The Verge: Rutina Wesley
From the very first minute of True Blood's second season (beginning June 14 on HBO), Rutina Wesley's Tara steps to the fore as this year's pivotal character. Sure, Sookie (Anna Paquin) may have all the vampire-lovin' fun, but it's Tara who falls under the spell of the mysterious Mary Ann (Michelle Forbes) while at the same time dealing with a close-to-home murder and a hunky new love interest (Mehcad Brooks). We spoke with Wesley about the job that made her cry, what she's learned from Anna Paquin, and how Tara's about to become a changed woman.
Rutina, I know you're a good actress -- you have an MFA in theatre, and you went to Juilliard. But how are you able to concentrate on your lines when Mehcad Brooks is shirtless in front of you?
[laughing] I knew this was gonna come up! Yes, he's a very nice specimen. He works out, he's beautiful. He's also a very generous actor and we have a great chemistry, which actually makes it less difficult. It's nice when you get along with your scene partner, when they're open...we have a lot of fun playing around with these characters together, and it makes it that much richer when you see it onscreen.
Speaking of Juilliard, you went there around the same time as Nelsan Ellis, who plays your flamboyant cousin Lafayette on True Blood. Did you know each other at school?
We did. He was a year above me at Juilliard, and we actually became good friends. So for me, coming onto the show already knowing someone was very comforting, since I came in after the pilot.
You were replacing Brooke Kerr, who was originally cast as Tara. What was that process like?
You know, in this business, these things happen all the time -- and it's unfortunate, because I've been on the other side as well. When this came my way, I just took it as sort of a blessing that it must have been meant for me at this time. You know, it cuts both ways...no one wants to lose a job, but everybody wants to work.
They must have had a very specific take on the character to recast her and make her so different from the Tara in the novels. Did they share that vision with you?
[True Blood creator] Alan Ball was on NPR's Fresh Air and he said some things about how he saw the characters, and I think he just liked what I brought to her. When I got the sides, I related to Tara on a level that hit very close to home for me. When I went in there, I played her very vulnerable and tried to take the anger down a notch so that you could see right through it. She's just this little flower, this wounded child that needs to be taken care of. And that's where the mouth is coming from, and all that quickfire language.
How do you think Tara's changing this season? She seems a lot less angry this year.
We're watching Tara go through growing pains, so to speak. We're seeing her gain her own sense of womanhood -- she never was able to become a woman, I feel, because she had to take care of her mother. Now, though, with her mother out of the picture, Tara can kind of be herself and find out who Tara is and fall in love.
The new mystery this season seems to be centered around Michelle Forbes's character, Mary Ann. Tara's a big part of that storyline -- it's as if Mary Ann has become her new mother figure.
What I think is so great about Mary Ann is that she comes in and takes Tara under her wing and kind of allows Tara to be who she wants to be. Everything that Tara's always wanted to do, or the clothes she's wanted to wear, or even the makeup she wants to be a lady, that's what Mary Ann is allowing her to have. She's taking care of her in a way that her mother hasn't. All of it, I'm sure, is under Mary Ann's control, but it's nice that we're getting to see Tara in a lighter situation.
True Blood seems to have become HBO's next big hope. Is the network treating you any different now that the show's become a big hit?
It's just more hype, and it's really exciting. The posters are up everywhere! For this to be my first show is a really big deal -- I'm overwhelmed, but in a good way. People are really digging it, and it's not just vampire fans. I have women who live in the midwest -- stay-at-home moms, five kids -- who are like, "Oh my God! I just love you and I just love that show!" Everyone is watching the show, and that's just a tribute to Alan and how he tells the story.
You've got a pretty eclectic resume so far: True Blood, a role in the Sam Mendes production of The Vertical Hour on Broadway, the lead in the hip-hop dance movie How She Move....
If I'm going to be honest with you, when I trained at school, I feel like I was training to be a chameleon. I want to be that versatile actor who can do anything -- that's why you learn fifty different dialects, you do Shakespeare, you do commedia, you do it all so that if any job comes your way, you should be able to do it.
How does your approach to acting, where you've been studying it for years, contrast with Anna Paquin's, who's simply been in the industry since she was a child?
I learn a lot from Anna because she's learned by doing. You can't always come in so prepared that your choices become stale, so from her I learn how to sometimes just forget about all the tools that I have, just put 'em in a bag and stuff it in the closet, and just go on set and play. Watching Anna and other people who haven't gone to school, they have this sense of freedom and this knowledge of the camera that I don't have yet. It's actually amazing watching her work. She knows every angle, how to position herself, all these things you learn over time that you don't necessarily find out at school. At Julliard, they don't teach you where to move your face for the camera, you know?
Rutina, I saw your first film, How She Move, at Sundance---
[squealed delight] Oh my God, you did? The original version?
Wait, did they change it before release? I know MTV picked it up...
You remember in the Sundance version, I had my little dance solo?
They cut that?
Yeah, they cut my little Flashdance moment! [laughs]
How dare they!
And that was one of my favorite movies. I love Flashdance. I thought it was so cool! But you know, I hope that people will still see that movie and think, "Oh my God, she can really dance." Because that was mostly me! I want people to see I'm not just a one-trick pony -- that's what I went to school for. People see me play this brash country bumpkin with a lot of attitude on True Blood, and hopefully down the line I'll get to do something else. I don't just want to play an angry black woman stereotype or a dancer chick -- I don't want to be typed at all. I've worked too hard, I think, to be typed.
Does that still happen to you a lot, though?
I fight really, really hard to go into rooms and be seen. Like, "Hey, I might not be what you think you want, but just see me. Just give me a shot." And there have been a couple of times when I've changed minds and made that crossover. It's hard to change a casting director's mind, believe me. How She Move was a good example of that -- I was nothing like what the director had in mind, at all.
He met with me over lunch, and I remember I had my natural hair out, so I had this 'fro. I had my braids in, so I wasn't looking very ingenue-ish. We talked about theater, and I told him how I know I seem really hard, with these Angela Bassett arms [laughs], but I'm really a flower. Like Tara! I won't bite ya. I seem like I will, but I won't.
It must have been really satisfying to play a lead role in your very first film, and to see it accepted to Sundance.
You know, I don't know if there's even been another dance film at Sundance. For me, when we made it into the festival, I thought that was really a testament to the work we'd all done on this film. Dancing is my first love, it's my passion, and my parents were dancers, so getting to play the lead in my first movie where I got to dance, it was like...ah, I'm getting all teary-eyed. But it was amazing for me, because it was my dream! I thought that even if I never did anything after that, I never worked again, at least I could say that I got to act and dance and do some good work. And that's what I'm trying to hold onto in this business, because you don't know when you're gonna work sometimes. When you get something, you have to hold onto it and appreciate it while you're doing it, because you never know how long it's going to be there. ♦