role call

Denis O’Hare Answers Every Question We Have About Being a Judge on The Good Wife

All rise for Judge Abernathy. Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by CBS

Among New York–based character actors, there are few distinctions more elite than serving as a judge in the Good Wife universe. The CBS drama, along with its spinoff The Good Fight, depicts a fantastical version of the Chicago legal world that’s filmed largely in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and populated primarily by theater actors who at least have a Drama Desk Award. Presiding over it all, there are a suite of judges who all come along with their own little quirks. Ana Gasteyer’s Judge Patrice Lessner wants the characters to preface everything with “in my opinion.” Linda Emond’s Judge Leora Kuhn lays down strict military law. Then there’s Judge Charles Abernathy, played by Denis O’Hare, a bleeding-heart liberal who arrives in court in his first episode asking for a moment of silence for the victims in Darfur, and who inevitably always seems to rule against his own beliefs in the interest of being fair.

In addition to his time presiding over the courtroom, O’Hare has established himself as one of our most beloved and chameleonic character actors. He’s played a lurid Vampire King in True Blood, a conservative politician in Milk, a whole suite of different roles in American Horror Story. He won a Tony rhapsodizing about baseball in Take Me Out and was nominated for another for the 2004 revival of Assassins, one of the most character actor-y productions ever (see also, Becky Ann Baker, Mario Cantone, Michael Cerveris, etc.). O’Hare first played Abernathy in The Good Wife’s second episode, and returned to the robe eight more times over the show’s seven-season run, plus two appearances in The Good Fight. Calling in from Slovenia, where he’s currently filming the survival drama Infinite Storm with Naomi Watts, O’Hare talked to Vulture about how Abernathy mirrored his own political views, getting to hang out with The Good Wife’s other guest stars, and why playing a TV judge is like being a messenger in a Greek tragedy.

When you first played Judge Abernathy on The Good Wife, how was he first described?
The Kings wrote a great character, and it was all there on the page. There was a funny speed bump when I was first mentioned, because you’re always associated with the last thing you do. I had just been on something really heavy and they were like, “Can Denis be funny?” And my agent was like, “He won a Tony for Take Me Out! That was a funny performance.” So I felt a bit like I had to prove something. But I really connected to the fact that he was this incredibly liberal, genial guy who wanted to dispense with protocol and just be human. He was also a newbie judge, and I was a newbie, so I could lean into the idea that I don’t know enough to do this job but I would bring my open mind to it.

Then, as we went on, whether the Kings knew my politics or not, they leaned into my politics. I’m incredibly anti-gun. I believe the Second Amendment should be erased, and was a historical anomaly and a mistake. More than one of the episodes intersected with my politics, and I loved that. Then of course, Judge Abernathy tended to rule against his own beliefs, because he always followed the law. There was always a shock or a turn when his verdict wasn’t what you thought.

Do you have a favorite case that Abernathy ruled on?
I remember one about gun rights. Someone put up an anti-gun billboard [after his daughter’s death in a shooting in season seven’s “Shoot”], and Abernathy had to rule against his own beliefs and say that a gun manufacturer could not be held liable for the death of [the plantiff’s] child. Then, he set the award as something like $1 dollar in damages. That was his way of saying, you win on the law, but I’m not giving you any money for your cause. At another point, he asked everyone to give blood, because the Kings were making a joke about how I was on True Blood. I sang a little song about giving blood. It was just so much fun. Another one of my favorite episodes [season four’s “The Art of War”] was a crossover with my friend Linda Emond, who played a military judge. We didn’t have any scenes together, but we shared a case. We’re old friends, and there’s a great photo I took of us and Brian Dennehy, who was also in that episode. It was one of those great New York clusters.

Something like The Good Wife brings in so many New York actors. Is there a sense of camaraderie of being judges on the show together or being in the courtroom together with people you know?
We’re just old friends. I did an episode with Corey Stoll [season one’s “Stripped”] where he played the chauffeur, and it was gratifying to see his meteoric rise. I did an episode with Mamie Gummer, who I did Uncle Vanya with. Dylan Baker’s an old friend. John Benjamin Hickey’s an old friend. It’s so many people over the years. The judges always have the last shot of the day, so I would often get a chance to have some conversations with some pretty wonderful people.

So is there a pretty standard shooting schedule if you come in for a judge role for the day?
It’s usually more than a day. Any episode I usually shot four or five days, with some scenes in judge’s chambers. But in the courtroom scenes, they always shot toward the biggest number of people, because they want to be able to send the extras home. So they shot toward the tables [of the defense and prosecution] with the stars, Julianna or Christine or Josh, and I might be included over my shoulder or something early on. I took meticulous notes of everything I did, my position and continuity and what props I handled, so that when, 12 hours later, when they did the close-ups of the witness and me, I remembered what I did.

If they wanted you to come in for an episode, how far in advance would you hear about it?
They had a stable of judges they’d be using and usually they would think about who would be an appropriate intersection for that week’s theme, maybe. Then they would check our availability. Often we had conflicts and couldn’t get in, but I would get a month to six weeks’ notice there was an episode they were thinking of me for and then we would negotiate if I wasn’t available. Since moving to Paris, I feel like I fell out of the Good Fight roster because it was harder, because they would have to pay for me to fly in and that’s a bigger sort of commitment. So I sort of fell out after two seasons of that, which is sad, but you know …

Well, it is nice to be in Paris.
Definitely. I’m in Slovenia right now, actually, making a movie with Naomi Watts called Infinite Storm. I play a friend, someone she can talk to in this mountain-climbing adventure movie. I’ve been very lucky to work during COVID. I got to do a dog in the Grinch, and I play a crazy scientist in the HBO series The Nevers. We shot it mostly in 2019 and 2020, but then we shot it this past September in London, and we’re going to pick up again at the end of June.

I haven’t gotten to see The Nevers yet. What was it like to film?
It’s a great show. It’s beautiful, expensive, in the great HBO tradition, in Victorian England with girls with superpowers. I play a sort of mad scientist. He’s not really crazy, but definitely got some interesting sadistic streaks. It’s a great character, and an amazing look. Michele Clapton, who did Game of Thrones, did our clothes. I’m happy I get to shoot six more episodes in June.

I know that Joss Whedon created that show, and then left. How involved was he in the production of it?
He was very involved. He hired me. We rehearsed a lot. He shot the pilot. He directed me in two or three episodes. My experience with him was all positive. I was sad to see him go. All of the other controversies, I don’t have any inside information on. We now have a new showrunner and it seems to be a great fit, and it seems that we’re picking things up without a hitch, which we’re all really happy about.

Speaking of expensive HBO shows, you were playing the former Vampire King of Mississippi on True Blood as you were popping up on The Good Wife. What was it like going back and forth between those worlds?
Not only that, but also doing American Horror Story. I had to shave my head for that at one point, and that overlapped with The Good Wife, and I lost a lot of weight for my character. I had a beard at one point for a movie, so suddenly Charles Abernathy had a beard. They were very funny about putting a line or two about why Charles Abernathy looked so different. I will say that the crew and the cast of The Good Wife were spectacular people, and I always felt so welcome when I would come back there. So it made the transition easy going from vampire land to a courtroom.

Did being on The Good Wife teach you much about the law?
The first episode we shot was actually in a real courtroom in Jamaica. It was my first day of shooting and the judge whose courtroom it was was watching. I stood in the back with him and chatted with him and asked for tips. We also had this wonderful adviser on staff for The Good Wife and he was an officer for the court system. He was always there to give you notes. I would also do my own research. When I got the script, I’d research case law. I’m a weird method actor that way. I print things out and bring them with me.

Did you ever come up with your own backstory for Abernathy?
I didn’t. Because there’s a famous dictum that my acting teacher always taught me. The messenger speeches in Greek tragedy are these huge, important ideas — Medea has killed her children offstage; Antigone has buried her brother. Nobody cares where the messenger has come from! They only care about what they’re delivering. So for me, it’s always been to figure out how much you create, and how much is relevant. In a weird way, a judge is asked to leave his personal life behind. So in his choice of tie, in the fact that he doesn’t wear a wedding ring, in the fact that he would come out with a teacup, there are little nods to who he was. But there was never any information given in the scripts. So I loved that his privacy was protected. I made the choice early on that he was unmarried, that he was straight, that he was a bachelor, and that there may have been a bit of a frisson between him and Christine Baranski’s character that didn’t go anywhere. I wouldn’t have been shocked if there was an episode where we saw him on a date, but I was happy that never happened.

If Abernathy were to come back into The Good Fight universe again and it works out with you coming in from Paris, do you have any kind of case in mind you’d like to see him rule on?
I think it’d be great to have him really agonize over his politics, and have him be in a case where he actually makes a mistake. He’s unable to overcome his emotional bias for some reason, rules in a way he knows is dishonest, and that causes some sort of ramification. There’s a great French phrase — sorry, I can’t think in English anymore — called se rendre compte that means to become aware of in yourself, or have it dawn on you. I just love the idea of there being something deeper. And then also maybe he could go on a date!

Denis O’Hare on Every Question We Have About The Good Wife