Carrie Preston On 'True Blood' 10 Years After Its Premiere & How It Informed The Rest Of Her Career
"Arlene probably would've gotten the most mileage out of being a shapeshifter," Carrie Preston muses, considering which of True Blood's various supernatural creatures her character would've enjoyed being the most. For True Blood's 10-year anniversary, Carrie Preston chats with Bustle about the effect the show has had on both her career and the wider television landscape. Her Arlene Fowler was often one of the only purely human characters on a show overflowing with vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, and fairies — and she wouldn't have had it any other way.
"I was very happy to stay in the realm of the human," she insists. "I really think it was one of the most important things about the show, that the audience was continually reminded that these supernatural creatures were existing in a human world. When it was all said and done, I loved the journey that Arlene got to have. She really had a complicated and interesting arc. I loved the balance between the humor and the tragedy that got to co-exist within her and within the tone of the show. I like having the responsibility of juggling those two things as an actor, so it was a real joy and privilege to be able to do that."
Sometimes, that responsibility felt like being on a completely different show than the rest of the cast. "I felt like I was on a show about a bar and about a small town; my stuff was all very rooted in the human. It really felt like we were in a bar, it really felt like we were in a community. The production design, just walking onto that soundstage, the minute you walked onto the Merlotte's set, you were not on a set, you were in a real place. We had a lot of really wonderful times there — and of course I think most fondly of the scenes that I had with Nelsan [Ellis], and the sadness we all feel that he's no longer with us." (Ellis, who played Merlotte's cook Lafayette, passed away in in 2017 at the age of 29 from heart failure related to alcohol withdrawal, as reported at the time by The Hollywood Reporter.) "But he lives on in that role, and he was such a gift to the show, and he was such a special performer. It was always an honor to play opposite him."
But even for the very human Arlene, True Blood wasn't all slinging burgers. "Certainly the extra weirdest experience I've ever had on a show was shooting an orgy at four in the morning in the South wearing black contact lenses where none of us could really see each other and there were naked background people dancing around us," she recalls of Season 2's Maryann storyline. "That was definitely one of the weirder moments of my life as an artist."
It's hard to imagine now in the era of The Walking Dead, but True Blood was considered a major risk at the time of its premiere one decade ago this month. Preston credits the show's success with being a "stepping stone" to both other genre fare — like HBO's own Game Of Thrones — and other shows about oppressed communities, like FX's Pose; but that success was never a given.
"It definitely was ahead of its time," Preston remembers. "It was really risky for a network about prestige to do something that was considered 'genre.' I think it was time for it, though. Where we were culturally, it was time to have an allegorical show about people who are oppressed. This was a great way to sneak in that conversation in a really covert and entertaining way. We were all curious about whether or not people — or grownups, I should say — would be interested in looking at a fantasy show. I think we knew we had something special, but we just weren't sure if the audience was going to go along with the ride."
So when did she first realize that True Blood would turn into the cultural phenomenon that it ultimately became? "I remember, the show hadn't aired yet, but we had already filmed it, and I was back in New York, and I came up out of the subway, and there was this young woman standing there with a clipboard saying, 'Will you please sign the Vampire Rights Amendment?' I went over to her and I was like, 'Are you working for HBO?' She looked at me like, 'How the hell do you know that?' and I said, 'I'm on that show that you're promoting. Give me that clipboard!' And I signed it."
"I knew then that HBO had a really interesting and innovative approach to getting this show out there," she continues. "I knew we were in good hands when we were shooting it, but I really knew we were in good hands when the promoting started happening. And I think the promotion really did get people intrigued, and once they saw the show, they were — to go ahead and use the pun — they were sucked in."
That major promotional push was one area in which Arlene's status as a mere mortal came as both a blessing and a curse. "If I had been a supernatural character, then HBO would have put me in all the promotional stuff. That was tough, you know, being on a show where I was not part of its promotion. As an actor, it's very helpful to our careers, to be part of the branding. That said, because I wasn't on the branding, I was able to sneak away and do other shows and keep my career going, like on The Good Wife. It ended up being a blessing. At first I thought, 'Oh wow, I'm not invited to be a part of all these Comic-Cons and promos and posters and all that stuff,' But then I thought, 'Oh, this is OK. I can kind of have my cake and eat it, too."
Speaking of The Good Wife, Preston's recurring guest role on that show as eccentric lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni — a role she also reprises on its spinoff, The Good Fight — is probably the actor's other most widely known and beloved character. Preston loves her, too. "The way Elsbeth's mind works is so unorthodox and interesting and mercurial, and mapping that out has just been one of those supreme pleasures of my artistic life. It's such a creatively challenging and exciting character to play, because she just doesn't function like other people. That's definitely the most exciting thing about playing that character: she's so unpredictable."
Between Arlene, Elsbeth, and now Polly Marks — the enigmatic character she currently plays on TNT's Claws — Preston could be said to have carved out a niche for herself playing characters who may seem simply "quirky" on the surface. But underestimate these women at your own peril; under the surface, they're quite complicated… and often the smartest people in whichever room they're in.
"I treat them all differently, they're all such different people to me," she says of her process for developing these three remarkable characters. "However, I do have the same approach to the work, and that is, you know, I take what's written and then I try to make it as specific and interesting as I can. I always try to look for the least obvious choice, and I think that's how the characters end up being more complicated. That's how human nature is: nobody is a stereotype, everybody always has something more interesting going on underneath the surface. And I think, as actors, it's our job to go ahead and start digging that up and shining a light on the uniqueness of each person. I feel very fortunate that I've gotten to play characters that allow that to happen and are not what I call the 'Wife of the Week.'"
And what would these three women think of each other if they ever met? "Elsbeth would definitely represent Polly, and Arlene would probably be a little wary of both of those women. But at the same time, I think that she and Polly would probably end up being best friends," Preston theorizes. "I would be in that show, that'd be fun!" And plenty of fans would watch that show, without a doubt. Can someone start developing an Orphan Black-style show where Preston plays all of her most famous characters, like, yesterday?