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Warning: This Q&A contains spoilers for the “Room 33” episode of American Horror Story: Hotel.
The fourth time’s a charm for Denis O’Hare when it comes to American Horror Story.
The Portland-based actor has always had memorable parts on the franchise — burnt stalker/jilted Constance paramour, mute butler, well-endowed con man/freak killer — but transgender desk clerk/bartender/monster baby feeder Liz Taylor, with her high heels, intense eye makeup, witty retorts, and moments of intense vulnerability, will be unforgettable long past Hotel’s finale.
O’Hare spoke with Yahoo TV about the origins of the character, the Liz look, learning to live as a female, the responsibility of portraying someone on a transgender journey, and where she will go now that the Countess has taken his “one great love” from him.
How was the character of Liz Taylor first explained to you?
Ryan [Murphy] always starts with a very strong inspiration from his background research. He first spoke to me about Liz in January. He had been reading about a drag queen that died in a fire at a discotheque in the ‘70s in Germany. That was a tragic figure, and she might die in a fire at the hotel and haunt it. Or maybe she would be a serial killer drag queen. Obviously, that went away.
Then I got an email asking if I wanted to play a character. She has a shaved head, Cleopatra eye, bold lip — gorgeous. My imagination ran wild. It wasn’t until I got into L.A. in July and had my first costume fitting and got into the heels and the clothes that I really started to figure her out.
Was she always going to be inspired by Elizabeth Taylor?
We had explored other people: singers and figures. But I knew it was Liz by the time I had my costume fitting. I watched Butterfield 8 and Cleopatra again to watch the way she moved and to capture little teeny snippets of her in order to evoke her. I stayed away from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
How did the character evolve?
Once we get into reading scripts and shooting, things change for all kinds of reasons. They change because the writers are trying to balance characters or storylines. They change because the writers see what we are doing, and they start to write to our strengths or what is successful on screen as they get to know the characters, the actors, and the set. It’s one big feedback loop.
Were there any details of her look, backstory, or vibe that you added?
I want to make sure it is clear that they create it. We don’t have that much input on who the character is, or what the character does or says. I did have one suggestion that they ran with, and I was so happy for that. I didn’t want her to be a bitchy trashy magazine-reading shallow girl. I thought it was better if she read incredible literature at the desk because she is intelligent and has a thirst to better herself. So I have read Karl Marx, Ulysses, Candide.
You have gotten to wear quite a variety of dresses, gowns, super high heels, earrings.
The look just spews drama. Especially when walking down the hallways and turning corners. Love that.
What did you do to prepare for that part of this character? Did you really shave your head?
Shaving my head was the first thing that Ryan said I have to do, and I didn’t have a problem with that. Hair grows back. I did it years ago for a production at the Public. In a way, I was always dying to have someone ask me to do it again, because being asked to do outrageous things is fun.
Did you pierce your ears? I noticed you wore earrings to the Hotel premiere.
My left ear is pierced. I pierced it years ago in Chicago. There was a scene originally where The Countess was going to pierce my ears when she was transforming me, and there would be blood and everything. I said, “We could fake it with my already pierced ear.” And Stephanie [Lady Gaga] was like, “Oooh, let me pierce the other one live on camera.” But then we realized that we had already established that she wears clip-ons, so the pierced ear scene went away.
What is the hardest detail to master as Liz? Have you had any fashion emergencies? Had to be hard walking in those super high gold platforms.
Those are my Louboutins, darling. The heels came… I wouldn’t say easily, but quickly. I kept a pair of pumps where I am living in L.A. while shooting, and I’d pull them out of the closet and wear them around the house. If I am wearing them in a scene, I wear them at rehearsal and all day until my feet are killing me, because I need to be unaware of them. The platforms are easy for me now. I wore them yesterday for a junket with the foreign press as a joke. It is a learning curve. You just have to practice.
I find nailing the emotional headspace and the feelings harder than the look. As we have moved forward in the story, we discover that the character is not a drag queen. She thinks of herself as a woman. She is on a transgender journey. That is a very different head than being a drag queen, so that was a huge adjustment for me to make. That’s the thing I need more practice on and more help. The good news is, so does the character. She is struggling to be convincing as a female. So am I. That’s an acting trick I developed years ago. Let the character and the actor have the same issue.
We finally saw the beginning of her journey and how she came to need The Countess’s help. It was beautiful and moving. Can you talk about filming that scene?
I thought that scene was so great because it was such a shocking transformation. They found such a distinctly male look, but it was also a weird look that was just off. The little pop of a scene you see of me with my wife and son was so deeply sad. The point was not to cast blame or make fun. He just made a mistake in getting married. He, like many people, was trapped by the politics of the time and didn’t think he had any options. It is a story of joy — he is finally letting go — and also a story of pain. He is leaving a life behind and causing damage. He has imprisoned himself in another world now. The Hotel Cortez is not Shangri-La.
And in a way, you went from one cage to another, because there are always strings attached when the Countess helps.
Certainly. But I’m not sure she had much choice. When she’s caught by his business mates, they threaten to tell his wife and the guys at the office. Where does that leave him? He’s got suicide or starting over in another city. Either way, his current life is over.
He is grateful for what the Countess has done to jumpstart his journey, but he also sees what she does and how she hurts people, and he knows the horrors that are happening in the hotel. And certainly by the end of this episode, with what happens to Tristan after he tried to reason with her, their relationship will change somehow.
You have had some of the best lines this season. Do you have a favorite line or speech?
My favorite one got cut. It was the scene where Iris and I were talking, and she said, “When I look at you, all I have are questions.” I said, “Ask away. You can’t offend me.” She pointed to my crotch and says, “What’s going on down there? Do you tuck?” My comeback was brilliant. “Tucking is barbaric; I layer.” They cut that beat, likely for time.
I also loved when Wes was picking up Aileen Wuornos, and I said, “Dear John, you are too drunk to see how ugly that woman is.” What I like is that her lines are always in the service of something else. She’s not just being bitchy. She is cajoling or advising or reminding. It isn’t just throwaway.
On that note, Liz seemed detached from hotel politics, maybe even cruel or spiteful, at the beginning. But as the weeks have gone on, we’ve seen Liz give Matt Bomer a pep talk after he was kicked to the curb by The Countess; try to protect Wes Bentley’s character from the monster baby, a serial killer, Sarah Paulson, and himself; motivate Kathy Bates to fight back; and encourage Finn Wittrock to take up reading. Was she misunderstood in the beginning? Is she turning over a new leaf?
I think it is more just a matter of the character unspooling slowly. There are a lot of big plotlines, so until Liz’s plot became integral, we didn’t get to know that much about her. But I also think it is important to note that she is always there. She is always waiting to talk or to listen, but often she is not seen by others. Not noticed. She said something to that effect. Like, “I’ve been here the whole time. All you had to do was look.”
With Caitlin Jenner, Transparent, bullying, and even the gay marriage issue, this is a topic du jour, and your flashback, your scenes with Finn this week, and your character in general is certainly saying a lot what it means to be trans. How do you feel about playing a character that can further that conversation?
Absolutely. Brad [Falchuk] and Ryan [Murphy] always do so much more than make a genre show, and it feels great to be a part of that. They always talk about some very heady things, and even with Glee and Nip/Tuck, they are always at the forefront of furthering the national conversation. Like with Coven, I felt they were talking about witches, but also what it is like for a woman to age in this culture and how women are often devalued because of age or appearance. Freak Show was about outsiders and what is normal.
This year deals with the topic of transgender, but also it is about family. There are all these mother-and-child relationships and father-and-child relationships. I have a son, and that issue will probably come back. The great thing about Liz is we are showing the transgender issue, but we are making her journey more universal. She wants to be loved. She wants to find happiness and purpose. Now she lost love. Everyone can relate to those things, and by showing that all humans have the same struggles, that’s how we grow.
Regarding that lost love, it was like a train wreck you knew was going to happen. Ramona warned him to run. Tristan hesitated about telling. Liz had to know that wasn’t gonna end well, yet he insisted on coming clean about the affair.
Finn and I were talking about why affairs are so delicious, and it is because they are not real.
Later on, you will find out that she wants to take care of unfinished business. It is a vacation from life and your real problems. In that private bubble, anything is possible, but you want love and you want it to be real and you need to know what that relationship would look like in the light of day. And I think she hoped she would understand and let him be happy as a reward for his years of service. But what is the likelihood that a year or five years down the road, the relationship looks the same? Love always turns sour. In a weird way, what the Countess does for Liz is preserve forever the best moment of that love. She made him a widow and gave him a gift of a perfect memory of a perfect love. It is an amazing idea.
Will she see it that way, or will she join Ramona and Iris at Camp Revenge? Can you tease where she goes from here?
Well, first comes grief. She has to go through that fire, and then we will see what comes. Absolutely, she will want to do something, though. I obviously can’t say much, but in terms of human nature, it would make sense that she is going to be angry and want to do something. Later on, you will find out that she wants to take care of unfinished business.
American Horror Story: Hotel airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.