By John Crook, Zap2It
For a rural Louisiana backwater, the tiny town of Bon Temps seems to be having a supernatural population explosion.
During the first three seasons of "True Blood," Bon Temps and its environs have seen an influx of vampires, werewolves and other shifters, as well as an ancient Greek creature known as a maenad. So who summoned the witches?
Series creator Alan Ball has entreated anyone writing about his show not to reveal several key surprises that come almost right out of the gate in the Sunday, June 26, fourth-season premiere of the smash HBO series, which makes writing about the first episode very tricky. So let's try this:
When we return to Bon Temps, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) is still on the outs with the two main vampires in her life, former beau Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and studly "vampire sheriff" Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard). Her brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), is now an apparently responsible deputy at the local sheriff's department, which is a good thing, since acting sheriff Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) apparently is not quite himself these days.
Elsewhere, last season's Romeo and Juliet, Hoyt and his vampire belle, Jessica (Jim Parrack, Deborah Ann Woll), are starting to feel the strains of their unconventional love affair, while Merlotte's waitress Arlene (Carrie Preston) harbors growing fears that her baby is a bad seed, and her boss, Sam (Sam Trammell), is struggling to control his recently revealed dark side while sorting through how he feels about his feckless brother, Tommy (Marshall Allman).
As far as the big picture goes, vampire spokeswoman Nan Flanagan (Jessica Tuck) frantically is trying to exert spin control in the wake of recently dispatched vampire monarch Russell Edgerton's bloody reign of terror -- and she has an apparent ally in the character who is now at the head of the Louisiana monarchy, a jaw-dropping change from the original Charlaine Harris novels that is sure to have fans buzzing.
But ah, yes: the witches.
They're a local coven, headed by an ungainly and near-inarticulate local woman named Marnie (theater great Fiona Shaw), whose initial meetings seem to be wholly in line with the nurturing Wiccan school of witchcraft, heavy on female empowerment, although their sessions also are attended by males including Jesus Velasquez (Kevin Alejandro), the nurse and witch who is eager for his current beau, Merlotte's cook (and fan favorite) Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis), to explore. But to what end?
Alejandro freely admits he still has no idea.
"Actually, finding the character of Jesus was kind of difficult for me," the actor says. "I knew that he is a witch, so I studied what magic is, white magic and black magic. Different people use witchcraft for different things, for healing and for spells to work negative things. It's been difficult as the story unfolds, because you never know in what direction they're going to take your guy. It's hard to figure out that balance of is he good or is he bad without actually knowing.
"I researched everything from Wicca to possession to rituals for healing to putting curses on people -- kind of everything, because like I said, I wasn't sure which way my character was going, and to this day I still don't know how good or bad Jesus is. I'm kind of running a fine line right now, but I'm having a great time."
Playing a character without knowing all his facets is nothing new to Ellis, who went through season one convinced that Lafayette, a fairly minor character in Harris' books, would buy the farm at the end of that season, just as he was killed off in the final scenes of the first book.
"And it was only after that table read that Alan Ball told me, in a very cavalier fashion, 'Oh, you know you're not dying,' " Ellis says. "So then I assumed the second season would be my year to die. I'm literally just now starting to think they might keep me around for the long haul, though."
Ellis is thrilled to be sharing scenes with Shaw, the brilliant Irish actress who worked with students at the Juilliard School in New York while Ellis was a freshman and she was starring on Broadway as Medea -- another witch, coincidentally.
"Fiona Shaw is a goddess to me," he says, recalling her stage performance. "She took the language of the play and made it somehow contemporary, and she made all these very dynamic choices that I never had seen in classical material. I remember she was eating a piece a cake onstage that the Nurse had given her, and she was doing this long speech, filled with heightened, dramatic language, and she suddenly stopped and said, 'This is good, isn't it?' I almost fell out of my seat, and the audience just roared in laughter.
"Her skill, this raw ability onstage, was magic, so to sit across from her at a table reading really gave me the jitters."