ALAN BALL ACKNOWLEDGES THAT VAMPIRES ARE IN.
Somehow in the psyche of the world right now, plenty of people like vampires. So he is particularly excited about bringing the Charlaine Harris books to HBO with the series True Blood.
Ball spoke at a private telephone press conference less than a week before his show debuts on Sept. 7, and he joined his two stars, Anna Paquin as psychic Sookie Stackhouse and Stephen Moyer as vampire Bill Compton, at the Television Critics Association interviews in late summer.
Anna Paquin, what do you think of doing TV after doing movies all of your career?
Paquin: I think ensemble acting is the most fun, because in this case you have extraordinary people around you that you get to play with all day. I wanted to re-create the adventure and the fun and the sort of excitement of reading those books and the feeling like I had stumbled into this world. I have to see what
Tell us about your character.
Paquin: She’s tough and she’s courageous and she’s smart, but she’s sweet and she’s innocent and she’s naive and she’s quite sheltered, and she is completely open-minded, which in her very small town is a little bit less
common, and there’s just something about that level of enthusiasm that she has for things that are new and things that are exciting—as opposed to being frightened—that I think is really appealing. And you see that with the relationship with her grandmother that it’s fascinating. Even though she kind of gets into trouble quite frequently in the show, she’s still a very tough little girl, capable of taking care of herself.
What did you think about going blond for this role?
Paquin: I love it. Boys like to stare at blond girls—apparently it’s totally true, so it’s amusing and quite lovely. … Boys like blond girls, who knew? … It’s amazing how much someone’s voice is informed by the situation that they live in, and there is a kind of music to the Southern dialect that is very much—
from an outsider perspective, obviously—a product of that sort of very hot, very sort of laid-back at times, because of that overwhelming heat, sort of environment. That was a huge part of becoming that character, and then the whole blond thing and the tan thing.
When he cast me I was a pasty brunette from New Zealand, and now I’m a Southern blonde. So you have respect and love a director who will cast someone who isn’t necessarily the most obvious choice, and who can see the potential in their actors and actually create something.
What do you think about dating vampires?
Paquin: I stopped dating vampires when I was 15, so I couldn’t possibly remember. Obviously there’s an immediate fascination and attraction between Bill and Sookie, if for no other reason than anyone else is terrified of him and she’s just dying to go up and take his drink order. And we do get to see the roller coaster of that relationship because, obviously, as I guess the title of the book would suggest, having a vampire as a boyfriend isn’t always the simplest of things to choose. So I don’t know how to say much more about it without giving away the plot.
Stephen Moyer, what do you think is different in this series?
Moyer: Something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a series … is how you get to the end of each episode, and the episode begins where that episode ended, and that happens all the way through the season.
Are you ready for the rabid fans who have certain feelings about vampires and how they should be depicted?
Moyer: Bring them on. Everybody has their idea of what a vampire is going to be, and they are never pleased all the time, if you look at something like Interview With a Vampire and those two amazing actors, and not everybody liked what they did. Some people loved it, and I’m well aware that there’s going to be people who really like it and—
Paquin: Really hate it. How is having people who are really excited about your show ever a bad thing? I mean, come on, that’s what you hope that a show is going to have, and if they are already there, waiting to be really excited, then awesome.
Alan Ball, it seems like vampires are in vogue again. Do you have any insights on that?
Ball: I think vampires are a timeless, powerful archetype that can tap into people’s psyches. They’ve been around forever, even before the reinvention of vampires in the 1990s with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A lot of world mythology all over the globe has creatures like the succubus, the one that feeds on the essence of people. I don’t really know why this is all happening at this time. I’m just glad it’s happening.
How the series be different from the books?
Ball: Sookie basically narrates everything. All the other characters exist only when they’re in the same room with her. … That would be a production impossibility, because then Anna would be working 12 hours a day, five days a week. All the other characters were really interesting, and I wanted to just flesh that out a little, and it’s very important to me to remain true to Charlaine’s world because I think it works. … The good thing about Charlaine’s books is that the stories work—however the book really centers on [main character] Sookie’s story. So unless the other characters are in the same scene as her, they don’t appear in the book that much. So I feel that we have the best of both worlds. We have an elaborate story that works, and we have a lot of other characters, and we can devise stories for them that remain true to Charlaine’s world. So
there will be something in there for the people who were fans of the books, and there will be
surprise scenes as well.
We stuck really, really close to the first book as the basis for the first season. But by episodes
11 or 12 we start to veer into book two to just set things up for the next season—if there is one,
because it’s not official. We’re going to stick to the Sookie and Bill story very closely. The other
character we’re going to experiment with, but we’ll remain pretty true to Charlaine’s story.
What are you trying to say by having vampires in your story? Is it a metaphor to what is
happening in the world?
Ball: If it’s just a story device with fangs, then I’m just not that interested. I’m not interested in special effects. We’re really trying to focus on who Bill is, what’s his history. What’s the curse of being
immortal, how is that a bad thing? What’s it like to be immortal and still appear to be human? Those are the things that are important to me.
It’s always interesting to read the vampires as a metaphor for this or that—that adds texture, but it’s not what this is about. When someone at HBO first asked me what this was about, I said it’s about the terrors
of intimacy, and at the time I thought, “Who knows what that means, but it sounds good.” But over time I’ve really started to believe that this is the deeper meaning of the show. Six Feet Under had always been about subduing one’s emotions and being afraid of primal feelings we all have—they’re the byproduct of being creatures with souls—and dealing with knowing we’re going to die. It felt sort of liberating just to go a little crazy. And I wanted to do something different, obviously.
I really don’t look at the vampires as a metaphor for gays in a very specific way. I mean, for me,
part of the joy of this whole series is that it’s about vampires, and so we don’t have to be that
serious about it. However, they totally work as a metaphor for gays, for people of color, in
previous times in America, for anybody who is misunderstood and feared and hated for being
different. I think because of the cultural climate that we exist in today, it seems like, oh well, the
are a metaphor for gays, because gay marriage and gay rights and that kind of thing. But I think
it’s a bigger metaphor, and at the same time, it’s also not a metaphor at all. It’s vampires.
Why did you decide to cast Anna Paquin as the main character Sookie?
Ball: Anna pursued the role. In the beginning I thought, “Well, why would Anna want to do TV? She’s got a movie career.” I’m used to American actors who have a movie career thinking television acting is beneath them. I thought about it, and I thought, “Of course she’d like to do this, it’s a fantastic role, a great role.” Nobody is going to cast her like this in a movie yet. I was little worried that she wouldn’t want to dye her hair blond, but actually she was very willing. I felt a responsibility to be as true as I could to the book. You have to be close enough so they don’t think, “Whoa, it doesn’t make any sense.” But ultimately physical resemblance isn’t as important as whether this person can bring this character to life in a way that’s compelling and makes me care about what happens to them.
The vampire Eric, played by Alex Skarsgard, is in a lot of the book. Will he be in a lot of episodes?
Ball: Eric is a 1,000-year-old vampire who came to America from Scandinavia. He was a Viking who became a vampire either on the voyage over or once he landed. He’s a huge character in the series. He was the
character who fans were most obsessed with how he would be cast, and he’s a series regular.
What’s appealing to you about making a show with so much sex and violence?
Ball: I think sexuality is a window into someone’s soul. [But] it’s fun. It’s like popcorn TV—it’s like a ride. Six Feet Under was all about repression, and this [series] seemed to me to be about abandon. I find the show really entertaining to produce and to be a part of making. It’s escapist—it’s totally escapist.
How much of the humor in the book is running through the series?
Ball: Part of what I enjoyed about the books was, in addition to the romance and the intrigue and sex and the violence, that these characters were funny. They were funny without trying. We’ve assembled a cast of people who are really good at playing the humor straight. For example, Ryan, who plays Jason, that’s a really tough role to play, because usually when an actor is playing a character who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, the actor needs to let the audience know that he’s not this dumb, and then it becomes
not funny. Whereas Ryan is a really smart guy, and he loves that his character is dim-witted.
Did you ever watch Dark Shadows?
Ball: When Dark Shadows came on I was in elementary school. My next door neighbor and I, it
would come on right after we got home from school, and we would rush into our houses. We would sit there when the theme music came on, and we would hold our throats like we couldn’t breathe. I have no idea where this came from, but we would pretend like we were choking until the title sequence. We didn’t really watch it. To an 8-year-old I think Dark Shadows was really slow. Certainly it was something about vampires—the excitement that made us do this weird little psychodrama, while that organ music played and those waves crashed against the rocks.
Do you think kids will have that reaction to True Blood?
Ball: I hope kids don’t watch this show. I hope parents know better than to let their kids watch this show.
Are vampires better lovers?
Ball: Yeah, they’ve had hundreds of years to, like, figure things out and to learn things.
Have you dealt with some of the past vampire mythology?
Ball: I personally have never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel. I’m not really a big vampire fan. This was really my first. In our world, a lot of the myths about vampires were created by vampires themselves over history so that they could pass, because if you could convince everyone that you couldn’t be seen in a mirror or that you would freak out if somebody shoved a crucifix in your face, then you could prove you weren’t a vampire pretty easily.
You have some pretty cool fangs in this?
Ball: We went to great pains to sort of depict a certain kind of physiology for the fangs, where they actually are retracted like rattlesnake fangs and then they click forward. I wanted to approach the supernatural not as being something that exists outside of nature, but something that is more deeply rooted in nature. Also, there are differences in what happens to vampires being staked. I wanted to avoid the instantaneous incineration or the instantaneous turning into dust. … It’s probably different than what we’ve seen before.
I wanted to avoid the vampires getting strange contact lenses when their fangs came out or any sort of head prosthetic because, first of all, it’s a TV show; we don’t have time or money to do that, and, second of all, just let the actors act it out. Give them fangs, and that’s all they need. There’s what happens to vampires when they burn in a fire that is different than what we’ve seen before, but for the most part I didn’t want to focus too much on visual effects or special effects. I wanted it to be a show about characters and to really explore what it means to be 170 years old and what it means to fall in love with somebody who, basically, part of the relationship would involve, in a world that’s mutually satisfying, being fed upon, you know,
not being able to see this person except at night, having the entire town think, “What? Are you, crazy?”