Denis O’Hare, who plays Russell Edgington, the 3,000-year-old vampire king of Mississippi, galloped into this season of True Blood on horseback in a crested blazer, charming us with his luscious accent, old-world manners, and mercurial megalomania. With only days remaining until the season finale, Vulture talked to O’Hare about how Haley Barbour inspired his accent, why Sookie should take a page from Queen Victoria, and why Edgington is the show's true hero.
How did you get involved with True Blood?
Funnily enough, I was a big fan of the show and had been watching it —
along with everybody else — and had never imagined that I would be on it. You kind of look at shows and think, Oh, I wish I had done that one. But I didn’t really see myself on True Blood. Sam [Trammell] has that [Sam Merlotte] part taken, he’s great at that. I can’t play Ryan's [Kwanten] part. The Magister is a friend of mine, Zeljko Ivanek. I was like, I could play that part, but Zeljko’s doing it. I was in Budapest doing a movie called The Eagle when I got a phone call from my agent. He said, ‘How would you like to play the vampire king of Mississippi?’ I said, ‘Yes! Yes.’
Did you ever picture yourself as Eric or Bill?
No, they were all too sexy and too naked for me.
What did you like about the show when you were first watching?
It was about normal people in a part of the world that we don’t often see dramatized. They’re working-class people. We have Sam who runs a bar and lives in a trailer park, kind of. We have Tara, who works at the bar and is at one point working at a Wal-Mart-y store. Sookie’s a waitress, Arlene is a waitress. Lafayette is a cook and possibly a drug dealer. So much of our TV viewing is upper-class or upper-middle-class. How can you relate to them? These people have basic problems, like how do I pay for my car insurance. I also liked the fact that there was this education about how the world works. How does it work when a vampire meets a human? What time do they actually have to go to bed?
Did you have a favorite scene?
In the first season when Lois Smith, who I adore, took Bill to speak to the DAR about his experiences in the Civil War. The science-fiction geek in me loves that because here you have a real historical person who has lived long enough to talk to an audience a 140 years later and tell them about an event that they only read about — lecturing this organization of prim old ladies with the cookies and the punch afterward.
Did you know what your character’s arc was going to be like?
They said you were responsible for killing Eric’s family and he’ll actually come after you at some point and probably kill Talbot. I knew before the actor knew. I didn’t tell him because I didn’t feel it was my place. It was a strange thing, because it meant that I could imbue early scenes with that strange knowledge I had as an actor. So I let Russell have a certain sense of foreboding about Talbot, which gave him a certain kind of delicacy when he was looking at him.
You mentioned accents. That’s something viewers have been critical of since the first season. How did you negotiate that?
Well, I was born in Missouri, but I was raised in Detroit. One of my stock and trades is accents. I hired a dialect coach and said I wanted to do a full straight on Mississippi, and I want upper-caste. I listened to Haley Barbour, a lot, the Mississippi governor. I also learned some words in Gaulish. We decided to give Russell a Germanic tinge, figuring he spent most of his time from about 500 A.D. to 1200 A.D. in Charlemagne’s kingdom and the Frankish kingdom. When he reverts to type, he reverts to German.
Were you happy with your character’s arc over the season?
I kind of go crazy in episode eight. In episode seven, I start to lose it a little bit there. Eight is where I begin to transform. And by nine, I’m completely off my rocker. I didn’t see that coming, but I’d been warned by Alan. ‘Ohhh, just wait. Ohhh, wait.” On the one hand, I liked the cool, collected, never-let-'em-see-you-sweat Russell. But I always had an idea he was going to get crazy and wild. When you have a spine-ripping scene, there’s no choice. You just kind of to go there.
Was it difficult to make a character who is moving toward becoming a villain?
In my mind, he’s not the villain. He’s the hero. I play him like a hero. He has his agenda, and his agenda is correct. He has people he loves and he has desires and needs. If you look at it from his point of view — if Eric, Sookie, and Bill are the villains — they do terrible things to him. They double-cross him, they lie to him, they use him. They kill his lover of 700 years. They take from him, then spurn his offerings. We always play the scenes straight-up. He’s desperate to believe he can have a friend in Bill. He truly decided that Eric was someone who thought like him and felt like him. He thought he’d found an ally. It’s incredibly hurtful.
As a fan, do you want to see Sookie end up with Eric or Bill?
[Laughs.] You know, I couldn’t choose. That would be disloyal. Like Queen Victoria said, the minute she marries somebody, she loses a lot of her allure. So I think as a good Queen Victoria, she needs to keep her options open.
Did you have a favorite scene of yours from this season?
I loved the scene where I propose to Sophie Anne. I loved being in that house. That bizarre pool house. It’s a real place with all that.
That’s not a set?
It’s in Malibu; it’s really crazy. It’s really tacky, but it’s a great house.
Any other favorites?
I love any scene with Pam in it. Kristen Bauer is just delicious. [Ed note: Agreed.]
Were you working on any other theater or television projects while you were filming? You had been on Brothers and Sisters and CSI recently.
Once we began True Blood, that was the only thing I did. I had been working on a play that I co-wrote based on The Illiad. I went back and forth between New York and L.A. a lot.
But you’re based in New York?
I live in Fort Greene. I’ve been in Fort Greene twelve years. I’ve been in Brooklyn fifteen years; I’ve been in New York for eighteen.
How does it feel to go from something so over-the-top, like True Blood, into another project?
The writing in True Blood is always real. There was the scene where I was in bed with the hustler and he turns into Talbot. As an actor, I had a very difficult time doing that scene because I just kept breaking down. I found it very, very moving, especially when Theo [Alexander] suddenly showed up on set. Every project you do, you’re in a circumscribed world anyways. CSI Miami is a style all its own.
What are you working on next?
A Norwegian play called Elling that was done in Britain a couple years back. I’m doing it with Brendan Fraser. We preview November 2. It’s this beautiful, funny, moving, sometimes dark story about two guys who were in a mental institution together. They were deemed too healthy to be there, so they get kicked out. It’s their adventures. How do they learn to date? How do they learn to cook? How do you use the phone?
What can you tell us about the finale?
Come on! We have days to go. I’ve been so good. Will I blow it now? I will tell you this, it’s fun and it’s dramatic. There’s some great writing in this episode. I have a fantastic scene with Sookie. It’s a bookend scene of the one where we had a long fireside chat and I ask, “What are you?” Now we have another scene where I’m negotiating trying to get her to help me and it comes to a bad end.
Are we going to see you next season?
[Laughs.] Anything is possible.