Anna Paquin, In Flesh And 'Blood' It's the era of Twilight, and pop culture is swarming with the undead. Terry Gross talks to Academy Award-winning actress Anna Paquin, star of HBO's vampire series True Blood.

Anna Paquin, In Flesh And 'Blood'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The HBO vampire series "True Blood" begins its second season Sunday, and season one just came out on DVD. My guest, Anna Paquin, stars as Sookie Stackhouse. Sookie isn't a vampire, but she's in love with one, Bill. He became a vampire during the Civil War and has tried to maintain the gentility he had as a human. But that's hard to do when you're a vampire. Sookie has a special gift which sets her apart from humans. She's able to read their thoughts. That gift is often a burden because she can't shut off their thoughts, and what people are thinking is often not very pleasant. She can't read the thoughts of vampires like Bill, and that's one reason she finds it calming to be in his presence.

Anna Paquin won an Oscar at age 11 for her performance in the 1993 film "The Piano." Let's start with a scene from the new season of "True Blood." Season one ended with Sookie killing in self-defense the man who had murdered several women in town. But another murder remains unsolved. Who killed her uncle, the uncle who had abused her when she was younger? Something she had confided in Bill.

(Soundbite of TV show "True Blood")

Ms. ANNA PAQUIN (Actor): (as Sookie Stackhouse) Did you have anything to do with Uncle Bartlett's death?

Mr. STEPHEN MOYER (Actor): (as Bill Compton) He hurt you.

Ms. PAQUIN: Oh my god. Is it that easy for you to kill? Does human life mean so little you can just kill on command, toss someone in the water? I cannot have people dying every time I confide in you. I never felt more inhuman than when I had to kill Rene. It still haunts me. And now you've made me feel like I killed another person. I feel sick. I always thought as different as we are, somehow we could still be together. And now I don't know. I don't know anything. Please say something, Bill.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mr. MOYER: Sookie, I cannot and I will not lose you. For all the ways I have dismayed, aggrieved, or failed you, I swear I will atone. But I am not sorry. I refuse to apologize for what you have awakened in me. You, you are my miracle, Sookie. For the first time in 140 years I felt something I thought had been lost to me forever. I love you. And for that I shall never feel sorry.

Ms. PAQUIN: Oh, damn you, Bill Compton. I love you.

GROSS: Anna Paquin. Welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoy your performance on the show. Most movies and dramas are heightened versions of reality. They're just more dramatic than reality.

Ms. PAQUIN: Or you condense a lot of really dramatic real moments into a short amount of time that makes it appear more dramatic.

GROSS: Exactly. But a story like "True Blood" is even more exaggerated and more dramatic because so many of the characters have some kind of secret power or gift that they can use for good or evil. And things are especially heightened in the romance scenes because, like in your romance scenes with Bill, there's a certain danger, because after all he is a vampire. And arousal brings out his fangs, which recede in regular life, and he sometimes bites your neck while making love. How does all of that affect how you play those love scenes together?

Ms. PAQUIN: Well, you play it for the reality. You play it for the emotional truth of it, and the things like fangs and blood gags and effects, those I think serve to make the story more exciting and to heighten the reality. But basically it's two people who are falling for each other experiencing something really intimate together. And for him, when his fangs come out, he's scared that she's going to pull away, and instead, you know, it's them being literally bare before each other and accepting each other for who they really are.

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about the special effects aspect of "True Blood." Like in season one you actually, you are near death and I think your back has been broken in an attack, because you can't feel your legs. And to -and...

Ms. PAQUIN: Mm-hmm. Sookie gets almost killed on multiple occasions.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. PAQUIN: I'd just like to point out.

GROSS: And Bill, the vampire, shows up to rescue you and explains that you should feed on his blood because vampire blood has restorative powers. Vampires try to keep that a secret. So you have to, he...

Ms. PAQUIN: I feed off of his arm.

GROSS: You feed off of his arm. So what are you doing for real in that scene?

Ms. PAQUIN: For real, there is a guy named Dan from Masters Effects with a prosthetic arm that is exact replica of Steve's arm, except made out of latex. Complete with hairs on the arm that were individually, like threaded through the latex. There's a tube up the inside. There's an opening and it's like an animatronic arm, and Steve has his arm sort of taped or stashed behind his back.

And Dan is maneuvering the fake arm, which has a blood pump attached to it, which I then - I'm supposed to drink gallons - oh, I actually kind of did drink gallons and gallons of blood from, slash, have it run all over my face. At about four or five in the morning while we were fighting the day, the sun from coming up in the back lot in the Warner Brothers jungle.

GROSS: Oh yeah. Good point, because he can't be in daylight. So you had to do a lot of shooting at night.

Ms. PAQUIN: Yes. So all of those nighttime scenes...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. PAQUIN: Well, obviously there's a lot of night shooting, but also, you know, there's a limited number of hours of nighttime. So by the end of the night, you know, you're racing to get everything done. And because of the messy nature of a lot of the blood gags, often they're left till last because a massive cleanup is not really an option in the middle of a shooting day/night. So yeah, so it's interesting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what is the blood that you're feeding on? What's it made out of?

Ms. PAQUIN: I actually don't know. I would imagine it's some kind of food coloring-type situation. But it has, depending on what it has to be used for, it has a different consistency. I - they offered me low carb blood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: Because they were being considerate of my, you know, short shorts diet. And being an idiot, I said, oh yeah, that sounds great. Yeah. You know, low carb blood, i.e. flavorless blood, really gross after like the first 10 takes of feeding off it through a latex arm, which already tastes like, I don't know, dead...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: ... and nasty. Yeah. I was kind of regretting going the girlie girl route on that after the sort of first few gulps because, you know, a little sugary watermelon, strawberry flavored, something or other I think might've made it go down a little easier.

GROSS: So they couldn't have just put in some vanilla extract or something...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ... to take the edge off?

Ms. PAQUIN: I have no - no, I mean there's different flavors of blood. I mean they make it in different flavors depending on who's going to be drinking it and what they prefer. Yeah. So lesson learned.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Your character, Sookie, is - she seems like she'd be a tomboy, but she dresses very like tomboy sexy. She wears shorts and tank tops, but they're very revealing tank tops. But they're very plain tank tops.

Ms. PAQUIN: She's a practical girl, she has a limited budget, and she lives somewhere where it's like 110 degrees...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Exactly.

Ms. PAQUIN: ...outside during the summertime. You know, but she's athletic and comfortable in her body and comfortable in her skin, and confident.

GROSS: So it takes a lot of fittings to get something that looks like it was...

Ms. PAQUIN: I mean...

GROSS: ...bought at the local Wal-Mart or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: ...except ironically...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. PAQUIN: costume actually, my main, like my Sookie shorts, my waitress shorts from last season, they were off-the-rack Old Navy, and the t-shirt was just American Apparel. But it's a matter of finding the right, you know...

GROSS: Right.

Ms. PAQUIN: ...the exact right item, and the right bra. You know, it's got to, it's got to look right. Also one of the things that we do try to do in the costume fittings and in the - as far as each character - is not shopping too far outside of the budget of the actual character. So the fact that we have Sookie in a lot of stuff that is, you know, from Target or Old Navy or sort of, you know, similarly not high-end stores, I think is really appropriate because she obviously wouldn't be able to afford some really snazzy designer something or other with her lifestyle and with her salary.

And I kind of like - you know, whereas some of the vampires have these really fabulous closets of clothes because they've been around a really long time and the sort of, you know, the premise of our show, I guess have figured out how to be rich because they all seem to drive fantastic cars and wear expensive clothes and that sort of, you know, they've got it figured out over the last, you know, few thousand years.

GROSS: My guest is Anna Paquin. She stars in the HBO vampire series "True Blood." Season two premieres Sunday. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anna Paquin and she's now starring in "True Blood" on HBO. Now, you and your costar, Steven Moyer, who plays the vampire, Bill, that you're in love with, you're a couple in real life now, right?

Ms. PAQUIN: Yes.

GROSS: It must be funny to be in a real romantic relationship while playing characters whose relationship is so powerful because she has special powers that will prevent her from ever being herself with any human man. At least that's what Bill's convinced her of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And he's a vampire. So like when they come together, I mean it's just like such drama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It's like no human relationship, I think, could like quite measure up to the drama that surrounds theirs. So you play that dramatic relationship. So is it funny to be in a real relationship while playing this like super-heightened dramatic, you know, vampire/mind-reader relationship?

Ms. PAQUIN: I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: I don't know it any other way...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: ... as far as my particular job and my particular relationship. I mean, you know, obviously the reason we were cast opposite each other is because we had chemistry. So that energy has been there from day one. And you know, it's, this is how we've grown as a couple. So it's kind of hard to imagine it any other way. I mean it's kind of funny when you think about it, that, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: ... we go to work and that's, that some of the scenarios we end up and, you know, as far as our job is concerned. But it's, that's just the way it is.

GROSS: Did having a real relationship affect the on-screen chemistry and make it either stronger or any different?

Ms. PAQUIN: Well, I think that with any acting in any medium, really trusting the people that you're with makes it easier to go to deeper and more, more open and scary places. And being as how a lot of the Bill and Sookie plotline is physically demanding in various ways, it's really great to completely and utterly trust the person that you're in those scenes with. And I think it just makes it easier.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anna Paquin and she stars in the HBO series "True Blood." Now, everybody knows that you won an Oscar at the age of 11 for your portrayal as, in "The Piano," the Jane Campion movie which is set in the outback of New Zealand, and without getting into a kind of complicated story here, let's just say it's a kind of transgressive version of a romance fantasy with Holly Hunter playing your mother. And she kind of symbolizes creativity. She refuses to speak but she plays this like wild beautiful piano. And Harvey Keitel kind of symbolizes masculinity freed from the constraints of European...

Ms. PAQUIN: Literacy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ... morality.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. And European repression. He's freed from European repression. So in this film you witness your stepfather chopping off your mother's forefinger with an ax in punishment for her infidelity with Harvey Keitel.

Ms. PAQUIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you witness the infidelity when you peek through a keyhole and see your mother lying naked with Harvey Keitel. I'm guessing that when you shot this, you didn't actually see Harvey Keitel naked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: No. No I did not. They, as with most films, shoot the interiors on stages and the exterior where I was peeking through, there was a bunch of camera equipment inside covered with, you know, blue - like rain protection gear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: Yeah, also that - I didn't even get a full version of the script. There was a cut and paste in a scrapbook that I had.

GROSS: Oh, interesting.

Ms. PAQUIN: Because I was nine and that wouldn't have been appropriate.

GROSS: Yeah, well, and Harvey Keitel is totally full frontal in this. So when the movie came out, did your parents let you watch the movie?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: I got to see like the first 20 minutes.

GROSS: How strange was that to get an Oscar for a movie that you're in and yet not be allowed to watch it?

Ms. PAQUIN: Well, I mean it was - I wasn't allowed to watch many films that were...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, but you weren't in them.

Ms. PAQUIN: Yeah, I know. But I've done a lot of stuff that wasn't really necessarily age-appropriate for me viewing-wise. I don't know, I mean that was - I didn't know it any other way. So it didn't seem odd. I mean, the whole thing was odd.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, the whole thing was odd, right.

Ms. PAQUIN: The movie was odd.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. PAQUIN: Being in New Zealand one minute, and then being, you know, in L.A. winning an Oscar and having lots of people that you've never met before in your entire life wanting to talk to you and staring at you and all that. I mean the whole thing was very - I mean statistically very improbable...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAQUIN: ...if you like. So that wasn't really the weirdest part, I wouldn't imagine.

GROSS: So, I know you were protected from seeing things in the movie that would be upsetting, but in the movie your character witnesses her mother's finger being chopped off with an axe.

Ms. PAQUIN: Yeah, that was pretty unpleasant.

GROSS: So you did witness that.

Ms. PAQUIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Did it scare you?

Ms. PAQUIN: I honestly don't remember. I mean, it was - you know, those sorts of scenes - I mean, yeah, at the time it felt intense, but it was also - I don't know. It was really muddy and they had the rain machines and it was cold and I'd been working with those people for several months. So, the - you know, the line between real and fiction in that kind of instance was pretty well in place, you know. So, I don't know. I don't remember being scared. Because I knew it wasn't obviously happening. I got to play with the rubber axe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, right. So you could see it was rubber.

Ms. PAQUIN: Yeah, you know, like they were very good about that sort of stuff -like, here's the finger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. PAQUIN: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Anna Paquin stars in the HBO vampire series "True Blood." Season 2 begins Sunday night. Season 1 just came out on DVD.

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