Interview With Deborah Ann Woll
Charlaine Harris Books
Deborah Ann Woll made her first appearance in True Blood at the end of the Season 1 performances of the HBO hit telision series and will now be causing quite a stir in the highly anticipated Season 2 as the newborn vamp Jessica Hamby.
The mix up of suspense, humor, romance and mystery takes place in True Blood Season 2 when vampires have come out of the coffin, thanks to the invention of mass-produced synthetic blood that means they no longer need humans as a nutritional source. As Season 2 begins, the mystery surrounding the serial killer in Season 1 has finally been solved. But, just as things are settling down, deadly new twists threaten Sookie Stackhouse (Academy Award winner Anna Paquin) and everyone around her – not too much change there then.
In this exclusive interview, Deborah Ann Woll spoke about learning to talk with fangs (like talking with false teeth that don’t fit properly), mastering a Southern accent and the mischief that Jessica will get in as she discovers herself this season.
IESB: How did you get into acting?
Deborah: I started out mostly in music and dance. I took piano and partner dancing, all through my grade school years. And, through that, I just found that I had a passion for creativity and art, and I liked the idea of working within a form, like a play or choreography or a piece of music, and bringing to it my own experience and feeling that was unique to me. After that, I started doing plays in high school, and I did a couple plays with a classical theater in New York, and I really fell in love with it through classical work.
IESB: When did you know that you wanted to make a career out of it?
Deborah: I was never really a good enough pianist or dancer to take that to the professional realm. But, I remember I was working on Madea, which I was way too young for at the time, and it was a character that was so unlike me and so out of my comfort zone and type, but yet I could still find something to say with it and have an experience with this woman, who I really had nothing in common with, except our humanity. That was a moment where I went, “Wow, I really seriously, honestly felt something there and, if I can find that with this character, then it should be easier with someone who I’m a bit more akin to.” So, I started to really take it more seriously, at that point.
IESB: How did you originally become a part of True Blood? Was it just through the regular auditioning process?
Deborah: Yeah. Well, I came on as a guest star, originally. I got sides, auditioned once and I don’t think I had a callback. Alan Ball was in the room, with the director and the writers, and I just did these two absolutely crazy scenes. One was at a junkyard and the other was in the woods, and I was really in an office. I remember that I was rolling around on the ground and just trying to be as generally weird as I could get. And then, three or four days later, I was on set filming. It was a really fast process. I had an audition and a table read, and that was it. It was great, though. It was a nice, low pressure way to get into it. It was a guest star audition, like any other, that ended up becoming something that has been really great, for the past couple of months.
IESB: For those who might not be familiar with the series yet, can you talk about who your character is and how she fits into the overall story?
Deborah: Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) is Sookie’s (Anna Paquin) boyfriend now, for good and for real. In order to save her life, he killed a vampire, so he went to a tribunal hearing and his punishment for taking a vampire life was to make a new vampire life. So, they kidnapped my character, Jessica, who’s this poor, innocent, little God-fearing child, and Bill turned her. Just when you think she’s going to be devastated by the turn of events, she’s actually thrilled because her life at home was not what she wanted. It was very oppressed, and she did not feel free to be who she was or express her feelings. Particularly being 17 and in that situation, I can only imagine when you already have to repress everything you’re thinking and saying, to have someone going further and telling you that what you’re thinking and feeling is wrong, is an incredibly difficult and lonely situation. As soon as she’s turned, there’s a freedom that comes with that, and a sense that maybe she will finally get to be herself. Never again is she going to let anybody tell her what to do or how to do it, or who she’s supposed to be.
IESB: Is Jessica as fun for you to play as it looks like it would be?
Deborah: I think it is. We’re so different. I’m a real shy doormat. I let people get away with stuff, all the time, and I can’t ever speak up for myself. As Jessica, I get to have a real passion and fire, and a real confidence. There’s a self-confidence there, that might come off as irritating or annoying, but is an admirable self-respect. In a way, I wish I had a little bit of that. It’s just really fun to go out and say, “I don’t care what you think. I don’t give a hoot what you think I should be like or do. This is what I’m feeling and that’s how I’m going to be.” That’s tons of fun.
IESB: Since you came into the show later on, had you been able to see some of it first?
Deborah: None of it. It hadn’t aired, when I started working on it. When I got the part, I dashed to the book store and got the books, and I read the first two books. But, my character isn’t in the books, so there wasn’t a lot to be garnered, character wise, from that. I did get a sense of who the other people were and what was going on, and just a general feeling of this place that they were living in. It is a fantastic story. This isn’t necessarily a real place. It’s not a documentary. So, it was good to get a sense of just where Bon Temps is and what it’s like to live there. That’s what I garnered from the books.
IESB: Because your character isn’t in the books, did it make you nervous that fans of the books might not accept her, or did that make it more exciting, since it’s more open to your interpretation?
Deborah: A little of both. The TV show is its own entity. As much as we love the books and try to honor them, that’s literature and we’re making film, so you have to tweak things around. Book readers will have to tell me if this is true or not, but I think it will be interesting and fun for them. If they already know what’s going to happen, every single second, what would be the interest and fun in watching the TV show. Jessica, in an interesting way, throws such a wrench into some of the plotlines that people are expecting. A lot of things that have to do with Bill and Sookie come down to, “What do they do, now that they have a teenage daughter?” For me, it would be fun, if I saw one of my favorite stories come to screen and they added a character that would just switch it up enough to make it exciting for me to watch it as well. And, it does give me and the writers a lot of license. It’s fun for them to have a character that they can totally determine the fate of.
IESB: What was your first impression of the series and the character? How do you see her, as opposed to how audiences might react to her?
Deborah: When I first read the six or seven pages of the sides, because that’s all I had, I saw someone who was profoundly lonely. She was someone who hadn’t had a lot of fun in her life, and hadn’t had the opportunity to experience anything, really. She had been forced to believe things that she maybe didn’t believe in. If there are a few things that I really get about this character, I can understand that and feeling like you’re the only person that cares about you, in the world. In my opinion, that is a lot of what motivates what this character goes through. And then, now having been made vampire, here’s a whole other outcasted world to live in, where people are not going to accept her and she doesn’t have control over herself. And, if you don’t have control of yourself, every single minute, things can go horribly awry and it continues to isolate you. In my opinion, the grand motivation for a human being, if there ever is one, is to find a connection with someone or something that you can really latch onto and say, “This is mine. It wasn’t created by anybody else or given to me by anybody else. I found it and love it, as my own.”
In terms of the show, it deals with those issues of being an outcast, being stereotyped and having people expect you to be a certain way because of what you look like or what you are, and I like that it deals with those issues in a fun, campy way. If we’re seriously going to have a dialogue about the world that we live in, you have to make it accessible and you have to make it something that people are willing to talk about. In a way, you have to take the seriousness out of it, in order to have a serious discussion about it, and True Blood does a good job of saying, “Let’s have a lot of fun, but think about some real stuff.” Hopefully, it will make an impact on you, in some way.
IESB: Do you try to focus on her human side, as opposed to the fact that she’s a vampire, since you can’t draw from experience for that?
Deborah: The vampire side is a lot of fun. Being a newly made vampire, as opposed to the other vampires on the show that are much older and have lost more of their human side, I’m much closer to that. Jessica has a bit more of that humanity living inside of her, and it’s a bit fresher. But, with the vampire stuff, for that first tribunal scene where I was attacked, I watched a lot of animal footage, and I really tried to watch the prey and how they respond to when they’re being attacked by a vicious animal. More recently, I’ve watched a lot of that footage again, from the other side, and thought, “Well, now I’m the predator. How are they looking for prey? What is that look that comes over their eyes that says, ‘I want blood’?” It’s been fun, trying to experience both of those sides, at the same time. The vampire side is just as interesting. It’s just a little bit more distant for Jessica, right now.
IESB: What can viewers expect from Season 2 and Jessica’s storyline?
Deborah: I see the second season, for Jessica, really being about growing up and maturing, and dealing with situations in a way that she can be accountable for her own actions and for things that happen, and looking for solutions. In essence, it is a coming of age story for her. She’s starting to deal with some of these problems and issues of being a vampire, a bit more like an adult would, in a way that I think Papa Compton would be proud of me, if he knew that that’s how I was responding.
IESB: How are the fangs to wear, and how difficult was it to adjust to talking normally with them?
Deborah: They are very funny. You put them in and, for about the first 10 or 15 minutes, you sound like Cindy Brady with her little lisp. It’s very hard to be cool, immortal and scary when you sound like Cindy Brady. But, I find that the less I think about them, the easier it is. You just have to let them hit your lip and not try to make too much space in your mouth for them. You certainly get better, as the weeks go on. And, they look awesome. Other than the fact that they’re a little hard and pointy, it’s a lot of fun. It’s always fun to be sitting around, seeing one person, across the room, with a big, bloody gash on the side of their head, and they’re just real happy and excited, as an actor. And then, you’ve got teeth, and everybody is telling jokes while you have your teeth in, and it’s just fun to see all these interesting, different types of people in different situations, when we’re not in character.
IESB: Was it more difficult to get used to the fangs or the Southern accent?
Deborah: For me, the Southern accent, only because I had to learn it so fast. I had four or five days, before I had to have a full Southern accent on set. It wasn’t something that I knew how to do, when I went to the audition, but they trusted that I could get it together, and it was hard. I struggled with it, at first. It’s difficult because Southern is so specific to exactly where you are in the South. Unless you’re going to go live in the exact city, near the area where you’re supposed to be from, and pick up on an accent that way, there’s no real way to get it just right, certainly not naturally, or without having to think about it, every single moment. If you’re thinking about it, all the time, then how are you going to really have a true, authentic experience with someone, if you’re worried about what you sound like. For me, it was a lot about reading aloud and speaking the accent, and just trying to find whatever place felt natural for me. I took as many specific Louisiana regionalisms that I could find, but it ended up being that a general deep South sound that works for me. I don’t think much about it, so it doesn’t take me out of the moment.
IESB: Had you been a fan of the vampire genre, prior to being cast on the show?
Deborah: Oh, yeah. I’m a huge genre fan. I love anything horror, fantasy, sci-fi. My boyfriend loves Joss Whedon and, when I first met him, we sat down and watched all the Buffy and Angel episodes, straight through, so I’ve seen all of that. I’m a huge classic horror movie fan, so I’ve seen Dracula and Nosferatu, and all those great old ones. So, I absolutely have been a fan of the horror genre stories.
IESB: How is it to work with Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer? Do you work mostly with them, or are you also getting to work with some of the other actors in Season 2?
Deborah: I would say Anna, Stephen and Jim Parrack are the three people I work with the most on the show. I remember the first time I met Anna was at a table read, last year. I was so young and so nervous, and they just happened to sit me next to her at the table read. And, she came in and she had this huge bright smile, and she said, “Hi, I’m Anna,” and she shook my hand, and she had this beautiful, bright aura about her. It was just so nice to be welcomed, so immediately, that way. And, with Stephen, it was the same way. My first scene on the show was very difficult and emotional, and I was really nervous about it, and he was so supportive, every single second, and so good himself. In some ways, the best way to support a scared, young actor is just to be a really good actor yourself, and he’s so good. I just felt so comfortable, looking in his eye. Even though you might be strangers at first, you’ve got to look at each other and really see something, and that’s difficult, but it was real easy with him. Stephen is the kind of guy you can work with for three minutes, and then talk with for three hours. And, I just adore Jim. He’s so talented and so hard-working and has some of the same frustrations that I do. We talked about it and we agreed that we could rehearse, so we’ve been rehearsing outside of set, and that brings so much to our scenes when we work together. I owe a lot to Jim.
IESB: What’s it been like to work with Alan Ball? Was that daunting at all?
Deborah: Oh, yeah. It’s daunting for no good reason because he’s just the nicest, most open, approachable person you’ve ever met, but I’m real shy and really easily intimidated, and he’s such a creative force, with all the stuff that he did, before I came to the show. I get a little nervous, a little shy and a little quiet around him. I’m going to work on being better about that because he’s such a great person and I would love to be a better friend to him. But, he knows what he’s talking about, and he has a vision for this show that is so unique to him and puts his stamp on it. I’m just proud to be a part of that.
IESB: Has it been surprising to see the huge acclaim that the show has gotten?
Deborah: I don’t know. I’m not that surprised. I guess I felt it, those first few nights that I worked last year. People worked so hard and put so much of their heart into this. Everybody was really accomplished. The cameramen are these incredibly talented, skilled guys. And, the D.P.’s and writers that we have are just on top of their game and really put everything they have into it. Maybe I’m naive, but I can’t see how that could fail, when everybody is so invested and is really giving it their best. Even if we fail, in some aspects, there’s so much heart there that I don’t think you can miss it.
IESB: What sort of fan reaction do you get?
Deborah: I, personally, don’t get any fan response. I’ve never been recognized, so I can’t speak to that so much. But, it is exciting. You hear about Bill’s Babes, and they all wear t-shirts and love him. I think it’s really lovely that people are that invested in the show and really care about the characters. If I hear anything, in regards to myself or my character, it’s always, “Oh, how is that going to affect Bill?” People have found a real love for these characters and they are invested in what’s going to happen to them. They just hope that Jessica doesn’t ruin things too much.
IESB: What’s the most enjoyable thing about working on the show, and what’s been the most challenging thing about it?
Deborah: I’d say the most enjoyable thing about working on the show is probably the people I get to work with. It makes my job so much easier when everybody that I work with cares as much and understands that it’s an art form, and not just a money making machine. It’s this incredible group of people. All the crew, the actors, the production people and everybody are just wonderful. I can’t talk enough about it. They make me feel comfortable and, for someone who is a shy actor, that makes all the difference. When I can feel comfortable, I can really work to the best of my ability. Until this show, I didn’t really feel like I’d gotten to do that yet because I was so crippled by my nerves. But here, it’s really been beautiful to be able to get past that, and really work with people that I enjoy working with and who I have confidence are doing just as much work themselves.
The most challenging thing is that this is such a wide range of experience. This character has experiences that can, in some ways, be difficult to relate to. I’ve never been a vampire, so it might be more difficult to find what that means. So, while I’m discovering ways to get in there with that, it is very hard, in one episode, to be absolutely wrapped up in a human emotion and then, in the next episode, come back and be wrapped up entirely in a vampire mode, and then somehow tie them together and say that one is responsible for the other, and vice versa. It is asking me to go back to some more primal, deep-rooted feelings that I have to call upon my ancestors to remember what some of that was like. In modern society, so much of that fight-or-flight and those more primal experiences have been rooted out and diminished, over the years, and you have to get back in touch with that. While that’s incredibly exciting, as an actor, it’s hard because it brings up some very angry and terrifying feelings for me. It’s fun to play with them, within a controlled environment, like a set or a scene, but it can be scary, at the same time. We did a scene recently and, the next day, I felt like I had been beaten up. I felt hurt, emotionally and physically. I could barely move. That’s a rough thing to go through, every couple of weeks.
IESB: If the attention that you receive from being a part of True Blood leads to more film or television work for you, are there types of roles or specific genres that you’re looking to do, that you haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?
Deborah: The roles that I tend to get are very strong-willed women, who might be considered a victim, but when you really get to know them and see how they respond, they’re not. They’re women who have suffered great tragedies or abuses, and they strive to overcome them. I think it would be really interesting to play a woman who was so closed off and repressed that she almost couldn’t deal with it. At some point, I would like to play something like that. Most of the women I’ve played have a general openness and are willing to express themselves, most of the time. I think it would be interesting to try something else, and try to feel everything that you’re feeling, but then put such a cap on it. I think that kind of pressure cooker might be a fun part.
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