Behind the Scenes of ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ with Denis O’Hare

Denis O'Hare Interview on American Horror Story Freak Show
Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars and Denis O’Hare as Stanley in ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ (Photo by Michele K. Short / FX)

Scene-stealer Denis O’Hare’s character Stanley in FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show is disturbing, charming, and above all in it for himself. This is O’Hare’s third season on the horror anthology series created by Ryan Murphy and, hopefully, he’ll be back next year tackling another bizarre role. And in our conference call in support of Freak Show which airs on Wednesdays at 10pm ET/PT, O’Hare talked about being involved in this strange and fascinating world of AHS and offered up an analysis of his characters thus far.

Denis O’Hare American Horror Story: Freak Show Interview

Will you be coming back for the next season of American Horror Story? If so, are you hoping to play maybe a somewhat normal character for a change, or would you hope Ryan Murphy pushes the envelope even farther and gets more outrageous and disturbing?

Denis O’Hare: “While watching last week’s episode while I was standing in the road basically doing obscene things to Michael Chiklis I thought, ‘Can we push the envelope further? How much envelope is left? ‘ But we never know what’s going to happen. It’s Ryan’s world and we just wait for word.

He would love for me to be in next season, but that’s an informal invitation. When I joined last year I signed a two year contract, so the idea is that I would come back for this year. But until he comes up with the idea and until he finds parts for us, we really have to wait. Last year I got a call, I think about mid-January, where he offered me Stanley, so this year if it all follows the same pattern I should be hearing from him sometime in January or February.

In terms of what I want to play again, I trust him. He’s got really good taste when it comes to fitting us to our roles. I feel really happy with what I’ve been able to do so far. I loved Spalding. I thought he was such an unusual character and a great technical challenge. But I really do love Stanley – and Stanley’s kind of normal. He’s not disfigured in any way, I mean, really. And he’s charming in a way. So, I’ll take another Stanley.”

How this role made you think about the gay community and how it’s changed?

Denis O’Hare: “Yes, definitely. I think what’s so great about Ryan and Brad and the team of writers is that they’re never content to simply write about one thing. They’re always using the occasion to raise awareness or consciousness. And certainly this series this year seems to be about physical abnormalities and what we consider to be a freak, or normal, but there are subtler applications.


And one of the subtler applications, of course, is the way that gay people were thought of and treated. It’s really interesting to see Dell as one expression of that, somebody who’s so deeply closeted that he actually considers hanging himself in the last episode, to someone like Stanley, who just seems to roll with it. It seems to be part of his lifestyle, which is admittedly not a healthy lifestyle; he’s a professional liar, but there is a sense in which he’s a lot more, I guess, at ease with it.

But he’s hiring hustlers to basically fulfill himself, so that’s certainly not healthy. And he doesn’t seem to be in any kind of healthy relationship, so I think it is pretty amazing to have that snapshot of what it was like to be a gay person in the 1950s. I think it’s really cool.”

How do you bring yourself to bring alive these characters onscreen, and how do you bring yourself out of them after you’re done with them?

Denis O’Hare: “It’s funny, on any given day we’re shooting, and the days can be fairly technical, meaning sometimes we’re doing big, complicated shoots. For instance, we just did a shoot in an upcoming episode, you’ve got that opportunity that involves almost the entire cast and a dinner table and food and wine. It’s just one of those endless days where you don’t really feel like you’re acting. You feel like what you’re doing is sitting in place and minding, literally, your peas on the plate. Did I shift around five, or did I shift around four? So, when you get an occasion to actually full out just act, it’s really a joy and we do get a lot of those occasions. Mine happened to be a lot with Jessica [Lange], because we tend to have scenes that are just two person scenes and heavy dialogue, and we both just go for it on any given occasion.

But in terms of exploring the characters, there was a scene we did, as I said, I referenced it already, with Michael Chiklis, where I’m on the road with him and sort of seducing/abusing him. And the way that I’ve done that scene that was simply just Stanley being kind of sinister, evil, and I decided to go somewhere different, to make him incredibly vulnerable. They didn’t use the take where I was most vulnerable, in which I was just about weeping, but there’s a case in which he’s revealing himself as much as he’s doing something to Michael Chiklis’ character.

I love exploring those other aspects of characters, and we’re given a lot of latitude to do that. But you also have to challenge yourself. You can, at any given point, decide how deep you want to go into a certain take, and I, and most of the cast, we tend to go for the darkest possible reading, or the most challenging reading. That doesn’t mean they always use it. But there’s an upcoming scene, and Michael Goi, our cinematographer, directed, and in the scene I’m with Jimmy, I think I can say that. It’s an incredibly weird scene because of what the subject matter is, and the way in which we play it is incredibly, I think, kind of heartbreaking. It’s one of those great things that happens in American Horror Story, mixed in with the horror and sometimes even the camp, are moments of real bathos and real tragedy. And I think that’s what keeps me coming back, at least.”

How much would you say you are like Stanley, and how much are definitely not like Stanley?

Denis O’Hare: “You know what? I’m not very much like Stanley. I have to say, I hate to admit it, but I’m a rather conventional person. I’m afraid of breaking the law. I do have a huge rebellious streak in me, which is manifested by a kind of really immature anti-authoritarianism; it’s very hard to obey rules. It’s a contradiction. I tend to be afraid of breaking rules, but I’m also somebody who likes to break rules. But I’m not a liar, and I’m not a cheat. And Stanley is a liar and a cheat. What I love about him is that he’s ultimately an optimistic person. He believes in the fact that in any given day he can make things better, and I do share that with him. I tend to be an optimist. I tend to believe that every day’s a new day, and today I’m going to get things right. And today I’m going to actually be able to make a difference.

And Stanley does the same thing. He’s looking to better his own personal world, and he’s very sunny in that way. He represents a strange strain of American optimism that sort of gets married to that can-do spirit, and that American entrepreneurial spirit, and he’s all of those things wrapped into one. I share a little bit of that, but I don’t share the more twisted aspects, I think.

As an actor it’s always our job to advocate for our characters, and there’s a lot I can advocate for Stanley. Everyone keeps yelling at me for killing Ma Petite, and I’m like, ‘I didn’t touch her. I didn’t kill her!’ ‘Yes, but you encouraged Dell.’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t tell him specifically to kill Ma Petite.’ So, I don’t understand. I am misunderstood.”

For each of these characters in American Horror Story are you given much of a back story, or is it something that you have to come up with and create?

Denis O’Hare: “Oh wow! No, we’re given almost nothing, really. It’s really crazy. I think part of Ryan’s brilliance is his trust in who he hires, and I think he hires us because he knows we’re all creative, inventive people and game.

When I first got this part there was a notion that he might be based on Tod Browning, and so I ran around and got all of his movies and we watched Freaks and we watched some Dracula movies, and I got a great biography called Dark Carnival, and absorbed that. Then as we got closer to shooting I realized that that wasn’t going to happen, because the time frame was wrong. We had to change the time frame.

But what I took away from that was the idea that I think all con men, all grifters, all hustlers, have dabbled in many things, and so I made up the story that he was a vaudevillian, that Stanley, somewhere in his background was a song and dance man. So, I tried to always have him a little bit light on his feet, a little bit whistling and singing, and having music always in his fingers and his head, and that really informed something about the character for me.

In the service of back story at one point I was told that Maggie and I were probably going to be father and daughter, and then that sort of shifted to no, they sometimes pretend to be father and daughter, and then that shifted to be no, they’re just equals. So, we never quite know what’s happening.

I did know that I wanted a mustache. I feel very strongly about that. And I remember I came in when Ryan was shooting and I was on set for approval, and my one conversation with him after we had first talked, I came in and he didn’t like the mustache I first had, it was too fat, and he wanted something more Errol Flynn-like, and so we did two more versions. And it was mine, by the way, that I grew, we were trimming my own mustache. And he finally liked one. Before I left I said, ‘So, I think Stanley’s a whistler.’ And Ryan said, ‘Whistle away.’ That was our last note and I took it from there.”

If you were to return next season, is there any type of theme or type of character that you would like to explore?

Denis O’Hare: “You know, I’ve been racking my brains about this and thank God it’s not in my hands, because I feel like they’ve covered so much territory so well. They really have touched on ghosts pretty extensively in Murder House; I felt that was a lot about ghosts. Asylum, obviously was brilliant, and Asylum had the alien abduction theme, which if anything I’m going to say I would expand upon that – a body snatcher type thing, or something to do with aliens among us, or transformation. That feels like it’s right. But they did, as I say, touch upon that a little bit. Coven, obviously covered all of witches. And Freak Show is a brilliant idea that covers the grotesqueries of life. So, outside of satanic cults and torture porn, I’m not quite sure what’s left. As I say, I’m glad it’s up to them, because I guess my mind doesn’t work this way well enough. But I’m excited and anxious to see what they’re going to come up with, and I will say yes to whatever I’m told to do.”

Every season your characters have always had some sort of physical abnormality. This season it’s not necessarily a “deformity,” but it’s something. Why do you think that Ryan likes to do that to you?

Denis O’Hare: “It’s funny, there are a lot of resonances or uber themes that come back from season to season. Kathy Bates lost her head in two seasons, which I think is pretty funny, this season and then last season. There was a weird thing between Jessica and I, we always were in some sort of symbiotic relationship, never healthy. In year one I was her lover but being used by her. And in year three I was her servant/wanna be lover. This year I’m definitely not a romantic interest in her, but I’m in an unhealthy symbiotic partnership of sorts. But I love the fact that he creates these large uber themes.

As far as making me be deformed, he likes me this year. I didn’t have to sit in the makeup chair very long. I think the first year it was three and a half hours. Last year it was only about an hour and a half. And this year it was really easy. I got some mustache grooming, and I got some bad Florida age spots put on my face, and then I got my lovely toupee on and that was it. I love, by the way, makeup. I really am a fan of transformative makeup. I feel like it goes halfway to getting you to the character, so I’m always happy about it. We’ll see what happens next year.”

Speaking of this year’s deformity, it’s one that 99% of men wouldn’t mind having. Would you say that he dispels the rumor that size doesn’t matter?

Denis O’Hare: “Ryan and I have chatted about this a little bit and we’ve talked about the limits of what one can show on FX, a different cable maybe, HBO, watch out. But in a way I love the fact that we actually don’t get to lay our hands on Mr. Snake, or whatever we call him, because it’s great in an old-fashioned way to see everybody else’s reaction to it, and I’ve actually wondered, ‘What’s down there? What is that? Is it double-headed? Is it like—does it explode? What is it?’

And I think there’s a size issue. I think there’s also an angry issue, as he said last week. I don’t think it’s really attractive. Actually, if people were to look at it and were given the chance they wouldn’t go, ‘Oh sure, I’ll take that.’ ‘Oh, wait a minute I’m not sure where I’d find a willing partner for that.’ But I think it’s a great play on a joke amongst men. Size does matter to them. Please, nothing is too big. And I think it’s hilarious that Ryan’s playing it as a joke that well, I guess there is an outer limit.”

What you think is the one thing that your AHS characters all have in common?

Denis O’Hare: “That’s interesting. I do feel like all the characters are always yearning for something. I love finding out new characters. And these, it seems obvious to me that they’re all yearning for some way of transcending their life into something bigger. It was most obvious I think in the case of Larry, who was, in a way, wanting to escape the hell that he was bound in by his actions and by the consequences of his actions, his wife and kids being burned up in a fire. And what Larry wanted was release.

I felt like Spalding was in many ways the same way. I joked with Ryan, I said, ‘I think Spalding’s ultimate dream is to become a doll,’ this is before we got to the end, and I thought wouldn’t it be cool if at the end we saw Spalding on the shelves and he finally had achieved his dream.

For Stanley, oddly enough, we have those glimpses of him at the morbidity museum while they’re doing a toast, and he’s sort of assuming he’s going to be fêted, he’s going to be the one who is called out for recognition. And what Stanley wants is to be respected. He wants to be accepted into larger culture. I think that has to do with a lot of the characters I’ve played, is they’re yearning for some sort of transcendence. They want to arrive somewhere, a place of peace, or a place of recognition. And I think it’s really cool.”

What’s the major difference between all of them?

Denis O’Hare: “Well, they all have very different personalities that I still love. I especially love Spalding because he’s the most unlike me in terms of metabolism. Larry is probably the closest to my personality, scarily enough. I thought Larry actually was the sweetest of them all, in a strange way. He was actually a sweetheart. He was a guy who was just sort of buffeted around by the world, and he reduced himself to this cartoon.

Spalding is actually not that sweet. Spalding, there’s a lot going on beyond that head that was not admirable. That being said, I do believe that he had an interesting serenity, and that was very different than Larry’s frenetic energy.

Stanley’s the most confident. He’s the most on top of his game. He’s the most aggressive, shooting forward in a way, which I really love. He really is the instigator. He’s sort of the engine in many ways, the engine of the season, because what he’s doing is setting everything into motion, his attempts to co-opt, murder, corral, and change, and weaving this spell around different people, is the billiard ball that scatters the other balls. And I think it’s a fantastic energy to have. I guess that’s what I would say.”

Ryan Murphy said all of the seasons of American Horror Story are connected somehow. Did that surprise you?

Denis O’Hare: “It didn’t surprise me, because he’s an awfully clever guy. I know that they put a lot of thinking into the resonances, as I said. The biggest, obvious resonance this year was Pepper being in both Asylum and in our season. But there are actually two other ones coming up that are very, very strong resonances which are fascinating, I think.

As far as what he will do for the fifth season, now that he knows that that’s his game plan I think it makes it a little easier in terms of figuring out who the characters are and what the setting is. The biggest challenge, of course, is the setting. That dictates some of this. If you set it too far in the past you actually make it difficult to make connections. This Asylum and Freak Show being so close together, only 10 years or so, made that a lot easier. I’m just as excited as you are to see what he’ll do.”

Since American Horror Story is so into fear, is there a fear that you haven’t seen explored that you would like to see explored?

Denis O’Hare: “What I think is so brilliant about what Ryan first said when he set upon this course is that they were going to explore the different genres of horror, and I love that notion of that there are different kinds of horror. […]There are different kinds of fear. I don’t feel like we’ve really…well we did claustrophobia because Kathy Bates was buried alive last year. But I don’t feel like we’ve really, really explored the idea of things closing in on people. That’s a real big fear.

I think it’s really hard to do agoraphobia, fear of open spaces. That’s kind of a hard one. But we haven’t explored animal fears, like fears of dogs and fears of spiders, and icky things like that. We had snakes, but really, really icky insects we haven’t really explored that a whole lot.

And as I said about the alien thing, we haven’t really explored the whole fear of extraterrestrial monsters. And if you think about all of the movies in the ’50s where part of the thing was whether it was Godzilla or some sort of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, actual creatures who are actually fearful, the minotaur from Coven certainly comes to mind, but that was more to do with witchcraft than to do with the actual monster itself. I guess monsters would be an interesting fear to explore.”

How much of American Horror Story, the dynamic, is set by the cast as much as the story? Losing people or gaining people is part of what makes American Horror Story so great, and even though it’s an anthology we do get to see many of the same cast members over and over again in different characters.

Denis O’Hare: “Yes, I think the cast is a really big element. As I said before, I think Ryan’s got really good taste in people. I think bringing more people like Danny Huston, who is such a great actor, and I mean, come on getting Patti LaBelle to show up is an amazing idea, as well as Adam Levine in season 2. And so I think that the cast brings a certain energy, but it’s the recurring cast, people who return, who I think really make this thing solid.

Seeing Franny Conroy every year, such a splendid actor, and Franny brings an incredible intelligence to everything she does. She’s not just going to walk in and say the lines. She’s going to debate you about is this appropriate, debate you about the storyline, in a very good way, and then she’s going to bring all of her ferocity and devotion to that.

I felt like finding…I know Finn Wittrock this year was quite a discovery, and it would be great to have him back. It was great to see Gaby Sidibe come back again. Year after year that sort of familiarity, we have a familiarity with how Ryan works, we have a familiarity with what to expect, and so we are able to bring our A game. It’s a demanding set and it’s a really crazy world we have to descend into.

I love Michael Chiklis’ reactions when he first started filming this year. He was like, ‘Oh, wow, what have I gotten myself into?’ We were filming this scene on a road which we just filmed last week, the one I keep referring to, and after one take he just looked at me and shook his head, and went, ‘Dude, that was sick.'”

-By Rebecca Murray

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