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Seeing Red: Televisionary Talks with Deborah Ann Woll of HBO's "True Blood"

Viewers of HBO's Southern Gothic vampire drama True Blood were likely shocked last week when teenage vampire Jessica Hamby nearly walked away with the series when she sauntered languidly into Merlotte's in search of something to crave her hunger, both physically and emotionally.

Set to the haunting strain of Marcy Playground's "Sex and Candy," the scene not only brought Jessica to the forefront of the talented ensemble cast but memorably established the flame-haired actress who plays her, Brooklyn-born newcomer Deborah Ann Woll, as a major force to be reckoned with in the acting community.

I had the chance to catch up with the incandescent Deborah Ann Woll yesterday, where we talked about what's in store for mischievous teenage vampire Jessica Hamby, her character's star-crossed romance with Jim Parrack's Hoyt Fortenberry, and what's coming up for Jessica on Season Two of True Blood.

So get your fangs ready, pour yourself a bottle of B-negative Tru Blood, and let's chat with True Blood's Deborah Ann Woll.

Televisionary: How would you describe Jessica as a character? And has your perception of her changed at all during the course of shooting Season Two?

Deborah Ann Woll: Well, my feeling about Jessica is that she is a profoundly lonely person. Having lived your life in a family where you were not allowed to express yourself or feel real, that must be a very lonely life. And then to be in a lonely life where you can't be with your family, you can't be with the people you knew, and things are happening to you that you don't understand, I think her story is really about finding love and somebody to spend her time with.

Televisionary: How did you get involved with True Blood? Had you read any of Charlaine Harris' novels before you joined the cast?

Woll: I hadn't, no. I actually just came to work last season. They were casting the role of Jessica for just a two or three episode arc and then they decided they wanted to take the character someplace else, so I got to stick around the second season as a regular, which is a dream come true. But I haven't read the books before, I didn't know anything about it when I first got cast.

Televisionary: When you shot that first scene in Season One where Bill actually kills Jessica, did you have any indication at all that this would become a series regular gig?

Woll: Oh, not at all. I had no idea. When we shot the second to last episode and that last episode [of Season One], they probably could have just dropped me. (Laughs) I guess they could have after that second episode I shot, but after that last [one] it was nice to hear I would at least come back in some small way. But it was a huge surprise--and a pleasant one at that--that I was going to get to be a larger part of the story.

Televisionary: What was the audition process like for the series? You've done a bunch of guest starring roles (such as on Life, ER, CSI, My Name is Earl, and The Mentalist) prior to this but was it a grueling process getting cast on True Blood?

Woll: (Laughs) No, this was no different because this was how I came on. I went straight to the directors, the writers, and the producers to see my work. Had the one audition, did the two scenes--the tribunal scene and the cussing scene from Episode Eleven of last season, which is just a lot of fun, rolling around on the floor and I remember I was eating my tears. (Laughs) It was odd in the scene that True Blood is a unique show but beyond that it was the normal audition, casting, shooting process.

Televisionary: What is like then having your first series regular gig be on a series like True Blood that has such a passionate audience?

Woll: I have nothing to compare it to. It's certainly surreal but I am very proud. It's really an honor for the first character that I've been really able to carry through many episodes to work with people who are so experienced and collaborative and have such great ideas themselves. This show wouldn't get put up if it weren't for every single member of the cast, crew, and production. I have a feeling that I'm a little bit spoiled (laughs) as I move onto other projects I might find a job not quite fulfilling as this one is in terms of the people you work with.

Televisionary: What was your first inkling then, when reading those first few scripts for Season Two, that Jessica had transformed into a hugely pivotal character?

Woll: Well, it always surprises me, every single script we get, what we're doing this week, because it is so wild and varied and the great thing about this particular role is that because of the impulse control and the background of the character, she really can do anything. So I would say that I was very surprised and certainly after that second episode when we go to Jessica's house and see her family, it started to dawn on me that this is some really interesting stuff and this character is really original.

Televisionary: There's a scene in the third episode ("Scratches"), where Jessica enters Merlotte's for the first time--set to the tune of Marcy Playground's "Sex and Candy"--that was a character-defining moment for Jessica and announced that she was moving to the forefront of the series. What was it like filming that scene and did the writers or producers prepare you at all for what ended up being such a key role in Jessica's arc so far?

Woll: I don't think we had any idea. (Laughs) That's kind of what happens with art, a bunch of people just get together and suddenly something happens and it works. It works because Jim Parrack is such a good actor and such a good person and is just a delight to work with. It works because Raelle Tucker, who wrote that episode, really gave us an opportunity and has some amazing things to say about humanity. It works because Scott Winant, the director, is a visionary [and because Pat Dempsey who lit it knows what she's doing.] They really made us look spectacular. So it's all these little bits and pieces that come together without you knowing what it's going to do.

But I do remember, I was real nervous about it because it was still early on and I was worried about impressing my bosses and everything like that. And I do remember they took us in for that scene and there's a sign above the bar, right across from the door, that says, "Under 21, Not Allowed." And I just look at that and said, "Hmm. I'm seventeen." And I immediately knew where I was in that moment, which was sort of forbidden and sort of risky but exciting in the same way, something I had never done before, that I'd never been in a bar, that I'd never gone hunting for food or a man. Whatever it was, this was a new experience and I had no idea what I was going to do but I was sure as hell going to try to do something.

Televisionary: How much of that forbidden aspect to do you relate to?

Woll: I definitely like a little bit of darkness, a little edge. I get a little bored when things are maybe too simple or too... expected. The best characters and the best stories are the ones that surprise you. And I really like that with this character Jessica, every single arc you learn something new and she reacts and responds in a way that nobody predicted. You might say, oh, I know when that happens, that's exactly what Jessica going to be like and then you watch and she doesn't do that, she does something else. I think that really makes it fun and a little dangerous because you can't predict or control her.

Televisionary: In a series like True Blood that really amps up the unexpected, Jessica is the most unpredictable element in the mix. One of the more surprising twists this season has been her relationship with Hoyt. Did Alan or the writers tell you about Jessica and Hoyt going into Season Two?

Woll: Jim and I kind of guessed in the same way that a lot of fans had, when he had that line in an episode of the first season about looking for a nice vampire girl his age. So Jim and I had some sort of inkling about maybe this is somewhere they are going to go with it. But we didn't really meet officially and have a conversation until we shot Episode Three ["Scratches"], so I think within five minutes of officially meeting Jim Parrack, we were making out. (Laughs) But he's just such a sweet person that it couldn't have been easier.

We didn't really know for sure but we weren't surprised either, it seemed like a real natural flow. It's such an interesting pairing and one that could either totally bomb and not work at all or it could be a real gem. And hopefully it's gone in the latter direction.

Televisionary: So far this season, we've seen Jessica interact with the darker elements of the series, the vampire community, we've seen her now show up at Merlotte's and spend time with Hoyt. Are there any actors in True Blood with whom you haven't shot a scene at this point that you'd love to work with?

Woll: Oh, boy, so many. I'm the naughty vampire child teenager (laughs), so they keep me locked up for most of this season, I don't get to go very many places. (Laughs) So I haven't gotten to work with many people at all. I'd love to work with Ryan [Kwanten] more; I think he's so funny. That character [Jason Stackhouse], he does it so well; he's just... delightfully dim in a really endearing way. (Laughs) Who else? Goodness, Rutina [Wesley], Nelsan [Ellis]; I don't to work with too many people in Bon Temps, it's mostly the vampires and Sookie and now Jim. But we'll see. Maybe next season--if I survive--maybe I will get to hang out with a couple of other people.

Televisionary: Obviously, you're not going to give that away. We know the series is coming back for another season, so can you tell us in any way if you would be part of the cast for a third go-around?

Woll: I hope so... (Laughs) I certainly hope so. I know with every single script I get, I go, oh goodness, is this the one where I perish? I started looking out for wooden stakes all over the place. (Laughs) But some very dramatic things happen towards the end of the season that put a lot of people in danger and in harm's way. You'll just have to wait and see who makes it.

Televisionary: Can you give us any hints then about what's in store for Jessica later this season? Just a little tease?

Woll: A teaser? Hmmm, I would say that if you took any girl's life, the traumas that she goes through, and then heightened them by about fifty percent, you might to begin to guess at what is going to happen for Jessica this season.

Televisionary: What's been your favorite scene to shoot so far on the series?

Woll: My favorite scene to shoot, a couple of scenes coming up in Episode Seven ["Release Me"]. I mean, Episode Three ["Scratches"] scenes, I loved. We knew walking away from that, even if we didn't know going into it, we knew walking away from that that we had something pretty special and I really loved working on [Episode] Three. There are some scenes in Episode Seven that I really love. Jim and I have been rehearsing together a little bit outside of shooting and that really helped and I think that [Episode] Seven has benefited from that. And [Episodes] Eight and Nine are very interesting too.

Televisionary: If the writers could do anything to Jessica, no matter how crazy, where would you like to see them take her as a character?

Woll: Oh, boy. Hmmm. I don't even know. I mean Jessica has done some pretty terrible things, certainly, and had some pretty terrible things done to her but I think we could lead into her exploring this more violent vampire side. It started out as being sort of an irritating or uncontrollable experience that's now moving into a new experiences for both humans and vampires. I think it would be interesting to see some real violence.

I think Jessica still has a lot of anger and hate in her from her previous life. It would be interesting to see some of that come out and be dealt with in a less subtle way, find a way to explore that more outwardly. To see some of that past resentment and anger, at the way she was treated by her father and turned and given this turn of events by Bill and then having to sort of live what's not an ideal life--an un-life--in his house and seeing how that is dealt with among her new family and friends.

Televisionary: In speaking with you, it's pretty obvious that you're not from the South. You're from Brooklyn, correct?

Woll: Yep, I am.

Televisionary: Did you work at all with a dialect coach to get Jessica's accent?

Woll: I didn't. It was very, very hard for me in the beginning because, coming out as a guest star, I had no time to prepare any kind of an accent, so I very quickly had to listen to a lot of people talk. I got a little dialect CD but that doesn't help me so much; I like listening to real people talk. I did the best I could the first season but obviously when you're having an emotional moment--or any kind of a moment--you want to be thinking about what's going on and not the way you sound. So I think I went in and out a little bit. But this season has felt much better. During the hiatus, I was able to work more on my own and every night, I'd read my science fiction book aloud to myself in a Southern accent and it just became more natural for me and this season just felt much better.

Televisionary: That's funny, because I feel that you actually nail the accent more convincingly than a lot of the other non-Southern actors.

Woll: Thank you! I do feel better about it this season, I put a lot of work into it over the hiatus and I appreciate hearing that. I was telling someone else that part of the trouble I had in the beginning was that I used to have a little bit of a Brooklyn accent or at least a New York accent. I got rid of that many years ago because I wanted to act and it limits you a little bit if you sound like Marisa Tomei all the time. Interestingly enough, that and the Southern accent are kind of similar. You have to drop your r's in some of the same places. When I would slip out of the Southern, I would actually go into Brooklyn, which is really wrong. (Laughs) But now I finally established the difference there so it's not quite so weird if I slip a little bit.

Televisionary: True Blood must keep you rather busy, but do you ever have time to watch anything else on television?

Woll: (Laughs) Um, sure. I'm a real big nerd so I'm a big Animal Planet and Sci Fi Channel kind of person. My favorite TV show of all time is Mystery Science Theatre. I have every single episode that you can get that's available, either through commercially released stuff or fan sites. So I literally watch an episode of Mystery Science Theatre every single night of my life before I go to sleep. It's literally my favorite thing.

Televisionary: Given that you've has started out fairly recently, are there any actors whose careers you'd must like to emulate? Do you want to stay in television or branch out into film or theatre?

Woll: I started in theatre, film is what is relatively new to me. I did theatre for about ten years, not in any huge professional capacity but educationally and in small theatres. I would love to go back into theatre and do more of that. I would love to branch into film. I'd love to do all kinds of acting work, I'm not picky when it comes to that. All of it is an extreme interesting experience. I like women who are character actors but can still play leading women, can still be a romantic lead.

I love old-fashioned movies, so [Greta] Garbo is a hero of mine so I think she's lovely. When you watch her in a time period where things are over the top, she's very beautiful, and subtle and reserved but still very strong. A lot of actors or actresses, you might not know their names but they are kind of in everything and you certainly recognize their faces but they play different roles in everything. Allison Janey would be one as well, I think she's great. Really genuine actors where that is their role, they just want to work the rest of their lives and it doesn't matter if it kills them. Or hopefully that is what kills you in the end: working too hard.

Better that, one would imagine, then being killed by a vampire. One thing is for sure: after seeing Deborah Ann Woll's star-making turn on True Blood as Jessica Hamby, she won't be lacking for work for a long time to come.

True Blood airs Sunday evenings at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO.


AskRachel said…
Thank you for the great interview! I have to admit that I was not a huge True Blood fan at first but I am really enjoying the second season and a lot of that has to do with the character of Jessica. I love what the writers have done with her so far and Deborah Ann Woll's performance is fantastic! I can't wait to see more of her this season and (hopefully) in season three!
Brodie said…
Jessica is one of my favorite characters on the show and, thanks to your interview, I was thrilled to learn that Woll is not only a great actress but a sci-fi geek as well. Awesome!
Mazza said…
Great interview as always Jace. I love True Blood and Jessica has been my fave character this season and this interview only made that even more true. I love that Deborah Ann loves MST3K and is a sci fi nerd too! :) Can't wait to see what happens with her & Hoyt!!!!
Anonymous said…
Hi Jace,

Wonderful interview!
I'm a newer reader of yours, think your questions are great, not-standard-interview-like so you get some juicy nuggets of info. like as Deborah Ann Woll's nightly MST3K fix.
In re: her True Blood roll, she fits in seamlessly with the cast and pardon the pun, brings intoxicating new blood to the show. Love her!
Thank you muchly!
Anonymous said…
Great interview. Very interesting read. ^_^

All Jesasica Hamby fans should check out my LiveJournal community about her. OMG! I'm a vampire
Wilbur Wright said…
Deborah is going to break out of this show. Her Hoyt scenes were the most authentic and real I've seen on the series. When an actor makes those around him/her bigger onscreen, its a genuine gift and she's got it. She is going to have a major film career, and every casting agent in town is already starting to get a buzz on this. Oh and ...Go RADA!

The whole cast is great but Deborah really has it!

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