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.
He was able to come up with this frothy concoction because the idea of celibate vampires is ridiculous. "To me, vampires are sex," he says. "I don't get a vampire story about abstinence. I'm 53. I don't care about high school students. I find them irritating and uninformed." On his show, every available orifice is used for intercourse: gay, straight, between humans and supernatural beings, and supernatural being on supernatural being, whether he be werewolf, dog or an enormous Minotaur-looking being called a maenad. None of the sex is quite as good as vampire sex, though, which can happen at the astonishing rhythm of 120 bpm while simultaneously devouring one's neck and making your eyes roll back into your head. Says Moyer, "If we go from a base level, vampires create a hole in the neck where there wasn't one before. It's a de-virginization—breaking the hymen, creating blood and then drinking the virginal blood. And there's something sharp, the fang, which is probing and penetrating and moving into it. So that's pretty sexy. I think that makes vampires attractive." He laughs a little. "Plus, Robert Pattinson is just hot, right?"
Sex, in fact, is what makes True Blood, gives it cultural relevance. It's a fitting metaphor for the new sexual revolution: With AIDS no longer perceived by most young people as a threat, a hookup culture has taken hold in the country, both on- and offline, in a way that would have been unthinkable in the fearful days of the Eighties and Nineties. "I was in college at the beginning of AIDS, and I've spent my life being scared of blood because it's the carrier of HIV," says Denis O'Hare, who plays the vampire king of Mississippi on the show. "And now, suddenly, our culture seems to be bathing in blood." Vampires can kill you on True Blood, that's true, but their blood itself is a vehicle of transcendence, of ecstasy—on the show, it's sold on the street as the drug "V," and even enhances the act of intercourse when you drink it.
But sex isn't anything without violence in the world of True Blood, so there's lots of gore too. On a recent day on set, Eric Northman—played by Alexander Skarsgård—the 1,000-year-old vampire who hailed from the Nordic lands before he became a bar owner in Louisiana, is drenched in blood, along with his raspy-voiced lesbian sidekick, whom he turned into a vampire a century ago. Another vamp sits in a corner, tied up with silver chains, his face burned off. One more has been reduced to liquid and poured into a gigantic glass goblet, which rests on the bar. Even Paquin has a bit of blood on her wrist. "My God," drawls Ball, stomping around the set and looking at the carnage. "It's the battle of the incredibly hot vampires."
Today, the work goes by quickly, with various promises of vengeance and retribution. Paquin tells a few vampires to "go back in the hole you came from, you creepy cold freaks!" Fangs are taken out of small turquoise boxes and set into teeth. Vampires grunt as they nurse their wounds. And eventually, the actors start clowning around with each other during takes. "You know how on Glee they all have to do a nationwide tour?" says Paquin, turning to Moyer. "Imagine if we had to do that?"
"Where are we this week?" responds Moyer, loving the joke. "The Arkansas Pavilion!"
"We'd have to do four weeks of rehearsals, and someone would do a tap dance with a silver choker," says Paquin. "We could put on some sort of freak show."
"No," says Moyer, grinning broadly. "I've got it: It would be a county-fair sex show. Live sex, two dollars!"
True Blood uses a great joke to set up its drama: The Japanese have developed a synthetic drink called Tru Blood for vampires, so now they can live—well, maybe not live, but at least exist—without feeding on humans. Now that they don't have to hide who they are anymore, they can "come out of the coffin" to mix with humans. Ball lays on the persecution-of-gays metaphor really thick here, with talk of vampires fighting for equal rights, and religious fundamentalists trying to drive stakes into their hearts, but he says that's not what the show is really about. "I have a hard time seeing the vampires as a metaphor for gays and lesbians," he says, "just because the vampires on our show are, for the most part, vicious murderers and predators, and I'm gay myself, so I don't really want to say, 'Hey, gays and lesbians are basically viciously amoral murderers.'"
As welcoming as some humans are to vampires on True Blood, many of these immortals just don't want to come down to our level. It's understandable. Even one of the most sinister vampires on True Blood, the sheriff Eric Northman, is gorgeous, powerful and has sex with as many women (and men) as he likes, sometimes while standing up with the woman hanging from a torture wheel; more recently, he was nude, about to penetrate the vampire king's boyfriend from behind, when he unceremoniously stabbed him in the back with a stake.
Skarsgård, the eldest son of the actor Stellan, seems almost genetically engineered to play the part of Eric. Evil seems to be so much a part of his DNA that he was also cast as Lady Gaga's wretched boyfriend, the one who pushes her over a balcony, in the video for "Paparazzi." "That was a really fun day," he says. At 33, he's the Platonic ideal of a Euro-trash vampire fantasy—tall, pallid, with a lock of blond hair that falls to the side when he moves a little bit, which is not that often. "I like to think about Eric like he's a male lion," he says, when I meet him at an L.A. restaurant. "He looks so relaxed, his heartbeat is probably 15 beats a minute, but you don't know if he's going to pounce, or attack, or yawn.
Skarsgård drives a black Audi R8 sports car, wears Hermès cologne and dates Kate Bosworth. He was a child star back home in Stockholm, but set aside the profession at 13 to hang out with his friends. After school, he joined the military service, which was mandatory in Sweden. Skarsgård spent 15 months in the marines, with a semiautomatic with a grenade launcher perched on his shoulder. "I did it because I thought it would be interesting," he says, ordering a Moretti. "I didn't do it because I loved guns—it was a selfish experience for me. I viewed it as a personal challenge.
He started thinking about acting again after this, and in his early 20s, when he was accompanying his father on a trip to Hollywood, an agent booked him on an audition for Zoolander. "I said, 'Of course, I'll try that—it's a cool adventure for a guy from Stockholm to go on a real Hollywood audition.'" He was cast as a male model, and while it didn't change his life, he got the bug again. Skarsgård moved to L.A., buying a 1981 Eldorado and rooming with four Swedish friends in a Santa Monica pool house owned by another Swede. "One guy was a director, another was an actor, one was just a pot smoker—he was a musician, but he just sat around and smoked pot," Skarsgård says. "We were so broke that three of us slept in the same bedroom." It was harder to get parts than he'd imagined, and he went on a lot of auditions for the high school jock in horror movies until he booked the character of Iceman in Generation Kill. "That show was incredible," he says. "The Marines on set helped us get everything right—how to hold the gun, how to get out of the Humvee. We would have been lost without them."
This is pretty much the way the conversation with Skarsgård goes—no talk about sex, nothing too personal. "I don't want people to know too much about me," he admits, when I begin to pry. "It's easier for people to suspend disbelief that way. There's a risk when people see you in a part and they're watching Alexander Skarsgård. Also, I learned from my father to keep your integrity and protect your family—there are certain things that you can talk about and certain things you shouldn't talk about."
There is one way in which he's willing to reveal himself, though. On True Blood, like most shows where actors have to be naked a fair amount of the time, female actors wear a patch, a kind of thong with its sides cut off, and male actors get a sock to cover their private parts, for propriety's sake. "I rock the patch," says Paquin, "even though I don't pretend to think that on the 18th hour of shooting anyone on set gives two flying whatevers that I have my tits out."
Skarsgård, on the other hand, refuses the sock, in his scenes with both men and women. "I don't want a sock around it, that feels ridiculous," he says. "If we're naked in the scene, then I'm naked. I've always been that way."
The evil of Eric hasn't been able to come between Sookie and Bill, at least not yet. Paquin doesn't even mind the vampire bites she endures: She describes them as like "having your flesh ripped open by two really large needles." To most of us, that might sound terrible, but not to her. "I've had 10 piercings in my ear, and a bellybutton pierce, and a tongue ring," she says, counting them off. "My tongue, as it turns out, is not really appropriate for piercing, because the webbing is too close to the front, and the bottom barbell kept hitting against my teeth—clank, clank, clank. And it gave me a lisp, which isn't great as an actress." Plus it must have hurt, too, right? "Well, that," she says. "I don't have a problem with that."
Moyer and Paquin started dating a few months into the show. She had just moved to L.A. from New York, he was newly arrived from London, and the network put them up at the same hotel. They started having breakfast together every morning at a cafe in West Hollywood, and they told each other everything about themselves. Their first kiss happened onscreen, but when they took a break in filming, they found that they wanted to keep talking on the phone at night. "It was like, 'That would be all right, wouldn't it?'" Moyer says. "Nothing has to happen here! It's just one puff!" Within a few months, Moyer's girlfriend in London was out of the picture. Now, the marriage is impending—Paquin is wearing an engagement ring, a rustic diamond in an antiqued platinum inset, even though she's not a "jewelry girl." "We pretty much consider ourselves married now, even though we aren't yet," says Moyer over lunch, then takes a beat. "Doesn't it make you a little sick in your mouth?"
Moyer is the opposite of Skarsgård—he's perky, flirtatious and open, referring to every woman under 80 as "darling." He might not feel great about Skarsgård rubbing up naked against Paquin, but he deals with it. "I do wear a sock in my scenes, but I've got nothing to hide," he says, sniffing a little. "I just think it might be embarrassing for the crew." At 40, he's been an actor for almost 20 years since he left Essex, where he grew up the son of a secretary and a double-glazing salesman—"although he did have a pet company called Petarama, but that was a pet project, wah-wah-wah." He loved buying records, and was never more upset than when Elvis and John Lennon died. He tried piano and trumpet, but ended up the head of the local choir in his adolescence, and he formed bands with his friends, including "Rod, Jane, Freddy and Mike" (a play on the Seventies band) and "BP." "Our logo was the same as British Petroleum's, except we added a pair of boys' fronts and changed it so BP stood for 'Bulging Pants,'" Moyer says.
Moyer got the callback for True Blood the same day his apartment was burglarized. "When you have things stolen, you become much more aware of what's important—fucking take the camera if you want, but don't take the tape that's in it. I lost all those sex tapes, the ones of me giving head when I was young. That was supposed to be my meal ticket."
In conversation, it becomes clear that Moyer enjoys the sexual peculiarities of the show. He loves that vampires are a method of sexual liberation for Sookie. "It's about taking things to the point where normal frames of society wouldn't think that was an OK thing for a young Southern girl to do," he says, then becomes lost in a fantasy. "It's interesting to think about sex as the search for a moment together which is a glorious combination of orgasm and the sexual oneness that might lead to death. Have you ever read William Burroughs' Cities of the Red Night? People fuck while attached to nooses on elastic, and when ejaculation happens the floor falls away." He smiles a little. "But Bill would be able tobring her back, wouldn't he? Hmm."
Soon after sharing that daydream, he's out the door. "Got to go find some cherubic, virginal flesh. See you later!" he says.
So there you go. Here's some evidence that a beautiful love story can flower in the midst of a TV show about vampires. After all, True Blood isn't just about sex and gore, and as we've seen, it's not about gay persecution either. Series creator Ball says that it's about something else entirely: It's about self-fulfillment, about wriggling out of the clutches of repression, about letting go of the things that define you—whether vampire or human—to find the real person underneath.
Ball experienced a lot of death when he was young: As a teenager, his sister died in a car accident while he was in the car, followed by the death of his grandparents and his father. "For me, death was a reality, a companion, a force that was just there in life and could show up anytime," he says. "It's hard for me to get interested in stories that ignore death, which is what American marketing culture would like to do: pretend that death doesn't exist, that you can buy immortality; just buy these products, and you'll be forever young and happy."
Instead, Ball figured out another path to happiness. He fi nally loosened the bounds of his WASPy household, where he had learned to suppress his feelings early, and came out as gay at 33. "I was conveniently bisexual for a long time, and then I went, 'Come on, who am I kidding?'" he says. "And I have to say, it was the single biggest step I took toward emotional well-being, to stop feeling like I had to hide who I am. I'm not saying that being gay is what defines me, but at the same time, if you feel like you have to hide it, then it becomes what defines you. You keep it hidden, and the secret becomes you."
Then again, True Blood is just nasty fun. "You know, working on Six Feet Under could sometimes be depressing, but True Blood is very different—it's about archetypes, the subconscious, mythology and wish fulfillment," he says. "I'm like a kid going to the playground every day."
This article appears in the September 2, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.