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True Blood: Season 3 - Sam Trammell interview

Sam Trammell

Compiled by Jack Foley

SAM Trammell stars as bar owner Sam Merlotte in the award winning hit series True Blood. Trammell has been a regular in the show, alongside Anna Paquin as Sookie and Stephen Moyer as Bill Compton, since it first aired in 2008

In this exclusive interview, he talks about being a part of True Blood, some of the show’s themes (both sexy and serious) and his own life away from the show, including his relationship and passion for surfing.

Q: The True Blood audience has to buy into that fantastic world of Bon Temps with vampires and shape shifters. As an actor, is it important that you buy into it too?
Sam Trammell: Sure. And it presents it’s own challenges because we’re dealing with things that are so extreme and hyper real. Like in Season Two there was a scene where I’m at the lake talking to Daphne and she tells me that Marianne is the devil basically and in most shows the stakes aren’t that high. So the stakes in our show are higher than the stakes in real life. Death is death and that’s the highest possible stakes you can have but you are not usually dealing with the devil or zombies, which is what I had to deal with in that season (laughs). It’s definitely it’s own unique challenge.

Q: The show has a lot of themes but one of them is identity and that’s especially true for your character, Sam. It’s all about finding who he really is…
Sam Trammell: Yeah, I think so. If you think about my character’s journey, Sam is a guy that was adopted and so his biological family abandoned him and then he turns into a dog without knowing it was going to happen – he was a shape shifter and he didn’t know it and his adopted family didn’t know it. So he’s been abandoned twice and when that happens to you, you don’t have a lot of confidence in who you really are. Sam has never really known where he came from and he’s tried to hide things about his past – he wanted to hide that he is a shape shifter and he pretty much did that by going to Bon Temps and kind of reinventing himself.

He’s had to take care of himself on his own and he did some things that weren’t so good to make money but he’s just been going further and further away from who he really is and when he moved to Bon Temps he created this sort of image of himself – a generous guy. Not that he’s not that, it’s just that the other part of him has been repressed and kept hidden. And at the end of the second season Daphne said to him ‘it’s OK to be who you are..’ And those are wise words.

Q: Being who you are is one of the main themes in the show, isn’t it?
Sam Trammell: Yes it is. I think Sam learned a lot from Daphne in that respect. And in season three he decides it’s time to go out and find out who he really is. At first he does that very superficially – he sees the biological family and says ‘I don’t want to deal with that..’ He goes back to Bon Temps and they follow him and it’s like his past is following him and he’s running out of room. And that, along with another couple of events, shake up his life to the core. It’s like his past is finding him.

Q: Where are you from?
Sam Trammell: I’m originally from Louisiana.

Q: So you are a Southerner…
Sam Trammell: I am, I’m originally a Southern boy, I grew up in West Virginia too, which is Appalachia, but all my extended family is from Louisiana.

Q: How old were you when you went to West Virginia?
Sam Trammell: I was in 4th grade when I lived in West Virginia. And I’d moved around a little bit before then – I lived in North Dakota on an Indian Reservation, they probably call them Native American Reservations now or who knows what they call them, I don’t know what the P.C. term is [laughs].

Q: How did you end up living there?
Sam Trammell: Well, my father is a surgeon and he was going to do service in the military. But he had a friend in the Native American Medical Association and the reservations are owned and controlled by the government and they supply the doctors. So he got to go and work there and do a lot of really interesting stuff.

Q: Where did the acting come from for a surgeon’s son?
Sam Trammell: There are no actors in my family, there never have been. The first acting that I ever did was my last semester of college where I was studying French philosophy. A friend of mine suggested that you should audition for the New Plays Festival, they need a bunch of actors for these, I went to Brown and the graduate students would write new plays and they’d need a lot of new actors to do new plays and there’s a festival, so I auditioned, got cast and kind of fell in love with it immediately.

Q: But you auditioned originally as just like a fun thing to do?
Sam Trammell: It was. I had friends that were actors but I’d never really considered it. But I thought that it looked like fun. And there were a couple of crazy things that fed into it – Nick Nolte moved in next door to our family when we lived in West Virginia. He married a Virginia girl and moved in next door and it was like ‘wow, you’re Nick Nolte!’

Q: Was taking part in the theatre festival at college a light bulb moment? Did that confirm what you wanted to do in life?
Sam Trammell: It kind of was. At that point I was probably headed towards a career in academia. I had applied to graduate schools and I just wasn’t that excited about the whole thing and I did the acting and there was an immediate excitement. I was fascinated by it and I was so artistically and intellectually stimulated by the process and being on stage was a total high. I did another play and then I got cast in the summer theatre and then I thought ‘well, maybe I can do this..’ And I decided to move to New York to give it a shot. It was a slow process but it ended up working out.

Q: Do you think that this is a golden age for American television? There’s True Blood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire… so much innovative storytelling going on.
Sam Trammell: Absolutely. I think it’s a golden era for television in America right now and for True Blood to be nominated for an Emmy, as the best show in that era is amazing. I think the explosion of cable networks has been one of the reasons that there’s such good writing because on cable you have the freedom to do more of what you want. With Network television I think it’s a little harder to have that creative freedom and there are so many people you have to please. And the studios aren’t making $30, $40 million dramas any more the way that they did in the 70s and 80s, which was one of the great eras for movie dramas. And I think cable has stepped in and filled that void. People can watch shows like and True Blood and the writing and the stories are so good it’s hard for films to hold a candle to them.

Q: And they are tackling very adult subjects, too…
Sam Trammell: Absolutely. The shows are so complex and so dense and nothing is being dumbed down or watered down. It’s a great time for somebody like Alan Ball to have a vision and to realise that vision and a network like HBO respects him and respects his vision. It’s cutting edge. And I don’t think Network television is really keeping up with it. And with movies, it’s hard for a movie to compete with the richness and complexity of a great 13-episode drama when they only have like two hours or so. Hopefully, it will push the movies into making more interesting films rather than just remakes of old shows or some franchise.

Q: What do you like to do away from work?
Sam Trammell: Well, I’ve taken up surfing here in LA and I love to do that. It’s really great exercise and it’s exciting and fun and it’s getting back to nature, which I love. I love being out on the ocean. A good day off is going to the beach with my board.

Q: Do you go out surfing with other guys?
Sam Trammell: You know it depends. I love going out with friends, if we can all get there at the same time, but I love doing it alone too, it’s really great. I also like playing music, I’ve played music my whole life, and I play guitar and piano.

Q: Do you cook?
Sam Trammell: No [laughs]. Not so much.

Q: You mentioned your girlfriend earlier, is that a long-term relationship?
Sam Trammell: It is, it’s been a few years, so we’re pretty tight. Her name is Missy Yeager and she’s an actress and we first met in New York where she was part of the theatre community. She’s been on Broadway and she’s been on TV shows and she’s also a writer and director. She’s just directed a play – she’s multi talented.

Q: Does it help that you are both actors?
Sam Trammell: Absolutely, and it’s a really good thing because we are both supportive of each other and it’s great to be with someone who understands the whole business. It’s a 24/7 kind of job and it’s something that we both love and want to be doing. It’s funny when you hear people saying ‘if I won the lottery I’d quit work and go and travel..’ Well, if I won the lottery I’d work more because I’d start producing films. I love this business and it’s something that is part of your life the whole time. It’s not something you stop doing at 6 at night and don’t want to talk about. And it’s great to be with somebody who has the same passion.

Q: Have you read all of the Charlaine Harris novels to see where Sam goes in the future?
Sam Trammell: I’ve read about the first half of them, and specifically for that reason – I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t have some crazy secret, that would affect and inform the character. So I did that and I’m sure that I’m going to continue to read them as hopefully the show will keep on going. We’re just about to start on season four and it’s great to have that map that Charlaine has given us. The books are Sookie-centric but we have to create things for all of the characters so the writers on the show do a lot from scratch but the books do kind of map out where things are going each season. And it’s invaluable to have that.

Q: It is escapist but True Blood also manages to deal with some serious issues, too, doesn’t it?
Sam Trammell: Oh sure, and especially in a series where you have the time to do it, you have 12 episodes and it can be very complex. Our show is definitely pulpy, in the best sense of the term, but underneath it all Alan and the writers are able to say something as well. I think the scripts are rich enough to take to any college and teach. I know that I could have written papers on any of the scripts – from any perspective. From a psychoanalytic approach to feminist deconstructive approach. They are beautifully written, they are dense and they deal with mythological creatures, which are just projections of our own selves. They are part of us and it’s fascinating.

Q: Did season three live up to your expectations?
Sam Trammell: I think it’s even richer. In the first season we were figuring out what the show was, the second season was really big and the third season, well, everybody is getting better at what they do. It’s really great. True Blood was not an immediate hit – the reception for the first six episodes was lukewarm but HBO committed to it and look what happened. You have to trust your people – hire the right people and trust them and that’s what Alan does. He hires great department heads, he hired a great cast, great writers and he lets us all do what we do. And that’s where you get a success – where you get something unique.

Read our review of Season 3

True Blood – The Complete Third Season is out on Blu-ray and DVD on May 23.