At the moment, Anna Paquin is taking a moment to unwind from her photo shoot for h, and there’s something about her that is slightly mysterious but also immediately ingratiating. Somehow this force of nature was one of the youngest Oscar winners ever (11-years-old) for her mesmerizing performance in The Piano, and she’s been working consistently since then in both the independent arena (The Squid and the Whale, A Walk on the Moon) and the Hollywood blockbuster realm (the X-Men trilogy, Almost Famous). Throughout her career, the New Zealand transport has always been able to defy the celebrity stereotype and maintain a seemingly normal life as the girl next door. She is down to earth, humble, and at the moment, quite happy. In truth, it is a happy time; she’s preparing to go on a well-deserved European vacation after many months of shooting her new HBO series about vampires, True Blood. The series is the newest brain fetus of Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, and is based on a series of books by Charlaine Harris.
True Blood takes a new angle on the vampire mythos, creating a world in which vampires have revealed themselves to the fearful public. There is skepticism among the masses about their intentions, but the vampires are quick to assure the world that their people-eating tendencies are no longer to be feared due to an artificial blood concoction created by an inventive Japanese corporation. The bottled glog is called Tru Blood, and fang faces no longer need to feed off humans, you see. And while the vampires seem to come in peace, I think that you and I both know, once a neck gouger, always a neck gouger.
Anna sits down with us at h and tells us a little about, among other things, her leading role as Sookie Stackhouse.
Anna: Sookie’s your typical perky, happy, young, Southern gal, and also a waitress in a somewhat dingy truck stop-ish bar restaurant. She’s tough and strong; if she sees someone else in trouble, she’ll go and stick herself in harm’s way. She doesn’t fear much of anything, and therefore she ends up being caught in some bad spots occasionally. That being said, she’s only getting roughed up in the course of doing what she thinks is the right thing to do. That, and she’s telepathic (laughs). When the story begins, she meets and falls for the first vampire who walks into her small town. He comes into her bar one night, sits in her section, and orders a bottle of Tru Blood. She has an affinity for him because, for the first time, she’s not able to read someone’s mind.
h: How did you get involved with the show?
Anna: I was sent a pilot script about two Christmas’ ago, and I was absolutely enthralled with the idea of working with Alan Ball and HBO, and so I went in and auditioned as many times as they would let me until they finally agreed to cast me.
h: You were you a big fan of Six Feet Under I assume?
Anna: Absolutely, my God yes. I’ve been a big fan of Alan since American Beauty, so it was one of those things that when it showed up I thought, “There’s gotta be some catch here, right?” It was too perfect. Obviously the catch in my mind was they’re not gonna cast me, it was calling for blond, tan, Southern, and perky. You know, people are generally hesitant to cast you in a part when they’ve never seen you play a similar role before. I’m pale with dark hair and from New Zealand. So I was so shocked, excited, and thrilled when Alan and HBO took that leap of faith and said, “Well, you know, she can act it, let’s do the make over.” And it worked.
h: How was the makeover?
Anna: Well, for one thing, I spent eight hours in a hair salon with incredibly talented colorists turning my waist length, absolutely untouched, brown hair into blond hair. And then there’s a lot of spray tanning, it’s the easiest thing in the world. Then they add costumes, and it’s done. It’s quite easy as it turns out, minus the hair maintenance. I don’t know why women do that as an option; to keep my hair blond is hard work. It’s a lot of people having to go back and do all my hair as it grows in, it’s very, very high maintenance. I’ve had it for a year and a half and it’s great, I like it. But, I think if I switched hair color between seasons, my hair would fall out. You can’t mess with science that much without suffering major repercussions.
h: What was your first meeting with Alan like? Were you nervous in your audition?
Anna: Yes, but no more so than with anything that you really want. I’d actually met him, sort of, years ago. I was more surprised that he remembered me. That’s always my thing, “Really, you remember meeting me?” But, he’s incredibly lovely and he makes everyone feel really comfortable. He’s probably the least scary person I’ve ever auditioned for because he makes it feel easy. He’s smart and funny, just sort of charming and normal. It almost takes the pressure off, in a way.
h: How is Alan different than other directors you’ve worked with?
Anna: He has this sort of joy about him, and this sort of love about what he’s doing no matter what. Over the course of our entire season, a year of shooting, I never saw him lose that. Most people, there’ll be times when they’re tired or less into it, they’re just worn out. But it’s very important to him to always make sure that everyone is having a good time. I don’t know if I’ve worked with anyone who’s still all about whether or not people are still having fun by episode 11. And that’s an amazing quality. And because he’s so talented and so good to everyone, everyone wants to work extra hard for him.
h: Did you do any research for your part? Obviously you can’t try out telepathy, but was there anything else?
Anna: I had all these really elaborate plans to (laughs) get a job somewhere waitressing, or to go spend time in Louisiana, but then, honestly, I ran out of time.
h: How did you go about creating your Southern accent?
Anna: We all had a dialect coach, everyone had to do it. But after the first few episodes we really didn’t need it any more. It becomes how that person speaks, and you get used to it, and when everyone around you is doing it, it’s not actually that hard. I’ve been technically working in accents my entire career. But as for the process, you listen to tapes and do phonetics, listening is a big part of it. I load those things onto my iPod and get into the music of it, and watch films that have accents that are similar.
h: How much did you actually shoot in the South?
Anna: We shoot a ton on set, but we’ve gone down to Louisiana four times. We shoot in Shreveport, mostly exteriors, obviously locations that you really just can’t find in Los Angeles like plantation houses and such.
h: What was the most challenging part of the shoot?
Anna: My character is very good at getting herself into scrapes, (laughs) unfortunate type situations, where her life is in danger. There’s a fair amount of prosthetic elements and blood, but I love that stuff, the physical stuff, the prosthetics, the other-worldly elements that we get to incorporate. Honestly the hardest part was waiting to hear if our show was going to be picked up for a whole season after we shot the pilot, it was a couple months before we found out. It was kind of nerve-wracking. In my head, it was kind of all on my back, whether the show was going to get picked up or not, and everybody would get to work for a whole season or not.
h: What did you think when you first saw the pilot?
Anna: (laughs) I didn’t see it until they showed it to the cast after the table read for episode two when we’d already been picked up and were about to start shooting. But I find it very difficult to be objective and detached when I watch myself. I was happy, obviously, but what I cared about most was the fact that we were going for more episodes. I was like, “Well, it doesn’t matter that I’m on some weird morose-ish trip about my own performance, because HBO likes it and we get to do more.”
h: Were you a big fan of vampires before True Blood?
Anna: No, not really.
h: Do you like horror movies?
Anna: Mmm, they kinda scare me, I’m a big baby (laughs).
h: What movie has scared you the most?
Anna: Well, it’s not a horror movie, but Silence of the Lambs. For most horror movies, I just can’t watch people being tortured, it’s upsetting, violence for the sake of violence.
h: You seem to have an unusual ability to maintain a normal life, you even went to Columbia College for a bit.
Anna: Yeah, but I didn’t finish though (laughs).
h: Did you get too busy with acting?
Anna: Turns out I liked my job (laughs). I didn’t even get around to picking a major.
h: Would you say that you were still able to get the full college experience?
Anna: Oh my God, I definitely did during my freshman year, my first year out of high school. I lived in the dorms and had an amazing time. I loved it. Some of my closest friends are the ones I met in college. It was the first time I hadn’t been working non-stop since I was 11, so I had the best time ever. No parents, no work. (laughs) I mean New York, come on.
h: Was it hard for people in college to separate you from your work?
Anna: Well, I’m not incredibly high profile in that sense. I mean, I work, I do my thing, but there were a few other kids who were also actors, so I feel like the freak show factor was spread around. Julia Stiles was in my year, and she’d done a lot of films that were kinda teen-oriented, so she was actually a lot more famous, frankly (laughs). I think she took a lot more of the circus freak, intrigue factor. I snuck in a little more under the radar.
h: How were your grades?
Anna: I’m a good student. (laughs) I didn’t get into Columbia by accident, let me just put it that way.
h: So, it didn’t take long before you decided to go back to work.
Anna: I started reading plays because I hadn’t done any theatre. I ended up reading something that I absolutely fell in love with and Philip Seymour Hoffman was directing it. It was going to go for the run of what would have been my first semester of sophomore year and I auditioned and auditioned and auditioned until he said yes and that led to another play which led t. I was originally just going to take one semester off and then three years later I was at my friends’ graduation.
h: Do you know where your Oscar is right now?
Anna: Honestly, I don’t know where it is, it’s somewhere in my brother’s house. I left it there with a bunch of my stuff when I moved to Los Angeles. So, I don’t know, it’s probably somewhere out of the way.
h: I’m a big fan of The Squid and the Whale. Was it weird playing Jeff Daniels’ love interest in that movie after having played his daughter in Fly Away Home?
Anna: Probably for him (laughs). I mean for me, it was a different lifetime, you know what I mean? It wasn’t weird for me, but I think a lot weirder for him because I think he has kids close-ish to my age (laughs) and he’s a good, stand up guy. It’s also probably a lot weirder for him because he can probably remember what I looked like as a 12-year-old and I’m not really conscious of that, so it’s kinda funny.
h: What’s the character you’ve most enjoyed playing to date?
Anna: I love my True Blood character, Sookie. I get to do so much stuff that’s so much fun, and it’s so different from anything I’ve ever done, which is not a slight on anything else I’ve already done, it’s just a fun show. It’s intense and it’s funny, it’s dark and it’s twisted, and it’s sexy and violent. Kinda otherworldly too. With episodic television, I’m loving the process of continually figuring out who these people are and working on them with each episode, that’s just so much more to do as an actor and I love that. So, I guess right now, I have my dream job.
h: Was there anything spooky that happened on the set?
Anna: Well, I mean, no. (laughs) I’m not a real big believer in that stuff.
h: Well, it is about vampires.
Anna: (Laughs) The only spooky thing is being asked by people when they hear you are doing a show about vampires, “Oh, so is it fiction, or non-fiction?” Uh, it’s about vampires, what do you think? But, that’s just spooky in an entirely different way. People being stupid I think is incredibly spooky.