Ryan Kwanten is featured in the June issue of Muscle & Body
On HBO’s “True Blood,” Ryan Kwanten plays a Bayou bad boy with dangerous obsessions. Off-screen, the Australia-born actor is a beach-loving triathlete and yoga enthusiast. Muscle & Body spends some quality time with the sunny side of the rising star.
Convincing evidence of the shape-shifting acting skills of Ryan Kwanten is presented in the first instant of meeting him. There’s the musical Australian accent, the engaging smile, the warm handshake, the down-to-earth demeanor — is this really Jason Stackhouse, the blood-slurping, sex-crazed Deep South degenerate who has captivated fans of the HBO hit “True Blood”?
The distance between the off-screen Kwanten and the character he portrays can be calculated only in galactic measurements. It makes his already critically acclaimed performance all the more impressive.
But there is one true-life quality of Kwanten’s that isn’t concealed in the Southern gothic series: his cut physique. The 32-year-old actor is rendered shirtless in numerous scenes, though not gratuitously, considering the steamy, swampy locale of “True Blood’s” fictional Bon Temps, La. But those moments reveal a ripped musculature as sharp as the eyeteeth of Bon Temps’ vampires.
Kwanten’s remarkable physical conditioning isn’t the result of a high-paid celebrity trainer but the actor’s own lifelong immersion in the fitness lifestyle. Raised on the coast near Sydney, he developed a love for the surf, a fire undoubtedly stoked by his father, a champion paddle boarder. Kwanten’s mother is herself an avid runner who passed on her passion to her oldest son and his two younger brothers, making for one very active family.
“I always grew up with physical activity, so now it’s just a part of who I am,” he says. “I do a little something every day. Even when I’m working, I’ll go home and run on the soft sand at two in the morning. No matter the time, even if I have to wake up at four, I do whatever [exercise] I can. If
I don’t then I’m not me.”
A Beach Boy, Not A Bad Boy
The actor transports himself into some uncomfortably dark places as Jason Stackhouse. The supernatural intrigue of “True Blood,” with its predatory vampires and forbidden lusts, is layered in rich allegories and emotional violence. Working from the novels of Charlaine Harris, series creator Alan Ball, of “American Beauty” and “Six Feet Under” fame, is well regarded for creating controversial, challenging material. This ain’t “Twilight,” folks.
“It amazes me when people compare ‘True Blood’ to ‘Twilight’,” says Kwanten. “The only similarity is the fact that we both have vampires. The characters and different group dynamics that Alan manages to create and the issues that he confronts are so far beyond other vampire shows.”
Kwanten has justifiably received his share of credit for the show’s devoted following, which returns for its highly anticipated second season in June. With a strong ensemble cast led by Oscar winner Anna Paquin, “True Blood” is poised to go from cult favorite to runaway international hit this summer, a pattern that follows a few other HBO series past and present (e.g., “The Sopranos,” “Entourage”).
Certainly, being Jason Stackhouse for a good part of the year can’t be easy, what with the foreign dialect that even many American actors garble; the roiling psychological torments the role demands; the regular drinking of whatever red liquid is in those vials (go to HBO.com/trueblood for a series synopsis). Then after escaping the fictional Southern-fried freak show of “True Blood,” the easy-going Australian has to contend with the real-life freakshow of Hollywood.
After moving to the area seven years ago, Kwanten sought a suitable residence close to the ocean and far from the madness. The beach is his solace — a home away from home in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, a company town known to be a habitat for a different kind of bloodsucker.
“It was important to find a place that was as close to where I’m from to help with my home-sickness because I’m very close with my family,” says Kwanten, who grew up near a small lagoon that was five-minute stroll from the beach. “It had to be by or near the water. I don’t think I’d last a week in Hollywood itself. I like to think I’m a masochist at heart [laughs] but I couldn’t do that. I think that saltwater and the saltwater breezes tend to chill people out. Literally, when I cross a certain street heading back home, I can feel my heart rate and pulse drop and my shoulders relax.”
An Eternal Competitive Fire
Finding the blonde actor in a sand-and-surf setting is more familiar to Australians, who know Kwanten from a TV show called “Home and Away.” In that series, he played a lifeguard, among other occupations, but it was his “Baywatch” moment that inspired a continent of women to swoon at the shirtless lifesaver with the six-pack abs. The exposure made Kwanten, dare we say, a sex symbol.
“Your words, not mine,” he says, laughing.
True to form, he shrugs off the risks of being typecast as that hunky Australian dude with his shirt off. Bring it on, he says.
“I’m confident with who I am. I know what I’m capable of, and without sounding like an egomaniac, I have no problems quashing anyone’s expectations. Whenever they say I can’t do something, it just inspires me more to do it. If somebody tells me that’s my pigeonhole, I guarantee you I’ll break out of that.”
Believe him. In his short career, Kwanten has displayed remarkable range in character if not clothing. He’s excelled in soaps, horror movies, children’s sci-fi, comedies, and even played a U.S. Marine in “Law and Order: SVU.”
A former welterweight boxing standout as a teenager (he was state champ for two years at ages 13–15), Kwanten harbors an intense competitive hunger that requires multiple outlets. A natural-born swimmer, the actor competes in triathlons, but these days he settles for biathlons due to time constraints. And, yes, he’s mastered those as well. He won the L.A. Biathlon series two straight years (2006, 2007), qualifying him for the world championships.
“It’s interesting that I chose an art form to make a career out of because I still bring that natural competitiveness to acting,” he says. “I always want to do the best in every single scene and put everything into it. But [acting] is one of those things where you have to pat yourself on the back at the end of the day because there’s no real finish line.”
Boxing, bicycling, surfing — it doesn’t matter. If it gets his heart racing and body moving, he’s game.
“I think it’s important to get your sweat on and to not just limit yourself to one particular sport,” he says of his varied fitness interests. “To do nothing but lift weights to me would be a quick death. Life has too many great things to offer in terms of physical exertion. I think you always need a sense of clarity, whether you get it through meditation or going for a hike, when it comes to bettering your life. It may not work for everybody, but it does for me.”
Kwanten’s physical pursuits took an unexpected turn a few years ago. Watching his running-enthusiast mother struggle with back problems convinced him to address his increasingly lagging flexibility. A friend suggested yoga. That’s definitely not Australian for manly workout, mate.
“I come from a somewhat of a macho background when it comes to sports,” says the former boxer. “When a friend of mine suggested I try yoga to help with flexibility, I said, ‘No, that’s more for the girls. It’s not my cup of tea.’ But I tried it and it beat me up.”
Then Kwanten’s natural instincts kicked in. “That first class I was looking across the room and seeing girls and even guys putting their feet behind their heads, and I thought, Wow, that’s where I want to be. And I’m sort of naturally competitive, so once I sink my teeth into something I’m not going to let go.”
Four years later, Kwanten is a Vinyasa yoga practitioner who can bend like Gumby and put his feet pretty much wherever he wants.
But most of the time, those feet are set firmly on the ground, at least metaphorically. The balance of life, keeping your head on straight, your ego in check, and your body healthy, is a legacy of his paddle-boarding father, who wore a suit by day, but when the suit came off, the surfboard came out.
“The yin and the yang — I guess it really is that,” muses Kwanten.
The actor also credits his homeland for keeping him grounded. The Australian ethos can be summed up thusly: “Thou shalt not take yourself too seriously and become too big for your britches.” Kwanten knows his friends back home are always there to press the reset button on his ego if he ever needs it.
“I think it’s an in-built Australian thing to not try to be someone you’re not. We all know who we are deep down inside,” he says. “If you know who you are, you’re not afraid to be vulnerable.”
That may be one reason the country produces so many acting superstars: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts, the late Heath Ledger, Guy Pearce, even Kwanten’s castmate Paquin, just to list a few, are from Australia and nearby New Zealand. Being firmly rooted allows for more fearless inner exploration. And Kwanten, one of the newer acting imports, is more fearless than most. The fact that he looks damn good doing it is really not the point.
“To be a man means more than having muscles; there’s so much more to being a stand-up guy,” he explains. “I always loved that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: ‘What lies behind us and what lies before us is small matter compared to what lies within us.’”