Starring Denis O’Hare and narrated by Kathleen Turner, the documentary American Masters – Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, airing on PBS on October 30th, draws on the rich palette of Poe’s imagery and explores the misrepresentations of the man as a drug-addled madman to tell the real story of the notorious author. After his death, Poe became a global icon of modern literature and a pop culture brand, but in life, he was an orphan in search of family, love and literary fame, having written over 100 short stories and poems before dying under mysterious circumstances.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actor Denis O’Hare talked about why he was overwhelmed at the idea of playing Edgar Allan Poe, finding the best way to resemble the author, what Poe might think of all of this, what he was surprised to learn about Poe, and his favorite Poe stories. He also talked about the incredibly collaborative relationship he’s had with Ryan Murphy, which has led to such a wide array of memorable roles.
Collider: When this project was presented to you and the idea of you playing Edgar Allan Poe came your way, what was your reaction?
DENIS O’HARE: At first, I was a little overwhelmed with just the idea of playing him because it’s not something I ever had in my mind. As an actor, you feel like there are certain people who are in your wheelhouse and certain people who aren’t, and I’d never considered it. Part of it was just a resemblance thing. I went, “Do I look like him? Can I look like him?” But I was a poetry major in college and I spent two years in the writing poetry department, so I have a real literary interest in poetry. I also loved Poe, as a kid. I read horror and the horror genre, not that he’s only a horror writer, but I loved his stuff. I remember reading “Hop-Frog” and being freaked out by it, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” and not quite knowing what was happening. Being 13 years old, I was going, “What happening?! I know I love it!” Just approaching taking on an icon is always scary because everyone’s got an opinion about it, and with how much material there was, I looked at the script and was like, “Oh, my god!” The director said that some of it would go into the mouths of scholars, which made me a little less freaked out. As it was, every day of the shoot was me trying to cram the stuff into my head, which was a challenge.
Did you have to go through a process to find the look?
O’HARE: A little bit. We found it pretty quickly, which was remarkable. He was 5’2″ and I’m 5’8″, but you can’t tell height without someone else there. With the wig, mustache, eyebrows and high forehead, we were almost there. It was my mustache because I just hate fake mustaches. They drive me crazy! Half the battle was just getting the right mustache.
What do you think Edgar Allan Poe would think of all of this?
O’HARE: From my reading of him and just my intuition about who I think he was, I think that he was a lot of opposites and a lot of contrary impulses. He had an impulse toward humility and gentility and manners married with a really savage and healthy ego that bordered on megalomania and an uncontrollable personality, which happened mostly when he was drunk. Even when he was sober, he would write his own weird letters to the editor about Mr. Poe, in fake voices. He’d be like, “Mr. Poe is a genius! Take the name Poe and add a T. What does it equal? Poet!” He wrote a lot about himself, in fake voices. Poe really thought highly of himself. He thought he was the best writer, ever, in the entire history of the world, and was baffled when he wasn’t treated that way. So, I think any praise would turn him into a marshmallow. He would eat it up. The idea of being emulated or impersonated would have pleased him enormously, except when he thought you got it wrong. Then, he’d be furious and spiteful and awful. He was definitely volatile.
There seems to be much debate about who the real Edgar Allan Poe was. What most surprised you about who he really was?
O’HARE: I didn’t realize how embedded he was in the literary tradition and world. He was very much not an outsider. He was very much in the middle of it. He knew these people. He was very much in this literary world, meeting the publishers of the literary journals that mattered. He was a part of it and he was a top player, in many ways. His insecurity was so overwhelming. His sense of not belonging, of not being an insider and not succeeding is hard to square with the fact that “The Raven” is the most popular poem ever written or published, in his lifetime. Everyone knew “The Raven.” He dined out on it. He went to salons and performed it. People would cite it in public. There was once a play where an actor threw in a line from it, extemporaneously, and the audience went wild. It’s like a Twitter meme that lasted for years. The fact that he wasn’t successful is just not true. Like any human being, he was obviously complicated and a composite of many parts. Depending on who was approaching him, they might have chosen to favor one over the other. He’s neither saint nor sinner, neither hero nor villain. He was a typical writer, who was trying to make a living, but he had extraordinarily bad luck and created his own bad luck, in a lot of ways.
My absolutely favorite piece of Poe’s writing is his poem, “Alone.” What is your favorite work of his?
O’HARE: I love his stories. “Hop-Frog,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” come to mind. I love all of those. They were really hallucinatory. I also love the poems. They’re simplistic, but not really because they’re very formal. They’re little ear worms. You want to say them out loud because they’re satisfying, and there’s something to that. I find some of his poems really beautiful.
Did you read over Poe’s work a lot, to do this?
O’HARE: I read over the stuff that we were gonna film. There was a lot of text that I had to memorize and work on, and I worked on it a lot. I didn’t get the luxury of going back and re-reading stuff that I loved, that I didn’t have to work on. A lot of it is still very vivid in my memory. I did re-read “Hop-Frog” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” We did a lot of the poems, and then I read a lot of the literary essays and criticism. I read stuff that I wasn’t familiar with, which was actually pretty cool.
Did you take to Poe’s language pretty easily, or did you find yourself getting tongue-tied, at all?
O’HARE: His fervent period was 1829 to 1849. That’s a period when the diction was weird, and he was in a world of tortured sentence construction. That’s hard to get your mouth around, anyway. It’s not Elizabethan or Revolutionary War, so it was easier than that.
You’ve been an actor for a number of years, playing a variety of characters in various genres, but the characters that you’ve played for Ryan Murphy have been truly remarkable and memorable, each in their own way. What have you most enjoyed about the working and collaborative relationship you have with him, and the opportunity he’s given you to play such stand-out roles?
O’HARE: I love the roles because they are different and they are larger than life because the characteristics are so severe. There’s always a technical challenge involved, which I think is really cool. There’s a butler who has no tongue and can’t speak, and a transgender woman who’s six feet tall with a shaved head, who’s witty and bitter and optimistic. It’s the kind of thing you don’t get to play on network. I love Ryan for entrusting us to just run with these creations. The downside is that you never know what’s gonna happen, or if you’re gonna show up in his world or not, but it is a great gift. He gets inspired by us, and then he throws the ball back, which I think is really nice.
American Masters – Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive airs on PBS on October 30th.