'True Blood' star thinks series whet appetite for all things vampire

If it feels like you're drowning in vampires on TV and in movies these days, Rutina Wesley suggests you blame one source above most others.

Wesley is the fearless, emotive actor who plays the ever-troubled Tara Thornton on HBO's R-rated vampire drama True Blood. And she suspects the show's September 2008 debut presaged a deluge of bloodsucking reinventions: from the tween heartthrobs in the Twilight movies and The CW's Vampire Diaries to the world-dominating vamps in Ethan Hawke's film Daybreakers and the twitchy suburbanite ghouls of ABC's new summertime drama The Gates.

"I feel like we sort of started it up again, and now there's more love out there than ever before," said Wesley, who beat out another, already-cast woman to play the perpetually angry best friend to Anna Paquin's mind-reading barmaid and vampire-loving Sookie Stackhouse.

"True Blood is the adult version of the vampire story, where fantasy meets reality," she said, calling from the set during a break in production. "Tara is the truth; she tells it like it is, she sees it like it is. And the humans in the story bring that realness, that sense of rawness. Because if vampires were walking around for real, people would lose their minds."

As True Blood's third season gets under way, Tara is the one most in danger of losing her mind, driven to the edge by grief over the death of her boyfriend, Eggs. Elsewhere in the oddball town of Bon Temps, La., Sookie and her friends are dealing with a new threat: werewolves. As always in True Blood's universe, people are not what they seem.

"This season is about identity; every character is going to struggle with identity," said Wesley. "We're all sort of looking for how we fit into the world, who we are and what we are. Tara, in particular, is very unstable right now. ... You're going to see her really fight this season and struggle to love herself."

In modern entertainment, vampires have become irresistible metaphors. Twilight presents bloodsucking as an analogue for losing virginity and coming of age in a dangerous world, inspiring boatloads of tween fans in similar straits. ABC's The Gates offers vamps, witches and werewolves all living in the same protected suburban enclave, struggling to bury their feral natures to fit in.

But True Blood — which has cemented itself as HBO's second-most popular series ever, just behind The Sopranos — finds fuel in the struggle by a cadre of twisted characters to be authentically themselves in a world where putting on a facade is safer but ultimately less fulfilling.

Creator "Alan Ball has talked about how the show is about the terror of intimacy," said Julie Wilson, who used the pen name Becca Wilcott while writing Truly, Madly, Deadly: The Unofficial True Blood Companion.

"It feels like we can't live in an inclusive society until we actually see each other for who we are," added Wilson, who sees many of True Blood's story lines as a metaphor for the out sider's struggle for acceptance, especially regarding gay issues. "For me, the appeal of True Blood is that every person has that one, core attribute that they have to keep putting out there. It's like the coming-out process; you don't come out once, you keep coming out, over and over."

The stories of True Blood are a smorgasbord of possibilities for the actors, especially Wesley, who plays a character light-years removed from the Tara Thornton that author Charlaine Harris created for the Sookie Stackhouse novels that inspired True Blood.

In the novels, Tara is a white woman who owns a clothing store. Onscreen, Wesley's Tara is a proud black woman neglected by an alcoholic mother, and her race affects almost every scene she's in.

Wilson sees Ball's injection of race as another way to expand the show's themes, building a complex, existential meditation on the frailties of humanity. Wesley sees a simpler message: Life is pain and fleeting joy, which makes for great TV drama.