Ryan Kwanten hails from Sydney, Australia, but if you’ve only known him from his TV work, notably, the HBO vampire soap opera True Blood — his American breakthrough — you’d have thought he from down south Louisiana, not Down Under. So when this writer tells him that it was ‘weird’ to hear his native accent, Kwanten says it’s a normal reaction. “I know,” he tells us over the phone from LA. “It’s probably the biggest thing that throws people off when they meet me and hear my [original] voice.” Four years after True Blood ended, Kwanten is back in another serialised drama (with another American accent), the gritty cop show The Oath, where he plays the leader of a clique of corrupt policemen. Does Kwanten have a formula for picking projects? “There used to be, but these days, it’s just a gut feeling,” he says. “Just something in the pit of my stomach that guides me in the right way, and just trusting that instinct.” Here, he tells us more about The Oath which has just been renewed for Season 2. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
8 DAYS: On The Oath, you play Steve Hammond, a corrupt cop who runs a gang on the side. What drew you to the show?
RYAN KWANTEN: [After seven seasons on True Blood as Jason Stackhouse,] I didn’t want to get back into television unless it was something truly special, and a real challenge. I’d heard a lot of good things about Crackle [Sony Pictures’ streaming network], and this script was getting a lot of heat. So I took a meeting with [executive producer] Joe Halpin, and we just hit it off like a house on fire. The series is very much inspired by his life [as a cop with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department], and he’s a very intensely captivating man. I’m not going to lie, I was pretty [expletive] nervous stepping into his shoes. He’s a pretty tough guy who’d spent a couple of decades on the streets of South Central. He’d earned his keep there, and seen his fair share of bloodshed and whatnot.
What kind of research did you do?
The great thing was that Joe was a resource who was always there — he was our show runner. There was an enormous amount of trust that Joe gave me on how to play Steve. I usually come at characters from a physical standpoint — how they walk and talk. Whereas for Steve, it felt easy to come at him from a psychological standpoint. He’s very much a chameleon, putting on a different face for different people. That’s exactly what actors are doing. We’re chameleons; we put on different faces for different people. There was that side of him that I understood. I also understood the private side of him. As manic or as intense as he seems, there’s a surprising amount of similarities that we share.
The Oath is extremely dark. The cops spent more time breaking the law than enforcing it. In fact, they don’t seem to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever.
We’re hoping to provoke some kind of response. What Joe said from the beginning was that we’re shining a light into some dark places, but he’d rather be shining a light into these places than pretend they don’t exist. And that was some very [sensitive] terrain that we’re treading on obviously, but we went into the project with absolute trust in Joe and the material that he was creating.
Sean Bean plays Steve’s father, who’s also a gangster.
It raises the intimidation factor, but again, I have to take my hat off to Joe and the group of writers, because they really created two different leadership qualities for father and son. Sean’s character is a far more instinctual cop, whereas Steve is more calculative and methodical. So there is always going to be a conflict between them. They’re two bulls locking horns. That was the image that one of our directors kept giving us. That was what we had to imagine ourselves as. [Sean] brought it! He really carved out a vulnerable character in the end, too. When you have someone as brilliant as Sean in the scene, you can’t help but learn from him.
Were you star struck around Sean?
No, we’re actors, man. I get a bit more enamoured by sports people. But the air in the room definitely changes when Sean steps in; you can tell you’re in the presence of someone powerful, which is good.
You’re also a producer on the show. What does that job entail?
To be honest, it’s hard to tell with Joe. I get the feeling that it might have just been some sort of a pat on the back to me before the season started to say, “Hey, I’d love to have you on as a producer,” because it gave me a real sense of ownership of it. So there was a certain amount of responsibility that I was willingly taking under my wings, and hopefully that kind responsibility would trickle down to everybody else. [That would motivate me] to be as good as I could possibly be, if that means not leaving the set and staying locked in that world, so be it.
The show was shot in Puerto Rico and just days before production wrapped, it was hit by Hurricane Maria.
They got hit particularly hard by Hurricane Maria, and they’re still pretty devastated today. Puerto Rico added such a wonderful flavour to it, and because of the devastation of the hurricane, it added another level of camaraderie. We were all really committed to each other. Like the gang culture creed — that “you put your life on the line for your fellow partner” — on the show, the hurricane had a way of bonding us as well. Just seeing the Puerto Ricans’ tenacity, and seeing the fortitude in their darkest hour was beyond inspiring.
Did making The Hurricane Heist before this prepare you for The Oath in any way?
It did. I feel like every job I do prepares me for the next. Every moment in your life sets you up for who you are, and what you are to become. The process of making that one was incredible, to work with [director] Rob Cohen, who still is one of the luminaries of that action world. To see him shoot action [the old fashioned way], trying to put a huge proportion of the action stuff in camera — there were very little [CG] special effects — meant that myself, Toby Kebbell and Maggie Grace were doing a lot of our own stunts, and for me at least, I was very happily enjoying it. Any time I get the chance to get my hands dirty and have sweat going, I’m up for it.
This sounds crazy but every time I look at you guys on screen, it feels like you desperately need a shower.
Yes, that’s probably true (laughs). True Blood did a great job with that as well, creating an atmosphere through the sweat. You can tell there’s a real kind of sickness to the air, and I think The Oath also does that in a far grimier way, in a far more urban setting, too. This had something to do with Timothy Burton, our cinematographer, choosing to shoot with a panoramic lens, which was a pretty ballsy option. But I think some of the darker blue hues you get in those shots were amazing.
Speaking of True Blood, do you still keep in touch with your former cast members?
It’s hard. I would love to. Because that show took up so many years of my life — it was eight good years — I’ll always have sweet memories of it. So whenever I see anyone [from True Blood], we know we’d always have cherished moments. It’s a rarity these days to have shows that lasted that long. I felt the same kind of magic with The Oath that I did early on with True Blood. So with the way things are going, everyone seems to like [The Oath]. So far so good, then.
What’s the best thing you’ve learnt about acting over these years you’ve worked on TV shows and movies?
To live a full life. Acting has taught me a lot, and one of those things is to live, to listen, to react truthfully, and ultimately be a better man. I feel like every character I play should point me to a trajectory that’s going to make me a better man at the end of the process of that project.
(Main photo: TPG News/Click Photos)
The Oath is streaming on HOOQ. Truth Blood Seasons 1-7 are available on HBO On Demand (StarHub Ch 602) and HBO Go.