Tonight, HBO gives True Blood its True Death, but before we have to deal with the show saying goodbye, we thought we’d consult a few actors from seasons past who’d know all too well what it’s like to go out in a blaze of
glory goo. So we spoke with Denis O’Hare, who played Russell Edgington, one of the series’ oldest, most powerful villains, a vamp strong enough to have survived being buried alive and being burnt to a crisp, but not being staked by Eric; Michael McMillian, who played the Reverend Steve Newlin, a conservative human later turned into a vampire and, ultimately, a victim of overexposure to the sun (again, thanks to Eric); and James Frain, who played Franklin Mott, a vampire initially on the hunt for information on Sookie but later consumed with turning Tara into his vampire bride, only to have it all backfire when Tara brained him and Jason shot him for good measure. All three of these fan favorites know that bidding adieu to True Blood does not come easy, so they convened to help Vulture through the grieving process.
Have you kept up with the show since your characters died?
Denis O’Hare (Russell Edgington): Yes, of course! Of course. I was catching up last night. It’s a very weird magical world it creates. It feels like a version of reality that’s really warped.
Michael McMillian (Steve Newlin): Aside from being a part of it, I think I would have watched the show regardless. As a matter of fact, when you called, I was just catching up on last week’s episode. I have about five minutes left. Now you’re going to spoil it for me!
Don’t worry, no spoilers here. Did you ever feel like you left the show too soon?
M.M.: I’ve been teased that I’ve been killed and resurrected more than any other character on the show! I’ve been very lucky. But if there were those discussions, I wasn’t privy to them. That would have been happening in the writers’ room.
James Frain (Franklin Mott): I would have loved to stay. At the time, I didn’t know what the plan was or wasn’t, or what they hoped for. But either the timing didn’t work out, or the schedules didn’t work out, so it was kind of an unfortunate moment. But I felt like they tied it up really well, because what can you do with someone who is this nuts? Is he going to become boring? The fact that he was pursuing Tara so relentlessly is what gave the character his arc. So it made sense and I think it worked as a story.
McMillian: I think it made sense to keep Steve around for a little while, even before he was a vampire. You needed that super far right, anti-vampire voice. When Steve was turned, he just became a much funnier character. When he died, it made the most sense, because it would have been dishonest for Eric to let Steve Newlin live at that point. But unlike Russell, he wasn’t that powerful. Russell, if you kept him alive, he would just kill everybody.
O’Hare: Objectively speaking, Russell was someone who had an odd combination of joy and evil, which is hard to find. I know that Stephen Moyer was very interested in figuring out how to keep Russell, but I think Alan Ball and the new writers were smart in how they treated him, to realize that Russell’s swagger was too big. So you either get out of the storyline, or you let him just diminish in a strange way and become a footnote or a cipher of what he was. So I’m glad they killed him off when he did.
Since sometimes your character would disappear for a stretch and then reappear, how did that work? Did the producers keep you on retainer?
O’Hare: [Laughs.] There are no such things as retainer fees in TV. People don’t pay you not to work, believe me!
McMillian: I was under contract for certain seasons as a series regular, and then the ones where they decided that they didn’t need me for the entire season of the show, they would release me from the contract and I was free to go to do other work. And if it could work out schedule-wise, if I could come back and be part of the show. I forget that I’ve been with the show since episode three of the first season! I got to be a part of True Blood before anyone knew what it was, before any of it aired.
O’Hare: Alan [Ball] told me I would be coming back. He said, “Russell’s going to be buried. I don’t think he’ll die. I think he’ll probably come back.” He told me that before we shot anything. So I always knew I would have time off, but it was sort of on faith. And I said, “Look, I’m going to pursue other work, because I’ve got things to do.” I thought maybe they would come back to me at the end of season four, and I kept waiting for that phone call, and it never happened. So we told them, “Look, we haven’t heard from you. We’re plunging ahead with this play,” and then began this intense negotiation where I was trying to figure out how I could do my play in New York and also be in season five. Everyone was brilliant in moving dates, letting me fly back and forth between New York and L.A. on my day off from my show. It was crazy.
Did you ever feel like you had unfinished business with your character?
O’Hare: We used to joke about doing a spinoff with Russell and Talbot, their adventures before they got to Bon Temps, or how Russell became a vampire. Theo Alexander [who played Talbot] and I had this long walk where we worked out our backstory, and agreed on how we met – at a masked ball in Constantinople in the late 1300s, where Theo was posing as Alexander the Great, and I was posing as Caesar. I just love the idea of those two meeting at a masked ball!
McMillian: I would love to see how Steve became a vampire. It’s a question I get all the time, from fans and friends — will we ever get to find out who Steve’s maker is? I have my theories, though. In one script, in episode three of season five, it was going to be revealed that Salome was Steve’s maker. I think he gave her a hug, and she said, “As your maker, I command you to let go of me.” And then in a rewrite, that was taken out and the whole scene was changed, and that got lost, and it was never brought up again. So it was a mystery. I really wanted it to be Pam! [Laughs] There was a line when she was turning Tara, where she said she had done it once before and it didn’t work out, so she has another progeny we don’t know much about. So maybe during that year when Sookie was gone, she had to make Steve for some reason. [Laughs] But it doesn’t save Steve from being executed by Eric. I think it’s officially unofficial who Steve’s maker is.
Frain: When Tara became a vampire, I was like, “Oh! Then we could have gotten married!” [Laughs] She was the one that got away! I just messed it up. I was too forward. I was too eager. I should have held back. But Franklin genuinely thought he was in love with Tara. He thought it was a legitimate elopement, and then couldn’t handle it. I think he needed quite a lot of therapy. Quite a lot.
O’Hare: One of my backstory ideas was that Russell was illiterate. It was one of those strange things that he couldn’t pick up, because he was too old when he was made a vampire. It just didn’t take. And he didn’t really find it necessary. So he spent a lot of time doing other things, like reading smoke, or reading body language, and the only people he knew who could read were Franklin and Talbot. And he had sort of a symbiotic relationship with Franklin, who was sort of an ersatz son. There’s this great scene where Franklin brings him a bunch of documents, and he’s looking at them meaninglessly, and he thrusts them back at Franklin and says, “What does this say?” Franklin is like this long lost misbehaved son that Russell regretted.
Frain: Franklin was kind of rebellious in his nature. And what I liked about Russell’s character was that he indulged that. He got a bang out of it. He had a twinkle in his eye. So that was an interesting thing to do. Instead of being frustrated or angry that he’s not being listened to, he added this quality like, “It’s all a game.”
O’Hare: Franklin had more psychopathic tendencies than Russell, but they were both animated by a fairly passionate desire for something — in Franklin’s case, to be loved and understood, and in Russell’s case, to live life joyously. And there was something in Steve Newlin’s character that he found fascinating — a naive charm. Russell didn’t make vampires. He didn’t really have progeny besides Talbot, so this was a way to have another progeny without actually have his progeny. And Russell was willing to play Daddy for a while. I like when he gave the puppy to Steve Newlin. [Laughs.]
McMillian: There was a childlike quality to Steve. An egotistical, spoiled child, but at the heart of that character, he was just a scared little boy. He was scarier as a human, because not only was he a sadist against vampires, but he was also a sadist against humans that aligned themselves with vampires. He threw Sookie down into a basement and had her locked up, and gave his muscle free reign to do what he would with her. Steve as a vampire, though, just wanted to relish having power, relish his sexuality, and I really took a cue from Jessica, how you’re just impressionable and horny and hungry. And I think Russell popped Steve’s vampire cherry.
How did you feel when you found out you were going to die, and what did you think of your death scenes?
McMillian: I was worried when they were going to kill off Russell that Eric was going to kill Steve, too! [Laughs.]
O’Hare: You know, some people were a little critical in how Russell’s death was handled, saying there was no build-up, but I was like, “Eh, we know Eric’s been looking for revenge, so it’s not a surprise.” The technical aspects of it were pretty quick, but you know, vampires die quick! I thought Roman’s death was actually pretty good. I thought that was a little more spectacular. In a way, it would have been nice to have something like that, but I thought they gave me something… My face kind of lit up, got very, very bright, and exploded. I love the fact that my last line was, “Well… fuck.” I was happy about that. My death was originally going to be at the end of episode 11 of that season, and then they pushed it to the top of episode 12, which was a weird decision on their part, but it became a cool device. Oh, and I loved Steve Newlin’s death, how he’s looking up and saying Jason’s name at the very end! That was just hilarious.
Frain: The whole bashing Franklin’s head stuff was hilarious. But the stuff where he’s shot is mind-blowing! It was so smart. They were so innovative when it comes to that kind of stuff. They just keep delivering a particular kind of pleasure to the audience, and that’s not easy to do.
McMillian: Since I’ve stopped playing Steve, I have dreams about the character, where I’m Steve Newlin interacting with the characters on the show! [Laughs] And realizing I get a second chance to live! It’s kind of sad, but there’s something when you stay with a character that long, over the course of six or seven years, there’s this thing where I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to him! So every now and then, with the show ending, I find myself dreaming about that world and being back in it. I think it’s part of the process of my imagination saying goodbye to that world. [Laughs] And in my dreams, he just wants to be liked by all the vampires. It’s really pathetic. At the end of the day, he just wanted to be accepted.
How would you characterize the level of secrecy on True Blood, compared to other shows?
McMillian: This was definitely the first thing I ever worked on where we had sign confidentiality agreements. Even now, I’m nervous that I talked about who Steve’s maker might have been! [Laughs]
O’Hare: The standard caveat always applies — don’t spill things publicly. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, it’s a little harder, I think. I tweeted something recently from American Horror Story recently, I took a picture of my welcome basket, and I inadvertently, without even thinking about it, included the title page of the episode in there, which of course had a clue of what the episode might be about! I was like, “Oh my God!” And luckily nobody from American Horror Story has called me up and fired me yet. You just never know! I didn’t intend to give anything away.
Frain: It’s less about keeping it a secret versus not wanting to spoil it for the audience. I always get frustrated when reviewers give away the whole plot. Just tell me if it’s good or bad! I’ll discover the plot in the narrative, as it’s happening, versus being tipped off. But no one says, “These are the rules. You can’t say this. You can’t say that.” We know. We know what would spoil the story, and what wouldn’t.
O’Hare: I was paranoid at first about my scripts. It was like disposing a body! Do I chop ‘em up? Put it in a black plastic bag? Throw it in the river? What do I do? I’m waiting for the day where they self-destruct, like Mission: Impossible.
How do you want it to end?
McMillian: Jason and Steve should end up together! There’s no question about that. [Laughs] But I kind of always wanted Steve and Lafayette to get together, too, but alas, that was not to be! I always felt that Sookie and Bill’s relationship could really be defined once and for all, because despite so many people being fans of Sookie/Eric, that ship has sailed. Sookie and Bill’s love is the focus, and I really like that.
O’Hare: It would be great to have a really tacky ending, in which you suddenly go into Bellefleur’s, and a disco ball starts turning, and all the characters from the entire seven seasons suddenly start showing up and dancing. And you watch them all sort of dance with each other – Russell kind of sidles over and grabs Bill’s hand, and they do a little dance. And then Talbot comes in and he points, “Whoa! You’re back!” And Franklin Mott walks in and everybody goes, “Franklin!” Something like that. A bad disco ending, I would take.
Frain: It will be missed.