Denis O’Hare is a Tony award-winning actor with a long list of Broadway, film, and TV credits, but he may be best known as the polished vampire king, Russell Edgington, in “True Blood.” The actor comes to town for the one-man performance of “An Iliad,” an adaptation of Homer’s epic poem he co-wrote, as part of the ArtsEmerson series at the Paramount Center April 27-28 and May 3-4.
BOOKS: Which works best with a reading life: TV, Broadway, or movies?
O’Hare: None really. Actually with plays you have an opportunity to read, especially if you are offstage a lot. When I did “Racing Demon” by David Hare I worked with Paul Giamatti, who had stacks of books in his dressing room. I was offstage a lot so I would go read in his room. He was reading a four-part series on the Byzantine Empire by Alexander A. Vasiliev. I read two of those during the run of the play.
BOOKS: Do you get enough time to read for yourself?
O’Hare: I never do because I read so much for work. For instance, I’m writing a play about the Bible. I probably read parts of 50 books in recent months on subjects like St. Paul or the Alexandrian Jews. I’ve taken to reading standing up. Otherwise I can nod off reading these long inquisitions into portions.
BOOKS: What’s the last book you read for yourself?
O’Hare: I went on a Buddha jag. I read “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist” by Stephen Batchelor and Karen Armstrong’s biography of Buddha, which is a great book. The last novel I read was “Saturday” by Ian McEwan, and a couple of years ago I read “A House for Mr. Biswas” by V.S. Naipaul. It’s an unbelievably good book. I also read a lot of science fiction.
BOOKS: What other subjects draw you in?
O’Hare: History. I’ll get on a jag. For instance, two years ago when everyone seemed to have rediscovered the Constitution, I thought I didn’t know enough about it. I read five books on the Constitution. My favorite was “Plain, Honest Men” by Richard Beeman. I went on a science jag in the same way. I kept getting in arguments about evolution and being bested. So I read Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species,” a fantastic book that is not that difficult.
BOOKS: Is this a thread through your reading life, that you take on a subject you don’t know much about?
O’Hare: Yes. I moved to New York City in ’92 and had no money. I had a lot of free time as actors do. I would go to the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. I would think, for example, I don’t know enough about Shostakovich’s work. So I would get out all [the musical recordings] of his works and just sit there and luxuriate in them. I also remember reading John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany” in Bryant Park and getting to a passage that was so overwhelming I dropped the book and started weeping. I remember reading books and having the world change because they brought me to a new place, like Edmund White’s “A Boy’s Own Story” and “Forgetting Elena,” which I read when I was young and didn’t know what being gay meant.
BOOKS: Do you read as research for a role?
O’Hare: Tons. I played a Russian revolutionary in a play years ago. I indulged my Dostoyevsky habit. I also read some obscure Russian tracts called “What Is to Be Done?” by Nikolai Chernyshevsky.
BOOKS: What kind of reading did you do for “True Blood”?
O’Hare: I did very little reading about vampires. To me, it’s not what makes this guy interesting. I decided he was a Celt, probably a slave. I read about the history of the Celts, who were, ironically, sun worshippers.
BOOKS: Being immortal, vampires never have to worry about having the time to read all they want, do they?
O’Hare: True, yet I decided early on that he is illiterate.