FX's American Horror Story blends the macabre and supernatural with a pinch of sarcastic black humor and social commentary for good measure. The show tells the story of the fractured, dysfunctional Harmon family who've moved from Boston to LA to escape their troubles, which include a horrifying miscarriage and marital infidelity.
Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) is a psychiatrist who cheated on his wife after she suffered a miscarriage in her seventh month of pregnancy. Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) is his scorned and hurt wife who begrudgingly attempts to reconcile with her husband, and their daughter Violet, masterfully played by Taissa Farmiga (youngest sister of Vera), is an emotionally detached teen in the throes of her own identity crisis.
The family unwittingly moves into a beautiful but suspiciously under-priced mansion, affectionately known in the community as "The Murder House" (it's the crown jewel of the local ghost tours). Strange things happen almost immediately, the mansion's secrets begin to unfold, and the Harmons find themselves trapped in a portal between this world and the next. Former inhabitants of the house have a nasty and uncanny habit of popping in and wreaking havoc on the Harmons, causing further ebbs and flows in their relationships.
A pivotal character in the show is Larry Harvey, or the Burn Man, played brilliantly by veteran stage and screen actor Denis O'Hare (True Blood, Harvey Milk). Larry, whose own history with the Murder House is inextricably linked with the mysterious and compelling next door neighbor Constance, played by Academy Award-winning actress Jessica Lange, outstanding in her role as the mothering ringleader of the Murder House freak show. Her character is a bizarre blend of Blanche DuBois and Mother Bear.
O'Hare's Larry Harvey is inextricably tied to the house, and as we later discover, Constance, and will do anything to get back into the house and Contance's good graces. Disfigured in a tragic fire, just one of many strange mishaps that have occurred in the house, Larry haunts and taunts Ben with a frequency and vengeance that tax even O'Hare's truly versatile skills. The relationship between the characters is at once grim, sad, humorous, and profoundly disturbing.
We had the pleasure of participating in a conference call with Denis O'Hare and we learned a great deal about "The Burn Man" and his relationship to the Murder House, Constance, and Larry's ultimate goal with the Harmons.
You’re playing such a dark character, and a lot of times we hear actors say that you have to like who you’re playing to be able to play that character convincingly. So what do you like about your character, and how do you connect with him?
You know, it’s funny. I love this character, and I love him because I feel like he is engaged in a sort of timeless epic struggle. And I see him as kind of a Dante-esque figure. He’s somebody who is trapped in a circle of hell, and he’s trying to work his way out. And he’s a human being who’s flawed, and he’s obviously weak, and he’s given into temptation and made bad choices.
But through that all he’s still got this sort of, I don’t know, passion and dream to achieve something. And he’s an odd character. Like no other character I’ve ever played in my life, I find that I have to reach for a metaphor to describe him. I have an innate sense of who he is, and when I’m playing him it’s all very instinctual. But to describe it I find myself running to literature, and so I think it’s sort of like Igor in the Frankenstein mythology, or an amanuensis in some other mythologies, or a psychopomp as they call them sometimes, somebody who traffics between worlds. And it’s a really odd, beautiful character.
It’s amazing. And you, as an actor, seem to really be able to lose yourself in every role you play.You’re so great all the time, but it always takes a minute to go, “Oh, it’s him!” because you’ve become that character so incredibly. So how do you do that, because it’s not something a lot of actors seem to be able pull off?
Well, part of it is the richness of the character. A part of the reason I’m drawn to characters like this guy, or like Russell Edgington, or like even the guys like John Briggs in Milk, is that they’re sharply etched, and they’re clearly defined. And so I, as an actor, have an easier task. I know where I’m going, and if you add to it an aspect that’s larger than life like someone like Russell Edgington who’s 2800 years old, or someone like Larry who’s got a very severe physical deformity, it takes away part of your resistance as an actor, and you simply give over to the character’s features and the character’s characteristics. You know, Ryan [Murphy] wanted me to have a wooden arm and sort of a limp. So the minute you start putting these things on you feel different and you feel like someone else, and that then forms everything.
American Horror Story is absolutely my favorite new show of the season, and your work is elemental in that. I so appreciate everything that you’re doing. What is it that you like and dislike about genre work like American Horror Story and True Blood?
I guess I didn’t even know the word genre until I did True Blood. That’s how naïve I was, and I didn’t realize that there was a point of view about certain types of TV. And so I guess I found it disappointing that there is a segment of the critical community that looks at genre as something that is separate, less than. And especially when it comes to something like the awards I find it kind of baffling that True Blood has been snubbed so many times given the incredible range of acting they have on there, I mean, incredible storytelling and the incredible production values.
So I guess I’ve been a little shocked at the prejudice that exists even by having a word called genre. What I love about it is that it, like sci-fi, is truly imaginative. And I guess I’m a kid at heart in that when I go for entertainment, I want to be totally transported. I want to go somewhere else, I want to encounter different things, different beings, different universes. And so I love that aspect of being able to play those things in both True Blood and in American Horror Story.
What kind of release or redemption do you feel that Larry is ultimately looking for?
You know, in upcoming episodes it’s played out a little more. On a prosaic level he’s looking to expiate his guilt. But does that mean he’s going to pay for his crimes or does it mean he’s going to finally be held accountable and judged?
But in a metaphorical sense, I think he’s looking for meaning. Why have I gone through this? Why have I experienced this pain and suffering? Why have I not been allowed to reach happiness? And I think what he wants is resolution in the form of an answer, and that answer can be an action or it can be a message.
I think all the characters in American Horror Story, which is why I love it, are looking for some sense of meaning, and also it’s their form of happiness. If you think about Tate and Violet, if you think about even Vivien and Ben, their marriage, they’re—people are struggling to find sense in what is a crumbling marriage. So I think for Larry it’s a similar thing. He’s looking for a way of out of what he considers to be a hellish existence.
You talked a little earlier about what drew you to the character of Larry. I was wondering how did the role come to you?
Fairly suddenly and without warning. I received a phone call, my agent got a phone call from Ryan Murphy saying he wanted to talk to me. And my agent said, “I can’t tell you what. I just know that he wants to talk to you.” And I said, “Well of course I’m going to take his phone call.”
He basically outlined American Horror Story for me and said that there’s a character named Larry the Burn Guy, and I’d like you to play it. Couldn’t tell me whole lot about where Larry was going to go, but he sent me the pilot which I read over the weekend, and we were supposed to begin on Monday and he said, “Do you want to do this?” and I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to do it.” And that was it. We made the deal, and we moved on.
It was very unusual, and my understanding is that’s how Ryan operates. He tends to be very to the point. He decides what he wants, and he goes after it and gets it, and I loved it.
I was just wondering, there are so many schools of acting from the Stanislavski Method to Laurence Olivier’s “It’s all just pretend, dear boy.” What is your process, and how did you apply it to creating Larry?
I’m a Stanislavski actor. I was trained at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois—Evanston, rather. The tradition I come from is a form of Stanislavski, which means that you are looking simultaneously at the text and looking for clues beneath the words. And you’re also doing an imaginative exercise where you’re thinking about what’s happening in this world, what’s happening after this moment, what’s happening before this moment, where have I come from, what is the entire history behind this moment?And with a character like Larry there’s so much to draw on. And the challenge, of course, is that I’m not always up to speed about what is true and what’s a lie. And I’ve had a shocking conversation from Ryan about a month ago where we’re talking about where Larry was headed, and given last night’s episode he said to me, “Well, we’ll find out that everything Larry said is a lie.” As an actor you’re kind of like, “Oh, so all the things I’ve been playing are a lie,” which is kind of genius on one hand, because actors with too much information can be very dangerous creatures.
So it’s nice to not have all the information but to simply play what I think is happening in front of me. It’s certainly what deluded people do, and many of these characters are deluded. So it’s kind of nice to be in the same boat as they are.
I was just wondering do you think American Horror Story may go a little bit more comedic and show us Larry’s headshots that he was going on about?
I would love to have had a scene with Larry running lines with Ben in the apartment for The Odd Couple and giving each other notes. I think that would’ve been fantastic. And I would love to see Larry’s photo session with the photographer who’s saying, “Okay, chin down. Okay, a little more to the right. Okay, that’s nice. Hold that.” I think that’d be terrific.
You know, they write me beautiful comic stuff. There was a great scene last night when I was coming to the open house with Marcy, the realtor, and Vivien, and I just love the fact that they give me this nice little comic stuff. Who knows what’s coming up? I still haven’t gotten the last script, so I’m very curious to see what they’re going to do with me.
Slightly off topic, I presume you’ll be coming back for next season. Will that interfere with a return to True Blood?
You know, I don’t know anything about the future. I’m certainly thrilled about the show and would love to be included in it. Luckily for me they both shoot opposite schedules. So True Blood actually gears up right this Monday, and they’ll work until July. And American Horror Story’s winding down about the first week of December and won’t begin shooting again until next July. So they sort of fit as two halves to a lovely year.
The first basement scene where Larry tells Constance that he loves her, and she says to him, “Look what you did to yourself, look at what the house did to you.” And then he responds, “The house didn’t do this to me, you did this to me.” So she seems a little disgusted, and he sort of seems to blame her for his physical condition. Can you share with us more details about what this is all about?
All I’ll tell you is all will be revealed in, I guess it’s episode 9. There’s an explanation of that, and I would be irresponsible if I said anything more. I love their evolving relationship, and I love the information we get. There’s some great stuff in episode 9 that comes out. We call it 9—sorry, that would be your 10, I think. But there’s some great information that comes out about Constance’s life with Larry and Larry’s attempts to become part of the family, which are sad and disturbing.
You also mentioned that—I think this is the conversation Larry has with Ben, where he says, “You know the house, that house has power.” And a way the house is sort of the star of the show, so how much—can you hint at us in what Larry’s referring to? I’m just curious to see if he really, actually has a strong understanding about the power that the house has.
You know, I think Larry has more of an understanding of the house than most characters. Constance obviously has the most information, but Larry’s a close second. He sort of—I mean, Nora and Charles are sort of blissful ghosts in that they don’t really kind of understand their position.
But Larry being trapped in these worlds, immortal, he understands exactly what’s happening in that house. And I think he greatly fears, greatly respects, and is drawn to the house. I’m not sure that he understands the mechanisms and the why behind it, but he knows exactly what’s happening, and he knows the power of it. And he’s very attracted to it. He’s attracted to it and repelled by it.
Larry looks very scary. So can you tell us about the transformational process that you have to undergo to turn out looking like a burn victim?
Yes, it’s funny I was noticing last night that they actually favored my right side, my face, a lot in that episode, and we didn’t actually see a whole lot of the burned part, which I found very interesting. It’s a trick when you’re shooting to try to figure out which side do you favor. Makeup takes about three and a half hours, and it’s this great company that works with American Horror Story. Christien Tinsley is the name of the company, and a guy named Mike Mekash is my primary makeup artist, and he’s just fantastic.
And it’s a long process, obviously. It’s multi-layered appliances, and then there’s a lot of painting, a lot of hand painting, and then there’s a wig involved, and then that goes on. And then the hand has to be cinched in, and the hand gets made up. And it’s exhausting, but it’s really great, because it allows me to sort of step down into the character gradually. I don’t ever get chopped into shooting. By the time I am shooting I am very well ready.
Can you talk about the relationship between Larry and Constance, and what you think it would take for him to finally give up on her?
Very good question. It’s an obsession. She is an incredibly vital, attractive woman who exerts an incredible pull on Larry, who is an ordinary guy. And he has given up everything for her, and when you give up everything it’s hard to sort of go backwards.
So for him to decide or to, I suppose, fall out of love with her would be very, very difficult. He paid such a massive price, to admit that that price is not worth it would be devastating. That being said, in the upcoming episode we do see that he begins to evolve in his power relationship with her.
The cast is phenomenal, so can you talk about what it’s like working with them?
It’s truly a treat. I’ve been lucky enough to work a lot with Dylan McDermott who I think is a gem. And I got to work with Connie Britton who I’ve long admired and am thrilled to work with. I’ve done some scenes recently with Evan Peters who’s really fantastic. He’s quite a great actor and I’m really excited to watch his career.
And of course now I’ve done about five or six scenes with Jessica Lange, which is one of those dreams. She’s one of the greats—she has an incredible understanding of how the medium works, and I’ve watched her when she’s working, and it’s all very simple and all very easy but yet it’s incredibly masterful. I feel very lucky to be in her company and I’m also happy to be with these writers. These are some of the better writers around, and they’re really a joy to work with.
I’m curious to know if we’re going to get to meet your dead family, your deceased family, in the panopoly of ghosts the way we’ve met the good doctor Charles and Rubber Man and all the characters and Tate of course; if we’re going to get to see your children or your wife a little better and if you can illuminate.
Well, I’ll refer again to the upcoming episode, it’s another big Larry episode, which would be in probably three weeks or so. And I’ll just say this. I’m sure right now you know the rules about how if somebody dies in the house they come back. If they don’t die in the house they don’t come back. That’s all I can say about that.
Who is your favorite back story of the house just as a fan of the show?
That is a tough one. That’s a tough one. I’m really loving the Chad and Pat story because it’s so unusual, and I find the dialogue for those characters really, really incredible. I love the Charles and Nora, because it’s so gothic, it’s so incredibly disturbing. That thing last night with the baby which you don’t see, the brilliance of not actually seeing that thing.
But I have to say Tate is my back story, the one I like the best. I find him as a character really heartbreaking. Something about his confusion that really draws me in. And yes, I find myself wanting to spend more time in his universe.
You come from a long line of actors who are onscreen wearing a good deal of prosthetic makeup from Lon Chaney to Robert Englund. So I’m curious that first time you’ve had the makeup one, how much time did it take for you to kind of get into that skin and realize the extent of what your facial expressions could be like and how far you can take it?
When I first put it on I was walking around the lot at Paramount in California, and I went to the cafeteria. And it was very uncomfortable, because the makeup is so good, and it looks so real that people assumed I wasn’t an actor, they assumed that is was, “Oh, look at that poor guy.” So people would sort of avert their eyes, or they would nod politely, and it’s a great exercise in exploring what the character’s daily reality must be like. I found myself, and I find myself, not wanting to be in public.
So when I’m shooting I tend to sit in my trailer alone. I don’t want to walk around, I don’t want to be gawked at. It’s really weird, I just find myself in the position, I just, you know—not that I’m ashamed; I don’t want to be the freak show.
And that’s a really interesting experience I didn’t expect to have. It’s an intense thing. I can only really smile on one side of my face, on the right side. The left side is sort of locked down, and that creates a wonderful, wry, crooked expression. I can—it’s funny, I have a few scenes where I’ve actually wept, and the left eye also weeps so, there is that.
On one hand your character could be completely creepy, but on the other hand completely amiable, and you almost kind of feel a little bit of empathy for him, so I think the makeup and you, of course, bring a lot out of that. You’ve done a ton of Broadway and obviously film and TV. Does any one give you more satisfaction at the end of the day?
You know, I’m trained as a theater actor, and I’ve spent most of my life on stage, and the sort of immediacy and tight-wire act that theater acting is I’m addicted to. That being said, there are things you can do in film and TV that you cannot do in theater, and the subtlety in film and TV I really relish. And the sort of outlandish effects you can do in film and TV I find attractive. I, for instance, have never done this kind of makeup in a stage piece. I’ve never done that before, and so I’ve only been afforded this sort of experience in TV and film, and I do love that.
I’m sure you don’t have to audition a lot anymore, but what’s probably been your worst audition where you just come out of the audition room and you’re like, “Ah.”
It’s funny you should say that. I don’t know if you know who James Morrison is. He was an actor on 24. He’s a lovely guy. He made a documentary called Showing Up, and it is about the audition process, and he interviewed, I don’t know, 30 people.
B.D. Wong is in it and Lois Smith and Stephen Spinella and tons of actors, Margo Martindale, talking about their worst experiences in auditions. I’ve had a lot of them. I tend to be a little feisty, and I’ve had fights in auditions with casting directors which I’m not proud of, and it didn’t serve me well. But I—yes, I have a little bit of an Irish temper.
Check out some sneak peeks from tonight's episode, which airs on FX at 10pm.
Chad visits an S&M store to try and spice things up.
Behind the scenes of the "Murder House" on FX's American Horror Story.