Interview and photos from Details Magazine, on the shelves on April 13.
Believe it or not, Ryan Kwanten is not a dumbass. Of course, you’d never guess that: His True Blood character, Jason Stackhouse, is a good old boy writ large, a studly simpleton who thinks with his little head because his big head seems permanently encased in granite. The only one of the show’s leading men who’s not a vampire or other supernatural being, Jason is a stand-in not just for the average guy but also for his masculinity crisis. He’s a red-blooded mortal in a world suddenly colonized by phantasmagoric sophisticates, an affable if dim Everyman whose horndog exterior and prodigious sexploits mask a deep human need for connection.
Kwanten, on the other hand, is an aspiring highbrow. The 33-year-old Australian, who grew up in what he calls a “beach shack” in Sydney, likes to read philosophy, doesn’t own a television, and has been writing a novel for the past 19 years—it currently fills 290 pages of a notebook he’s been carrying around since he was 13. Kwanten has the rippling physique of a comic-book superhero but insists he’s more of a yogi than a gym rat. Moreover, he doesn’t like to talk about his body or how often it’s on display on True Blood.
“We have amazing computer-generated effects,” Kwanten says, his Aussie accent revealing no trace of Jason’s aw-shucks-isms. “It’s my head on someone else’s body.”
Still, the fact is Kwanten, who like costars Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin lives in Venice, Calfornia, is sitting at one of his favorite cafés not far from Muscle Beach, ordering one of the “bodybuilder specials” for lunch. He chooses an egg-white-and-buffalo-meat scramble —”In the mornings I get pancakes and egg whites,” he explains—and tries his best to steer the conversation away from anything to do with working out or acting. Wearing heavy black glasses and a newsboy cap, he’s virtually unrecognizable as Jason or any of the other likable lugs he has played. Though he’s close with his castmates, he doesn’t hang out with them and he certainly won’t be found in Hollywood clubs or, as he puts it, “anywhere a paparazzo in his right mind would go.”
Kwanten became famous in Australia in his early twenties, thanks to a prime-time soap called Home and Away, on which he played a lifeguard. He’s quick to add that for part of his time on the show he was also working a public-relations job (“You need to cover your bases,” he says). He went on to star in an American film called Junction Boys, coming to L.A. for a few days of vacation around its premiere and deciding to stay. He spent the next three months in a converted storage closet in a grungy Venice hotel, sleeping on his yoga mat and riding his bicycle and the city bus to auditions. Finally, after a few small TV roles, he was cast as an Australian surfer in the TV series Summerland and then landed a part in the 2006 girl-and-her-horse movie Flicka, in which he caught the eye of Alan Ball, who was casting True Blood.
“He played the lead character’s hot, sweet, dimwit older brother,” Ball recalls. “So when I was casting for Jason, I thought of him. He has almost zero vanity as an actor. He’s not afraid to play stupid—a lot of actors that play dumb characters have to do subtle things to show they’re not stupid. But Ryan doesn’t have that hang-up. And he is so unlike his character that it’s almost shocking.”
As for Kwanten’s physical attributes, Ball insists he didn’t see him shirtless until they were shooting the pilot. “He came on to the set and I thought, ‘What the hell is that?'” Ball says. “But it was a total asset. Part of what makes the whole Jason package attractive is that he’s so comfortable in his own skin.”
“MY PARENTS HAVE SEEN THE SHOW. MY MOM WALKED IN ON ME A FEW TIMES WHEN I WAS LIVING AT HOME—YOU KNOW, CAUGHT IN THE ACT. SHE’S SEEN ME IN UNCOMPROMISING [SIC] POSITIONS BEFORE.”—KWANTEN
Good thing, since no one on True Blood, a show in which over-the-top carnal activity is the norm, has more onscreen sex than Jason. “I’m very comfortable with my body. Most of the time the girl is going to be more scared of the scene than me,” he says. “So I make a pact with them like, ‘Let’s be in this together. I’ve got your back and you have mine.'” Though Jason is often described as a sex addict, Kwanten’s deep character analysis has yielded a more forgiving interpretation. “He lost his parents at a very early age,” he says. “So there are a whole host of things he’s making up for, whether it be a mother figure or someone to hold.”
This may sound like pop psychology, but Kwanten’s been in that mode lately. He’s busy writing a new book—this one a self-help book of sorts. “It’s a satire of self-help books,” he says, chewing his buffalo meat. “It’s called The G Strategy. I am ‘The G.’ There are steps. The first is ‘Ask yourself the question.’ The second is ‘Give yourself a G name.'”
Kwanten doesn’t specify what “the question” is, but “the G name,” he clarifies, needn’t start with a g. It simply refers to a new name we can assign ourselves if our given name comes with excessive emotional baggage. “Say there’s the name Ryan,” he continues. “That name might have a stigma attached to it due to the years of abuse I’ve suffered as a child. But as, say, Ace, I can do anything. I can associate myself with a mythological creature or a made-up word. And through the invention of that word, it makes you want to break into a smile.”
Kwanten’s earnest tone and poker face make one wonder whether he might be engaged in an elaborate send-up not just of books like The Secret but also of popular culture, of the whole rather embarrassing enterprise of an actor sitting down to pontificate, and most of all of himself. When he trots out platitudinous nuggets like “I like playing ordinary characters and seeing what makes them extraordinary,” you have to hope he really is putting you on. But then there are times when his humor is so laceratingly dry that all is forgiven.
“There are 11 steps,” he says, returning to the tao of The G Strategy. “Normally there are 10, but I added one. I’m not going to tell you all of them. But one is that one and one doesn’t equal two.”
He holds his two index fingers close together and, eyes wide with faux mysticism, adds, “It equals 11.”