Denis O’Hare’s Insight into Playing Russell Edgington

August 14, 2010 by  

Denis O’Hare plays Russell Edgington, one of the oldest and most dangerous vampires on True Blood; he’s ruthless and cunning as he extends his power throughout the continent. However, things have changed since his lover of over 700 years has been murdered. In his interview with Collider, Denis talks about how grief and vengeance will change the character for the remainder of season 3 and how his storyline is left open for him to wreak havoc in Season 4.

Denis was late to become a fan of True Blood. He’d heard the buzz, but was skeptic, given how much Hollywood has milked the vampire genre. However, he was a fan of Alan Ball and “Six Feet Under”, so he decided to check the show out, which was already eight episodes in. He watched the first four episodes on a bootleg video and couldn’t watch them fast enough. In fact, he called Time Warner after he watched the four episodes and had them give him HBO and HBO on Demand, so he could watch the rest of the season.

What more is that he didn’t have to audition for his part on the show. Instead, casting and the producers put out feelers for the King of Mississippi. While Denis was doing a movie in Budapest called “The Eagle of the Ninth”, which is coming out February 2011, his agent had called HBO and said that they should hire Denis. HBO thought it was a great idea.

After he agreed to take on the role of Russell Edgington, Denis did read two books in the Charlaine Harris series; he didn’t have a script, so he read the books that Russell was in. It seemed that the Russell in the book and the Russell Alan had in mind were alike and yet radically different. Denis says,

“I read about Russell and realized that, plot wise, it made a lot of sense, but character wise, they were totally different. I didn’t find it that helpful for me because we were doing a different thing, so I let it go…When you’re creating a character, you’re looking for information. Russell, in the books, was not well-developed. He wasn’t an interest of Charlaine’s, whereas he was an interest for Alan…they obviously wanted Russell to be powerful, from the beginning. They’ve given him a lot of plot driving. He’s a major plot-driver for the season. He doesn’t necessarily get what he wants or control it the way he thinks he’s going to control it, but it’s fascinating.”

When it came to creating Russell for the cameras, Denis and Alan collaborated to create a very powerful vampire. The first thing Alan told Denis was that Russell was a Southern gentlemen and had to have an accent; furthermore, he was very charming and very deadly. This was all Denis needed to start forming the character. Denis reveals,

“He’s 2,800 years old, so his name is not Russell Edgington. I know what his name is. I can’t tell you, but he’s got another name. He’s from a different place and he spoke many different languages before he landed in America and started speaking English. If you were a vampire before the Revelation, you had to hide, so he would fit in and adapt to the culture, adopt a new name and take on their accent and language. But, who he really is, is somebody much deeper and darker. In the show, sometimes I’ll come out with a German dialect. That’s one of his personas that he had the longest. His real identity is an ancient Celt who was a druid Pagan from the Carpathian mountains, but he probably lived in Middle Europe from about 300 or 400 A.D. until about 1300 A.D., so his language would have been a Germanic form. He’s had this massive history. It’s hilarious.”

How does Denis identify with a being that’s been alive for so long, and who has so much history? For Denis, it’s about where the mind drifts when a character is sitting alone or looking out the window. For being dead, Russell has a passion for life. He has so many plans and ideas as to what he wants to do with his future. To achieve all of this, he protects himself at all times.

He also wants someone he can trust and talk to, but it’s quite difficult to find that. His home is filled with vampires and weres, but none of them truly know the vampire king. In episode 9 and 10, Russell is stripped of his protective covering and is exposed emotionally. He loses his composure. Episode 9 and onward, Russell changes; he loses that Southern charm and reverts back to his Pagan self. More importantly, he becomes even more dangerous than before.

The change is apparent in his appearance as well. The king’s fans know that he dresses in incredible clothes. He wears Ted Baker, Vervatos, Versace, and Hugo Boss. However, by the end of the season he looks very different. His beautiful home takes a different turn as well.

With the introduction of Russell, also came the introduction of werewolves. In real life, Denis loves wolves. He reveals that the wolves are very skiddish; they’re not dangerous, but they are high strung. He did get to meet them between scenes and he admits they’re freaky; they aren’t dogs, but smart wild animals. Because actual wolves are so sensitive, True Blood worked with hybrid wolves: half dog/half wolf. Wolves can be trained, but they don’t need humans like dogs do. Denis sees them as smart and incredible animals.

Denis has spent his time on True Blood around wolves and horses. His first scene on True Blood was on horse back. The time he spent with the animals was something he enjoyed very much.

He may have had fun with the wolves and the horses, but what about the fangs? Everyone has a different experience with their fangs. For Denis,

“I would say that I wasn’t a genius and I wasn’t a failure. Everyone wants to be the person where everyone goes, “Wow, you’re so good!” People were like, “Yeah, you’re going to have to come in and do some ADR and looping on your S-es.” They’re not impossible, but you want clarity. When you’re acting, I don’t think about how I’m going to talk. I want to just think about what I’m doing, so inevitably words get blurred, here and there.

If an audience doesn’t understand a word, it’s not good. They have to understand every single word. You don’t want the audience straining. So, you do a lot of fang work to clear up the dialogue. Of course, we have to say things like Sookie Stackhouse. That’s hard to say anyway, let alone with the fangs in your mouth. They also can hurt. They can pierce your lip. They’re very, very, very sharp, so you have to be very careful about it.”

There are a lot of fangs being used right now. The vampire genre has always been popular, but it seems to be in overdrive. For Denis, who is 48, vampires have been interesting to him since he was 6. Being born in 1962, Denis has experienced a few vampire obsessions. He experienced Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella on Broadway in Dracula, Anne Rice’s vampires and now Charlaine’s vampires that revolve around synthetic blood and human-vampire interactions.

Being a part of the vampire craze has pushed Denis into the spotlight a lot more than he’s used to. He’s been acting for a long time and he’s cherished his anonymity. He was only recognized once a week or so; however, at Comic Con 2010, he was recognized more than he’d ever been as an actor. He says he’s lucky because he isn’t Stephen Moyer or Alexander Skarsgard; he can continue to live a normal life.

Denis definitely agrees that True Blood is the adult alternative when it comes to the vampire craze. He did see Twilight and saw it as the passionate and chaste vampire story, which True Blood is not.

It seems that everyone on True Blood has been nude or is getting a nude scene. There is no sexism when it comes to the nudity. There’s been a lot of male nudity in Season 3 and so much more as the season progresses. Even Russell gets half nude.

Fans may hate Russell, but Denis doesn’t. In his eyes, he can’t judge Russell. Every character views the world in his own way and thinks that they are seeing it correctly–that is, the way they view the world is the right way to view it. Russell has valid reasons for everything he does. His ancient morality, and his principles may collide with others. Russell views himself not as a cruel being but as a guardian of older values.

With a character like Russell, an actor runs the risk of going over the top. However, Denis thinks that one can go over the top as long as it’s grounded in real emotion. People in real life have over the top emotions when reacting to big events. For him it’s a fun challenge.

There are a lot of challenges Denis faces when portraying Russell. He loves playing such a powerful vampire, but he’s also blind to certain things. There are limitations to his power; the challenge was to try and find out those limitations. He isn’t a mind reader and people can fool him. He sleeps during the day and his security isn’t the smartest wolves in the pack. He’s powerful, but not all powerful.

What helps is the other actors. Being the new guy on the set doesn’t mean being shunned. Everyone is considered an equal. The True Blood cast is generous and loving. The cast is very serious working and don’t fool around to fool around. When they do have fun and goof off, it’s because they deserve it.

An actor Denis has worked very closely with on the show is Theo Alexander, who plays the king’s husband Talbot. Both actors met before they started shooting on set to create the history between Russell and Talbot. They became comfortable with one another; moreover, they had to have complete authority over one another. They had to be able to portray a 700 years old relationship. Both Denis and Theo put in the time to really form a bond and on screen it’s apparent.

While True Blood is on hiatus, “Eagle of the Ninth” will be coming out. Denis worked with director Kevin MacDonald on the historical movie. Based on an English novel, a young man sets out to figure out his father’s role in the disappearance of the 9th legion of the Roman legion in 140 A.D. Joining him in the film are Channing Tatum and  Donald Sutherland.

Denis is a history buff; the movie allows him to play a Roman soldier, who kills people and is in the midst of battle. He loves experiencing things, he’s never done before. In the movie he takes on a mentors role for Tatum, rides a horse, sword fights, and does it all in beautiful Budapest.

It’s important for Denis to find roles that allow him new and different experiences. He doesn’t want to be type-cast. He wants to shake up and surprise, not only the audience, but himself as well. However, that doesn’t mean Denis has ended his exploration of Russell; it seems that Season 3 leaves Russell‘s storyline open for him to return.


(Photo Credit: HBO Inc.)