‘True Blood’ Vampire Valerie Cruz: ‘The Coolest Shows Are on Cable’
Brooke Tarnoff, PopEater
There’s a chance you don’t yet recognize the name Valerie Cruz, but if you have a cable box, you’ve probably seen her face. The unreasonably lovely actress has had pivotal roles in some of cable TV’s most groundbreaking series, like ‘Nip/Tuck’ and ‘Dexter.’ Cruz appears next in Alan Ball’s Showtime drama ‘True Blood’ as compassionate vampire Isabel. She took a few rare minutes of free time – during a vacation, even – to chat with us about her exciting work.
When are we going to see you on ‘True Blood’?
“I don’t know if it’s this Sunday or the following Sunday.” [Editor's note: It's the next new episode.]
That’s how you know you’ve succeeded – when you’re not 100% sure when you’re appearing on TV. If I’m on the local news, everyone I’ve ever met knows when to see me.
“I should know! I just wasn’t sure how far along they are. I’m really excited. I loved it, I loved working on it. I don’t know, sometimes it’s just hard to watch yourself. You kind of shy away from knowing exactly when – and then you surprise yourself – oh, there I am!”
How did you prepare for the role of Isabel?
“I read the second novel, which is what the season is based on. It was actually really beneficial to me. They don’t really deal with [some of the finer details] directly in the script, so I had to make a lot of those decisions for myself.”
I know the show has expanded or drastically altered plot points from the book series. Is Isabel’s plot line fairly faithful to the book?
“Yeah, I think it is. Isabel’s relationship with [lair-mate] Stan is more antagonistic than it’s written in the book. She’s a lot more compassionate than most of the other vampires. She wants to find a way to coexist peacefully with humans, rather than having complete disregard for human life. Most of the vampires that you meet – they’re more of the vein that humans – they can’t really be bothered. Isabel is unique in that sense. It’s the first time you meet another vampire like [Stephen Moyer's character] Bill, who has a little more reverence for human life. She’s older than Bill. With age, having walked the Earth for 600 years, your sensibilities start to change.”
Speaking of age, here’s an odd coincidence: in preparing for this interview, I learned that we have the same birthday – same year and all.
“Are you serious?! That’s so funny. I have a special place in my heart for Cancers. It’s a very special day. I’ve never met someone with my birthday.”
I know, never! Are you looking forward to it?
“I’m kind of disturbed by it. Every year, I’m kind of like, ‘Oh, ouch, it’s gonna hurt.’ I don’t know how I feel about this birthday, I’m going to let it sneak up on it me.
“I’ve been dating someone who was born in 1980. It’s weird. It’s a little strange, there are cultural references – like, I really like ‘Family Guy.’ There are so many references – having been cognizant in the ’80s, there are show references they make and political references they make. I know it kind of eludes him a little bit. Even cartoons, the ‘Smurfs’ and stuff – I remember Saturday morning cartoons and stuff, and being totally into it, and the ‘X-Men’ and watching ‘Superfriends’ when you got home from school.”
‘Superfriends’! Aw, Gleek! I wanted a monkey so bad.
“I know, right?! And the Wonder Twins. I wanted a twin so we could be the Wonder Twins. It was such a unique time – the whole Cold War thing, growing up during that time. It seems like 4 or 5 years wouldn’t make a difference, but it does. Because you’re already on your way to forming who are you at five or six, and they’re just born. The person that I’m dating is more mature, he’s had a lot of life experience. But you can’t recreate history. You either were in that time-frame or not.”
Agreed. But getting back to the reason we’re here… Your work in ‘Dexter’ was really phenomenal, and you followed your character’s husband down a really dark path. Did you know where that character was going? In a movie, you know everything you need to know about your plot before you start shooting – for a show like ‘Dexter’, how much do you know in advance?
“I think every script is a surprise, especially with big shows like ‘Dexter’ and ‘True Blood’, sometimes you’re hard-pressed to get your script. I mean, they’re so wanting to keep everything a secret. I think if you do research before you go into a show – for ‘Dexter’, every year there was somebody pretty depraved that was introduced to the mix. A nemesis, to some extent, for Dexter. I think you had after a few episodes in, you could see where it was going to go, as a character and sitting through the table reads, watching what Jimmy [Smits] would do. And those table reads that we would have of the script – I think it’s a lot of why some of these shows do so well. They’re so necessary. Actually, on screen, he and I wouldn’t have as much interaction as we had at the table reads. I was able to see that angry side that I would have to discuss with Julie [Benz] in some ancillary scene. It was really critical and good for me to see Jimmy exploring that kind of anger and darkness in the table reads- I wouldn’t be there on the days he shot those scenes with Michael [C. Hall].
“It’s a lot different from a film – there’s no linear planning, and you can make some plans and make some choices, but definitely they might change. You don’t know exactly where your character’s going or exactly what’s going to happen. That is the challenge with television. You just have to build the personality and build the history and then as far as moving forward, it’s kind of like life – you don’t know where it’s going to take you.”
You’ve done a disproportionate number of book adaptations – ‘Dexter’, ‘Dresden Files,’ ‘True Blood’ – do those provide unique challenges for you?
“I feel like with ‘Dresden Files’, people were so passionate about that book series – and they kind of went off-kilter by casting a Latin person as the Murphy character – people really needed to get over that, and they did. I love having a book to reference, and I think it’s great too – as a viewer, I know when I have a favorite book and it comes out as a movie, it’s fun. It’s exciting that you get to see these characters you’ve had in your mind’s eye actualized visually, and I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s more challenging, in a sense, in that you want to be as good as what people have had going on in their heads for X amount of years, while the books have been out, and to stay true to the character. I have to say it’s really wonderful, particularly because I love to read.
“I think that the books that are adapted into TV shoes because the characters are so complex, there’s a lot to do with them. I think a lot of the material that comes from books, as far as television adaptations are concerned, have that same richness in the landscape and complexity of character that you don’t see with regular scripted television. I feel that sometimes TV can be a bit formulaic, especially now with the networks struggling so much, to take a leap out into the other side, outside of what they know works – the procedurals and the hospital dramas – it’s really hard for them. I think you see a lot of the coolest shows ending up on cable.”
Your career demonstrates that, certainly – the projects you’ve worked on have been some of the edgiest, medium-stretching shows on TV thus far.
“Looking back on my career, I feel I’ve been really lucky. I know I set out trying to fight a stereotype of being Latin, and wanting to find something dynamic and diverse. I remember with ‘Nip/Tuck’, it was the first studio test that I’d ever one. They actually wrote that character for me. I had auditioned for Joely Richardson’s role and I was obviously too young, but Warner Brothers was like, ‘We like this girl, we need somebody Latin on the show, let’s write her in.’ It was a life-changing experience, because like you said, that show completely changed the landscape – pushed the envelope of what was out there at that time.
“I think that people who are pushing the landscape in television – the Alan Balls, the Ryan Murphys, these guys are already thinking outside the box. Even the casting process, the networks are often going after a name, they’re not going after an unknown, they’re not going out for someone who just walked in with her first studio test.They certainly wouldn’t write a character for her. The creators of these shows – there’s less pressure on them to follow a formula, like ‘Well, she’s been on a number of networks shows, and she’s under contract to ABC so we’ll just give her another pilot.’ I feel blessed.
“I think you end up doing better with material that you respond than material that you don’t. I would hate to make it seem like I’m some kind of elitist, and I’ve never gone out for some network show. I definitely have, but again, we’re in a time of people not taking a lot of risks. It’s worked out in my favor, thus far.”