It was the aesthetic that hooked me on the first season of True Blood, its terrible beauty. Rural Louisiana, kudzu clotting the trees, Santeria candles, strings of patio lights. Shotgun shacks, river houses with wraparound balconies. Tropical heat that stuns people by day and lures them out all night, makes them throw open their windows and unbutton their shirts. Dancing late, sweat glistening on skin that's tight from sunburn, drinks that go down easy. Everything feels fecund, saturated, as if it's ripening and rotting at the same time.
The opening credits alone are heady. Set to a twanging theme song about doing bad things, pictures flicker by like glimpsed secrets. There are pool halls and storefront churches, religious hysteria and dirty sex, flesh-eating plants and decomposing animal corpses, all drenched in blood-clot red.
In that setting, the supernatural seems natural. Those louche beauties lounging around – they're vampires? Sure, why not? Their aesthetics are terrific as well: their preternatural stillness, their glittering eyes, their sudden explosions of decadence, hinted at but mostly unimaginable. The way they can "glamour" humans – hypnotize them with their very glamourousness. The speed with which they move. Their sexual voraciousness, which either kills mortals, thrills them, or both. The notion that their blood is a drug, and that it's both lethal and restorative.
And grounding the fantastical – show creator Alan Ball previously worked on Six Feet Under, another great television series about sex and death – is an underlying metaphor, about the religious right's campaign to curtail sexual freedom. Just so you can't miss it, a billboard in those opening credits reads, "God Hates Fangs."
I don't have to tell you why the vampire myth persists, why creatures of the night – of the shadows where all illicit things happen – who are simultaneously young and ancient, wised-up and disdainful about the puny concerns of humans, have always been attractive. One of the great jokes of the show is how much better-looking the vampires are than the mortals. Of course, the mortals willingly give themselves over, both as food and sexual partners. (Having the big Swede Alexander Skarsgard, who plays the vampire Eric, on hand to be their perpetually nude poster boy doesn't hurt, either.)
But for me, the hero of the show has always been Pam, played by Kristin Bauer van Straten. Eric's devoted lieutenant, perpetually dolled up in dominatrix-wear, her deep voice dripping venom, Pam sashays through the series doing what she wants, regretting nothing, never apologizing. Not only is she not conflicted about her vampire nature, she revels in it. As the show evolved over the years – the seventh and final season began on June 22 – it became less revolutionary, more soap opera. But Pam's character remains pleasingly flinty.
"Pam says what we're all thinking, but aren't allowed to say," Bauer van Straten told me during an interview in Toronto. "We're all living vicariously through her – me included."
Fans are forever quoting Pam's lines back to Bauer van Straten, usually the most brutal, sarcastic ones. For example: Pam once called Sookie, the half-mortal played by Anna Pacquin, who is Pam's primary rival for Eric's affection, "a gash in a sundress." "When I first read that in the script, I thought: 'Well, I'll be looping over this later,'" Bauer van Staten recalled. "But no, it aired."
We were sitting on a hotel room sofa. She was wearing a ruffled black blouse, black pants, Mary Jane wedges and midnight-blue socks with stars on them. (Later that night, for an HBO event, she changed into a more Pam-like ensemble: a slinky black pencil skirt and black patent stilettos.) On camera, Bauer van Straten's features are big; in person, they're enormous – deep-set eyes, cheekbones wide as sails, lips so full they look about to burst. Her voice, however, is a surprise: It's a full octave higher than Pam's, girlishly enthusiastic, and slowed by the elongated, slightly nasal vowels of her native Wisconsin. This dominatrix is secretly a dairy maid.
"When I first arrived in Los Angeles, my acting coach took one listen and said: 'Ooh, you need a voice coach,'" Bauer van Straten said. Her response – "Why?" pronounced "Wii-ee?" – supplied its own answer. The coach taught her to drop her voice and to excise the upturn? That makes declarative sentences into questions? When she first appeared as Pam, she wrote to thank him: "Are you watching this? Because you are partly responsible."
The 41-year-old Bauer van Straten (the second half of her surname is courtesy of her husband, South African musician Abri van Straten) took the long road to fame, moving to L.A. in 1994 and kicking around for more than a decade, doing guest spots on series, bit parts in movies, and pilots that didn't get picked up. Memorably, she played Man Hands, one of Jerry's failed dates, on Seinfeld. "Every few years," she said, "I'm in this awkward position where I'll run into Jerry somewhere and think, 'He's not going to remember my name.' So when I say hello I feel I have to say, 'I'm Man Hands.'" She laughs giddily.
She suffered her share of humiliations (she was once hired for a pilot, fired from it, was persuaded to audition again, and then dismissed a second time) and came close to quitting more than once. "When people ask me for advice about becoming an actor, I'll ask: 'Is there anything else that you love?'" she said. "If they say yes, I say: 'Go do that.' I stuck with acting only because I couldn't do anything else. I once said to a friend: 'If this slow streak continues, I'm going to be working at Starbucks.' She said: 'Oh, honey, we're not qualified.' My poor parents were worried about me for a long time."
They can relax now. Although Bauer van Straten is still a sweet Wisconsin girl at heart – she admits to first crushing on her future husband after repeat viewings of the video of his love song Rain, and gushes about animals, recycling and John Wayne – she knows how to sink her teeth into Pam. At the HBO event, she dished about who would win in a girl fight between Pacquin and herself (Pacquin) and described making out with Skarsgard as "fabulous."
The allure of True Blood is its unabashed wish fulfilment. And Bauer van Straten is not immune. "Pam lets me get everything out – any causticness or bitchiness," she said. "Most of us are conflicted about who we are. She's not."