Article on Nola.com by Dave Walker
The Crescent City and the fictional setting of HBO’s “True Blood” cast similar shadows.
They’re both places where you can comfortably change your shape, howl at the moon and acquire unexplained bite marks. The trip from suburban Maryland Avenue in Metairie to Bon Temps is a different kind of journey.
Sam Trammell, who plays the Sookie-struck roadhouse owner Sam Merlotte on the saucy vampire drama (Sunday, 8 p.m.), traversed that route via West Virginia, Brown University, the New York stage, prime-time TV and feature films. Born at Ochsner Medical Center in 1971 while his father was in medical school at Tulane University (both his mother and father earlier attended LSU), Trammell bounced around with his family early on but they landed long enough on Maryland Avenue for him to compile glowing childhood memories.
“I remember it being pretty big,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “I went back a few years ago and it’s just so tiny. I remember playing kick-the-can right before dusk. It was such a great neighborhood to grow up in. I also remember going to Mardi Gras parades and just yelling at the people, ‘Give me something, mister!’ That was what I was taught to yell. I think that’s what all the kids yelled back then. I remember the doubloons and the beads. It was really fun, really exciting.”
Trammell’s family moved to West Virginia when he was midway through elementary school, but he’s still got tons of Louisiana kin, a fact he was reminded of during location shooting for the first season of “True Blood.”
“We shot in and around Shreveport, and one day we were going to shoot this scene and we were driving and driving into the country and all of a sudden we turned this corner and go over this railroad crossing and I realized we were in Doyline.
“Doyline is a tiny town where my father’s side of the family all grew up. I have 13 relatives buried in the cemetery.” The scene itself was shot near Lake Bistineau, on land that Trammell’s great-grandfather once owned.
“I was tripping out,” Trammell said. “I am born in Louisiana. All of my family are from there. I moved to West Virginia, New York, went to school in Rhode Island, California, and here I am shooting a scene for an HBO series on this land I used to go to as a kid. It was so circular.
“Nobody could believe it. I told everyone on the set and everybody was freaking out. We were so out in the middle of nowhere.”
Just as well. Trammell was running through the countryside naked in the scene, which appeared in an episode about halfway through the first season. This is a series that does not squander liberal premium-cable standards for adult situations.
It’s a weird claim given Trammell’s character’s ability to change into a dog, but Sam Merlotte is one of the most grounded of all the Bon Temps tribe.
“I’m kind of the clear eye in the maelstrom,” he said. “The things that he knows that nobody else knows are so massive, it’s just hard playing high stakes like that.
“You have this rich material to work with, and the (fantasy) element sort of demands that you play very high stakes — stakes you probably haven’t experienced in your own life. It can get very heavy. It’s a challenge to do that justice.”
So far, it’s working. The second-season “True Blood” premiere drew HBO its largest audience since “The Sopranos” finale.
The network has done its part, with a clever marketing campaign that grew from viral to almost inescapable: Four full-page ads in The Los Angeles Times — one wrapping around the entire front page — trumpeted the second-season premiere.
But creator and executive producer Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under,” “American Beauty”), working with characters from Charlaine Harris’ series of Southern vampire novels, has created a hot-blooded hit that lives up to the best opening-credits sequence on TV.
“We’re all stunned,” Trammell said. “When I first got this project, it was Alan Ball and HBO — I wanted to do it and I hadn’t even read it.” Shooting on the first season was completed before the series premiered.
“We were shooting on the smallest lot in Los Angeles,” Trammell said. “It felt like we were doing this tiny little backyard production. We didn’t have any feedback.
“We sort of knew HBO was happy and that was good, but we had no idea if people were going to like it.
“You never know, even if you think you’re doing something good. You don’t know if people are going to watch it and you don’t know if it works until it comes out.”
Trammell’s middle name, Foote, reveals that he’s a distant relative to historian Shelby Foote, star of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The Civil War.” Trammell said he borrows some of Merlotte’s accent from Foote, who died in 2005.
“I feel like the South is in my body and in my brain and in my DNA,” Trammell said. “I just love that feeling of being a Southerner. It’s just great that I’m from there and get to do this role.”
Pre-”True Blood,” Trammell’s career included starring roles in films (“Beat,” “Followers”), lead and guest roles on TV (“Maximum Bob,” “Going to California,” “House,” “Dexter, “Cold Case”) and a Tony Award nomination (for a late-1990s revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!”).
The road to Bon Temps has taken him back to his roots and to the big time simultaneously.
“Nobody’s been too weird or crazy,” Trammell said of fans. “One thing that’s strange is that people will come up and ask me if I’m Sam Trammell. They’ll know not just that I’m a character on a show — that has happened before — but they know my actual name, which is pretty wild.
“I was in a Starbucks and one of the baristas sort of was looking at me and came up really timidly and asked if I was Sam Trammell. ‘Yeah, it’s just me. I live right down the street. I’m nothing special, but I’m really flattered that you’re so impressed.’
“Sometimes I’ll be somewhere and somebody will come up and say something and I’ll realize they were looking at me for the past 10 minutes I was in that room, and I’ll go, ‘God, I hope I didn’t do anything embarrassing.’ You start worrying about what kind of habits you have when you know that people are looking at you.
“It’s all exciting. At this point, I’m not even going to pretend that it’s a hassle. It’s awesome. It’s great to be in something that people like.”
TV columnist Dave Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3429