In praise of True Blood's Denis O'Hare.

Obsessive analysis of True Blood.
July 19 2010 2:53 PM

How To Act Like A 3,000-Year-Old Man

In praise of Denis O'Hare.

Denis O'Hare doesn't chew the scenery. He gnaws on it, appears to lose interest, then opens his eyes wide and takes a ferocious bite before spitting with a blasé sigh. No one on television right now is having more fun. His gleeful portrait of Russell Edgington makes it clear that it's good to be the King, but better to be the vampire King: He has an army of rabid werewolves, a fawning consort, and when he feasts on a young stripper— streaks of blood staining his chin—he doesn't even bother to clean up for a business meeting. The boss can do what he likes.

Immortality is not just tough on weary vampires. It also presents a particular challenge for actors. Experience and observation can help you understand how an 80-year-old man thinks, but how do you play an ancient whose body is mere decades old? In an interview last month with the New York Post, O'Hare explained that he researched his role like any other, starting, in this case, by reading up on Charlemagne to get a sense of what it would be like to grow up 2,200 years ago. When he was told that Russell was actually more like 3,000, he boned up on another eight centuries. If his study of the ancient Druids informs his performance, I confess that I missed it. But the care this veteran actor takes does pay off.

Alexander Skarsgard's Eric wears a tired expression, but he never seems like he came of age before the 1980s—let alone the ninth century. O'Hare, on the other hand, is better at convincing you that he has been around for a long time. When he calls a werewolf an "imbecile," he does so with the exasperation of someone who has seen it all before. O'Hare further gets across that the tedium of immortality motivates Russell's constant maneuvering. Sure, Russell's manipulation has a political purpose—he wants to topple the vampire Queen of Louisiana—but you get the sense that he also just wants to entertain himself. Of course, Russell's usual boredom makes his rare moments of excitement even sweeter.

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His capacity for delight comes through beautifully in the big bombshell at the end of the lackluster new episode, named "Trouble," when Sookie Stackhouse throws a werewolf working for Russell across the room with a flick of her glowing hand. The revelation that along with being able to read minds, she has supernatural strength hints that she is less of an ordinary waitress than we thought, and might explain why she is catnip to every vampire, werewolf, and shape-shifter around. O'Hare looks positively tickled by this setback. "Fan … tastic," he exclaims, losing himself in laughter. It's not a devilish chuckle or the cackle of a powerful villain. It's the joy of an old man remembering the fun of being surprised.

This episode could have used more such pleasures. Sam and his family bicker some more, inching this subplot slowly forward. The werewolves continue to be a fairly docile group, with the introduction of a balding pack leader who appears to shop at Urban Outfitters. And the filling out of Eric's back story—his parents were killed, by werewolves led by a man in shadow (who is most likely Russell)—was predictable. As soon as the writers started softening Eric into a likable character, it was only a matter of time before we learned of a death in the family. It makes him just sympathetic enough to compete with his rival, Bill, for audience affection. Bill buried his son and was forced to abandon his wife after returning home from the Civil War a vampire. Eric, a Norse warrior from the Middle Ages, interrupted sex with a buxom Viking redhead to try to save his doomed mother and father. As True Blood tragedies go, this one is too close to call.

The meager violence was by the book—a kick in the groin?—and there was more love than lust, never a good sign. Lafayette swooning for his mother's nurse had its charms, and surely falling in love with a man named Jesus is a setup for disaster. But the scene between Jason Stackhouse and the mysterious blonde Crystal was so drearily earnest that I was begging for it to be a dream. No such luck.

Franklin luckily expressed a more perverse brand of love—revealing his intense fatal attraction for Tara while she was tied to a bed in Russell's house. As an ominous English scamp, James Frain vamps almost as gleefully as O'Hare, but the role is much thinner. His abrupt shift from cool, calculating operator to impulsive maniac besotted with Tara comes off as a cheap way to wring laughs. Still, you had to love his response to the criticism that he slaughtered a church group of elderly women playing the slots in Biloxi, Miss. "They wouldn't let me have a turn," he explains.

The horror-humor balance came down heavily on the latter, especially in the episode's most prominent theme: how humans delude themselves into wanting a normal life. Jason Stackhouse's flirtation with an honest job as a policeman lasts a few hours, at most, before he despairs: "It's sucking the life out of me." Gainful employment, however, doesn't sound as bad as domestic bliss, at least as described by Terry Bellefleur. Sniffling at the prospect of finally doing what "normal people do," he describes it this way: "They fall in love. They make each other laugh. They move into together. They raise kids. They fight over money. They get old and fat together."

Vampires live forever. Humans only seem like they do.

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Jason Zinoman writes about theater for the New York Times. He is the author of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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