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'True Blood': Hot summer TV

HBO’s vampire drama promises sex, danger, and violence in its third season

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TRUE BLOOD
HBO
JUNE 13, 9 P.M.

There are two very simple words that send the cast and crew of True Blood into utter giddiness: Goo. Drop. It means that not only will a vampire be staked, but said vamp will dissolve into a puddle of red, sticky, slimy…goo. The setting for today’s grotesque demise is one of Blood‘s various West Hollywood soundstages, transformed to look like the opulent plantation owned by the vampire King of Mississippi, Russell Edgington (guest star Denis O’Hare). Telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), dressed in a floral nightgown and slippers, enters the foyer to find Russell, his husband, Talbot (newcomer Theo Alexander) — yep, vampires believe in gay marriage — and Sookie’s frenemy/sex-dream partner, Eric Northam, played by Alexander Skarsgård. Hell (and goo) will break loose in mere seconds, but we wouldn’t dare spoil the surprise of who gets staked and how. Suffice it to say the gore explosion is large enough to leave splatter marks on the ceiling and provide a slight production delay. Stakin’ vamps is a dirty business.

Filming of this elaborate sequence will reach well past 3 a.m., forcing the actors themselves to adopt the schedule of a vampire. Skarsgård spends time in between takes giving a tour of the set to a group of visiting friends (including rumored girlfriend Kate Bosworth), while Paquin playfully circles Blood creator Alan Ball and gets him to try a taste of her own red drink of choice, Celestial Seasonings’ Superfruit-flavored Kombucha Tea. ”It gives you a sick buzz,” Paquin tells him. Ball winces at the drink’s vinegaresque aftertaste but eventually polishes off the beverage. Since Ball is only halfway through shooting Blood‘s 12-episode order for season 3 (which premieres June 13 at 9 p.m. on HBO), he’s gonna need all the energy he can get to keep up with these immortal vamps. After all, there are important decisions to be made. ”There’s at least one moment a week where the prop master goes, ‘Okay, here’s the guy’s disembodied head: What do you think? Do you like the way it’s ripped at the neck? Or would you like a more jagged edge?’ ” says Ball later in his office on Blood‘s backlot. ”That’s part of the joy of it, because I’m completely aware of how absurd it all is and can appreciate it.” Skarsgård agrees: ”A couple of weeks ago I was hanging on wires, like 20 feet up in the air, in a Nazi uniform. That was one of those days when I was like, ‘This is my job.’ ”

Skarsgård is hardly the only one enjoying True Blood these days. In two seasons and just 24 episodes, the show, based on the Sookie Stackhouse book series by Charlaine Harris, has become HBO’s most buzzed-about series since Tony Soprano & Co. were spilling blood (as opposed to drinking it). Last summer, Blood really began to boil, registering with both critics and audiences: At 4.3 million viewers an episode, it doubled its season 1 ratings. (According to HBO, that number rises to 12.6 million once you factor in repeat and on-demand airings.) ”It was a breakthrough season in terms of feeling like it became part of pop culture,” says Michael Lombardo, HBO’s head of programming. ”It was the sort of show I started hearing people talk about on Mondays.”

And like that other big pop-culture-dominating vampire saga (hi, Twilight!), it’s transformed the cast into bona fide celebrities. Paquin, who is engaged to costar and onscreen love interest Stephen Moyer, made headlines in April when she came out as bisexual in a public service announcement for equal rights. For Skarsgård, who was previously best known for playing a sergeant in HBO’s Generation Kill and for his brief turn as one of Ben Stiller’s model pals in Zoolander, the attention has been kind of unbelievable. ”It’s quite surreal that people want to take a picture of me buying milk,” says the humble actor. ”I don’t really get it.” And with the series off the air since last September, anticipation is now at a fever pitch for fresh Blood. ”It’s like crack,” says Moyer, who plays vampire Bill Compton. ”You just want to do one more. One more hit.”

Season 3 looks to be even more addictive with the introduction of several new characters and multiple interconnecting story lines, including a detour into the world of werewolves. ”If last season’s general theme was religion, I would say this season’s theme is probably politics — vampire politics,” teases Ball. The Six Feet Under creator, though, is trying to manage expectations that season 3 will be bigger and better than the previous two. ”I feel like if we put that pressure on ourselves, then that’s just dangerous,” he says. ”Ultimately, the goal is to tell the most entertaining, fun, sexy, scary, and romantic story.”

That story picks up right where season 2 left off, with Sookie searching for Bill, who was kidnapped right after proposing marriage. She turns to Eric to help her find her lost love, which, of course, yields more flirting between the pair. Says Paquin, ”[Eric and Sookie] have this connection that she has no control over, and unfortunately she frequently finds herself in need of his help because he has information and has been around since the Viking times.” Believing that werewolves were somehow involved in Bill’s abduction, Eric enlists one himself, Alcide (One Tree Hill‘s Joe Manganiello), to accompany Sookie on her quest. Expect the Überbuff Alcide to add yet another layer of sexual tension to the Bill-Sookie-Eric triangle. ”There’s definitely a love square going on,” says Manganiello. Make that a pentagon, since Alcide’s ex-girlfriend, werewolf Debbie Pelt (Brit Morgan), is also on the scene. ”She is a hot mess,” describes Ball. ”Alcide’s still in love with her to a degree, but also really regrets that he ever got hooked up with her.” Sookie will also discover the reason behind her supernatural abilities, evidenced during her encounter with maenad Maryann last season. ”In the writers’ room, we call it ‘microwave fingers,’ ” says Ball. ”We’re going to learn where that comes from.”

Eric will reveal that he has his own ulterior motives for involving himself with the world of werewolves. ”You find out pretty early on in the season that something happened centuries ago that Eric’s been carrying inside, and suddenly he gets an opportunity to avenge someone,” says Skarsgård, who adds that viewers will get yet another flashback to Eric’s Viking past. The mystery of who took Bill will be answered in episode 2, but there’s an even darker secret lurking inside the vampire. Teases Moyer: ”Bill is trying to live a good life, but that doesn’t mean in the past he hasn’t been seriously f — -ed up and bad and sort of fun in the full vampire sense of the word.”

Meanwhile, back in Bon Temps, Bill’s teen underling, Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll), has to deal with the trucker she fanged in the season 2 finale. ”There’s nobody there taking care of her,” says Woll. ”She’s kind of got to grow up real quick and find out things for herself.” Thankfully, Eric’s devious cohort Pam (Kristin Bauer, upgraded this year to series regular) is just a phone call away for advice. Sookie’s best friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley), grief-stricken over the death of her boyfriend Eggs, becomes entangled with the fiendish Franklin Mott (James Frain), a vampire detective investigating Bill. ”He is psychotic,” says Wesley of her character’s new love interest. ”He sends me over the edge. I can’t say their relationship is by choice or not, but it happens.” As for Tara’s gay fry-chef cousin, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), he will fall hard for Jesus (Kevin Alejandro), a nurse taking care of his schizophrenic mother, played by guest star Alfre Woodard. But since it’s True Blood, there’s a twist. ”There is absolutely more to him than meets the eye, and that’s all I can say,” says Ellis. ”There is something supernatural about Jesus, and how dark it is has yet to be seen.”

Sookie’s brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), also finds some lovin’ courtesy of a girl named Crystal (Lindsay Pulsipher), who, according to Kwanten, is ”very mysterious, very standoffish, and very much unlike any person, let alone woman, that Jason has ever met before.” And shape-shifting Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) meets his biological family and learns he has a younger brother — who is also a shape — shifter. ”They’re just poor people who are very damaged and who are in a very sort of sick relationship with themselves,” says Trammell. ”As the season goes on you learn what they’re involved with, and it’s pretty shocking.” While all of these stories may seem disparate, Ball promises that most of them will converge for Blood‘s big season finale in September, which he says will end in multiple cliff-hangers.

Along the way, expect Blood to once again provide an intoxicating blend of gory vampire saga, Southern gothic melodrama, and sex-charged romance. ”It bridges a lot of genres,” says Trammell. ”There are some elements, metaphors of racial politics and gender politics — they’re there if you want to look for them, but it’s really popcorn, fun entertainment.” And what goes better with popcorn than nudity! ”Having been a fan of the show, you know you’re going to be naked at some point,” says newcomer Manganiello. ”I will say that I was welcomed into the brotherhood of the sock. When you’re naked on the show, you have to wear a sock, and it’s not on your foot.” Paquin says the graphic love scenes are the least of her concerns. ”It doesn’t really bother me,” she admits. ”I’m really close with all of our cast, and we’ve all seen each other in various compromising and odd situations.” The actress is, of course, particularly close with fiancé Moyer, and Moyer says their real-life romance definitely adds to their love scenes. Jokes the actor, ”I think that one great bonus is we don’t need a fluffer.”

While a red-hot series like this could be, ahem, extended for years (Harris has so far written 10 books in the series), True Blood has already reached an important milestone for Ball. ”I gotta show you this — it’s one of my prized possessions,” he says while walking over to his office bookshelf. There he picks up a glass-encased copy of a VHS tape of American Booty, the porn version of American Beauty — the film that won Ball the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. ”We just found out that they’re doing a porn parody of True Blood,” he says. ”That’s certainly a moment of going ‘Wow, we’ve arrived.’ ” Later, on set, he’ll gather the crew and cast members to watch the ridiculously campy trailer on his laptop. The one disappointment? The porno’s title: Tru: A XXX Parody. Says Ball slyly, ”I always figured it would be Screw Blood.”