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IT’S IN HER BLOOD From Child Prodigy to Supernatural Heroine, Anna Paquin Has Us Under Her Spell


Anna Paquin is a true natural. At the age of nine she went to an open casting call near her home in New Zealand for an independent film called The Piano, and at 11 she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for a performance that no one saw coming. She was, quite simply, astonishing as Flora McGrath, who traveled with her mother (Holly Hunter) to the home of her new stepfather (Sam Neill) in the forests of New Zealand’s South Island. The depth and command she brought to her character in Jane Campion’s 1993 masterwork were rare for an actor of any age, much less a child, so it should come as no surprise that, 16 years later, Paquin is still keeping audiences under her spell. The veteran performer’s character, Sookie Stackhouse, on HBO’s high-tension, supernatural escapade, “True Blood,” has leapt into the thick of battle as the humans and vampires struggle for dominance in the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps, and beyond. On the surface, Sookie’s a waitress at the local watering hole, but beneath that she’s a warrior, a diplomat, a spy, a lover, and everything in between as she fights tooth and nail to protect what’s right and stay alive. Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), her vampire beloved, has been kidnapped by werewolves and brought to the court of the power-hungry King of Mississippi (Denis O’Hare), and Sookie is forced to accept the help of the vicious yet alluring blood-drinker, Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard). Season three is at full throttle and the dance has begun.

Shortly after her Oscar triumph, Paquin took on the role of 14-year-old Amy Alden, who flew a flock of orphaned geese south across the Canadian border, in the moving, picturesque, and playful Fly Away Home (1996) with Jeff Daniels. She appeared as Queen Isabella in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) and as a mistreated drifter in Hurlyburly (1998) with Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey. It was in 2000 that Paquin, now a young woman, returned to the public eye in earnest as the outcast, insular Rogue in the superhero blockbuster, X-Men, with Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Halle Berry, which spun into the sequels, X2 (2003) and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). She played one of rock band Stillwater’s “Band Aids” (who were not groupies, they insisted) in Cameron Crowe’s ode to rock & roll journalism, Almost Famous (2000), and then inhabited student Claire Spence in Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester (2000). She also enjoyed her work with Scott Glenn in the little-seen Buffalo Soldiers (2001). (“He took it pretty seriously. I was slightly scared of him, which I love!” she laughs.) Paquin was in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Edward Norton, and performed alongside Jeff Daniels once more in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005). And amid all of it, Paquin found time to spend a year at Columbia University.

As she continued her film work in the early 2000s, Paquin was also making a name for herself on the New York stage in such acclaimed productions as Rebecca Gilman’s “The Glory of Living” (2001) directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Weitz’s “Roulette” (2004), and Neil LaBute’s “The Distance from Here” (2004) with Alison Pill and Melissa Leo. And in London, she performed in Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth” (2002) with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hayden Christensen.

In a marked departure from her purview of young adulthood, Paquin took on the title role in CBS and Hallmark Hall of Fame’s John Kent Harrison-directed “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” (2009), the true story of a 29-year-old social worker who joined the Polish underground and saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize decades later. Paquin took some time from the set of “True Blood” to appear in brother Andrew Paquin’s directorial debut, indie horror film Open House (2010), in which Stephen Moyer, Anna’s real-life fiancé was also featured. Slated for release this September is Galt Niederhoffer’s The Romantics, a portrait of a group of friends who reunite after college for the wedding of Lila (Paquin) and Tom (Josh Duhamel). Lila’s college roommate, Laura (Katie Holmes), feigns contentment as the maid of honor as she and Tom struggle with their own tumultuous romantic history together. Candice Bergen, Malin Akerman, Elijah Wood, and “Glee”’s Dianna Agron co-star.

Following her rooftop photoshoot, we walk with the Canada-born, New Zealand-raised thespian to a nearby Venice cafe. Having just wrapped season three and looking forward to a breather, she decompresses as we dig into a late breakfast. “Sometimes I feel like my food is just a vessel for me to use hot sauce,” she grins. We launch into the interview and are quickly struck by the Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning talent’s cheerful candor.

Venice: I’ve spoken with a few “True Blood” cast members and I’ve been really impressed. Is this just the nicest group of people to work with?

Anna Paquin:

I can’t think of a group of people that I would rather spend the next five years of my life with. It’s a wonderful ensemble in the truest sense, where everyone is equally important and necessary and it doesn’t work without the whole group. Every single part is filled with such interesting, wonderfully talented, great people. It’s a dream. Everyone’s so into it and we all feel so lucky to be there.

What did you think of the script when you first read it? ?

I read the cover letter that said “HBO” and “Alan Ball.” I was like, “Please! Yes! Thank you!” [laughs] Then I read it and I was like, “Okay, well they’re never going to cast me as blond and Southern.” So that was nice, but — never gonna happen. And I went in anyway as pale, dark, brooding girl and managed to convince them that it was a coloring issue, not an inability to do it. A lot of times people have no imagination when it comes to things like what you look like. As in, “Brunette girls are serious girls and blond girls are perky girls.” That sort of complete B.S. And thankfully Alan has an imagination — clearly! [laughs]

I thought it was funny and smart and twisted — which are all things I love in entertainment of any sort — and I couldn’t see what was coming next. I didn’t really know what to expect, and again, that’s something I love. The whole world that Charlaine Harris, who wrote the books, and Alan had adapted — I just loved all of it. It was something I’d never seen or thought of before, and that’s really exciting. And there were so many possibilities of where it could go. I feel like we could keep going for quite some time in this particular world before it would run out of weird shit. [laughs] That’s the whole thing with these genre shows, or films, is that anything is possible, and creatively that’s really exciting because it’s rooted in being about people and their relationships and their hardships and their emotional story, but when the plot points can be really out there, it’s more exciting — and it’s endless fun for us

You seem like the natural choice for Sookie. Was it a long audition process?

For TV it always is. It took quite a while for the process to finish but I was excited about every step of it. I really wanted it. I feel like a lot of times, as a person, one has a tendency not to tell anyone how much you want something because when it doesn’t happen you’ll feel disappointed, and I’ve sort of decided that the other option is to put it out there. And it’s funny how sometimes that actually works. It’s just like, “I want this and I want it really badly. I love it and this is what I want to spend the next few years of my life doing.” And I think that’s also part of growing up, being more confident about the possibility of, “What if someone knows I want it and then I don’t get it?” Oh, well! What does that really mean? If you never ask for anything, the odds are you’re never going to get anything. And trying to play it cool? What is the point?

So you visualized it?

[laughs] Yes! I know that sounds really... you know? But you put it out there. And weirdly enough, before the show had even come anywhere near me, I had been talking for probably the last few years, like, “I would love to get one of those shows!” Like one of those HBO or Showtime or one of the good cable network shows because I think the quality of the product is so high. And as far as an acting job, you know where you’re going to be for several months out of your year. You get to work with the same people and really develop those relationships. To me that was always something I thought would be really fun. So the positive visualization had actually started probably two years earlier. [laughs] I had started to actually tell people this maybe six months before the script showed up!

When you got what you asked for, was it as you’d imagined?

It was even better! I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken to Alan Ball, but he’s one of the funniest people you will ever meet. He’s really dry and he tells funny stories and everything he says is laced with this slightly subversive, twisted, very cool, very smart sense of humor. He’s like everyone’s favorite uncle. When he’s on set, everyone wants to sit and chat with him, or listen to him chat. He’s just a cool guy! And there’s a trickledown effect, you know? If big boss-man is interesting and smart and funny and nice, then that tends to be the kind of people they hire, or who want to work with them.

Do you remember where you were when you found out you were cast?

I was at lunch with my brother and his wife and it was his birthday. And I was desperately trying to not just sit andm stare at my phone. It was a few hours after I left the HBO office, so that was mercifully short.

Did you freak out?

I was so happy, are you kidding me? It was amazing.

One of the great things about Sookie is that no matter what she gets pulled into, she always takes full responsibility for being where she is. Like when Bill apologizes to you for bringing you into the battle between humans and vampires, you’re like —

“I knew what I was doing!” I think you could look at her one of two ways. Either she’s really stupid or she’s actually very brave. And I like to think of her as very brave. It’s not that she doesn’t know she’s going to get in trouble; she just doesn’t necessarily care. And it’s not about her. She doesn’t mind sticking her neck out for things she believes in, and I really like that. You’re not sitting on the sidelines waiting for somebody else to go get their hands dirty. She jumps right on in. And yeah, ends up getting in trouble a lot. It wouldn’t be as fun if she didn’t. [laughs]

If everyone got along it wouldn’t be a very interesting show.

You mean if I showed up in a nice small town where a vampire walks in and everybody welcomes him warmly and then he and Sookie live happily ever after with no trouble ever? That’s nice but it’s not good television, or terribly representative of real life. [laughs]

It’s still a show about characters and relationships, as well as being a metaphor for accepting people who are different.

Pick a group that’s relegated to the sidelines and discriminated against. I think that depending on what people who watch the show have strong feelings about, they can see whatever that is in the show. But it’s not a “messagey” show. It’s also just really fun to watch. And weird and crazy and wildly outrageous. [laughs]

Do you still get star-struck?

Yes, but usually with people who are not necessarily the obvious people. Usually it’s just ones who are really great actors and whose talent I really admire.

I know what you mean. I was so jazzed to meet Bill Sanderson [“True Blood” Sheriff Bud Dearborne] last year, this great character actor who’s been in so many movies.

He’s a seriously talented, real, real actor — and just the sweetest dude. It’s those sorts of people on our show who elevate it. Even when it’s a character who maybe isn’t in every single episode, but is played by somebody like that. Or like Lois Smith, who was my grandmother for a season. These really serious, madly experienced actors. It makes us young’uns feel kind of in awe.

Is it possible for human beings and vampires to live in peace?

Oh, gosh. I don’t know. Certainly not on our show — otherwise we’d all be going home! [laughs] “And they lived happily ever after. Eric opened a really nice school for young vampires, where he lovingly talked them through the early stages of vampirism and how not to kill people. And Pam covered makeup tips for hiding the blood.” It’s just never gonna happen, is it? Although it would be funny! It would be funny for one episode and then it would be like, “Just kidding, that was a dream.”

I want to see someone carry on Godric’s vision of peace. I was sad to see him go. He was the last hope!

Well, read into that what you will. The last hope for peace committed suicide because there was no hope for peace. [laughs]

Of everyone, I think it’s Bill who really felt that Godric had some good ideas.

Yes. Well, Eric, too. But Eric is very torn because he’s this sort of maniacal, twisted fucker who some of the time is kind of lovely and some of the time is completely using people. [laughs]

You’ve done a lot of work through the years, but “True Blood” is huge.

There’ll be some films that get noticed and some films that don’t, and you do theater and five people see it. You work and then suddenly you do something that it seems like everyone has either seen or heard of. Being famous is not really, specifically, something I’ve ever factored into my decision-making process. If people know who I am, I want it to be because I’ve done work that they found compelling in some way. So when you pick a job because of the creative stuff and then it ends up taking off, it’s pretty trippy.

What do you see as the attraction between Sookie and Bill, in terms of what’s good and what’s problematic?

Well, she can’t hear his thoughts, which was a really big plus on the first meeting. [laughs] It’s like, “Finally! Quiet!” And he’s been other places and seen other things, and has more view of the world than anyone else she’s ever

met. And in a lot of ways, even though she’s never left her small town, she’s had some grow-up-fast life experiences. I think the simple fact that he’s worldly and not freaked out by her, and she’s not freaked out by him. And then he’s incredibly good looking! Vampires in general seem to be cast as people with exceptionally good cheekbones. [laughs] In all shows! It seems to be sort of a prerequisite. Pale and chiseled.

Do you see similarities between your relationship on-screen with Bill and offscreen with Stephen?

No, not really. I mean, aside from just the basic fact of attraction, that’s pretty much the only thing they have in common. It’s sort of impossible to say. I’m actually trying to come up with a really good compare-and contrast here, and I don’t even know where to start. [laughs]

It must be nice to go to work with somebody every day who’s also your life-mate.

Well, I think it’s really amazing to find those people in general. Someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. I think that’s a blessing. And to be on the dream job, and find that person, and have the dream job continue. You know, life is pretty great. I’m pretty damn lucky, and I know it. I’m aware that this is not, like, a normal amount of good shit at one time. [laughs] It’s quite a special little setup. And the people and the friendships; it’s one of those things that may or may not ever come together in that way ever again — and if it never does, I feel incredibly blessed that I got this. All the stars kind of aligned. I know what a good thing I’ve got.

In terms of the stars aligning, let’s go back into your history. You were a kid in New Zealand and you went with your sister to an open-call audition for The Piano.

I got to miss a half a day of school. I was psyched. [laughs] They were doing open casting calls all over New Zealand. They had already cast Holly Hunter and they needed someone that was small enough to be her nine-year-old daughter, and she’s a very tiny lady so that eliminated any of the girls who had had a growth spurt. [laughs] It was for girls nine through thirteen, and I was nine. And I got called back and called back, and after, like, the third one, they offered me the job.

Do you ever wonder, “What if I hadn’t gone to that audition?”

I mean, I’ve been asked it! I’m sure I would have wondered about it at some point anyway, but I don’t really know what my authentic, real thoughts about that are because I’ve been asked it so many times. [laughs] It’s like, do you remember the birthday party when you were three, or do you remember it because you’ve seen the photograph a hundred times? People ask you certain questions. No idea what would have happened. I’m sure I would have been doing something creative. I can’t see myself sitting in an office somewhere. None of the things that I’ve been interested in would have led me to that kind of life. I used to want to be a courtroom lawyer when I was little. But again, there’s a kind of a performance- art aspect to that, which considering I was so freakin‘ shy is kind of odd to me.

Did you find your shyness dissipate when you started acting?

It dissipated by the time I finished high school. [laughs] It still creeps up every now and then when I’m in social settings where I don’t know anyone and I really just want to go sit in the corner and hide.

Do you remember when you won the Oscar and gave your acceptance speech?

It’s pretty much a blur, but again it’s something that I’ve been asked about so many times that I have a pretty good reconstructed memory of it.

Your life really changed after that. Did it feel like a huge deal at the time?

Well, no. That’s the thing. When you’re a kid, things don’t feel extraordinary and big. It’s just what’s happening. You don’t have that... Like for me in the last few years, watching the whole “True Blood” thing take off, that’s been a bigger “Oh wow!” than any of the stuff that happened when I was a kid, because I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t understand all the signs and clues along the way [that were saying], “This is actually something kind of big.” But now it’s like, “Aaand there’s another one of our billboards. And there’s another one! Oh my God, that’s like the 75th bus stop that has our faces!” That ... it’s weird! And, frankly, kind of cool. To me, that’s been more big and exciting. And I imagine if I’d been older when all that stuff happened when I was a kid, that that’s probably how I would have felt.

You were a very intense child, at least in terms of what people saw on screen.  I’ve always been pretty serious. Not as serious as I think people think! But I’m not someone who smiles all the time unless something makes me smile or laugh. That wasn’t me, so I didn’t get cast like that. So I got to actually learn how to be an actor because I was cast to be an actor on jobs where I had to figure out how to really do what they wanted me to do, that were demanding. And working with real and experienced actors who I very quickly tried to emulate. And I think that changes the course of one’s career, who you’re surrounded by when you’re really young and really impressionable. Truthfully, I’ve always worked with people who are really amazing and inspiring and wonderful, but I think particularly when you’re so young. It’s a hell of an apprenticeship, and I’m grateful for that.

You did Fly Away Home shortly after The Piano. Running around with those little goslings must have been fun.

Yeah, they’re really stupid-cute when they’re that small. But like most things when you’re a kid, sometimes you’re just not in the mood. Sometimes you’re like, “That sucker bit me again!” It’s like, “Stop eating my hair!” [laughs] Most of it was fun, but, honestly, the most fun I had was that the guy [Bill Lishman] whose story it basically was, his real-life daughter was my age and it was the first time I’d gone away to work and there was another kid. And there would be weeks when we would be waiting for the geese to grow enough to start shooting with them for the next lot, so I had someone to play with and that to me was the coolest. Not necessarily the serious work, but having someone else to play with, I was like, “Awesome!” Wild and free, running around this beautiful farm in Ontario. That was the stuff that I was really into.

“The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” is an important story. Were you excited about bringing it to life?

Well, that’s pretty intimidating, actually, when you’re getting into telling real stories about real people. It was exciting, but I did spend the first week [thinking], “What am I doing? I’m a fraud and they’re all going to figure it out at some point, and it’s going to be really embarrassing!” [laughs] But ultimately you think, “Well, fine, they cast me. This is who it is. I’m just going to do my best.” It was a really amazing experience. And then when the film premiered, meeting a few people who said, “I was smuggled out.” It’s so overwhelming. “I’m alive because of her.”  And what’s extraordinary when you think about it is because it was on CBS, obviously there’s a limit to what you’re allowed to show on a network, and if you think of how upsetting some of the stuff that we did was, and just how much worse it really was. Every once in a while, you do things that are not just entertainment. It feels good to bring people a story like that out of hiding, and to get to be part of that does feel meaningful. What’s interesting about that story, which I didn’t actually believe until I did my own research, was that she did escape. She and Stephan did marry. I was so shocked! It’s actually incredibly uplifting, the fact that that really was the way that things panned out. She did escape from prison and escape being executed. God, it kind of gives me goose bumps.

I know it’s an odd transition, but can you tell us about working on the X-Men movies?

Again, it was another great cast, especially the second one where they cast some other people my age and I had other people to play with — that’s kind of a theme in my career. [laughs] I suppose I got pretty sick of being the kid, and then finally I had people roughly my own age in various jobs and it was always great. But you hit a certain 20-something and then age stops meaning anything.

You co-starred with Breckin Meyer in Blue State (2007), which your brother produced.

[Breckin]’s another one of those can’t help- but-be-funny people. He’s very bright and very nice and very funny. My brother and I had been talking about wanting to produce films. A friend of his [Marshall Lewy] wrote scripts and wanted to direct it. My brother [Andrew Paquin] raised all the money and we did it! It was such a great experience. We’re a very close family and getting to work with him, I found out every day just how similar we really are, as far as our tastes and our sensibility in terms of what we wanted out of the film. I think if you can work with your family, it’s the coolest thing ever.

[Writer’s note: Paquin plays Jeff Daniels’s 13-year-old daughter in Fly Away Home and his 20-year-old illicit love interest in The Squid and the Whale.]

I had no idea what I was getting into, but during my research I watched The Squid and the Whale right after Fly Away Home.

[Burst of laughter] Did you feel dirty? Probably not as dirty as Jeff felt. It’s funny, though. In reality, it wasn’t weird for me because it felt like a lifetime ago, like a different person, but for him, I think, who is this very boundaried, proper, good, wholesome family man from Michigan, with his kids, and his wife, and his really wonderful career, and his theater company, I think it was more awkward for him than for me. But you know, [laughs] it is what it is.

A strange confluence of events. Good movie.

It is a good movie!

Horror fans love Trick ’r Treat (2008).

I honestly don’t know why that had so much difficulty getting a theatrical release. I don’t understand. My friend who wrote and directed it, Mike Dougherty, who was one of the writers on X-Men 2 and is a dear friend of mine, did an awesome job with that. It’s an old-school horror anthology, and it’s weird and twisted and visually stunning, and I think he did an amazing job with it. It ended up being one of those cult films. We subsequently had little screenings and DVD releases and people have seen it and the response has all been incredibly, incredibly positive. Usually you can kind of tell which things are maybe never going to see the light of day, and that one actually surprised me. He’s such a talented, talented man. Mike is a horror fan. At his heart he’s one of them, and he made a fabulous film. [At least] the people he was making the film for saw the film and loved it.

All I can do is give it some press.

[whispers] Trick ’r Treat! Trick ’r Treat!

Let’s move on to The Romantics.

I think Galt [Niederhoffer, writer-director] did a really beautiful job with it. She’s a cool lady, very smart, very talented.

What a good movie. It’s got a Big Chill vibe to it.

And also that thing of, “Do you really have anything in common with the people you were friends with back in the day — in college or in high school?” When that ends, things are not necessarily as happy and loving as they once were. [laughs]

Especially between you and Katie Holmes. I didn’t find myself picking sides between you two, though.

What I love about the way [Galt] constructed that story is that there isn’t a bad guy and there isn’t a good guy. There are a lot of feelings and there’s a lot of love, and there’s a lot of power struggle and head-butting and complexity to those really intense relationships between friends and lovers and exlovers. It all felt very real, as far as the messiness of it. Those two girls — in a way the love story is about their relationship. It’s as much about the disintegration of that as it is about the disintegration of the relationship between guy and girl. The intensity of those really close friendships. I love the way she doesn’t make one person the bad guy. Because that’s usually not how it is! It’s very rare that one person is just Satan [laughs], and just set out to screw with everyone. There are usually a lot of angles on the story. What I love about my character [Lila] is that she is almost the person that she presents, and in this one weekend you see it crumble. There are little cracks and then it all just completely falls apart. And in my experience, that’s, again, kind of lifelike. Those people who look like they have it all together are usually just as neurotic as the rest of us. And all her control and how things need to be a certain way, and that way of structuring one’s life — and watching it all go to shit. [laughs]

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, for everyone involved.

Nope. The truth is that none of them necessarily end up together, and they possibly don’t go on to be great friends. And they probably go off and actually really start their lives, and find actual meaningful relationships and things they want to do elsewhere, and sometimes that’s the best thing. Just rip the fuckin’ band-aid. It feels comfortable and familiar but it’s like chasing one’s tail, in those circular relationships.

You’ve been acting for a long time. What do you love about it? What keeps you passionate?

I love storytelling. It kind of comes down to that. I love being engaged in a story and watching it unfold and being excited. And I love being part of the storytelling process. I love the various ways in which, visually, you bring the stories to people — be that staging or cameras. I’m interested in people and all the weird and ooey and gooey and gnarly emotional shit. [laughs] I find that stuff interesting. And what makes people tick and why people do things that they do. And how they get themselves in and out of situations and what the repercussions are for them. All that stuff interests me. Also it can be pretty cathartic. You can get a lot of stuff out, sometimes in places that you didn’t even know [about]. You end up tapping into something and you’re like, “Oh, that felt real!” I just love it. I love working with people that I find exciting. I love it best when you get to play and you find someone who will play with you. They chuck it to you one way one time and then chuck it to you another way, and you’re both just trying to figure out what feels good and what works, and the finessing of it. That to me is fun and intrigues me. I think that the way that it stays interesting and the way that I stay passionate is that I always try to surround myself with people who I want to do the best work I can so that I don’t disappoint them. People who I look up to. People you feel like you need to stretch to keep up with. Maybe that’s because I’m a youngest sibling; I want somewhere to head to and someone I have to run to keep up with. You can’t get bored if you’re constantly trying to push yourself. ▼

Season three of “True Blood” is now airing on HBO and HBO on Demand. Seasons one and two are available on DVD. The Romantics debuts in theaters nationally September 10th. Purchase Trick ’r Treat at or rent it at Cinefile Video in West L.A.


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