a great opportunity to do something that I haven’t gotten to do before. It was just another kind of character that I got to play. I play Channing’s commanding officer, who gets relieved by him. I become a mentor figure, in the early part of the film, and walk him through his new role. It was great. We got to shoot in Budapest. It was beautiful and a lot of fun.
Denis: Absolutely. I don’t want to be stuck in any kind of typecasting. I love Russell and I had the best time of my life playing him, but I don’t want to play another villain for awhile. I don’t want to get stuck in that kind of thing. I want to do something different, just to shake it up and surprise people.
Is Russell’s storyline wrapped up by the end of this season?
So, it’s open for you to return?
Denis: Yes, definitely.