By Bill Keith
Fans of Alan Ball's latest HBO hit, True Blood, may not recognize Ryan Kwanten in the photos here. Flaunting convention, the former Australian soap star, who plays the show's resident sex addict, Jason Stackhouse, spends more time out of his clothes than any of the female leads and is rarely seen in anything more than a tank top or tight-fitting tee. 'One of the grips working on the show was joking that he sees me naked more than he does his girlfriend,' Kwanten laughs.
'We come from a very open-minded society in Australia, so I guess it's a lot more acceptable, and it's not seen as that much of a shock. In terms of the various sexual positions that I find myself in, I'm sure that's still a shock no matter who or where you come from. But it's all part of the fun I think,' he says.
True Blood is Six Feet Under creator Ball's adaptation of Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries, a series of novels set in present-day Louisiana, where vampires have begun living openly in society and are seeking assimilation. Like the books, the show centers on Sookie Stackhouse (played by Anna Paquin), a woman with a taste for vampires and the ability to read people's minds. Kwanten plays Sookie's brother, and his role has particular appeal to Ball, who chose to give him more play than in the books. 'I felt like Jason was a big character who had his own story that I wanted to expand,' he says. 'I've always responded to Peter Pan characters who haven't ever had a reason to grow up. Nate was like that on Six Feet Under, and you could argue that Kevin Spacey's character in American Beauty was that way,' Ball says, referring to the film that won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2000.
Kwanten admits that showing off his Aussie bum is a little easier with Alan Ball around. 'I've been in the business now for 15 years and I haven't had an experience that comes close to the one I've had with working with Alan and HBO,' he says. 'They're so embracing of the artist. You know anything you want to bring to the table, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, they're willing to listen. It really is an absolute rarity in this business to have that, and a lot of it comes from being associated with Alan. They trust his judgment and his choices.'
As Jason, a man who hasn't met a substance he doesn't like, Kwanten finds himself sleeping with nearly every female character he isn't related to, and though depravity is so much a part of his character, there is an underlying sweetness to his performance that is hard not to fall for. And for the actor, who admits he has a tendency to overanalyze everything in his life, portraying a character who lacks any semblance of self-control has been an enlightening experience.
As for the pop-culture allure of vampires -- in True Blood, Twilight, and here! TV's The Lair, among other current sagas -- it's easy for Kwanten to explain: 'What's intriguing about them is the fact they were once human themselves but now have these extrasensory abilities, as opposed to a superhero, which is for me sort of above and beyond our reach. Vampires, it seems, are within the realm of possibility.'