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'True Blood': The new American Gothic

Werewolves, fairies, and vampires — oh my! HBO’s sexy supernatural drama is going to bold new places with brand-new baddies

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Anna Paquin is no pushover. But here in Los Angeles’ famed Biltmore Hotel — a rococo setting that’s perfectly suited for a pivotal upcoming scene in HBO’s vampire drama True Blood — the diminutive actress fights to stay upright while plowing through a stampede of extras. As the minxish Sookie Stackhouse, Paquin is supposed to rush the stage where the bloodsucking Bill (Stephen Moyer) and his fellow neck-biter Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) are engaged in battle, but the mob of people isn’t making her job so easy. ”I think it’s unfair that I can’t elbow someone if they elbow me first,” Paquin tells director Lesli Linka Glatter between takes. ”I suspect my getting my nose broken will be expensive. I’m just saying.”

It seems nothing ever comes easy for Miss Stackhouse. Last season, she not only made the startling discovery that she was a fairy but also found out that her intense love affair with Bill was based on a lie, which led her to break things off with the vampire. Now, for season 4 (premiering June 26 at 9 p.m.), Sookie will explore the downside of her telepathy while taking on fairy nation (who don’t always appear as bright, pretty, and Tinkerbell-like as she does), a fresh pack of werewolves, and a nasty coven of witches. If that’s not enough, she also must fight a wickedly strong temptation to do the nasty with Eric while navigating her lingering feelings for Bill and that warm-blooded werewolf Alcide (Joe Manganiello). Suddenly, a few pushy extras seem ridiculously insignificant.

”I think it is hard to be Sookie because of her obvious attraction to all three men,” says Moyer, Paquin’s real-life husband of almost a year. ”There’s yearning and longing, lust and protection from those three relationships. And it’s very difficult for her to choose, and she doesn’t want to choose, either.”

”Well, obviously that’s really rough,” mocks Paquin, who’s less inclined to feel sorry for her alter ego. But she does admit the stakes — no vampire pun intended — will keep getting higher for the residents of Bon Temps, La., this year. ”I think that you can’t have True Blood and the vampire world we have created without there being a lot of sexiness. But there are a lot of really dark and sometimes quite scary places that the characters also go along the way. The more intense things get, the more intense everything else gets in terms of self-discovery, danger, and sex.”

Sex. No True Blood conversation is complete without mention of it. And there is little doubt that at least some of the drama’s fans — an average of 5 million of them watched first-run airings last season, with that number swelling to 13 million when repeats were added — tuned in to see some skin. Indeed, if there is one aspect of the show that gives creator Alan Ball (who adapted the series from Charlaine Harris’ immensely popular Sookie Stackhouse novels) a great sense of pride, it’s the wish fulfillment he provides by taking a group of phenomenally hot actors and asking them to feign, as it was described in one script note, an ”earth-fracturing climax.”

That reminds him of a story. ”One of my favorite things I’ve heard is how one of our former assistant directors was visiting her college girlfriends in Texas and one of their husbands came up to say, ‘I just have to thank you for the show because we’re having the best sex we’ve had in years,”’ Ball recounts, ”and I’m like, ‘Good! That’s good!”’

Of course, it helps when you have actors who are…um, giving it their all. ”I find sexuality is a real component of a character’s psychological makeup,” Ball continues. ”So we would write scenes of Bill and Sookie making love, but what happens is the actors take it to a new level because they’re comfortable with each other. The director and I then see the dailies and I’m like, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t expect it to be quite that up front, but I’m glad that it is because it’s a show for adults.”’

But what may have been shocking three years ago when True Blood debuted has become fairly commonplace today — at least on pay cable. Given the graphic sex that’s now de rigueur on other envelope-pushing shows like Spartacus, The Borgias, and Game of Thrones (which featured an incestuous tryst in its very first episode), you would think Ball would be feeling the need to turn up the heat this summer — especially if he wants to top last year’s literally head-spinning sex scene between Bill and his maker, Lorena (Mariana Klaveno). Yet surprisingly, coming up with new and adventurous ways to show the characters doing the hibity-dibity hasn’t been job one for Ball. Instead, he has concentrated on making sure they continue to evolve in exciting new ways, especially since it was at this same point that Ball started encountering creative problems on his last HBO drama, Six Feet Under. ”On Six Feet Under, it was season 4 where we started running into walls,” Ball recalls. ”We’d be like, ‘Oh, no, Ruth had already done that!’ Or ‘David did that in season 2!’ We haven’t yet hit the wall. The great thing about the show being supernatural is that you can just make up doors and open them. As long as they make sense organically in terms of the characters, we can go anywhere.”

This year, it’s into the wacky world of Wiccans. The journey begins when Jesus (Kevin Alejandro) tries to bring out the mystical side of his lover, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), by taking him to a Shreveport store where they encounter a witch named Marnie (Fiona Shaw of the Harry Potter films). At first, the frail-looking woman with the small voice and goofy facial expressions seems harmless — until she brings a bird back to life during one helluva freaky séance. ”She suddenly discovers that she has a few more powers than she thought,” explains Shaw, who attended a few Wiccan meetings in Los Angeles to prepare for the role. ”Exciting things happen because the vampires get involved. There’s a lot of violence in the whole thing.”

And how. She ends up inviting a whole broom closet of witches to her shop, who threaten the vamps because of their unseen — and unpredictable — levels of power. Eric attempts to cut them off at the pass but ends up getting slapped silly with a spell that wipes out his memory. ”He doesn’t know who he is anymore,” explains Skarsgård. ”He doesn’t recognize anyone around him. So this very strong, powerful vampire is suddenly very vulnerable. That’s been so much fun to play because it’s obviously a very stripped-down and different Eric. His protected wall, the shield he’s built up around himself over the last thousand years, is just gone and he’s very innocent.”

Naturally, that makes him appear even sexier to Sookie — which just happens to be the key component in Harris’ fourth tome, Dead to the World. Paquin would rather die than spoil whether Ball stays true to the book and has Sookie finally give in to sin with Eric in the shower, but she knows the fans are desperately awaiting an erotic outcome. ”Obviously you want to make the fans happy,” she says, stopping herself before saying too much. ”You want it to be as good as it can possibly be.”

However, before you read too much into that answer, consider these cloudy comments from Skarsgård. ”I think it’s important that the show sometimes is slightly different from the books because it has to be surprising and new,” reasons the Swedish actor. ”You want fans of the books who’ve read them a million times to still be surprised when they watch the show. We can’t be like, ‘Oh, well, now this is going to happen, and now this is going to happen, and here’s that.’ It’s important to keep it fresh.”

To that end, also look for a new set of hairy creatures to enter the fray when Alcide moves to what he thinks are greener pastures outside of Bon Temps. ”My character really starts to arc this season,” says Manganiello, though he declines to share specifics. ”There was an episode this season where I turned to our producer Brian Buckner and said I felt like I played a different character on a different show today.”

As for the rest of the characters, Crystal (Lindsay Pulsipher) and her band of hillbilly panther cuckoos are still on the scene — but with a new plan, which doesn’t come as good news to a more responsible Jason (Ryan Kwanten). Tara (Rutina Wesley) has left Merlotte’s to explore a tougher line of work. She’s back in the sack too, though not necessarily with Sam (Sam Trammell), who’s running with a new gang of shape-shifters that includes a lithe horse-woman named Luna (Janina Gavankar). Vampire Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) and her human boyfriend, Hoyt (Jim Parrack), discover the harsh realities of trying to lead a normal monogamous life, and just because Bill and Eric buried King Russell Edgington (Denis O’Hare) in a cement grave last season doesn’t mean he’s gone forever. ”They didn’t kill him because Eric thought that would be too easy,” Ball explains. ”Eric wanted him to suffer more than death. Death would be a relief. It’s too fast.”

Death would probably also come as a relief to Bill, who remains bereft that Sookie thinks he’s a liar. ”Bill’s trying to do the right thing,” explains Moyer. ”If he’s learned anything from the past, it is that he wants to be a decent man, and that ultimately means that he has to do the right thing by everybody. But that sometimes involves making difficult decisions.”

As a matter of fact, Paquin has one to make right now. Back in the hotel ballroom, the actress is still trying to decide the best way to make it through the raucous crowd while yelling ”Run!” at the top of her lungs. While an assistant shouts a few last-minute pointers to the extras (”Remember, everyone is scared s—less!”), Paquin suggests one of her own to the director. ”I think if you want to capture my point of view, maybe the cameras should shake more,” she offers. Director Glatter smiles, but does and says nothing. She doesn’t need a wobbly shot to illustrate that whenever Sookie Stackhouse manages to get involved, there will be blood.

The Author Speaks!
Fans of the Sookie Stackhouse book series know that book 4, Dead to the World, has a pivotal and steamy shower scene in which Sookie and Eric finally do the deed. While True Blood‘s creator, Alan Ball, is keeping quiet on whether viewers will see any onscreen shower action in season 4, author Charlaine Harris explains how one moment can change everything.

Book 4 ended up being a huge fan favorite — more so than any other in the series — because it has that amazing sex scene in it. I was really kind of surprised by reader response. I just thought it was a fun part of the book that is detachable. I didn’t know it would redefine the rest of the series. Every subsequent book would have to live up to that.

I now find that over and over, at book signings, women want me to address it to Mrs. Alexander Skarsgård. The first time that happened I was just like, ”Gosh, what a coincidence!” He’s fun and smart, but when he’s not on screen, he’s not Eric. But my gosh, the book struck a nerve when women started imagining Alexander as Eric. This is probably the best example of books and a TV show feeding off each other. I have tremendous respect for Alan Ball and his writers. They are doing things I would never do, and I’m doing things he would never do. I know that most people who try the show try the books. I think it’s really worked out. I mean, the evidence is in my bank account.

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