Exclusive Audio Interview with Michael Raymond-James
Listen to our interview with Michael Raymond-James on the December 5th True Blood Radio Show (archived below) and read along with the transcript provided.
This is Mel and Liz and we’re here today with Michael Raymond-James who played Rene on True Blood. How are you today?
MR-J: I’m good, how are you?
Mel: Doing great! We’re excited to get a chance to talk to you, now that the series is over and the big reveal of who the serial killer was has come about. So now I imagine you can talk freely about your time on the show.
MR-J: Yeah, I think so.
Mel: Good! Well, our first question is, we were trying to do some background prep to come up with questions to ask you about other projects you’ve done, but there’s nothing out there.
MR-J: There’s not much out there?
Mel: No, are you also a spy, or what’s the deal?
MR-J: (laughs) I was raised by wolves in Siberia.
Mel: It all becomes clear!
MR-J: Yeah you know background information can be a little overwhelming sometimes, I think. You know, we know so much about everybody. For me, it’s a little weird. I’m a naturally shy person, so, you know, shouldn’t have a lot out there as far as biography. But as far as work goes, all that’s out there in the public domain.
Mel: Well tell us a little bit about how you got started acting.
MR-J: It’s interesting, you know, well, maybe it’s not that interesting but, I’m from the Detroit area where being an actor really isn’t an option. So it didn’t really dawn on me until I was like 19 and I walked past a flyer in Lansing, MI, for a student film. And, chances are I was drunk at the time, and said, “Well, let me give this a shot.” Because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. And it just fit. I went and I got a part and as soon as I started working on it, it was sort of like that first breath of air after your head’s been held under water for a while. And so, I sort of immersed myself in that world, and decided to go to NY and study, and sort of, you know, give myself over to it. I found that I had a talent for it. It’s something that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. In other words, I felt that I found what I was looking for; that I was put on this planet to tell stories, for better or for worse.
Mel: That’s awesome! It sounds like it really gripped you immediately.
MR-J: It really did.
Mel: You said you studied in NY. Where did you study?
MR-J: I studied at the Lee Strasberg Theater, with George Loros and Jeffery Horn, Robert Castle, and had some pretty interesting teachers. Who I still contact pretty often in regards to the work, the craft and also the business side of it. Because I’m not much of a business man.
Mel: Well that’s not a bad start. And then, from there, after you studied and felt confident to go out and start taking on other roles. What was your role before this?
MR-J: Well, before I came out to LA, I was doing theater in NY, and I really had no desire to come to LA. But I got invited by a casting director who said I should give LA a try, and I came out here. And I worked pretty steadily, guest starring on tv shows, and I got the opportunity to work on the film Black Snake Moan, written and directed by Craig Brewer, with (Samuel L.) Jackson, Christina Ricci, (Justin) Timberlake, and that was great. And then, you know, I got the True Blood thing.
Mel: Now, what was it that drew you to True Blood? Were you aware of the books ahead of time?
MR-J: No I wasn’t. I didn’t know anything about the books, or I didn’t know much about vampires. It’s a little embarrassing. In fact I had to give an interview in Louisiana, one time, they asked who my favorite vampire was and the only one I could think of was Count Chocula. (Laughs) There’s a lot of pressure in these interviews! You want to sound interesting and you come across sounding like an idiot.
No, I didn’t know anything about the books beforehand, but my manager called and said that there’s a new Alan Ball project and immediately that is going to get your attention. So they sent the script over and had an appointment set up for me to go read for Alan, and they asked me if I could do a Cajun dialect.
Mel: Of course you said yes.
MR-J: (laughs) I said, “what’s a Cajun dialect?” You know, there’s not a lot of that in Detroit.
MR-J: But I did a little bit of research and then I went in and read for Alan and we got the offer the next day.
Mel: You made a fantastic Rene, I have to say. The first time I saw you on the screen, that is exactly how I pictured that character in my head.
MR-J: Oh really?
MR-J: Oh, thank you.
Mel: But then, as the series progressed, and Liz and I had both read the books ahead of the series even premiering so we knew…
MR-J: You guys are both fans of Charlaine Harris beforehand?
Mel: So, we knew, at least in the book, what Rene was up to, but as the series progressed we found ourselves questioning whether that was how it was going to be. If that was how it was going to turn out, because Rene was so likeable.
MR-J: I hope so. I hope there’s a sense of that. You know, that was something that we wanted to try to focus on. Clearly that was there in Alan’s writing, and the whole writing staff’s work. But that’s something that I try to bring as well. I know that Charlaine Harris has a huge following. In fact, once I got the job, I was telling my mother and my sisters about it, and they immediately went and bought all the books, and all their friends bought the books and they’re sharing. So I didn’t even have to read the books, they gave me the Cliff notes version of it. But knowing where the character’s going, we didn’t want to beat anybody over the head and let them know in episode 2 that this is what’s happening and what’s coming. You try to keep them on their toes a little bit, so hopefully, that worked.
Mel: It did, you had us up until, really up until episode 11. Liz and I were still going back and forth over whether it was going to be Rene or if they were going to give it to some other character.
Mel: So, nice job! You tricked us.
MR-J: Thank you.
Mel: You talked a little bit about the fact that you knew right away, or fairly early on in the filming process, that Rene was the killer.
MR-J: Yeah, I knew before we, before the first day of shooting.
MR-J: Research is something that I really enjoy as an actor and it’s something that I really throw myself into. I don’t want to leave any stone unturned, so there’s no way I would have gone on set having not known the arc of the character and the direction he was going to go.
Mel: How did that inform the way that you played the character? You said that you and Alan purposely made him more likeable.
MR-J: Yeah, well you know, there are moments where Alan would mention, in this particular scene, “You know, nobody’s going to know now, but when they look back, on a second viewing on a DVD release or whatever, they’ll be able to catch the ‘twisting of the mustache’ moment.” We tried to foreshadow a little bit without tipping our hand.
Mel: They were really subtle. which is great.
MR-J: Yeah, I hope so.
Mel: For those of us who had read the book, it was really cool to be sitting there going, “Gosh, is it? No! I don’t know!”
Liz: But you could pick up on some of the clues that were dropped; some of the hints.
MR-J: Right, yeah I think I mention in, like, episode 2, about my sister. And to everybody who had read the book, it was sort of ‘game on’ for them.
Liz: Yeah, that was, like, clue number 1.
Liz: Some of these scenes that you had to do, how did you prepare, you know, back story or accent?
MR-J: Well, the accent, I mentioned early on in my representation that I wanted to go out and hire a dialect coach as opposed to just show up and have one on the set that could help me. I wanted to hit the ground running with it. So they started looking at some people and it was really important to me to get someone not from Harvard, who had read books and these kind of things; that could make the changes in the voice and the diphthongs and all these things. I wanted somebody that had gumbo in their DNA. So I did some research and found this guy by the name of Errol Gidry, from Mermentau, LA, who is a true Cajun, and he’s a dialect coach. He was Michael Jeter’s coach in The Green Mile. So I had him over to my house for a meeting and immediately hit it off with him. And I just tried to steal as much of his soul as possible. (laughs) And so, he would work with me on every script. He was my first phone call as soon as I got the script. And we would chop it up and break it down and do our thing with it. And I also knew the fact that in the books, Rene’s accent was a little fake. His parents had let the roots of his Cajun ancestry die. So I tried to add a sense of that sometimes as well. Not too much because I wanted to make…you know, if the character was making an effort to completely change his personality, he has this deep psychoses, obviously. I wanted to err on the side of authenticity as opposed to anything else. So that’s what we went for. So me and Errol would work it out and come up with little phrases. I always tried to push it a little bit further and try to add some French words. And the script supervisor would come up and say, “An English-speaking audience isn’t going to understand what your saying.” My argument was, “I have no problem with that. We can add subtitles if you guys want.”
Mel: There you go!
Mel: Authenticity, man! I was really impressed with the accent and I think the most harrowing moment in the entire season for me was when Arlene found the dialect tape in the box of Rene’s stuff.
MR-J: Yeah. (laughs)
Mel: That gave me the shivers like nothing else had, which, considering how graphic the season had been, it was pretty clever. It was pretty well done.
MR-J: Yeah I didn’t even know that was coming. Raelle Tucker, who wrote the final episode, when she saw me, before the script had come out, she told me she had a surprise for me in the last episode. And I was like, “Oh God! What’s this going to be?” These people keep you on your toes, you know. And I saw it and I was like, “Wait a second, are you guys saying that I wasn’t doing a good job? Is that the deal?” She promised me that that wasn’t the case. It was just a little bit creepier.
Mel: It was! It just showed us how premeditated this all was.
MR-J: Yeah, right, exactly.
Mel: In the finale, when Rene goes berserk, that was another really frightening scene, but it was so well acted. Can you talk a little bit about shooting that?
MR-J: It was exhausting! A lot of running and a lot of tapping into some pretty dark places. We were shooting that scene in the cemetery. Alan Ball does this, his famous “Niice!” if he likes a scene. So he had just given us one of those after I’m choking Sookie, and I’m exhausted. And I remember telling him, “Man, like you know, I’m gonna call my agent right now and tell him to find me a job a little bit lighter. Maybe like I could play a character that’s on a little girl’s softball team, or a talking dolphin or something.”
Mel: Get a job on The Office.
MR-J: Yeah, exactly. Something really light. Something that my nieces can finally watch. I mean, it’s a lot of fun. That’s one of those reasons that we, as actors, we gear up and try to go to these kind of places, cuz it’s a great feeling if it works, you know.
Mel: Well, it worked! It really worked.
MR-J: Thank you.
Mel: We had a lot of comments on the forums, and then people would email Liz and I frequently, from the site itself, saying how much they like Rene, and that they had heard rumors that he was the killer, and that just can’t be. And for some reason, even though we have right up there in our banner, right front and center, on every single page, that we’re a fan site people persist in thinking that we are actually HBO.
Mel: So we were also getting emails saying, “Could you please change the story?”
Liz: They’re still coming in. “Please, bring Rene back!”
Mel: Yeah, and were like, “You know what, I think that shovel pretty much did the deed.”
MR-J: You know, I’m sorry about that. I’ll call my mom and my sisters and tell them to stop sending you guys emails.
Mel: Aha! Now we know! Well it was just so much fun to see how the fans connected with Rene, and then to see that all just come crumbling down in the last 2 episodes. It was amazing!
MR-J: Yeah I had friends of mine, whenever somebody would come up and recognize me from the show, my friends would keep me pretty grounded, and, “You know, all these people are gonna hate you at the end of the season, so..”
Mel: Yeah don’t get too comfortable there buddy.
MR-J: Don’t get too comfortable, big guy.
Mel: Well I can tell that you’re, you’re slipping into the accent just a tiny bit. Is that habit?
MR-J: Sure, man! As an actor, you collect all these things you know, and sometimes they take a little while to shake. And they come out sometimes in the wildest places, usually when I’m stumbling out of a bar, drunk. I’ll say something (incoherent). “Where’d that come from, man? I don’t know.”
Mel: And for someone who watched the series, that won’t freak them out at all.
MR-J: It won’t freak them out at all, yeah, exactly.
Mel: A serial killer surfacing! Run!
MR-J: (laughing) Captain Weird.
Mel: Which scenes did you like to shoot the most?
MR-J: All of it was great. I love what I do. I love the opportunity to do something that I love. The only scene I didn’t like, and for different reasons, there’s only 2. The one that sticks out the most is Lois Smith’s death scene, where I have to stab Gran. It was horrible for me because she is such a powerful actress and a powerful presence and it really kinda shook me. As soon as we started shooting that scene, and out of nowhere, you know, I was really effected by it. And I play a tough guy on tv sometimes, but I’m really kind of a sensitive boy. And tears started just coming, I was just shook. I was like, “Oh my God!” When she started screaming, a chill ran up my spine. Like, “I can’t believe this is happening; that I’m doing this!” and, “This is such a sweet lady, and now she’s going to be out of a job!” and, “Oh God, this is horrible!”
Mel: And it’s all your fault!
MR-J: Yeah it’s all my fault! I actually apologized to her. I was like, “I’m so sorry for this.” So, that was a pretty rough day. The other one that was kinda rough, but for a completely different reason, was the scene in episode 11 where Ryan Kwanten tells Jim Parrack and I about Lizzy Caplan uses V, the character of Amy – is a V user, and we have that scene. The reason that was tough was because it was like 112 degrees that day in LA, and like 89% humidity. So it was tough just to move that day. And, it didn’t make it into the final scene but, at the end of those takes, Jim Parrack would jump on my back as sort of a piggyback ride as we walked back towards the truck. And I don’t know if you guys notice or not, but Jim Parrack is 6’5! (laughs)
Liz: Yeah he’s a big guy.
MR-J: He’s quite a load in 112 degrees. But it was fun! I mean I love that stuff.
Mel: The three of you, Rene, Hoyt and Jason; that was a fun trio there.
MR-J: Oh, and it was so great to work with those guys, we had a lot of fun. And we would try to do things that I’m not sure that anybody caught yet at this point. We would try to add little things every time we’d work together. It was fun to let those things unfold. And the three of us, sometimes we would get together in one of our trailers and just read the scenes several times by ourselves without the director around, and start to make choices together, which was a lot of fun.
Mel: I think it added to the camaraderie that we saw on screen.
MR-J: Yeah it really did, and you know, what’s interesting is Ryan and I have known each other for a while. We actually did a guest star together on this show called The Handler, in like 2003.
Mel: Oh really?
MR-J: Yeah, and so it was kinda crazy when I got the job and saw that he and I were going to be working together. It was pretty cool.
Mel: That is fun, you know they always say acting is a small world.
MR-J: It is, it really is. I mean, this is a small community at the end of the day.
Liz: Well, that’s kind of some behind the scenes dish that we hoping that you would give us a little bit, Michael.
MR-J: You guys tricked me!
Mel: We did! We’re clever like that.
Liz: Do you have any funny moments? Pranksters?
MR-J: One that I can think of is, in the scene where Arlene and I, Carrie Preston and I had to do our dance scene at the engagement party. I think Carrie might have mentioned this before. HBO sent her and I to have dance lessons for like a week. We were going to choreograph this dance to this particular song which was going to be playing during the scene. And I was a little nervous about it because you got 100 plus people out there. A lot of the extras were professional dancers. So it was sort of “Oh my God, here we go! I’m going to make a fool of myself.” But right before we got there, like a minute before – Carrie and I were rehearsing the step to the music with the dance instructor five minutes before we shot that scene. As we were being taken from the trailers to set, one of the AD’s came up and said, “They changed the music.”
MR-J: Yeah we just lost cabin pressure. “What do you mean you changed the music?” So when I finally got there, I was just sort of, you know, how do I say it without cussing? We were like, “Well, forget it! We’re just going to do whatever. We’ll just get weird.” That’s why you see that really funky weird move that I’m doing with my butt out and my hand in the air.
MR-J: Yeah, exactly!
Mel: That’s really mean though.
MR-J: That’s what I think, right?
Mel: Trying to keep you on your toes.
MR-J: I guess, yeah.
Mel: Oh well, it turned out well in the end.
MR-J: I hope so yeah. It was fun.
Mel: If you could have played any of the other characters on the show, which one would that be? One that lived?
MR-J: Sookie, man!
MR-J: That’s a no-brainer!
Mel: You would want to have that secret power to be a telepath?
MR-J: Are you kidding me? Aw man, it’d be great! I’d be rich! Absolutely! I’d say, “I know what you’re up to. You’re not going to get away with it.”
MR-J: I would choose to look at it as a public service. I would use my powers for good.
Liz: They all start out that way.
MR-J: I guess they do, right?
Mel: And then, before you know it, they’re killing everyone who sleeps with a vampire.
Mel: Well, tell us, what’s coming up next for you now that we’re, I assume, not going to see you on season 2?
MR-J: Yeah, you know, we’ll see. A week after we wrapped True Blood, I went to work on a new pilot for HBO. A David Milch pilot, called Last of the Ninth, which stars Ray Winstone. It’s based on NYC police officers in the 1970’s. Something totally different and exciting for me. I play a character that’s based on a real guy. He was a major, major corrupt narcotics detective in the 70’s. So it was a lot of fun to get involved in that. And we’ll see what happens. And I just finished doing a couple of guest spots on a show called Life on NBC.
Mel: Oh, I love that show!
MR-J: Oh yeah?
Mel: With Damien Lewis. He’s awesome!
MR-J: Oh my God, he’s fantastic. And that was really fun. I play this really off the wall character. He’s a cross between John Waters and The Joker.
Mel: Oh no!
Mel: There’s an image for ya’!
MR-J: Yeah, right? That was a lot of fun. And then I just did another guest spot on ER. I’m still looking for a script about a talking dolphin though, so if you guys see anything, let me know.
Liz: We’re going to talk to Michael Eisner.
MR-J: I can’t believe I’m not working for Disney at this point.
Mel: I know, considering your background.
Liz: Everyone else is!
Mel: Well, it sounds like HBO wants to keep you around, so that’s nice.
MR-J: Yeah, it’s great working for HBO. As an actor, especially because network drama is, you know, when they’re formatted for television, it effects the acting in terms of, you really have to take your time with responses. Everything has to be very formula – we have to hurry up and get to the point because we only have 44 mins to do this, whereas, when your working on HBO, they really allow you to take the gloves off. Plus you can cuss, so that’s cool.
Mel: Ok so, wanted: one script with a talking dolphin in which you can cuss.
Mel: And there’s a little girl’s softball team.
MR-J: A cussing talking dolphin!
Mel: Sweet! I think that’s a blockbuster right there.
MR-J: I think we’re onto something. Let’s call someone at HBO and pitch it.
Mel: Right. Green lit – out of the gate.
Liz: A new contest for our website: what kind of work can we get for Michael?
MR-J: (laughs) You guys are funny!
Mel: You’re funny! I was just telling Liz, this whole shy thing, I don’t believe you.
MR-J: Oh well, you guys make me feel comfortable, so that’s cool.
Mel: Well, thank you!
MR-J: Plus, I’ve had a few glasses of rum. No, I’m kidding!
Liz: I was just going to say, uh, wine in the hand there?
Mel: Yeah, I think Liz does that when we’re getting ready to do our shows on Fridays.
Liz: I have to!
MR-J: Listen, I don’t blame you at all. I’ve actually been pacing the entire time. I think I’ve walked like three miles in the course of this interview.
Mel: Wow! Talk about multi-tasking! Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. It’s been a lot of fun!
MR-J: Yeah, thanks a lot you guys. I really appreciate it.
Mel: We look forward to seeing you on Life and ER in the near future.
Mel: And hopefully, again on HBO.
MR-J: Yeah, hopefully!
Mel: Alright, well thank you and we’re going to go ahead and let you get back to pacing!
MR-J: Alright Liz, Melissa, thanks a lot.
Liz: Or drinking!
MR-J: Or a little bit of both! (laughing) Alright, take care!