Newly blonde and loving it, Anna Paquin is sinking her teeth into an unusual role on a new HBO drama/fantasy, True Blood.
Anna Paquin says her life is all about her work, and her impressive filmography shows it. Although she’s only 25, her list of credits reads like the résumé of a Hollywood veteran. She took home an Oscar at 11 (for best supporting actress in The Piano, with Holly Hunter) and went on to appear in a succession of remarkable films, including Jane Eyre, Fly Away Home, Amistad, Hurly Burly, A Walk on the Moon, Almost Famous, and all three X-Men movies. Nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Elaine Goodale in the TV adaptation of Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Anna won praise from critics and audiences alike. And she’s not slowing down. With a new film, Margaret, starring Matt Damon, due out in December and an HBO television series beginning in January, her career maintains a high trajectory. Paquin sat down with Boston Common to talk straight about her greatest passion: the craft.
BOSTON COMMON: Looking at your résumé, the word typecast definitely does not apply. How do you pick your projects?
ANNA PAQUIN: The same way I choose everything, someone sends my agent a script, and if I like the material and the people, the work will engage me. I don’t really care if I’m in a tiny little theater festival, like the Cape Cod Theatre Project, where I starred with Jeffrey Carlson in The Manuscript, or on the movie screen doing The Squid and the Whale, or on TV in an ongoing series like True Blood, as long as I’m working with people I find compelling and interesting.
BC: In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, you portrayed Elaine Goodale, a teacher who learned the language of the Lakota to try to improve life for the Native Americans on the reservation. What drew you to her and to this production?
Anna Paquin: The subject matter, the characters and stories in that particular period of American history are so fascinating and important. I really wanted to be part of it. Once I got up to Calgary to start shooting I had to learn some Lakota, which is one of the native languages. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to learn it, just how to say phonetically what the dialogue needed. It was an incredible privilege to have someone who is one of the last speakers of the language tell you details of the tribe’s culture. It’s a truly amazing process.
BC: Is there a difference in how you prepare for a real-life versus a fictional role?
Anna Paquin: With nonfiction, you have the luxury of source material. In the case of my character, she wrote a memoir that specifically covered the period of time that the film documents. Because Dee Brown doesn’t mention her in his book, it was incredibly helpful to dig into some of the resources on the Internet to find books and articles she’d written, as well as things written about her from that period of time. I did a lot of research and just locked myself in my apartment for weeks with lots of coffee and books.
BC: Sort of different from your role as Rogue in the X-Men movies. How did you like doing the comic-based action film?
Anna Paquin: Well, I would have liked to do more action in the comic-based action film, which I got absolutely none of. I got all the dialogue scenes in the movie and got to work with some really cool people that I’m very close with. Doing an action film where you get to kick or punch somebody, now that’s different.
BC: How psyched are you to be working with Alan Ball [producer of Six Feet Under] in True Blood, premiering on HBO in January?
Anna Paquin: I had the amazing experience of working for HBO with Bury My Heart, and I love and have always been a fan of its programming. HBO does really beautiful things. Alan Ball kind of rocked my world, to put it mildly; he’s an incredible, brilliant individual who cares about the same things that I care about creatively.
BC: And what do you care about?
Anna Paquin: There are some directors, he’s one of them, who are more or less willing to sit and have discussions about your character, why you’re doing things a certain way, or to explain where they are coming from. Especially when the decision will be made on the strength of this one pilot whether or not it’s picked up as a show. Alan makes sure everyone’s on the same page, he’s very intelligent and very real in his writing, funny but dark. I’m a huge Six Feet Under fan; I’ve seen every episode at least two or three times. I like his stuff, what can I say?
BC: All I’ve heard so far is that True Blood is about vampires and it takes place in Louisiana.
Anna Paquin: To say it’s a show about vampires would be like saying Six Feet Under is a show about a funeral parlor. That just touches on one aspect of it. The people and the place are just a setup for more dramatic action heightened reality.
BC: Is it set in modern-day Louisiana?
Anna Paquin: Yes, and I play Sookie, a waitress in a roadside diner in a small Louisiana town where vampires have integrated themselves as the current minority group. They survive with the assistance of a Japanese product called True Blood so they can coexist peacefully with humans. I don’t want to give anything away, but it gets dark and twisted, funny and creepy, very quickly.
BC: You have a movie opening in December, Margaret, with Matt Damon, in which you play a 17-year-old girl. Is it a coming-of-age story?
Anna Paquin: Yes, something like that. This is a Kenneth Lonergan movie, and he is one of my favorite writers and a brilliant director; what an incredible experience. It’s about this high-school girl who inadvertently causes a bus accident that kills a woman. She attempts to set things right and it doesn’t happen. She becomes overwhelmed with this horrible sense of guilt, that sheâ€™s done this terrible thing and she can’t undo it. Bottom line: Not everyone does the right thing, and she finds out that her ideals are not what the adult world cares about.
BC: You’ve been doing some work behind the camera this year with your brother Andrew. What have the two of you been collaborating on?
Anna Paquin: We did a film called Blue State and we have every intention of doing a lot more. I really like, for lack of a better word, being one of the people “in charge.” You don’t have to sit around and wait for projects to come your way, you can make them land right in your lap. We have a production company, but Blue State isn’t released yet. We’re working on it.
BC: Has your family helped you avoid the negative side of fame when growing up in the spotlight?
Anna Paquin: Well, sure. The more support you have, regardless of what you’re doing, the better you’ll be able to do it. My family has always been 100 percent behind me and has also been very protective in the right way, but also very liberating, because they let me go and try and fail and succeed.
BC: When you decided to leave Columbia University after less than two years, were they supportive of that as well?
Anna Paquin: Yes. I think it was getting into college and doing my first year straight out of high school. By the time the second year came around, I had just auditioned and gotten my first play, The Glory of Living, and Philip Seymour Hoffman was directing, which was the most incredible experience ever. And then it turned out that my job became more interesting to me, to be perfectly honest. School will be there when I get back, and there are specific jobs that won’t be.
BC: What about publicity and the paparazzi? Some actors think it helps their careers and keeps them in front of the public.
Anna Paquin: Honestly, for me, doing my job in a way that I feel proud of, and feel good about, is more important than being seen at the coolest places. Showing up at work and actually being prepared and feeling confident is the best buzz you can get. I don’t need to be seen at some fancy club until four in the morning, that’s not where my priorities are. Sure it’s fun to hang with your friends when you’re not working, but when I’m working, that’s where my head is.
BC: Then you must not see them very often.
Anna Paquin: [Laughs] I have long catch-ups with my various girlfriends, so I don’t feel like the completely bad friend who has no idea what’s going on with any of her friends while she’s at work.