Jerks make Denis O’Hare tick – but not like they do most people. He gravitates toward them, and vice versa, which is the Michigan native’s reason for spending the latter portion of his cameo career pissing people off. O’Hare also isn’t most people; he spends his workdays, at least now, being the bad guy in Oscar-caliber pictures alongside Hollywood hotshots like Angelina Jolie, Mel Gibson and, in the Nov. 26-released biopic “Milk,” Sean Penn.
He plays state Sen. John Briggs, who proposes a California ballot initiative to outlaw gay and lesbian teachers and becomes the arch-nemesis of Harvey Milk, the first out man to be voted into public office in America. O’Hare’s role is an ironic twist – considering he is gay.
To accurately depict Briggs’ dialect, passion and fortitude, O’Hare viewed old tapes – and everything else, including being a homophobe, came easy. O’Hare’s met several. And knows they’re walking our streets, working with us, breathing the same air and, given the recent passing of California’s Prop 8, hating on us. Even 30 years later.
“It’s a measure of how far we’ve come,” he starts, “and also a measure of how far we haven’t come. We’re still fighting the same fight in the same place.”
“Milk” is told by Harvey Milk (played by Penn) – recited at his kitchen table in the Castro District of California, the epicenter of protests, just before his assassination in 1978 – and the familiar events that unfold are haunting as they foreshadow the gay community’s current battles. O’Hare, whose film undertakings include recent Clint Eastwood-directed “Changeling” and an extended guest spot as Rob Lowe’s campaign manager during the second season of TV’s “Brothers & Sisters,” was clueless as to what role “Milk” director Gus Van Sant – whom he casually met with one day – would assign to him. No audition was scheduled, and O’Hare favored, obviously, being part of the Harvey Milk team, but the post-meeting call he received, telling him he’d play a homophobe, wasn’t news he expected. But how could he be picky, he thought? Here he’d be working with an acclaimed filmmaker and Penn – two more A-list stars to add to his already-brag-worthy co-star list. He immediately accepted.
From sucky to success
Out of character O’Hare, who’s named one of Out magazine’s “People of the Year” in its year-end issue, conveys a dove-like aura, not boasting about his famous co-stars (we ask anyway) and still maintaining his Midwestern charm. The 46-year-old even gets star struck – “I walk up and meet Clint (Eastwood) and he’s all casual. But I’m not.” – and his sense of humor is wicked. Returning home on Halloween to his partner, Hugo Redwood, at their Brooklyn, N.Y. home via train, O’Hare is wearing a bloody-faced Sarah Palin tee – with the word “Vote.” See, he’s not such a bad guy.
But before playing the guy-we-hope-dies in summer horror hit “Quarantine,” or acting alongside George Clooney in praised Oscar-winner “Michael Clayton,” O’Hare worked, what he says, “some of the worst jobs in the world.” His late-teen years were spent pulling weeds at a Farmington Hills apartment complex, delivering The Detroit News and serving as a hamburger-turned-maintenance man at McDonald’s. Forfeiting his Friday nights, he worked late, scrubbing down the bathrooms, washing windows and cleaning grills. It paid five bucks an hour, nearly double minimum wage – so he kept it. That’s until he left to study theater, in 1980, at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Wing Lake, where the Kansas-born actor’s family moved when he was 15, leaving behind their homes in Southfield and Bloomfield Hills, was now just a picturesque memory. Or many, rather: Canoeing, sailboating, and barbecuing in the summer; ice skating – and running around the family’s acre of Oakland County land with their husky – in the winter. In the fall, he’d pick apples in the yard, a former orchard, and walk to a nearby mill to have them crushed into cider.
“After I left that house, I didn’t eat an apple for about 10 years,” O’Hare admits. “I was so overdosed on apples. My god, my mother would make applesauce, apple crisp, apple turnover. I could not handle apples. Now, I’m back.”
After moving to Chicago, he rarely returned to Michigan, though. Save for a couple of summer visits, the actor says there wasn’t much left for him after his parents moved to Virginia. In his last years here, he used a fake ID to sneak into gay bars, like Backstreet – but never told his parents. “I had some wild times in Detroit,” he recalls, adding that he’d tag along with an alternative group to see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” most weekends.
“I felt like I had a place to go to express myself and be safe,” he says.
It was also an esteem-builder, which is what O’Hare needed after being called “fag,” among other names, at Brother Rice High School in Birmingham. The Psychology Today book with a man flashing a gaggle of kids in the “Homosexuality” chapter didn’t help, nor did his psych teacher. When O’Hare confessed to him that he liked men, the actor recalls him abruptly ceasing the conversation – then storming off.
Busy being a bastard
“I feel like his art is more productive than mine,” O’Hare compliments Redwood, his DIA-designer boyfriend of eight-and-a-half years. The actor’s resume would shake its head. He zigzagged between playing a bad government official in “Edge of Darkness” and a gay man – for him, a rarely played role – in John Hurt-vehicle “An Englishman in New York.” In January he’ll return to reshoot scenes from “The Proposal,” a rom-com starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. He plays the arch-villain trying to deport Bullock’s character back to Canada. So, again, the asshole.
“Yes,” he says, proudly, “I specialize in those.”
And, also, theater. O’Hare’s been cast in a heap of productions, including “Sweet Charity” and “Take Me Out,” which scored him a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play. He’ll break from his barely-able-to-breathe film stints to return to the stage – which he says he greatly misses – early next year in the title role of the Classic Stage Company’s 2009 production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”
His schedule might be fuller than he was of apples, but it’s better than unsuccessfully scoring work in Chicago – like he did when he first moved out there, having to rely on a temp job for cash flow. Even years later, he allegedly wasn’t ideal for 1997 comedy “As Good As It Gets” – because he wasn’t gay enough (He disagrees: “I was a bun man – still am”). After auditioning for the role Greg Kinnear would later play, O’Hare says the casting director said, “I can’t remember: You have two kids?” He said no. “What’s your wife’s name?”
“It was ironic that she was basically telling me I wasn’t gay enough for the part. I was actually too straight. Whatever. There’s obviously, in 2008, no correct way to be gay.”
Or to be a bastard.