You might not recognize Denis O'Hare . . . at first. The veteran actor has returned for the fifth season of FX's "American Horror Story" playing Liz Taylor. No, not that Liz, but a mysterious, cross-dressing admirer of the "Butterfield 8" star who works at the creepy Hotel Cortez.
Also checked in this season -- but not necessarily checking out -- are series regulars (including Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Angela Bassett) and newbies (notably Lady Gaga). The series, which premiered earlier this month, is as bloody and depraved as ever, giving O'Hare a chance to strut his stuff (this time in sky-high spike heels). In past seasons, he's played a grisly burn victim, a mute butler and an enormously manipulative con man.
He's also appeared in various other TV series ("True Blood," "The Good Wife"), films ("Dallas Buyers Club," "Milk") and theatrical productions (winning a Tony Award for his performance in Broadway's "Take Me Out").
O'Hare, 53, lives in Manhattan with his husband and adopted son.
Liz is quite a dresser. Is there one element of her look that helps you get into character?
There's the makeup. And the costumes. But . . . the short answer is the heels. They gotta be 6- or 7-inch platforms, with leopard skin. You put them on and suddenly I'm 6-foot-4 or so. It turns me into this towering figure and gives me an extraordinary power.
What's the biggest hurdle for you here -- what's the challenge to get right?
The character, like all things in "American Horror Story," is not readily legible. Meaning . . . I wasn't sure who she was. I wasn't given a lot of information. With each script, I have to reassess my understanding of her. Part of the brilliance -- or zaniness -- of this show is that we don't know much. So as we get more information, we go, "Ohhh, that changes everything."
I've always thought it odd that, unlike in a play or film, where an actor gets the full script and knows the whole story, in TV you only get a script episode by episode -- you don't know the whole season. As an actor, isn't that . . . frustrating?
No. But I'm used to it. Another actor was recently expressing some frustration, and I said, "Well, honestly . . . where are you gonna be next year in your life? How long is your marriage gonna last? What disease is waiting for you?" We don't know. Why should characters know?
Interesting. I assume the experience has changed since your first season.
This season feels really, really . . . like family. We've bonded. Everyone is doing such great work, and I mean everyone -- the camera operators, the writers. . . . I overhead a crew guy saying, "Man, how'm I gonna go back and do 'CSI' after this?" And Stefani -- umm, Lady Gaga -- did a really brilliant thing early on. She invited us all out to her house in Malibu for a party. That was a great way to launch our working relationship. You know, each set I've worked on is different. "True Blood" was a great set -- fun, professional. But "American Horror Story" -- everything about it is crazy. The material, the shooting hours. When new people come on, you can see them trying to adjust and you're, like, "Oh, honey, just relax. This is 'American Horror Story.' " It's not for everyone.
No. If you're a linear thinker or someone who expects things to happen in a certain way . . . then this is not for you.
You studied acting at Northwestern University. Are you glad you went to college rather than jumping straight into acting?
I always say to young actors, get training. This isn't a hobby. It isn't just standing in front of a camera saying lines. It's a craft, and takes skills, techniques. You can see the difference . . . between people who haven't studied and those who have. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty and you're asked to do something difficult, you rely on craft. Although . . . at the same time, it's an oddly mystical calling. There's a point where you have to let go and just free-fall. This season, I'm doing a lot of free-falling, going to places I've never gone before. I had my first real sex scene ever in my career. That . . . that was scary -- challenging -- and ultimately rewarding. It's a beautiful, beautiful scene. I can't wait for it to air.
Who's the lucky partner?
Well, here's the nice thing -- I'm having sex with someone who's a wonderful actor and a beautiful physical specimen. And . . . I get to wear clothes. I was willing to go full nude, but we talked about the context of the scene and decided I needed to wear a lovely, lacy negligee with black underwear. So there you go. [He chuckles.] . . . It's the best of both worlds.