Article on Telegraph.co.uk by By Chris Harvey
Those with a taste for quality US drama may already have been feasting on the strange pleasures of True Blood, the new series from the Oscar-winning writer of American Beauty and Six Feet Under, Alan Ball. It has been showing here on the FX channel and is soon to arrive on Channel 4. In the States it is HBO’s most watched show since The Sopranos, and audiences are growing, recently topping five million viewers. For the British actor Stephen Moyer, who plays its romantic hero, Bill Compton, a 173-year-old vampire, the series has turned him into a star and, at 39, a late-blooming sex symbol.
Moyer’s vampire is a tragic hero in the Heathcliff mould. The first time he appears on screen he is ordering a bottle of synthetic blood (O-neg, his favourite flavour) in a Louisiana bar. Dark-haired and deathly pale, he exudes a stillness and controlled intensity. His eyes lock with those of waitress Sookie (Anna Paquin), who informs him that they did have some, but no one ordered it, so it went off. ‘You’re our first… vampire,’ she says.
Moyer now boasts legions of female fans in the US, who style themselves ‘Moyer’s Maidens’ and ‘Bill’s Babes’ (you can buy T-shirts on the latter group’s website that bear the legend sired by bill or yield to me!) [http://www.cafepress.com/billsbabe]. Meanwhile, his real-life romance with Paquin, the show’s female lead and his on-screen lover, has made the couple a paparazzi target in LA. When I meet him in August, in a north London cafe close to Hampstead Heath, the contrast with vampire Bill couldn’t be greater. No one appears to recognise him. He orders a double espresso with hot milk and buys us both pains aux raisins. He is wearing work boots, thick socks, combat shorts and a T-shirt with a skull on the back. It’s only 10.30, but he has already driven to the rubbish tip and met up with a mate. ‘I’m only here for 10 days,’ he says. ‘I’m trying to grab the seconds.’
True Blood is based on the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris – ‘a rollicking read,’ Moyer says. They are the source of some distinctive vocabulary – vampire groupies are called ‘fang-bangers’, the vampires’ hypnotising of humans is known as ‘glamouring’. The first novel, Dead Until Dark, was published in 2001, but last month all nine titles in the series appeared simultaneously on the New York Times bestseller list.
The show (a third series has just been commissioned), set in the fictional small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, imagines a world where vampires have ‘come out of the coffin’ for the first time and are struggling to be accepted by mainstream society (despite the campaigning efforts of the American Vampire League). ‘It starts off odd, and gets odder,’ Moyer says. It is very sexy, very violent, very smart and easily transcends the cliche-ridden vampire genre. It can be very funny: angelina adopts vampire baby reads a newspaper headline in the first episode; god hates fangs announces a sign in the title sequence. ‘There are obvious parallels in the storytelling for homosexuality,’ says Moyer – Ball is gay – ‘or for the end of segregation in the 1960s. It’s there if you want to see it.’
In becoming more visible, the vampires are more vulnerable. Their blood – known as ‘V’ – has become a popular illegal drug among humans, mainly due to its effect on the libido, and criminals are killing vampires to supply the trade. ‘It isn’t the vampire, certainly in those first few episodes, who is malevolent, it’s the human characters that have the flaws,’ Moyer says. ‘The town sees Bill as the pariah, but Alan doesn’t set him up that way. Yes, he’s a vampire and, yes, he could tear your throat out, but he’s old-fashioned and romantic, so the sexual tension between Bill and Sookie is something that’s very romantic and courtly. Apart from the biting, their relationship is one of great love.’
He is glad to be in England. ‘I still think of home as here, and the Heath is my place, my quiet place. On Saturday the first thing that we did, me and my boy, was jump in the men’s pond. I loved it.’ Moyer has two children from former relationships who live in England with their mothers: Billy, nine, whose mother is a classroom assistant, and Lilac, seven, from his seven-year relationship with a journalist, Lorien Haynes. He also has a dog that lives in LA. ‘He’s 10, so it didn’t seem fair to bring him back. I do miss him. I went for a walk on the Heath without my dog and it was weird.’ He has a house in nearby Highgate, but grew up in a village near Brentwood in Essex. It shaped his early taste in clothes and music. ‘I was a Mod, a Paul Weller fanatic. We all were.’
A lot of his old friends gravitated towards jobs in the City, but Moyer’s dream was to be a stage actor. ‘I chose to go to drama school, which was an odd choice for somebody from where I was from.’ He appeared in school and local theatre productions, and at 17 set up his own company, the Reject Society, regularly directing as well as acting. He won a place at the London Academy for Music and the Dramatic Arts, got his first professional job, in a production of Oliver! with the National Theatre of Wales, then auditioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company, working there for 18 months, before touring as Romeo with the Oxford Stage Company. Eventually he made the shift to tele-vision, and found himself cast in various sexy roles. ‘Whenever people ask me if it feels weird doing all those sex scenes [in True Blood], well, look at my back catalogue, my little cantaloup arse has been up and down in many, many things before.’
Was there ever a time when he thought, yes, this is it, the big breakthrough? ‘Loads of times, but I never believed it. I did a movie called Prince Valiant [he played the title role, alongside Edward Fox and Joanna Lumley] and some people said, “This time next year, man, you are going to be huge.” But I’d read the script, I knew I wasn’t going to be.’
That was in 1997. Since then, he has more than paid his dues, with parts in Casualty, Cold Feet, Midsomer Murders, Peak Practice and Waking the Dead. He had a lead role in Channel 4’s NY-LON in 2004, playing a City trader, but despite some fizzing dialogue, it never really hit.
When he read the script for True Blood, he had just finished an American television series called The Starter Wife. ‘I didn’t want to do anything that would take me away again for a long period but my agent said, “Well there’s one thing…” ’ She emailed him the script and Moyer was blown away. ‘Vampires were never my genre – I’d read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire but that was about it – but I felt that what Alan had managed to put into a 55-minute pilot was so deep and dense, I loved it.’
He had to do a taped audition the next morning in London. Ball has noted that he stood out because he wasn’t wearing black, but Moyer says he didn’t really have time to think about it. ‘Afterwards I picked my kids up from school, got home and found we had been burgled. My daughter went into her bedroom and said, “They haven’t stolen my teddy bear,” and Billy said, “They haven’t stolen my pillow or my duvet!” Hearing them I broke down, then half an hour later HBO rang saying they wanted to fly me over. It was an interesting day.’
He met Paquin, 12 years his junior, when he flew over for the screen test. (Many will remember her as the serious little girl in Jane Campion’s The Piano, although she is perhaps now better known as Rogue in the X-Men franchise.) ‘I was tanned and blond after The Starter Wife, and when I met Anna she was very pale and dark, as she is in real life. I’d read the pilot, which had this tanned, blond Sookie, so she wasn’t what I’d imagined.’
There was an instant spark. ‘Immediately Alan and Anna and I were all taking the piss out of each other, which was very refreshing and doesn’t happen very often. Then after we made the pilot, it became quite clear that I – well, both of us – wanted to take things further.’ They didn’t go public with the relationship until after the first series had finished in the US. ‘We didn’t tell anybody for about 10 months,’ Moyer says. ‘Neither of us wanted our relationship to be the story. It was very nice to be able to play our lives out without any attention. And it was funny, really, because we were living in Venice [a beachfront neighbourhood in LA] and everybody in Venice knew. We’ve got loads of cafes and restaurants that we go to, so it wasn’t like we weren’t being seen together.’
These days they can’t even go to get their hair cut without being photographed together. ‘I was shocked the first time the paps got me in America – when a videocamera is put in your face and you’re asked questions and 15 people are walking backwards taking your picture. I was coming out of a pizza shop and had my daughter with me. Your parental bond comes out at times like that, because they haven’t chosen to be an actor’s child – and I suddenly realised why actors have hit out before.’
Moyer and Paquin are now engaged, but he is not being drawn on a wedding date. ‘We haven’t thought about it,’ he says, ‘but we’re really happy.’
Is it strange, having dual identities, being Bill and Sookie as well as Stephen and Anna? ‘Well, we grew up as a couple in front of our crew, so we’re all like a family. They’ve seen every aspect of our relationship, they’ve seen us have sex together, and then we go home and it’s just the two of us in bed. I kind of miss them.’ He’s joking. ‘Our lives are very different from the characters,’ he says.
The most startling difference is the voice. In America, people stop him and ask him to ‘do the voice’, the slow Southern drawl that already has its own internet parodies (on funnyordie.com). ‘At the screen test, I’d wondered about doing this generic American accent I’d done before, but when I got in there the casting director said, “You do realise it’s Southern?” And I said, “Well, we’ll try it; if it’s dreadful we’ll go back to the other accent.” ‘And she said “Action” and out came… [he drawls]… kaahnd of Bill’s thing. Once I got the part, I did some work with a coach. Everybody else in the show is doing a modern Southern accent and I wanted something old-fashioned. There are no contractions. Bill never says can’t or won’t. It’s always, “I did not want you to do that,” which is funny because you then find yourself doing it in everyday life, saying things like, “I cannot stand pains aux raisins”.’
In everyday life, he is very handsome – more so than in True Blood – though he claims to be ‘as insecure as the next person’. And he is not the first British actor to become a sex symbol playing a vampire. I ask him about fellow Brit Robert Pattinson, the teen star of the hit film Twilight. Does he see Pattinson, 23, as competition? ‘No!’ he says emphatically, ‘I could be his dad. I’d have had to have started young but…’ Bill Compton is certainly a very different creature to Pattinson’s chaste Edward Cullen, and Moyer got into trouble for calling him a ‘pussy – the SlimFast, Diet Coke of vampires’. He is more careful today. ‘I think there are worse things for a teen to be enraptured with than Twilight,’ he says. ‘I can understand why you would give someone that book [by Stephanie Meyer] and say, this is good, it’s about a chaste love affair, please fall in love with Robert Pattinson.
‘Our show’s very different, of course, and has its place. Although sometimes I’ll get 10- or 11-year-olds coming up and asking for my autograph, and I say, “Have you seen that show?” and they go, “Yeah, love it.” I couldn’t sit in the same room as my mother and watch that show. I mean, it’s seriously racy.’
photo credit Hugh Stewart