PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Denis O'Hare

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Denis O'Hare Denis O'Hare adds the title role of Elling to a short list of eccentrics that he has played on Broadway.

Denis O'Hare
Denis O'Hare Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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Although he's gotten wide attention lately as a vampire on TV's hot series "True Blood," O'Hare was acclaimed first as a regional and Broadway theatre actor, notably as nebbishy accountant Mason Marzac in Take Me Out, for which he won the Best Featured Actor Tony Award; as presidential killer Charles Guiteau in Assassins (another Tony nomination) and the neurotic Oscar Lindquist in the most recent revival of Sweet Charity (for which he won a Drama Desk Award). He's now one half of an odd couple that's been sprung from a mental hospital in Broadway's Elling, Simon Bent's adaptation of novels by Ingvar Ambjørnsen and the film of the same name. We snagged O'Hare between rehearsals for a further explanation.

Elling, the play, is new to these shores. Tell us a little bit about it.
Denis O'Hare: Elling is a play that's been incredibly popular in Norway and Scandinavia and Germany and also in England. It's a play about two guys who are in a mental institution who are released, and they have to find their way in the world — and it's kind of a play about how all of us find our way in the world, how we deal with disappointment, fear, love, friendship, the challenges of life. And these two guys are hilarious and heartbreaking and idiosyncratic, and it's a very specific journey but it also becomes very universal very quickly. I think the play is wildly popular wherever it's done because everybody can relate to it. Everybody knows an Elling, everybody knows a Kjell Bjarne [played by Brendan Fraser].

How would you describe your character?
DO: Elling is the guy who's not very well socialized, who's kind of spiky, who's very, very smart, and who gets under your skin because he says the truth all the time. He says true things, and he's a little bit prickly and hard to love, but you find yourself loving him because he's, in a strange way, like a child. And Kjell Bjarne is just the opposite — he's a big hunk, a big, loveable mug who runs around and hugs everybody. And everybody knows those types; everybody knows those two people. And so in a way, audiences don't know Elling, but they do know Elling. They know these people.

 

Denis O'Hare and Brendan Fraser in Elling
photo by Joan Marcus

Is it domestic comedy? Broad comedy?
DO: It's everything. It's very verbal comedy; it feels like Beckett sometimes. It's a very physical comedy; it feels like Neil Simon or Ayckbourn sometimes. It's a situational comedy. It's a comedy of manners at times. Sometimes, we're pushing beds around the stage, like Tom and Jerry. It feels like a cartoon sometimes. It defies description. It's very European in that respect. It doesn't really fit neatly into a category, but it's hilarious.

Sounds like it has a huge heart.
DO: A huge heart, yeah. It's never sentimental. It earns its emotion the true way. It doesn't ever cheat, and the characters have a lot of integrity. They stay true to themselves the whole time. They challenge themselves; sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed. They fight, but you always root for them. You always hope that these two guys are gonna make it somehow, and that's kind of the heart of it, I think.

Richard Easton, Jeremy Shamos and Jennifer Coolidge are in the mix. How do all they come into play?
DO: Jennifer Coolidge brings us the beauty — the beauty and the sex, the beautiful blonde. She plays a variety of roles; she plays a psychiatric nurse at one point, she plays a hilarious waitress, and then she plays Kjell Bjarne's love interest. And Alfons, who's played by Richard Easton — he becomes sort of…a father figure for me, because Elling never had a father… And then Jeremy Shamos plays a guy named Frank. He's our social worker who's trying to get us to order food, walk out the door, lock doors, make phone calls. It's hilarious, it really is hilarious, and it's a great cast.

Were you familiar with the source material?
DO: I stayed away from the movie. I'm one of those actors who [gets] very influenced if I see somebody do a role I've done and I can't get them out of my head. So I'm very protective about any part I do, and so I didn't see the movie. I went to Norway and I spent four days in Oslo, and I met one of the actors who played Kjell Bjarne. I met the playwright, I met the original director, I walked around Oslo and got a feeling for the locations where Elling lived and where he did things. I just kind of wanted to get a feel for it. That's my way in, usually. A funny story — I did Mercutio years ago in Romeo and Juliet. Obviously, the part's been done many times by many people, and I was playing cards with some friends, and my friend was like, "Oh, I played Mercutio," and I was like, "No, no, no, no no! No one's ever played Mercutio before me. I don't want to hear about it. I don't want to hear about your Mercutio. No, no, no, no, no!" [Laughs.] Crazy.

Everybody is loving "True Blood." What was it like joining the cast of this show that everyone is kind of obsessed with?
I didn't know what to expect from doing "True Blood." I was sort of afraid that I would mess it up. The world was so perfect, why do they need me to come in there? But I was accepted very well and I fit in very well, and I had a riot. I had the best time of my life. People love the characters. They love the show. I'm kind of amazed that people like my character so much because he's kind of twisted and awful, but he's got a real integrity about what he believes in, and audiences just love the show and love the character. [In Southern accent] "Ah love mah Russell Edge and Ah hope he comes back…."

 

Denis O'Hare and Elling director Doug Hughes discuss the show:

 

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