The recipe for TV’s hottest show is simple: one part sex, two parts blood, and three parts played by actors Stephen Moyer, Ryan Kwanten, and Alexander SkarsgÃ¥rd.
I. ALEXANDER SKARSGÃ…RD
Three weeks before Alexander SkarsgÃ¥rd was scheduled to leave his native Stockholm, Sweden, for acting school in New York, he met a girl and fell in love. He went overseas anyway, promising to sustain the relationship from 4,000 miles away. This was back in 1997, before Skype and ubiquitous e-mail, and SkarsgÃ¥rd was broke. He couldn’t afford to talk to his girlfriend for more than a few minutes at a time, much less bring her over for a visit, and he was too proud to ask his dadâ€”who just happens to be the film star Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rdâ€”for money. He loved his acting program at Marymount Manhattan College, but he found the city lonely and exhausting. He lived in a student-housing building with a permanently broken elevator, which forced him to walk nine flights up to his room. When he couldn’t take that anymore, he moved into a “tiny closet” in Times Square that he calls “the worst possible location to live in New York City.” In the meantime, the girlfriend across the Atlantic started making noises about going back to her old boyfriend.
“So I was like, ‘Fuck itâ€”I’m going back to Sweden,'” SkarsgÃ¥rd, now 33, recounts. “I quit school and went back, and it was like I had created her in my mind. We hung out for two weeks and we didn’t get along at all.”
SkarsgÃ¥rd is both self-deprecating and unapologetic as he tells the story. Sure, the girl was still in high school and living at home. Sure, it would be another seven years before he’d manage to move back to the States. Sure, he should have known better than to derail his American acting career before it began. But even Eric Northman, the 1,000-year-old Viking vampire SkarsgÃ¥rd plays on True Blood, was young once. And SkarsgÃ¥rd, imposing and statuesque at six feet four, is far more human than his appearanceâ€”and certainly his onscreen personaâ€”suggests.
That’s not to say he’s not participating fully in the Hollywood mÃ©lange. Previously romantically linked to his second-season True Blood costar Evan Rachel Wood, he is reportedly dating Kate Bosworth, with whom he appears in the upcoming remake of the Peckinpah classic Straw Dogs. And there he is playing Lady Gaga’s paramourâ€”with smoldering, chiaroscuric mystery (he wears an eye patch)â€”in the music video for “Paparazzi.” Then, of course, there’s the fact that he’s the son of a movie star; the elder SkarsgÃ¥rd has starred in art-house classics like Breaking the Waves and blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean and Mamma Mia!
But let’s put that in perspective. Until the younger SkarsgÃ¥rd was in his late teens, his dad was famous only in Sweden. “Being a star in Sweden is like being a star in Omaha,” he says, adding that there are no paparazzi or big paychecks there (though there’s enough of a media machine to have gotten Alexander voted Sweden’s Sexiest Man five times). And while it’s true Stellan’s son was a child star in Sweden in the 1980s, he hated being a preteen heartthrob.
“He didn’t like it at all,” Stellan recalls. “At the age of 12, he had girls standing outside the house. They would ask his younger brother Gustaf to let them in, and sometimes it worked.”
Alexander wanted to be a regular kid who hung out and played soccer. “My father was totally supportive of my quitting acting,” he says. “He said, ‘If you feel like there’s any other option for you, I recommend that option.'”
That turned out to be studying English at Leeds Metropolitan University in England, followed by a 15-month stint in the Swedish marines. “Sweden is probably one of the three countries least likely to get in a war, so the military’s pretty safe,” he concedes. The flip side of that is that many missions were downright stultifying. Imagine conducting round-the-clock surveillance of a radio antenna for four days.
“You couldn’t talk or move,” SkarsgÃ¥rd recalls. “You had to piss in a bottle. It gave me a lot of time to think about things. I realized I missed being onstage and on a set.”
“I ROOMED IN THIS VERY FLAMBOYANT FILIPINO DESIGNER’S APARTMENT. HE HAD THREE GUYS STAYING WITH HIMâ€”ALL 20-YEAR-OLD GUYS. [LAUGHS] WE HAD A VERY INTERESTING RELATIONSHIP. I THINK HE WANTED TO BE MORE THAN FRIENDS. HE KNEW I HAD A GIRLFRIEND, BUT MAYBE HE FIGURED HE WAS IRRESISTIBLE.”â€”SKARSGÃ…RD
Eventually, after his aborted attempt at acting school, he began finding his way into Swedish films and the occasional Hollywood movie, such as Zoolander, in which he had a small role as one of Ben Stiller’s male-model roommates. But SkarsgÃ¥rd’s real break came with the acclaimed 2008 HBO miniseries Generation Kill, in which he played Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert. Just before leaving for Africa to shoot that project, he heard the network was developing True Blood.
“I thought, ‘Oh, vampiresâ€”I don’t know,'” he admits. “But then they said Alan Ball was behind it, and I was a huge fan of Six Feet Under and American Beauty. I auditioned on tape from my hotel room in Mozambique.”
The audition was actually for the part of Bill Compton, which went to Stephen Moyer. “Alex wasn’t quite right for Bill,” recalls Ball, “but I remember that he was giant and also beautiful. So when it came time to cast Eric, I thought of him. He’s got the most amazing eyes. Because of their colorâ€”they’re an amazing greenish blueâ€”he’s able to do this thing with them where he loses focus but remains totally focused.”
It’s a technique SkarsgÃ¥rd picked up from assiduously studying Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Murnau’s and Herzog’s versions of Nosferatu and even The Lost Boys. But that lookâ€”and the inscrutability and coiled tension he gives Ericâ€”is also something he learned from hours spent watching nature documentaries.
“It’s, like, you see this big male lion, and he’s chilling in the sun, and he sits up and he looks at something, and you don’t know if he’s going to pounce or if he’s just going to go back to sleep,” SkarsgÃ¥rd says, his steely gaze unwavering, looking like he could easily break into a yawn. “You never know if he’s bored or he’s frustrated or what.”
II. RYAN KWANTEN
Believe it or not, Ryan Kwanten is not a dumbass. Of course, you’d never guess that: His True Blood character, Jason Stackhouse, is a good old boy writ large, a studly simpleton who thinks with his little head because his big head seems permanently encased in granite. The only one of the show’s leading men who’s not a vampire or other supernatural being, Jason is a stand-in not just for the average guy but also for his masculinity crisis. He’s a red-blooded mortal in a world suddenly colonized by phantasmagoric sophisticates, an affable if dim Everyman whose horndog exterior and prodigious sexploits mask a deep human need for connection.
Kwanten, on the other hand, is an aspiring highbrow. The 33-year-old Australian, who grew up in what he calls a “beach shack” in Sydney, likes to read philosophy, doesn’t own a television, and has been writing a novel for the past 19 yearsâ€”it currently fills 290 pages of a notebook he’s been carrying around since he was 13. Kwanten has the rippling physique of a comic-book superhero but insists he’s more of a yogi than a gym rat. Moreover, he doesn’t like to talk about his body or how often it’s on display on True Blood.
“We have amazing computer-generated effects,” Kwanten says, his Aussie accent revealing no trace of Jason’s aw-shucks-isms. “It’s my head on someone else’s body.”
Still, the fact is Kwanten, who like costars Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin lives in Venice, Calfornia, is sitting at one of his favorite cafÃ©s not far from Muscle Beach, ordering one of the “bodybuilder specials” for lunch. He chooses an egg-white-and-buffalo-meat scramble â€””In the mornings I get pancakes and egg whites,” he explainsâ€”and tries his best to steer the conversation away from anything to do with working out or acting. Wearing heavy black glasses and a newsboy cap, he’s virtually unrecognizable as Jason or any of the other likable lugs he has played. Though he’s close with his castmates, he doesn’t hang out with them and he certainly won’t be found in Hollywood clubs or, as he puts it, “anywhere a paparazzo in his right mind would go.”
Kwanten became famous in Australia in his early twenties, thanks to a prime-time soap called Home and Away, on which he played a lifeguard. He’s quick to add that for part of his time on the show he was also working a public-relations job (“You need to cover your bases,” he says). He went on to star in an American film called Junction Boys, coming to L.A. for a few days of vacation around its premiere and deciding to stay. He spent the next three months in a converted storage closet in a grungy Venice hotel, sleeping on his yoga mat and riding his bicycle and the city bus to auditions. Finally, after a few small TV roles, he was cast as an Australian surfer in the TV series Summerland and then landed a part in the 2006 girl-and-her-horse movie Flicka, in which he caught the eye of Alan Ball, who was casting True Blood.
“He played the lead character’s hot, sweet, dimwit older brother,” Ball recalls. “So when I was casting for Jason, I thought of him. He has almost zero vanity as an actor. He’s not afraid to play stupidâ€”a lot of actors that play dumb characters have to do subtle things to show they’re not stupid. But Ryan doesn’t have that hang-up. And he is so unlike his character that it’s almost shocking.”
As for Kwanten’s physical attributes, Ball insists he didn’t see him shirtless until they were shooting the pilot. “He came on to the set and I thought, ‘What the hell is that?'” Ball says. “But it was a total asset. Part of what makes the whole Jason package attractive is that he’s so comfortable in his own skin.”
“MY PARENTS HAVE SEEN THE SHOW. MY MOM WALKED IN ON ME A FEW TIMES WHEN I WAS LIVING AT HOMEâ€”YOU KNOW, CAUGHT IN THE ACT. SHE’S SEEN ME IN UNCOMPROMISING [SIC] POSITIONS BEFORE.”â€”KWANTEN
Good thing, since no one on True Blood, a show in which over-the-top carnal activity is the norm, has more onscreen sex than Jason. “I’m very comfortable with my body. Most of the time the girl is going to be more scared of the scene than me,” he says. “So I make a pact with them like, ‘Let’s be in this together. I’ve got your back and you have mine.'” Though Jason is often described as a sex addict, Kwanten’s deep character analysis has yielded a more forgiving interpretation. “He lost his parents at a very early age,” he says. “So there are a whole host of things he’s making up for, whether it be a mother figure or someone to hold.”
This may sound like pop psychology, but Kwanten’s been in that mode lately. He’s busy writing a new bookâ€”this one a self-help book of sorts. “It’s a satire of self-help books,” he says, chewing his buffalo meat. “It’s called The G Strategy. I am ‘The G.’ There are steps. The first is ‘Ask yourself the question.’ The second is ‘Give yourself a G name.'”
Kwanten doesn’t specify what “the question” is, but “the G name,” he clarifies, needn’t start with a g. It simply refers to a new name we can assign ourselves if our given name comes with excessive emotional baggage. “Say there’s the name Ryan,” he continues. “That name might have a stigma attached to it due to the years of abuse I’ve suffered as a child. But as, say, Ace, I can do anything. I can associate myself with a mythological creature or a made-up word. And through the invention of that word, it makes you want to break into a smile.”
Kwanten’s earnest tone and poker face make one wonder whether he might be engaged in an elaborate send-up not just of books like The Secret but also of popular culture, of the whole rather embarrassing enterprise of an actor sitting down to pontificate, and most of all of himself. When he trots out platitudinous nuggets like “I like playing ordinary characters and seeing what makes them extraordinary,” you have to hope he really is putting you on. But then there are times when his humor is so laceratingly dry that all is forgiven.
“There are 11 steps,” he says, returning to the tao of The G Strategy. “Normally there are 10, but I added one. I’m not going to tell you all of them. But one is that one and one doesn’t equal two.”
He holds his two index fingers close together and, eyes wide with faux mysticism, adds, “It equals 11.”
III. STEPHEN MOYER
Stephen Moyer, at 40 years old, refers to himself as an “older bloke.” Though he’s often facetious, this characterization doesn’t carry a trace of irony. Maybe it’s that his two kids, Lilac and Billy, are now 7 and 10, respectively. Maybe it’s that his fiancÃ©eâ€”costar Anna Paquinâ€”is just 27. Or maybe it’s that the British actor has grown accustomed to playing the 173-year-old vampire Bill Compton. Granted, as vampires go, Bill’s a mere lad compared with his 1,000-year-old nemesis, Eric Northman (played by Alexander SkarsgÃ¥rd). But whereas the tracksuited, club-owning Eric is youthful beyond his centuries, Bill is the epitome of a throwback. A laconic farmer turned Confederate soldier who was returning home to his wife and children when a female vampire “turned” him (don’t you hate when that happens?), he has led a life mired in tragedy that’s mapped itself across his face. And even though Moyer declares his life to be “fantastic,” he somehow exudes a kind of personal ballastâ€”a seasoned quality that suggests he’s seen enough to know a thing or two.
Moyer grew up in the working-class county of Essex, about an hour outside London, where his father sold glass for a living. “He’s 69 and still doing it,” Moyer says. “No pensionâ€”it’s the kind of job you just keep doing until you drop.” When Moyer was 11 he played Tom Sawyer in a school play and knew he wanted to be an actor.
“I didn’t want to do film or commercials or television,” he says of his early days, first as a student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and then as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “That was cheap. That was selling out. I was the classic liberal, left-wing, ‘Theater is going to change the world’ kind of person. You know, very, very boring.”
He was serious, mind you, for quite a while. But then he was offered a commercial (“It was for coffeeâ€”fucking cheesy shit”), which he agreed to do because it would run exclusively in Scandinavia and no one he knew would see it (though SkarsgÃ¥rd grew up watching it in Sweden and likes to tease him about it). Moyer was well compensated for his trouble (“1,000 quid, which was shitloads back then”) and used the money to buy a boat moored on the canals of London’s Little Venice, where he lived for seven years. Today he and Paquin live on the canals of Venice, Californiaâ€”albeit in a house on terra firma.
“I have to live in places that are called Venice,” he says. “I’m a Venice-zuelan.”
“THERE’S THIS DESIRE TO BE OVERPOWERED, WHICH ISN’T VERY P.C. TO SAY. PRIMAL SHIT. AND DEVIRGINIZATION. IT ALWAYS HAPPENS TO A PIECE OF SKIN THAT DOESN’T HAVE A HOLE IN ITâ€”A SHARP, LONG THINK MAKES THAT HOLE AND THEN BLOOD COME OUT AND IS SUCKED UP . . . I MEAN THAT IS SEXUAL STUFF. EVERY TIME I TALK ABOUT IT I GET A LITTLE BIT HOT UNDER THE COLLAR.”â€”MOYER
Moyer takes a sip of the water he’s ordered at an airy cafÃ©â€”art gallery not far from his home. He compulsively taps out the rhythm to the Dave Brubeck tune playing over the stereoâ€””I’m really enjoying this musical selection,” he saysâ€”stopping only to wave through the window at a friend passing by. Unlike Bill, whom he plays as a composed, almost motionless figure (“He doesn’t have a pulse, so he wouldn’t twitch or make unnecessary movement,” he explains), Moyer is animated and charmingly revved-up, perhaps even a tiny bit hyper. He likes to swear, though his English accent makes this sound salty rather than crass (he also likes to call women “luv” and use words like chuffed, which is British for stoked). And he’s talkative. Despite endless tabloid scrutiny, he has no qualms about discussing his relationship with Paquin, which he entered into with great caution. “To get a pilot that runs to a series, it’s big shit to people,” Moyer says. “And so to come along and go, ‘Oh, let’s have a quick fuck,’ and then risk arguing and being a nightmare when you’re playing the two people who are together the whole timeâ€”that would be immature.”
Which is the opposite of how things worked out. Moyer, whose children are from two different relationships, has never been married, but he and Paquin publicly announced their engagement in August 2009 (just don’t ask him if they’ve set a date; he’s taken to saying it’ll be in 2020). “It’s HBO’s fault,” Moyer says of their hookup. “They put us in the same hotel.” Not the same roomâ€”at least “not to begin with,” he snickers. “No, I’m joking. They put us in these hotel suites, and we hung out for a while and got to know each other. The attraction was there, so it was a matter of whether we acted on it or not.”
“When it got back to me that they were an item, I admit I thought, Oh boy,” says Alan Ball, True Blood‘s creator. “But I trusted them to be adult about it, and they have been. And when they got engaged, Anna said to me, ‘I’ve never been so happy in my life.’ So how can you not be happy about that?”
If Moyer’s relationship with Paquin seems both organic and infused with courtly devotion, the relationship between their characters is no differentâ€”despite the fact that Moyers gorges himself on her blood (it’s a sugarcane mixture that tastes, he says, like “strawberry-flavored corn syrup”).
“He’s in many ways an old-fashioned romantic, like Mr. Rochester or Heathcliff,” Ball says of Moyer. “A lot of people auditioning thought playing a vampire meant acting insane. I was looking for someone who brought a dignity and gravitas to the role.”
And yet, like all the vampires on the show, Moyer delivers a primordial charisma. If SkarsgÃ¥rd plays it to ethereal, almost sylph-like effect, Moyer conveys a brand of sex appeal that’s brooding, clenched, and so earthy you can almost feel its scabrous texture. And then, of course, there’s that voiceâ€”husky and clipped and heavy on the consonants, particularly when he utters the name of Paquin’s character, Sookie. For reasons that baffle Moyer, his pronunciation has become a subject of public fascination.
“We were given that pronunciation very early on by Charlaine Harris herself,” says Moyer, referring to the author of the True Blood books, as we get up to leave. “Sookie rhymes with cookie. It doesn’t rhyme with kooky.”
I ask him if he calls Paquin that at home.
“All the time,” Moyer deadpans. “When she’s chained up.”