Becoming Elizabeth Taylor: How Denis O’Hare Crafted His Best ‘American Horror Story’ Role Yet

On American Horror Story, Denis O’Hare has played a pyromaniac, a tongue-less mute, and a collector with a massive penis. But Elizabeth Taylor might be his greatest role yet.

When Lady Gaga is starring in her first-ever major acting role, it’s no small feat that a different diva’s name is being evoked just as—if not more—often. But that’s what happens when you cast Denis O’Hare to play Elizabeth Taylor.

O’Hare is no stranger to unusual roles. They’ve been par for the course in the acting playground—or maybe more accurately described as carnival playhouse—that Ryan Murphy has erected and made open for business for the last five years to Hollywood’s most exciting actors, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and, a journeyman character like O’Hare included.

Thus far on American Horror Story, he’s played a possessed pyromaniac, a tongue-less butler, and a closeted collector of circus freaks with a gigantic penis. So to call a mysterious hotel employee who lives his life inspired by the glamour and beauty of Elizabeth Taylor—to the point of dressing like her, changing his name, and identifying as her—his most unusual, and maybe best, American Horror Story role yet is really saying something.

On the show, Liz Taylor is sort of a Horror Story Jill-of-all-trades. (She can do everything Jack does, but in heels, darling.)

She mans the front desk. She tends bar. She reads Proust and talks the hotel guests through their blood-soaked laundry list of angsty, supernatural problems. And, perhaps more excitedly, she glides and careens through Hotel Cortez with the confident fabulousness necessary if a girl is going to work a lobby next to Lady Gaga—not to mention live up to the name Liz Taylor.

With Liz’s sly meddlings in the drama of Hotel Cortez promising to come to a boil in Wednesday’s episode, we chatted with O’Hare about what is certainly one of the most unusual casting calls he’s gotten, what makes his Liz Taylor tick, working with Gaga, and his very first American Horror Story sex scene.

What did Ryan Murphy tell you about Liz Taylor?

He never tells us much. Mostly it’s a visual sense that he has. So for Liz he sent me an email saying, “Shaved head. Cleopatra eyes. Full lips. Gorgeous, exclamation point!” And that kind of was it until I got on set. He was directing the pilot episode luckily, so of course I cornered him and asked for more. I also got there early and wanted to do a costume fitting just to get a sense of what he was thinking. I also wanted to do a makeup test, and I taped a little film to send to Ryan. He sent it to all the writers and it became a nice sort of unofficial camera test, of me trying on a character.

What was your reaction when you heard what the character would be? It’s not a typical offer that an actor might get, and I imagine there might be some surprise, or maybe even fear.

I was definitely nervous. It’s not in my wheelhouse. It also wasn’t anything that I had envisioned for myself. It was not what I expected. So I was really thrown for a loop. I definitely spent some time just thinking about it and contemplating it. I would never say no, because a) it’s Ryan and I love working for him and b) I love a challenge. So whatever is given to you, you should do. The old rule of thumb for an actor was if it makes you scared you should do it.

When you have a character like this, how do you play her so that she is more than just a sight gag or a cartoon-y gimmick. How do you make her human and not a caricature, when I’m sure the temptation is there for the latter?

That’s how I approach every character, no matter who they are. You as an actor have to be on their side, be their advocate. You never judge them. Characters are always right. They’re always correct. They can never think of themselves as not being correct. With someone like Liz, things I need to know are the basic things. What does she want? Where is she going? What is she afraid of? It’s funny because I don’t really work from the outside in. I always work from the inside out. Put me in heels and a dress and it’s going to affect the way I walk. But I don’t spend a lot of time trying to come up with a walk that seems fun or appropriate. I let the character tell me who she is.

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When did it click for you?

One thing I was very opinionated about and that I was very happy that the writers and Ryan liked, was that I said early on that she’s not shallow, she’s not stupid, she’s not vain, she’s not mean. She is intelligent. When she’s sitting at the front desk I don’t want her reading magazines. She’s reading James Joyce and Proust in French and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I want her reading intellectual stuff because I think she’s a fierce person, intellectually as well as style-wise, fashion-wise. And they loved that idea. So I love that one of the first shots you see of her she’s reading James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Let’s talk about that style. You’ve been working with this troupe of Horror Story actors for years now. What did they think?

I always make sure that when I’m shooting I show up in costume. I don’t want to walk on set in my street clothes, especially with a character like this. Everyone was overwhelmed when I first walked out. I remember I did a scene with Sarah Paulson and she was like, “Oh. My. God.” And the first time I met Stefani, Lady Gaga, I had to be in costume. I had to be in full makeup. I had to be in heels. I was not going to meet her without being in full wardrobe.

What did you think when you first saw yourself in costume?

In terms of putting the stuff on, costume fittings are great. Lou Eyrich, who is a phenomenal costumer, she takes time to find it. We take time to find it. We try a lot of stuff. I think I was pushing more towards tight clothing because [laughs] I lost some weight and was working out and was like, “I want to show off these legs!” She was pushing more towards flowy. I was like, “OK, it can be flowy, but it has to be transparent flowy. It can’t be opaque and flowy.” I will say that once I start putting on women’s clothes I get very vain. I’m like, “Does my butt look good in this? What is this doing for my line?”

I love the fact that you met Lady Gaga dressed as Liz Taylor.

Oh, completely. I had to be. She loves it. She was like, “Oh my god. You look major. Live!

We’ve seen a little bit of Liz Taylor so far. I know a lot of people when they watch you, maybe because of these American Horror Story seasons or True Blood, they might expect more villainous shades from characters you play. Is Liz a villain? We don’t really know much about whether she’s “good” or “bad” yet.

You know I would say she’s definitely on the good side. I would temper that by saying that everyone in American Horror Story, especially in Hotel, is just looking to survive. Everyone is just looking to wake up the next morning intact. So she’s in survival mode, but she’s also fiercely loyal. She has a very strong moral code. She’s an ethical person. And she’s a romantic! What she’s ultimately looking for is to live a fulfilling life. And halfway through the season she finds love, which is a first for me on this series. And that’s really amazing.

Do you have one of those infamous American Horror Story sex scenes?

I definitely have a sex scene. I do!

Does it rival that premiere orgy with Lady Gaga and Matt Bomer.

Let me just say this. I’m 53. I’m in really good shape, but I’m 53. So honestly how much skin do we really want to see from me? Luckily my scene partner is younger than that, and very, very attractive. So everyone will be happy.

I wanted to ask you what it’s been like working with Lady Gaga. By all reports so far, she’s been a wonderful team player. But I’m more curious what the energy is like when someone of her stature, with so much preceding her, arrives.

I have to say that she has definitely been an ensemble player. It doesn’t feel like any special thing around her. She doesn’t demand special treatment, nor does she get it. She’s a player among players, and it’s great. It’s good for her. It’s good for us. It’s a really comfortable set. At the same time, it’s a very demanding set. When you come to work you really have to bring your A game. It’s a really ferocious bunch of people. We all come in way off-book. We all come in with a lot of ideas. We come in ready to throw down on the first take. And she knows that, and she comes in at that level of preparation. She’s just next to us. There’s no special chair. There’s no special treatment. She’s incredibly comfortable and down to earth.

You’ve done several of these American Horror Story seasons. Does this one feel different at all?

It’s been gelling, gelling, gelling for all the seasons. But this one feels kind of special. None of us can put our fingers on it, but it feels like it went “boom!” and it all came together in this ferocious way. We completely trust each other. You go where you have to go. People do crazy shit on takes. Beautiful work. We all watch each other. The camera guys! I did a take and one of the camera guys looked at me and gave me a thumbs up and made a heartbeat. Everyone’s involved. It’s not just us. It’s the camera guys. It’s the gaffers. It’s the sound guys. I don’t know how many of them have walked up to me after a shoot and said, “Dude. This show is so crazy, but after you work on this thing how do you go back to CSI?”

Ha! That’s a great point.

I just want to make another point just because it’s a serious point. Earlier on in the season when I was talking about this character I called her a drag queen. I now know that’s not correct. And I didn’t know until we started shooting what we were thinking. The writers might have known, but they’ve also evolved. What we now know is that Liz Taylor thinks of herself as a woman. She is someone who is gender fluid and she’s someone who she knows what she is. I’m not sure the outside world would know how to label her, but she knows what she is, and she’s definitely on a journey.