My worst moment: Denis O’Hare, of ‘True Blood’ and ‘The Nevers,’ on burning bridges. Sometimes you just gotta do it

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune
·7 min read

Denis O’Hare stars on the new HBO series “The Nevers,” a story of “Victorian superhero girls who battle aliens and nefarious evil men and women in London in 1880,” in his words. O’Hare plays Dr. Edmund Hague. “He’s a man of science who may go too far in his pursuit of truth, or whatever he considers his truth, which includes opening up people’s heads. He’s jovial, he’s funny, he’s witty. And probably deadly.”

As an actor, O’Hare frequently shifts between highly naturalistic roles (whether he’s an attorney grilling Nicole Kidman in “Big Little Lies” or playing various characters on the “Law & Order” franchise) and highly stylized genre projects (“True Blood,” “American Horror Story” and more).

An alumnus of Northwestern University, his career began in Chicago, where he was a stage actor from 1984 to 1992. “I probably did about 25 plays in Chicago. I worked at every single major theater,” he said.

When asked about a worst moment in his career, he replied: “I’ve probably had 23,000 moments of humiliation. But I’ll tell you a Chicago story.”

—My worst moment …

“I was a legal temp at Winston & Strawn law firm in Chicago. This was probably 1990, and I would use my lunch break to run out and do auditions. I never got commercials. I mean, I tried and tried and tried and I never booked a commercial in my entire career, and I probably auditioned for hundreds of them. But if you can get a national commercial, you’ll make enough money to not have to do the temp job and you can do nothing but focus on your acting career.

“And I remember this one particular day I had to negotiate with my boss and my agent to schedule an audition for my lunch break. We scheduled the audition at 12:05 because I couldn’t leave the office before then. So I run up there, it was somewhere in the Loop, and I get there and I run in and … they’ve taken lunch. They decided to go to lunch.

“Which is typical of how they treat actors. That’s classic. They have all of the power and you have none of the power. It’s the commercial world, which is specifically brutal that way. You really are at the mercy of their bad time management. You told me 12:05, why are you behind? Haven’t you done this before? Don’t you know exactly how long it takes, pretty much, after 20 years in the business?

“I won’t name the casting director — I know who it is, I remember to this day — but I sat there, freaking out and furious. Because I was like, ‘What?’ I was told to come at this time, and now I’m watching my precious lunch hour evaporate. So 30 minutes pass, 45 minutes pass. Then I have 10 minutes left before I have to get back to my job, and finally they all traipse back in: The ad exec, the client, it’s like nine of them.

“And the commercial was for some sort of food product. The script said, ‘A John Cleese type.’ But not an impersonation, by the way. So get John Cleese! Why are you making me do this? It was this really thorny ad copy where you had to say something and then in parenthesis say something else. It was all about subliminal seduction or subliminal messaging. So you had to say the copy and then quickly say something under your breath. It was really, really tricky.

“So I’m finally called in and I’m livid at this point. I can barely be civil. I’m stressed beyond belief. And I get the little clip-on microphone attached to my shirt — because they’re filming you — and I’m wearing a suit of course, I’m sweating. So I start the copy and I immediately mess up and they say, ‘Cut, cut, cut.’ And they’re all sighing and rolling their eyes.

“So I try it again. And I get through it. It wasn’t great, but at least I got through it. And finally somebody, maybe it was the client, said, ‘You know, you’re over 30.’ And I said, ‘Sorry? What?’ I tried to make a joke about my hairline receding: ‘Really? I thought I looked pretty good for my age.’ Nobody laughed. Nobody laughed at any of my jokes. And she said, ‘You’re over 30 seconds. It’s a 30-second spot.’

“And I lost it. You probably can’t print this, but I said, ‘You know what? (Screw) you. (Screw) all of you. (Screw) your ad, (screw) your stupid copy, (screw) John Cleese. (Screw) you.’

“And I tried to leave. But I couldn’t get the microphone off me. So as I walked away, I was still attached to the camera. The camera fell over and I’m dragging it and they’re like ‘Stop!’ They’re screaming at me because I’m hurting their camera. I’m surprised they didn’t sue me for that.

“And I finally tear off one part of the mic but the wire is still attached to me. So they’re all just staring at me and the casting director is shooting daggers at me with her eyes like, ‘You will never work again in this town.’ It was crazy.

“So I get the last bits of the microphone off, I throw it down and I storm out. I obviously didn’t get a chance to eat, and I get back to work late I get the stink eye from my boss, which means it’s going to be harder to ask for time when the next audition rolls around.

“So. Um. I didn’t get the commercial. Did not get the commercial.

“And I was never called in for that casting director again. Years later in New York I had a similar thing happen and I told my agents to never send me on a commercial again. It’s not my thing, I’m not going to get them, I will not go. And I never have.”

—What was the moment when the switch flipped?

“It was when they didn’t laugh at my joke. And she was so hostile about ‘You’re over 30.’ And I honestly didn’t know what she meant, and I gestured to my hairline and said, ‘Well, you know, I can fix that.’ And the fact that they didn’t have the good grace to laugh. You know when these people are not in your corner.

“And also part of me went, ‘This is never going to happen for me and I’m willing to burn this bridge.’ I could tell you tons of stories; I always burn bridges. I burn so many bridges. I do have a (screw) it bone in me, where I’m just like (screw) it. That’s what makes me an actor that takes risks. But it’s not so good when it comes to your career. I’ve done that many times in my life.

“I would have felt good in that moment if I had made a good exit. If I could have gotten the microphone off and gone, ‘Buh-bye” and sailed out, that would’ve been great. But I couldn’t, I was trapped. I was literally an idiot lassoed by a wire to a camera and couldn’t leave the room. So it was the worst possible gesture. It was so idiotic and futile. But they should have hired me for that alone! Make that the commercial, not the dumb John Cleese copy.”

—The takeaway …

“(Deadpan) I hope those people ended up losing their jobs and I hope that their industries tanked.

“No. Really, I wasn’t right for that world and that was one of the death knells for me to go, ‘Denis, this is not a good use of your time. Don’t keep wasting your time! Move on.’ And I did.

“The thing behind my burning bridges is, you can’t treat me like that. You have treated me in a way that’s inhuman and doesn’t respect my dignity, and you’re not allowed to do that. And I will demonstrate that to you by blasting you. I will lecture you. It’s almost always warranted, but I never get anything out of it. I never gain anything. It doesn’t really get you anywhere. It’s not ultimately a good impulse. It’s indulging in a moral outrage.

“But you know, I still stand by it.”