Of Barbecue and Vampires
Austin Chronicle: Looking through old Chronicles, I noticed you got write-ups in the mid to late 1990s. You were part of Esther’s Follies, you did shows like Three Cuckoids (for which you won a B. Iden Payne Award in 1995), Waiting for Godot, and A Saga of Billy the Kid, and next thing you know, you were working on the TV series Gilmore Girls. What made you decide to move to L.A.? How did you get your start in TV and films?
Todd Lowe: I moved from Austin to L.A. with my girlfriend at the time because she got accepted to USC's grad school. I had been doing OK in Austin. I had a little children’s theatre company, and I had gotten a job at Esther’s – I worked there for about a hiccup before I left. I moved to L.A. for love, but that didn’t work out. I got a job here in L.A., struggled for a while, did some plays. I got my equity card, found my agent, and then I got a part on Gilmore Girls. That turned into a job that kept giving – they wrote more for me. I did a couple pilots that didn't go anywhere. I paid off my student loans. Then True Blood hit. I started in the first season as a recurring guest star, and in the second season they gave me a nice contract. Yeh, I guess I’m still treading water until I get back to Austin.
AC: Speaking of Gilmore Girls, I noticed there was a character in the show named Sookie. You’re on a show now with a character named Sookie. What’s up with that?
TL: I’ll only work on TV shows that have a Sookie on them! Those are the only shows that will cast me. And I’ve never even met a Sookie in my life. Sookie on Gilmore Girls was played by Melissa McCarthy. And Sookie, played by Anna Paquin, is number one on the call sheet on True Blood. Somebody should write another script with a Sookie in it.
AC: I’ve read enough interviews with the True Blood cast to know that you’re under orders to not leak details about the upcoming season. But can you tell me how you feel about the upcoming season without breaching any confidentiality?
TL: I have to be guarded in what I say. It was an emotional season for my character this year. The show has changed show runners, and now it’s kinda this big, global brand that I’m happy to be part of. I get to go to science-fiction conventions. I’ve gone to England, Germany, and Australia. I never thought something like this would be part of my career, but when jobs and opportunities and a little bit of money present themselves to you, you go. You think to yourself, “This isn’t what I set out to do as an actor. I didn’t set out to do science-fiction conventions." But it’s a chance to see the world. I’ve been very fortunate to be on True Blood. It’s kinda like winning the lottery. It’s given me some exposure, and now I’m starting to get some film offers for quirky kind of characters in different films. I love it. It’s great. I feel so blessed. And I’m thankful for my training at the University of Texas. I put my time in there. I guess I used that training to help me along in my career.
AC: Gilmore Girls and True Blood both involve small towns – although very different – but they both have colorful characters. Do you like being part of these kind of ensemble casts?
TL: I think that’s kinda my strength as an actor. I don’t see myself as a leading guy. But in these two shows that I’ve had significant roles on, I’ve been a guy in the town and playing an eccentric character. In Gilmore Girls, I was a wannabe rock & roll guy. My experiences in Austin served me a lot. In True Blood, I’m playing a veteran with PTSD. To tell you the truth, I did this play in Austin called The Tower Massacre Musical at the Atomic Cafe. We had a little theatre company called Shirk Workers' Union. It was a punk rock theatre play. My friend Chase Staggs, who is still a scenic designer in Austin, wrote these songs, so we did a play about the Charles Whitman shooting. I had a small part, among many in that play, of a veteran. I based my character on a guy I met walking to campus one day during that time period who wanted to sell me a sonnet for a dollar – a Vietnam veteran who was disenfranchised when he came back. And that’s how it was written in the Sookie Stackhouse novels. My character Terry was written as a Vietnam vet but they updated it in the TV adaptation as an Iraq vet. The writers and I made an amalgamation of the things that I’m playing a veteran as someone who deserves our sympathy. And they’ve done a very good job of keeping that, writing that way.
AC: So what’s this I hear about you being a musician, too?
TL: I have this band called L.A. Hootenanny. We hope to come to town and play in Austin sometime. Recently, we ordered some food from the Salt Lick for an upcoming gig. We’re going to play at the American Legion here in L.A., have a Sunday brunch, and feed the folks some barbecue.
AC: I noticed you play a Telecaster…
TL: I can tell you about this Telecaster. I got it free in this bad movie I was in. I was playing this band member character. They gave us a Fender catalog and asked us which instrument looked right for our characters. I picked this ’62 reissue Tele Custom Shop thing that was like $3,500. Then I came to the set two days later, and it was there. I thought, “Oh my God, I got this thing!” Then the movie wrapped up real quickly and me and a couple of the actors who were using instruments and things sorta walked away with them. I’ve been playing it for a while. But then it started to get out of whack a little. So I took it to a pro to get it set back up and found out from him I didn’t get a custom shop model. They just threw a mediocre neck on a decent body. I’m not that great of a guitar player where I could tell if it was an awesome piece of equipment. I was so proud of what I had gotten and I was worried if they were going to come after me for it. Since I’ve been playing it, I've had it set up better. I put a new neck on it. I still can’t play it very well, but it functions the way I want it to.
AC: Who are your influences? I know you play country rock, you grew up in Humble, and have been in Texas a lot.
TL: If I could ask for any life, I’d like to be the lead singer and guitarist for Willie Nelson & Family. That is to say, Willie. That’s pretty much my favorite band, and I’m not just saying that because I’m speaking to an Austin journalist. That band shaped me in how to perform as part of a band. Willie Nelson & Family is just a great template for how to showcase an awesome artist. That live album from 1977 – it’s still the single of "Whiskey River" that they play on the radio. They’re fast, they’re lean and mean. They’ve got their act down. Willie’s my hero.
AC: In L.A., there is still an attitude about Texas. Maybe it’s a stereotype. Do you think there is a genuine audience there for country rock? Or do you feel like a novelty act from Texas?
TL: I’m more of an actor than a musician. I’ve made a little name for myself as an actor, but I also front this band. We have some great players out here and we’ve found a little niche with L.A. Hootenanny. There is a bit of novelty because people haven’t been exposed to this kind of music. But we have a great time hosting our shows, and we bring out any artist in town who wants to have a crack at having a band behind them to play a song or two. I’m proud of this band and happy to lend any kind of celebrity cachet or recognizability to it. There are people who come up at the end of the show and say they recognize me from the TV show and that they had a great time. I hope to bring it down to Austin and pick up some players there.
AC: Who else is in the band?
TL: A lot of folks, but I can name the Austin guys: Guil Adams, who I was in Waiting for Godot with and was also in Shark Workers' Union. Kevin McMullen, who was an Austin resident and went to Klein Oak High School in Houston. We were in rival high schools and we did One-Act Play competitions together. Cody Chappel plays the washtub bass and spent some time in Austin in the comedy scene. … Nick Papadakis, who plays electric bass, also went to Klein Oak High School. He’s a reserve serviceman who was in the Navy and has been getting us our American Legion gigs. Because of my character on True Blood, I have gotten a lot of support from veterans. I get compliments on my portrayal, which is very flattering.
AC: What do you think about playing the part of military person without having been one?
TL: I was a guy who was lucky enough to go to college. Enlisting in the service wasn’t an option for me. I have respect for people who have seen stuff way worse than I have. The worst thing I can stir up for any emotional recall is that I saw my dog die. I haven’t had to see anything that is very, very ugly. I’ve worried during the run of the show that I’m giving an inaccurate portrayal or someone who has really seen some shit, to use some military parlance. But I’ve gotten compliments from veterans saying they really liked my portrayal of the character and that I give him a lot of sympathy. I credit the writers for that. But I’m a never-enlisted Austin musician. My hands and wrists don’t stay rigid like a combat veteran. I took some martial arts classes in Kali [Filipino stick fighting] from a friend of mine to firm them up and learn some basic fighting stances. I have to tell my body to constantly stand up straight because I’m a natural slouch. I don’t want to get portraying a veteran wrong and certainly don’t want to offend someone who can kill me in two moves.
AC: How has it been at True Blood since Alan Ball left?
TL: I do miss Alan and his vision. The show got large. But Brian Buckner was on the writing staff since the first season and now he has taken the reins. He has brought back a sense of camp and humor and a lot of threat, which I think the show has been lacking since the first season. He has brought back threat and a sense of danger to the show. I think he has tapped into something that has really made the show click when it first aired.
AC: I was looking at the first season and saw this touching moment of you and Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) hugging because he had made a speech to a church group about the horrors of war. That’s when we first really meet your character, when he approaches Bill saying that he also understands war is hell. It was as if at that moment you two were the only veterans in the whole room.
TL: I can tell you how I played that scene. I was new to the show, and I was just written in as a guest star in the first season. We had a table read, and I discovered I’m taller than him. I know he’s a big, powerful vampire who can kill me, but I’m going to dominate his space and give him a big hug he can’t get away from. I just ran in and charged and gave him a big-ass hug. That’s how I played the scene as an actor. I used my physical size. I’m not as tough, nor as pretty.
AC: Your character is not supernatural, but looking back at season five, you encountered that Middle Eastern spirit …
TL: The ifrit.
AC: Yes, the ifrit. The first thing I did when I heard the word was Google the term to find out what it was and if it really existed. Have you gotten something out of the show and wondered if it was really part of some mythology, gotten you interested in doing research?
TL: I learned about the ifrit when Alan Ball emailed me at the beginning of last season. He told me, "This is what’s going on with your character. You were in a Marine platoon in the Middle East. You guys got high. Things escalated and you ended up shooting a bunch of civilians. And there’s this lady there, and the last thing she does is put a curse on you with an ifrit." And he actually said, “You can Google it.” Obviously, he had. So I Googled “ifrit” and learned basically it’s a fire demon. We had problems with the pronunciation of it. That was the first time I had ever learned of an ifrit.
AC: Do you have anything else you’d like to share about True Blood?
TL: There have been a surprising amount of Austin people on the show. Kevin Alejandro, who played Jesus, went to University of Texas at Austin. Marshall Allman, who played Tommy, grew up in Austin. Mehcad Brooks, the big muscley guy who was Eggs, is from Austin. Michelle Forbes, who played Maryann, is from Austin. A few years ago, the Statesman ran a piece on Austin’s connection to the show. A lot of us grew up in Austin. And there’s always a kinship when you run into someone from Austin. We all reminisce about Barton Springs. Apparently, y’all are getting some rain now. The creeks are filling back up.
AC: A little bit. But you live in L.A. where rain is scarce.
TL: Yes, it’s scarce here. Every time I go back, I go to Lake Travis. It’s a little sad that the water’s so low where those cliffs are we used to jump off of. Don’t want to jump in and land on a bunch of limestone. I’ll do an L.A. rain dance. I’d rather the rain come to Austin than Los Angeles.
AC: I’m impressed by everyone's accents has on True Blood.
TL: No, c’mon, not everyone …
AC: Yeah. For example, I was at a Waffle House in Beaumont a few weeks ago. Do you remember Waffle House? It’s like a poor man’s IHOP …
TL: It’s not a poor man’s IHOP. I read a piece on Gawker or somewhere about the dividing line where IHOPs stop and the Waffle Houses begin. The Waffle Houses are all concentrated in the Southeast. I prefer Waffle House to IHOP.
AC: Well, I do too. That’s why we went to one in Beaumont. Anyway, there was a waitress there, and I swear if you closed you eyes, you’d think Tara Thorton from True Blood (portrayed by Rutina Wesley) was waiting on you. If she ever needs a voice double, there’s a waitress at Waffle House in Beaumont who can fill in.
TL: I'll let her know.
The 10-episode sixth season of True Blood premieres Sunday, June 16, 8pm CT on HBO.