A few years ago, Anna Paquin wasn't happy. She was traveling all the time for work, like a gypsy, and had become sick of always being cast as the brooding smart chick in indie movies. "I was looking for something different, a challenge," she says. "I had done a lot of twisty and tortured. I wanted to try something new." That's why she jumped at the chance to play Sookie Stackhouse, the Southern telepath-waitress on True Blood, HBO's vampire soap opera—now a hugely successful show, with more than 12 million viewers per week. "Sookie is sweet, good-natured and can kick your ass while wearing high-heeled pumps and a sundress," says Paquin, 28. "That's not how people saw me." She snickers a little, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "See, the girl with dark hair is supposed to be serious," she says. "But it only takes one person with a little bit of imagination to go, 'You know, pale-skin girls with brown hair can also be blond girls with a fake tan,' and presto change-o, makeover. It's not rocket science."
It's funny to see Paquin, an emotionally intelligent lefty activist, getting freaky with a vampire on True Blood, which is largely a camp endeavor. After all, she's an Oscar winner, too, one of the youngest actors to win the award, which she received for her role in 1993's The Piano at age 11. She was just a small-town, cello-playing kid in New Zealand before then, with parents who insisted on classical-music lessons for their three children in hopes that they would form a chamber trio—"We were that kind of family," she says—and after the success of the film, she went back to school. "I started working a little, then more and more, until acting was something I was consciously pursuing, not something my parents were allowing me to do to have a little fun," she says.
After starring in X-Men as Rogue, Paquin attended Columbia University for a year and lived in New York, where she planned to be "buried," she says, because she loved it so much. She was worried about moving back to Los Angeles, where she never felt comfortable because she's a "14-year-old goth girl deep down," she says. "I was a skate girl. Not that I was a great skater, but I was good at standing around sullenly while the boys skated." She still listens to Metallica and Nirvana on her headphones when she works out, and barely conceals her irritation at those who might try to make her do anything she doesn't want to do, like the doctor she saw in her teens who suggested that she close the gap between her teeth. "Somewhere between the doctor putting his finger in my mouth and saying that he could fix it for me, I was like, 'Yeah, and I could bite your finger right now,'" she says.
Today, not only has True Blood made Paquin a bigger star than she's been since The Piano, but she also met her fiance, Stephen Moyer, on set. He plays her vampire paramour, Bill Compton, the undead Southern Civil War veteran to whom Sookie lost her virginity. That's not the only big development in her life: A couple of months ago, Paquin caused a stir when she decided to come out as bisexual, something she says "wasn't news" to her but which she had always hidden in Hollywood. She'd been asked to tape a pro-gay PSA, in which all sorts of celebrities were making cameos to explain that they supported gay rights, and right beforehand she figured, what the hell? She'd tell everyone who she really was. "I'm not sure what the reaction was, but I'm glad I did it," she says. "There's such an impulse to turn it into a sensational thing, when what I was really hoping to say is that it's normal and not interesting." She smiles. "I feel so lucky right now," she says. "Life is pretty great."
So there you go—liberation can come in many guises, and even sometimes via a trashy vampire TV soap opera.
The modern vampire myth was created in 1816, when a few friends, including the dashing Lord Byron, his doctor John Polidori and Mary Shelley, met at a villa on Lake Geneva for the summer. There was a lot of rain, and ash clouds from volcanic eruptions, so they decided to stay inside and entertain themselves by reading German ghost stories to one another. That wasn't scary enough, so Byron dared them to come up with their own tales. Shelley, who was only 18, dreamed up the idea for Frankenstein. Polidori invented a tale called "The Vampyre," which recast the ancient vampire myth of a smelly corpse with engorged lips and talons for nails as a new sex icon—one part predator, one part Romantic seducer.
It shouldn't be a surprise that almost 200 years later, our puritanical, God-fearing country remade this complex figure into a sissy. We're talking about the role Robert Pattinson plays in Twilight, the dominant vampire meme of the past five years. The Twilight series is primarily an allegory about chastity, a kind of preteen fantasy about keeping men in a perpetual state of agony. The subtext of Twilight is clear: If Edward has sex with Bella, she may be ruined forever. So the two of them just float around, never consummating their love even as they exchange dewy close-ups. One writer calls Twilight's brand of vampire stories for girls "the equivalent of lesbian porn for men: Both create an atmosphere of sexual abandon that is nonthreatening." Stephen King puts the appeal of vampires to youngsters, both male and female, more clearly: "Impotency is never a threat, since vampires' sexual urges are completely oral," he has said. "They are particularly interesting to teenagers who are sexually insecure."
There's something oddly similar about the writers of most vampire romances—they're almost always women, and devout Christians. Twilight's Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon, and Charlaine Harris, the author of the Sookie Stackhouse book series on which True Blood is based, is an Episcopalian who has served as warden of her local church. Vampires may be seductive to them, but they're also genuinely scary. "I'd rather be a human, that's just my personal preference," says Harris. "I know how I want things to go at the end of my life. Immortality is a real burden. I like knowing that I've only got this lifetime to make myself what I can be." She's also not a fan of blood: "As far as blood is concerned, that's something I've outgrown—no more monthly period!" she says, hooting a little. "I love having gone through that and come out the other side."
Clearly, this isn't a complex that has True Blood's creator, Alan Ball, in its grip, though he would be too freaked out to be a vampire: "I don't know if I'd like feeding on people," he says. "I think I'd feel like, 'Ooh, am I hurting you?'" Ball is from a small town that's now part of metro Atlanta, and he still has a Southern accent, though not as much as the characters on the show, who lay it on like molasses. True Blood is very different than Ball's last series, Six Feet Under, a five-season- long HBO show about a dysfunctional family running a funeral home. That one was about relationships in the presence of death; this one is about sex in the presence of death. Ball has hit on the perfect TV formula: a mix of the Sixties cult hit Dark Shadows, the girlie phenom of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the porn of Skinemax.
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