TrueBloodNet.com Exclusive Interview with Sam Trammell
June 9, 2009 by Ollie Chong aka AdoreBill
The dynamic and charismatic Sam Trammell plays Sam Merlotte, the bar owner of Merlotte‘s with an unusual secret that only one person knows about in the fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana where vampires have come out of the closet and are trying to mainstream in Alan Ball‘s hit HBO TV series True Blood. From his Broadway performance in Eugene O’Neal’s play “Ah Wilderness!” which earned him a Tony nomination then performing in AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem to the highly successful True Blood series, Sam Trammell‘s star is rising high but he still remains down-to-earth. Recently Kasandra Rose and Ollie Chong from TrueBloodNet.com had the great pleasure of talking to the humorous and engaging Sam Trammell about how he decided to pursue a career in acting, his show business success and of course True Blood. We know you will enjoy the interview with our favorite shape-shifter as much as we did doing it.
TBN.com: Hi Sam, thanks so much for joining us today!
TBN.com: We’d like to ask you some questions about your background, then about True Blood and then some more personal questions.
TBN.com: You went to Brown and then to Paris, what did you study at each college?
SAM: I was studying Semiotics at Brown. It’s an interdisciplinary field that’s basically a study of how signification [ed. remark: signification is the study of signs, or one object that represents another including such common signs such as words, gestures and images] works. What you actually study there is contemporary French philosophy, a lot of which has some deconstructionist theory such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. You also study Marxist theory, feminist theory, film theory and psychoanalysis. So it’s a really crazy, very interesting department. There’s a program in Paris called the critical studies program that I went on. I was at Paris 3: Censier , and Paris 7: Jussieu [ed. remarks: these are Parisian university designators Censier is main campus of Sorbonne Nouvelle and Jussieu is the main campus at Paris Diderot] and at the center for critical studies. I was basically studying the same stuff, all the French film theorists and philosophers. So I was in Paris studying the same thing, Semiotics, but in French with French teachers at the University of Paris. It was challenging. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever put myself through. I had the bare minimum level of French to go on the program. They taught in French; the notes were in French; the papers were in French. It was very hard.
TBN.com: Did you start dreaming in French?
SAM: Yeah! And I’d never acted before at that point. I was burning out on Semiotics. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Maybe go into academia? And then I did a play and that was that.
TBN.com: What’s it like studying as an American in Paris?
SAM: It’s not real easy to make French friends because a lot of the Parisians have been friends since they were kids. They aren’t necessarily interested in making friends with an American who’s just going to be there for a year. But I made some really good friends. The French really have a bad reputation as far as rudeness and stuff like that. But if you make any attempt to speak the language they are very appreciative. And if you can’t speak, and you’re not really loud and annoying, they’ll accept that too! It’s weird when you’re there, after I was there for 8 or 9 months, I could really tell Americans. I could hear Americans because it’s just a different sound that we have, rather nasally.
TBN.com: How much French did you have? How many years did you study it?
SAM: I had four years, I mean, I had a lot. But to go on this program you had to be fluent. So I went, and they have a crash course in August that I did, which is just to buffer up your language skills. Because writing papers in French is a lot different than speaking it. There are a lot more rules. But there was no studying the French language while I was there, it was assumed that I knew French and spoke it. And here are your classes.
TBN.com: Did you find there was a difference between Parisians and the rest of France?
SAM: The accent is definitely different, they have southern and northern accents as well. But I didn’t spend a lot of time, not enough time to say what the other differences were. But it was interesting because I could tell the accent. I could notice the southern accent.
TBN.com: If you don’t practice, you forget.
SAM: I know, every once in a while I try to read a French novel just to get it going again. It comes back a little bit for me, but you do have to keep it up.
TBN.com: You mentioned that you never did any acting in school. What was your first performance then?
SAM: I did my first play the last semester of college. I was a musician, in college. I played in bands, I played guitar. I was in bands since I was 13, I guess, in different rock bands. Different cover bands doing different songs. In college we were writing our own music of course. I also played the cello in a quartet in high school as well as piano a little bit. Anyway, I was a musician and I’d never acted. And this friend of mine who was an actor, and who’s now a professional musician, in college he said, “You should audition for the “New Plays Festival. They have this “New Plays Festival” where they have a bunch of new plays written by graduate students and they need a lot of actors. I had sort of always been intrigued by it. It seemed fun, but the theater department was very intimidating at Brown. There were a lot of good actors. So I auditioned and I got this play called “Stupid Kids” which they ended up producing in New York many years later. And that was it. I did that play in January and then two more plays that semester. Then I just threw away all of my .. actually I had already applied to some graduate schools, but I just didn’t even finish my. I literally just moved to New York to try to pursue an acting career. Which now, sounds like the dumbest thing. The most crazy, low percentage thing I could try. But that’s what happened, in just one semester my whole life changed.
TBN.com: Since you have a background in both philosophy and psychoanalysis, do you apply any of those principals to your acting technique? Does it help you shape the character in your mind?
SAM: Not really. My background in all that theory, which was a lot of psychoanalysis and a lot of thinking about thinking. A lot of thinking about the limits of thought and subconscious influences and fascinating stuff. It doesn’t really come into play. It’s like I was so sitting back and judging and critiquing as a student, and then acting made me have to get out of my head and not think as much while I’m doing it and just do. It was almost a reaction to all those critical studies. The action was almost the opposite in a way. It was all about instincts and not thinking too much and not breaking things down as much. Now, of course, when you do a role it is helpful to do a lot of work on the part before you do it. But I’m talking about the actual active acting. You really don’t want to be thinking, you just want to be in the moment. A very different place than the academic place that I was in.
TBN.com: You have worked on Broadway, television and in films. Each is different in terms of the demands it places on an actor. Is there a medium that you have a preference for and why?
SAM: What happens is that I go in and out of phases as my preference. Some times my preference is theater and sometimes it’s film and TV. Right now I’m starting to itch to do a play again because it’s been about 3 years. [ed remark: this smart mouthed editor had to bite her own tongue to prevent herself from asking: Does your foot thump when you have an itch?] Theater is really exciting because you get to do the whole thing and you do it in front of an audience. It’s really exciting and everyone claps for you at the end, you get immediate feedback and you get to do the whole thing, which is great! The problem with it is that you try to be as .. I’m a real fan of realism, that’s what I like, and my problem with theater is that you have to play to the back seats. You have to be a little louder than you usually would be. So it’s not totally realistic. You try to be as real as you can but that some times gets in your way. You learn how to use your voice so you can be loud and not absolutely try, but still… Now with film, you don’t have to do that and you can have these great little moments and you don’t have to talk as loud. And you only do each scene… you don’t get to do the whole thing a bunch of times and you don’t get a lot of rehearsal, which is a bummer, but you do get to really have those unexpected moments. And that’s what’s interesting for me to watch. The things that are happening to somebody that aren’t planned. With theater, a lot of it is planned but you have to make it new every night, so there’s a challenge in that. With film, you don’t have time, a lot of the times, to get into a set way of doing something. So you get to have a lot of unplanned moments. Which are real moments and only happen once, ever. And they’re caught on film. And that to me is really cool. And I like the smallness of it. I like the smallness of film.
TBN.com: Do you mean the intimacy?
SAM: Yeah, I mean not having to make big gestures and be loud. Because if you see it on your TV you can turn up the volume and see it in close up. In theater you’re sitting far away and you don’t get to see all the little things happening in somebody’s face. Unless you’re maybe in the front row. But on film and TV you can. That to me is interesting.
TBN.com: You got a Tony nomination for your performance in Eugene O’Neal’s play “Ah Wilderness!” Can you tell us a bit about the role?
SAM: Sure! It was so exciting. The part basically takes place on the fourth of July and the main character I play, named Richard, he’s this totally rebellious teenager, he’s about 15. He’s really romantic and he reads Swinburne [ed. comment: A great Victorian era romantic poet] and poetry. He’s grasping at ideas that he’s really too young to understand. He talks about the French revolution and he’s very intellectual and romantic and really brash. It was a really fun character to play, it was a lot of comedy. And it was exhausting. It was a 3 act play. But I got to play this kid who’s just so in love and quoting Carlisle’s French Revolution and Swinburne poetry. Craig T. Nelson [Best known for playing Coach Hayden Fox on “Coach”] played my dad, and you can imagine him reacting to some kid who’s spouting off, he had phrases like, “What are you talking about?” It was one of the most exciting, intense, challenging experiences in my life being on that stage at the Vivian Beaumont , at the Lincoln Center, which is one of the most historic and prestigious stages in New York, and having the lead role. The poster for the show was neat. James McMullan does all the paintings for their plays. But it was ME! So there were posters of ME outside of Lincoln Center! It was so intense. I went to Jim’s studio one afternoon and he painted me in different ways. Yeah, it was pretty cool. It was pretty cool until they unveiled the idea for the poster in front of the whole cast. I just looked over at Craig T. who just looked at it with his chin in his hands.. I said, “I’m sorry about that but.. you know… “They [the other actors] gave me a hard time but they were all cool about it. They were really generous. I remember Craig T. Nelson actually gave me the final bow. We were all coming out one at a time and that was a big deal, and very generous of them to do that. But it was just really.. when you go out the first time in front of an audience of 1200 people, it’s .. talk about a rush! It is scary as hell. It is really scary. But it was an amazing time. And then I got the Tony nomination which I never, ever, dreamt of anything like that happening.
TBN.com: And what do you think made your rendition capture the attention of the Tony Awards?
SAM: I don’t know. I think it was just because I connected with it so much. I had so much fun doing it. It got into my body. I had this whole character who’s kinda clumsy and very, very passionate. I don’t know. I think because I had so much fun doing it and I was so inspired by the part. I think people could feel it, could feel my enjoyment and so they got some enjoyment out of it.
TBN.com: Were you aware of how popular True Blood is before the Paley Fest?
SAM: Were you at the Paley Fest?
SAM: Oh my god. The Paley Festival was out of control. I didn’t realize that the audience for that was going to be people from out of town mostly that had flown in. That was really wild. And also the whole, wanting the autographs at the end, coming up and everybody crowding up. That was the first experience with anything like that. With people jamming up and you’re on a stage there’s sort of a mosh pit of people coming up for autographs. And then they followed us downstairs to the cars which was really trippy too. There were people knocking on the window of the car, Stephen and I went off to something else together and they were knocking on our window and following our car!
It always amazes me because you try not to jinx things and be humble about it all. Yeah.. sure I know it’s kinda popular. And so maybe you dampen your expectations or dampen your view of what’s really out there as far as numbers and enthusiasm. Also seeing the DVD sales are doing so well right now.
TBN.com: Number 1!
SAM: Yeah, it’s really starting to hit home that there are a lot of people watching the show!
TBN.com: While I was at Paley I was taking pictures from the first row and I had the worst trouble because nobody would look up except you! And you looked up the whole time, and it seemed like if you saw a camera focused on you, you’d look right at the camera. Did you do that on purpose?
SAM: Oh my god, I’m just a natural ham. No! I didn’t even realize. Maybe I have from doing plays… I have a little bit of experience being on stages like that, sitting and talking to audiences because you’ll always do the talk backs. You’re saying I was the only person looking up at the audience? Everyone else was looking down?
TBN.com: I have thousands of pictures of people looking down.
SAM: Wow. I guess it’s just sort of that thing of wanting to..my instinct is to not look away.. :sotto voce: to look into the light I guess. But I didn’t realize I was looking at the cameras!
TBN.com: We are going to move on to True Blood now
TBN.com: It seems with season 2 we may be seeing a lot of Sam. Are you happy with how season 2 is fleshing out your character?
SAM: I LOVE season 2. I love season 2. My story line in season 2 is so insane and great. Sam is under the gun from the first episode all the way through. There really is no let up. He’s this magnet for punishment and abuse this year. Which I love! He has this relationship with this new character Maryann, and what gets done to him is just so terrible. Which is great! It’s fun, but it’s really heavy this year for Sam. The stakes are really high and right from the very beginning he’s got trouble. There is trouble, trouble, trouble. Yeah he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders and the scope of his responsibility explodes outward from Merlotte’s. He understands things that other people don’t understand and he has to make some decisions that are big decisions.
TBN.com: What is your approach to playing Sam?
SAM: I read the first four of Charlaine’s books. Just to see if there was anything out there that I needed to know about him so there weren’t any surprises. I wanted to know all that in order to be faithful to the book fans. I do a lot of thinking about where he comes from. That informs a lot of where I start when I’m thinking about scenes and who he is. I look at his past at how he’d survived and made it as a teenager and young man without parents and as a shape-shifter, having to keep it secret who he really was. And also how he’s used that to his advantage.
The shape-shifter aspect of it comes into play a little bit too as far as getting in touch with your carnal animalistic side. But I don’t go there a lo. It’s more about what is this person and what is this scene we’re playing now and what are the relationships. I try to keep it pretty simple.
TBN.com: Do you think that having roots in NOLA has helped you in playing Sam?
SAM: Yeah I think so. I was born in New Orleans and all my extended family is in Alexandria, so this is a guy that I know. I really wanted to play Sam and be in this show because I love the south, I’m from the south. I grew up also in West Virginia so I have a real affinity with country, with people that live in the country and non-city people and especially southern people. We actually ended up shooting in this town that I went to Sunday lunches to see my great aunt and my great uncle when I was a kid. Doyline, we shot some scenes there. That scene where I was running naked was on land that was once owned by my great great grandfather. Isn’t that crazy? In that town, I have 13 relatives buried. This town is in the middle of nowhere, so it’s very bizarre that we ended up shooting there. But I do have a real affinity for the south. That has helped me with the environment.
TBN.com: Has True Blood reshaped how you think of good and evil?
SAM: That is interesting. God, you know it really challenges your biases. I think Alan is such a topically relevant writer exploring issues such as bigotry and domestic without beating you over the head. And I guess your predisposition towards what’s acceptable and what’s not.. I mean I’m a pretty liberal person. And a pretty open minded person. But we all have our things, no matter who you are.. And maybe it has. Maybe it has. Now good and evil, I don’t know. I don’t see Bill‘s character as evil. Eric, I don’t know about Eric. I don’t think his character is evil. I don’t know that I see the vampires as evil. Sam Merlotte, doesn’t like the vampires. I can’t say that it’s changed my ideas of good and evil. It’s made me a little bit more aware and think about what your biases might be.
TBN.com: Can you talk a little about the actual process of filming True Blood and if it’s different from other shows you’ve worked on?
SAM: Yeah sure. HBO is really generous. We have at least a couple weeks to shoot an episode, maybe 12 days, which is a lot of time. You’re able to shoot it till you get it right. We don’t do tons of takes necessarily but we have time to shoot a scene and do a lot of really good lighting and I think that’s why the show looks great. Our DP’s (director of photography) are amazing. It’s a luxury, this show is a luxury to work on and Alan Ball is amazing because he knows when to get out of the way. He’s a brilliant writer and he hires great people. He steers the ship but he doesn’t micromanage. I think that’s another reason why True Blood works. On a lot of shows, especially network shows, you have so many cooks in the kitchen that specific, creative ideas get diluted and eventually lost. But Alan is a confident guy and because of that he knows when to let something go on it’s own and be it’s own thing and he’s smart and it’s working with the show.
TBN.com: Do you have any projects lined up once filming for season 2 wraps up?
SAM: I don’t have anything definite right now but I might be doing an independent movie with Sam Shepherd. Which would be great.
TBN.com: Do you visit fan sites to read about yourself or True Blood?
SAM: Do I read the fan sites? No. No, no, no. I can’t. I can’t. There’s no way. I know that there are a lot of people and a lot of blogs and I can’t do it. I can’t read any of it. I just can’t go there, it’s too scary. I pretty much stay out of it.
TBN.com: Do you twitter and would you like your fans to know what your twitter name is?
SAM: Oh man I don’t Twitter but I should and if I do, I’ll let you guys know.
TBN.com: Are there any questions you would like to ask the fans?
SAM: Yeah! Do you want Sam to find a woman and if so, who should it be? Or who or what should it be? Should it be Sookie? Or should it be one of the other characters on the show? Or if not what kind of girl or woman should it be? What should her qualities be?
SAM: Next season, you’re really going to flip. It’s very entertaining and really fun.
Thanks to HBO and the incredibly fun and handsome Sam Trammell for providing us with the opportunity to find out what makes the ‘Sams‘ tick [oh.. bad editor, never bring up ticks and dogs at the same time!]. We here, at TrueBloodNet.com are panting with excitement awaiting season 2 and finding out how our favorite shape-shifting bar tender is going to be tortured and tormented! Will he find a woman worthy of him? Will he save the girl, again? Will he learn to fetch? It’s all only a few weeks away!
Kevin Carlin presents in an article for TrueBloodNet.com his perspective of Sam Merlotte in “Sam Merlotte: Where Will This Nice Guy Finish?” which you can read by clicking here.
James McMullan’s poster for “Oh! Wilderness: http://www.jamesmcmullan.com/img/portfolio/theater/ahwilderness.jpg
(Photo credit: Sam Trammell and Kasandra Rose)