From ordinary folks to the upper crust and all those in between, many a fictional Southerner’s story has been brought to life over the years on the small screen. In HBO TV’s new hit series True Blood, which is based on the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris, humans live side-by-side with vampires in the imaginary small Louisiana town of Bon Temps. Thanks to the creation by a Japanese scientist of synthetic blood (or TruBlood), these toothy townsfolk no longer need to feed on their fellow residents. Still, not everyone is comfortable having such creatures on their doorstep. Among those with reservations about such unusual living arrangements is local waitress Arlene Fowler.
“At the beginning, my character was sort of the comic relief, but she has since come to represent an important voice that I think the show needs, which is one of opposition,” says Carrie Preston, who plays Arlene. “She feels that vampires probably shouldn’t be around children because they might be tempted, and why put a child at risk like that. Without that argument, we‘d be dealing with a series where the vampires are these tortured, sexy, wonderfully dark souls but without any real consequence. So Arlene is that voice of consequence if you will, and I enjoy playing that aspect of her.”
Born and raised in Macon, Georgia, Preston was only 8 years old when she decided to follow in her older brother’s footsteps (John G. Preston, also now a professional actor), and began performing in community theater shows. By the time she was 12, Preston had founded her own street theater company with other neighborhood kids.
“By then I knew I’d be doing this [acting] for life,” she recalls. “It’s always been my dream and really all I’ve ever wanted to do. I also direct and produce, so I kind of have my hands in a number of areas. If I wasn’t able to make a living at acting, I’d have probably found another job, but still one related to theater, film or TV.”
A graduate of the University of Evansville and New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, Preston honed her craft in numerous productions including The Tempest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Hamlet, where the actress met her husband, Emmy award winner Michael Emerson. My Best Friend’s Wedding, Mercury Rising and The Legend of Bagger Vance are among her feature film credits, while on TV, the actress has guest-starred on such shows as Sex and the City, Numb3rs and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Having worked with Preston on his 2007 film Towelhead, executive producer/director/writer Alan Ball thought she would be perfect as Arlene in True Blood. The actress, however, took a bit of convincing.
“My agents received the script for True Blood, I read it and thought, ‘I have no idea what Alan is talking about; none of these roles are right for me,’” says Preston. “So I asked Alan which character he was talking about, and when he said Arlene, I was like, ‘What?’ because it’s not as if you look at me and think of her. Arlene is this brassy, sassy redheaded Southerner, whereas I’m this sort of petite blonde transplanted Southerner, but not necessarily the character. So Alan had me come in to read for him and a couple of the other producers. They put my audition on tape and Alan apparently went to the network execs and said, ‘This is the girl I want,’ and they said, ‘OK.’ It was, I don’t want to say easy, but it was definitely one of my less stressful auditions. After that, they were like, ‘We’ll just put a wig on her, give her a fake tan and trashy clothes.’ That’s how Alan works; he really tries to bring the actor to the character, you know?
“My first day of work on True Blood was actually spent trying to get my character’s look figured out. The costume designer just happens to be one of my best friends, and I was really glad about that. His name is Danny Glicker and he’s one of the most brilliant designers I’ve ever worked with. He only did the first three episodes of True Blood, but he also costumed Towelhead and Transamerica, which I was in as well. Danny worked very closely with me to establish a look for Arlene that I was comfortable with, and it was pretty much about her hair. There were some people who were encouraging me to dye my hair, but I didn’t want to do that. I really thought Arlene needed to have long hair, because in the [Sookie Stackhouse] books she’s described as this longhaired redhead. It took a couple of days but we finally came up with a wig, and then once that happened it was just really me stepping into Arlene’s shoes, literally and metaphorically.”
Having grown up in the South, Preston brings with her a certain familiarity when it comes to playing someone like Arlene. That, however, has not made the role a cakewalk for her. “I’d describe my character as a working class mom trying to take care of herself as well as her kids and get by with what she has,” explains the actress. “Arlene is also fiercely opinionated, strong and funny, and I guess one of the challenges I’ve had is that because she’s Southern and a waitress, there’s a tendency to want to fall into a stereotype. I am, however, really trying to work against that and honor both the script and the character.
“There is, I feel, humor in the way that they’re presenting Arlene, which I believe is important for the series, but we also have to honor the type of women that she represents. Coming from the South, I grew up with people like her, and I don’t want to make fun of them. So I’m walking a fine line; sometimes I fall on one side of the line, other times I fall on the other side, and on occasion I think I walk that line. So it’s been a nice challenge and, luckily, I trust the creative people around me to help me through it.”
One of Arlene’s best friends is fellow waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), who, like vampires, knows what it feels like to be an “outsider.” She is a telepath and can “listen” to the thoughts of others. Sookie has become involved with Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a 175 year-old vampire who recently moved to Bon Temps. Coincidentally, his arrival in town has sparked off a rash of strange events that will test their relationship. Good thing for Sookie, she has someone like Arlene to turn to.
“My character’s and Sookie’s relationship is very much sisterly, but tends to lean towards a mother/daughter one as well,” says Preston. “I think Arlene is intensely loyal and maybe doesn’t quite know how to be subtle about it, but she’s definitely concerned that her friend is associating with someone who’s very dangerous. In the books, the two women have a much warmer, truer friendship, but I think Alan Ball has made it even more interesting and complicated by adding a slight prickliness to Arlene where vampires are concerned.”
While her friend Sookie’s taste in boyfriends leans more towards the supernatural. Arlene’s significant other (and now, after a recent episode, her fiancé), is a down-to-earth Cajun named Rene Lenuer (Michael Raymond-James). “I’m really enjoying how things with Arlene and Rene are developing,” enthuses Preston. “Actually, for me, one of the best things about this [first] season has been revealing the relationship between the two of them.
“One of my favorite scenes is in an episode where Michael James and I had to dance,” continues the actress. “The two of us thought, ‘OK, fine, we’ll just dance.’ Well, they [the producers] brought in this choreographer, who we worked with on this dance for two or three hours. I’ve never had to do anything like that before. I love to dance, but I think Mike was a little nervous. On the day we shot it, there were 100-plus extras in addition to the entire crew and the rest of the cast, and right before we began filming, they decided to change the music on us,” laughs Preston.
“So Mike and I had to kind of rethink the dance with this new music. We knew they would probably only use two or three seconds of it in the final edit, but nonetheless when you’re doing something like this live and in front of a small crowd of people, it can be a bit daunting. However, we made it through the scene and I think it turned out really cute. They picked all the right stuff to use, and there were a number of extras who were dancers and doing all this crazy swing dancing and moves like that. So it was an amazing day.”
Prior to True Blood, Preston guest-starred in a handful of other genre programs including Wonderfalls and, more recently Lost, where the actress portrayed Emily Linus, the mother of her real-life husband Michael Emerson’s character Ben.
“With Wonderfalls I had worked on a pilot with Tod Holland, one of the creators and executive producers, and he subsequently brought me in to play a crazy runaway nun in an episode [Wound-up Penguin],” she says. “I was really happy to do it, because I thought the show was interesting as well as clever and I’m sorry it didn’t find an audience. Its writers, producers and creators tend to be on the cutting edge and have gone on to do even more fantastic work.
“As far as Lost, my husband Michael Emerson had been on the program for a bit, and when he became a series regular I said to him, ‘When we see your [character’s] flashback I’d love to play his Mom. Wouldn’t that be so creepy and funny, and I bet the fans would love it.’ The producers had wanted to bring me on the show in some capacity, and as kind of a joke, Michael just mentioned to them what I’d said. Before I knew it, I was lying in the jungle and giving birth to him, or should I say his character of Ben. It was that fast, and really fun as well as exciting. I liked being part of the series and playing someone connected to Michael’s character as opposed to some random individual. That was quite special.”
Although she may not have initially seen herself playing Arlene in True Blood, Preston is thrilled that someone else did. That seems to be somewhat of a running theme in the actress’s career, which is OK with her. “I have the great fortune of being a character actor,” notes Preston. “I might not be the type of person you immediately think of when it comes to several of the roles I’ve played because they’ve all been vastly different. So I haven’t been typecast. I don’t think people know what my type is; I don’t even know what my type is anymore,” she jokes. “I started off as the ingenue, but eventually ‘graduated’ into more complex roles, such as the nun in Wonderfalls, my character in Transamerica, or a person like Arlene, which is more of a transformational thing.
“Someone recently referred to me as an illusionist, which I thought was very kind and flattering because no one knows who I am walking down the street. So one of the things I’ve enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, about this [acting] is the ability to play all kinds of characters."