Denis O’Hare: I’m Moving Out of Trump’s America to Find Serenity

Also: Mike Birbiglia gives birth and "Smokey Joe’s Café" is big and beautiful.

Denis O’Hare is moving to Paris. The noted actor won the Tony award for Take Me Out (2004), soared as William van Henderson in American Horror Story, and has appeared in three Oscar Best Picture nominees. (Michael Clayton, Milk, and Dallas Buyers Club). More recently, he wrote and starred (with Cynthia Nixon and others) in The Parting Glass, a film drama about his family’s attempts to cope with his sister’s death. He’s also in the upcoming Lizzie, playing the contentious uncle of the lesbian Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny).

But there’s been a big shakeup in Denis’s personal life that eclipses everything right now. He, his husband Hugo Redmond, and their son Declan are taking off, unable to stand the withering effects of Trump’s presidency. I talked to Denis about this dramatic situation, and he had fascinating things to say about his plight—and his flight.

Hi, Denis. First, let me get some background. So, you married Hugo in 2011?

Yes, four days after it became legal. I would have done it immediately, but they make you wait a day for a cooling off period, just in case you don’t know what you’re doing. We’d already been together for 11 years. We knew what we were doing.

Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/Getty
Denis O’Hare and husband Hugo Redmond.

When did you adopt your son, Declan?

It was a long process because he was a foster care child. It didn’t get done since 2014 when he was three.

And you’re all moving to Paris in a couple of weeks?

Yes. In theory, we’d only talked about living abroad, and then we had our son and talked about living abroad with him at some point, but it may not have happened if it hadn’t been for the election. Because of November 8, 2016, we spent a sleepless night. We literally could not sleep. We got up tired, and Hugo turned to me and said, “We’ve got to get out of here.” I said, “Yeah, no, I hear you.” He said, “No, I’m serious.” I said, “OK, wow. Give me a moment.” And we started the process. We had to sell our apartment—figure out what needed to be fixed, getting it ready. We started the process in May 2017 and sold it in September 2017. It was too late to take our kid out of school, so we said, “Let’s wait one more year.” Nothing has happened since then that has made us feel like we’re making the wrong decision. Every single day has made us feel we’re doing the right thing.

You had mentioned to me at a Cynthia Nixon campaign benefit that if you stay in America, you’re afraid your son could be shot by police.

Hugo is Jamaican. My son is African American or black. In America, that’s a really interesting position for any human being to be in… Every parent who has a child of color [has] watch out for the police. Unless something radically changes, the police are going to look at you and judge you without knowing you. You’re going to have an experience. Depending on how that encounter goes down, my son could get shot. As I joke to Hugo, “Let him wear bowties and spectacles his whole life.” He said, “That doesn’t matter in the dark.”

And the guns are out of hand in this country.

I believe in the full repeal of the second amendment. It doesn’t pertain to our culture. It was written in a different context, when people had to cluster in the town square to become an army. Between the police and nut-job racists, I want to save my son.

Tibrina Hobson/Getty
Denis O’Hare and his family.

But France is where they have the most terrorist attacks. Is it ironic that you’re moving there?

I think that’s a mistaken conclusion to draw, given how many people died on 9/11. And if you just call it domestic terrorism every time there’s a gun attack, America dwarfs everyone else.

That’s true. I’m sure Trump’s attitudes towards LGBTs has factored into your decision to leave as well.

Yes. I’m sure you feel the same way. When he first got elected, I figured he was lying about how he loves gay people. “Gays, gays, gays… The gays love me.” I figured he’s a New Yorker and I figured he pretends to be sophisticated and not homophobic. But it doesn’t matter what he believes because he has no core belief system, and what he’s doing is frightening. He’s rolling back LGBT rights.

He did an interview where he implied that you can fire gay people. He said blatantly, and Jeff Sessions backed him up, that no, gay people aren’t protected. Even if he’s wrong, how many people are going to suffer by being fired and then suing to get their jobs back? Edie Windsor was an amazing person for going through that process. She sued to get her partner’s social security [and other] benefits. It became one of the bedrocks of LGBT rights.

But now, gay marriage, if not completely reversed, can become completely meaningless due to religious exemptions. You don’t have to fulfill your governmental or societal obligations. Kim Davis’s refusal to marry gays—what if that extends to many different parts of society? It sends a message to the population at large that it’s okay to discriminate against gay people. Meanwhile, a woman [helped by a group of men] just beat this old Mexican man with a brick and told him to go back to Mexico, and this kind of thing is sanctioned from above. Immigrants are scum, gay people are, too.

And the bible is used to bludgeon people.

I know the bible better than them and I could win every argument, but that doesn’t matter. On the radio, John Fugelsang won every single point when he talked to a Christian woman, but he didn’t change her mind. So what’s gained by that?

You’re doing a play about the bible.

It’s called The Good Book. Lisa Peterson and I wrote it. It was produced in Chicago and now Berkeley Rep will do it in April. I’m not in it. I want to be a playwright. We wrote it for Blair Brown. We love her. She did workshops and I hope she’ll do it. It’s looking at the way the bible was written, where it came from, the entire sweep of history, but it’s framed around two people—an atheist biblical scholar named Miriam, who was in a car accident and is dying and reviewing her life, and a 14-year-old gay boy growing up in Michigan who wants to be a priest, but is grappling with the fact that the bible doesn’t want him. Their lives are intertwined. In one scene, Miriam tears the bible apart word by word. “There is no Adam and Eve, didn’t happen…”
 

But she’s a biblical scholar.

An atheist biblical scholar.

Ah. As for your acting work, will you be doing a lot of flying?

Yes. When I told my agent I was moving to Paris, his first reaction was, “Oy.” I love him, he’s great. One of our gambits was to lie and not say I’m moving, but I don’t want to do that. This is a political point as well as a personal point. I’ve already interviewed in London with casting directors and said, “I’m a neighbor here now. I’d love to work here more.” I speak fluent French. I don’t know what I can do in France, but I’m going to get a French agent. [There are already some offers.]

You have worked continually ever since I met you.

You know how actors are. “I haven’t gotten a job in a week. It’s all over.” [laughs]

So you have an Irish passport?

I’m an Irish citizen. I have been a long time because of my grandfather. It comes in handy when I’ve traveled. Declan—who was adopted in Ireland—is going to get one soon. It means we, as Irish citizens, can work in the European union anywhere. We’re arriving as Irish citizens. We’re considered European. There may be some benefits in terms of health insurance and in terms of living there without getting a visa.

Was there any part of you that said, “We should stick this out and fight it here in the States”?

Absolutely. I’m an activist. I’ve spent a lot of my time marching and tweeting in a vigorous way about the things I believe in. I do believe in motivating and mobilizing people. That said, I have to live my life with a modicum of serenity. I’m 56 and I’ve marched against Reagan, Bush Sr., the Iraq War—the first one, the second one—Dubya, the Women’s March, I was in two of the marches against Trump, and I march against guns every year. When I was in Take Me Out, I made up anti-Dubya bumper stickers and t-shirts and put them all over Times Square. I won’t ever stop marching, I suppose, but I also don’t have to spend my entire life angry. Living in this country, you wake up every day angry. It’s a helpless feeling. Our democracy isn’t functioning properly—the system has been successfully gained by the Republicans and we’ve lost our Supreme Court for the next 20 years, and what do you do about that? You can pass all the laws you want and the Democrats can take over the Congress, but the Supreme Court can reverse everything. Cynthia Nixon [who is running for the Democratic nomination for New York Governor] is one of the bright lights and one of the answers. I’m not a politician, I’m an activist and artist, so I’m going to channel my feelings into writing about things. I’m working on my own issues in a different way.

Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic
From left: Cynthia Nixon, Nathan Lane, and Denis O’Hare.

And you can tweet no matter where you are.

I did say, “Hugo, no more Twitter, right?” He spends half his day tweeting and getting into fights. He picks the worst fights with the most awful right-wing people. “Why?” I tweet, I say what I want to say, and I don’t respond. I don’t get into arguments. All information hits their eyeballs and is delivered. Mission accomplished. I can’t keep their eyeballs peeled open while they stare at it!
 

Smokey Gets in Your Ears

Joan Marcus
From left: Jelani Remy, Shavey Brown, John Edwards, and Dwayne Cooper.

On a much lighter note, please peel your eyeballs open for some theater that makes life in America today more palatable: Things are smoking over at Smokey Joe’s Café, the dialogue-free revue of songs by classic songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which was first on Broadway in 1995. The set by Beowulf Boritt is a perfect recreation of an atmospheric bar (though I could have lived without the various alcoholic product placements). With the band situated onstage, in comes the Joshua Bergasse directed-and-choreographed cast to perform the seminal rock, R&B, and bluesy hit songs from America’s smoldering past.

The spectacular singer Alysha Umphress is on hand to work miracles with “Trouble” and the poignant “Pearl’s A Singer.” (I wish they’d also given her Leiber and Stoller’s existential gem “Is That All There Is?” but it’s not included here.) Nicole Vanessa Ortiz delivers a potent “Hound Dog,” Dionne D. Figgins has style and dances like a charm, and Emma Degerstedt also exudes polished vocals and does a mean shimmy. And the men are terrific too, including Jelani Remy, who performs a vigorous “Jailhouse Rock” and Dwayne Cooper, who scores some impressive low notes. (After a second, you realize he was Milan on RuPaul’s Drag Race!) The whole cast keeps delivering (and there’s even a little drag bit), and though two oversung numbers towards the end threaten to turn this into American Idol, the show recovers and gets the audience standing.

By the way, The New York TimesLaura Collins-Hughes pointed out, in criticizing the costume designer, that one of the cast members is the largest woman on the stage and has been clothed unflatteringly. (Ironically, the actress in question sings “I can make a dress out of a feed bag,” but no one did. She looks amazing.) Collins-Hughes should apologize for body-shaming, but she has adamantly refused to do so. Meanwhile, the same paper’s Ben Brantley did apologize for his review of Head Over Heels after people said what he wrote was transphobic, but I didn’t think it was. Like Brantley said, he was simply reflecting the tone of the show, which is quite giddy. But it was weird when he also carped that the show wasn’t daring enough! A Go-Go’s jukebox musical that uses a 16th Century work to invoke iambic pentameter while also including lesbians, a non-binary character, a drag queen, and a plus-sized woman as a narcissistic knockout (take that, Ms. Collins-Hughes) isn’t daring enough? And he liked Mamma Mia?
 

Birth of a Notion

Rick Kern/WireImage

Mike Birbiglia is the amiable but sharp comic who made his solo theater debut with 2008’s Sleepwalk With Me (also a 2012 movie), followed by Thank God for Jokes and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, plus he wrote and directed the insightful 2016 film about the dynamics of comedy and fame, Don’t Think Twice. An observational everyman, he speaks fairly gently—sometimes in a whisper—and at times smiles and laughs along with the audience, giving the sense of a very accessible guy who happens to be wonderfully out of step with normalcy.

His new one at the Cherry Lane Theatre is aptly called The New One, and it primarily deals with the process whereby he and his wife Jen ended up having a baby daughter, though both had agreed they wouldn’t. (It should be noted that Jen had specified that she might change her mind someday—and she did, to Mike’s utter dismay and resignation.) At the outset of the Seth Barrish–directed show, Birbiglia enters and mikes himself up—to give us total nonchalance—then launches into the seven reasons he was determined not to have a child, most of them involving either complete narcissism, annoyance, or utter unpreparedness.

He also has enough problems, since, as he relates, his sleepwalking habit forces him to go to bed in a sleeping bag and mittens (so he won’t open the bag), and he’s also been diagnosed with Lyme disease and diabetes, plus he has annual cameras sent down his urethra to make sure an old bladder problem hasn’t come back. The last thing he needed was a baby, and though Jen promised to try and not let the child change the way they live, the new development happens to turn their whole world upside down.

This having-a-baby-is-challenging routine is something we’ve heard a million times from comics, especially since it leads to some reluctant joy over the situation, but fortunately, Birbiglia’s wit, timing, and personal approach make the show well worth birthing.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.
@mikeymusto