Rutina Wesley hopes her 'True Blood' role is a stepping stone for other black actresses
HBO's "True Blood" has had more than its share of frightening moments this season, but the fan frenzy surrounding the cast of the vampire drama can also be a bit scary, as Rutina Wesley has discovered.
For instance, there was the devotee at the cast's Comic-Con autograph session who wanted to "bite" Wesley, who plays the sharp-tongued bartender Tara Thornton, in the neck for a picture. Or the fan from Louisville, Ky., who almost collapsed into a quivering heap when she finally encountered Wesley at the San Diego event.
Then there are all the "True Blood" fans who spot her in markets or on the street who call her Tara ("People think I'm her") and the Web message boards that she can't keep away from despite warnings: "My husband yells at me to stop reading them. It drives me crazy. People can be really mean -- they say the most vicious things."
But despite those unsettling vibes from "True Blood" loyalists, the classically trained Wesley, who studied at Juilliard, is on "top of the world," simultaneously enjoying artistic satisfaction and popularity.
As its second season comes to an end Sunday, "True Blood," with heavy doses of bloody violence and twisted sex accenting its tale of vampires living among humans in modern-day Louisiana, has become HBO's biggest hit since "The Sopranos."
"I'm still wrapping my head around all of this," Wesley said recently, wolfing down a salad in a cafe near her mid-Wilshire area home where she lives with her husband, Jacob. A sleeveless blouse showed off her muscular, athletic arms that have become a trademark of Tara's strong-willed character. The long, swishy braids of her character were nowhere in evidence, replaced by a straighter hairstyle that lent an extra softness to her beauty.
In the series, Tara is a strong and uncompromising woman battling not only the supernatural, but also her own demons that resulted from her growing up with an alcoholic mother. Though she frequently lashes out at those around her, her more vulnerable side often pierces her fiery nature.
"When I auditioned for Tara, I immediately saw past her anger," Wesley said. "You can scream all day long. That would be the easy way to play her. I see Tara more as a flower, a broken woman. People want her to do well, and she doesn't know how. I try to make her softer. She is tortured, incredibly hard to play."
Even more important for the young actress, she has unwittingly become something of a cultural pioneer. With her prominent multifaceted character on "True Blood," Wesley has become one of the rare accomplished African American actresses to escape being trapped in the role of the "BBF" or Black Best Friend that has become the trend for most black actresses working in television and film in recent years.
Series featuring BBFs include CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (Wanda Sykes) and TBS' "My Boys" (Kellee Stewart) while films include "Sex and the City: The Movie" (Jennifer Hudson), "Nights in Rodanthe" (Viola Davis) and "The Nanny Diaries" (Alicia Keys).
"It's really maddening out there for dark-skinned actresses in terms of the opportunities we get," Wesley said. "There's just so much talent that is being overlooked. Viola Davis should be a household name. So should Angela Bassett."
She hopes that "True Blood" will not only serve as a stepping stone for her, but also for other black actresses struggling to get multidimensional leading roles. "It feels good to be a young woman of color leading the way," she said. "I really do think it's possible, and it's what we need to see with this young generation."
In the "Sookie Stackhouse" novels by Charlaine Harris that make up the foundation for "True Blood," Tara is white. But the show's creator, Alan Ball, wanted to have more diversity in his cast, particularly since the series is set in post-Katrina Louisiana.
Ball said, "Rutina just nailed the part from the beginning. She traded the toughness for vulnerability. She was really strong, present and funny in her audition. I didn't see the actress, I saw Tara."
He added, "I like to work with actors who have been taught. They can come in and know instantly how to play a scene. Rutina trusts the material."
In addition to attending Juilliard, Wesley, who was born in Las Vegas, also attended the Las Vegas Academy of the Performing Arts, and spent a summer at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London studying Shakespeare.
Some viewers may remember her as the lead from the 2008 dance movie, "How She Move," in which she demonstrated her aggressive dance ability. ("My knees still hurt from working on that.") But she hopes to continue working in projects as fully developed as "True Blood."
"I would love to do something like 'Notting Hill,' " she said. "That's my favorite movie. I want to do parts that are outside of the box."
-- Greg Braxton