After 27 years in the movies, the X-Men and True Blood star is sick of having to work extra hard and be extra nice simply because she is a woman
Rebecca Nicholson – The Guardian
Anna Paquin is supposed to be having a day off. She has been working for two weeks straight, with no break at the weekend, and she has six-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. “So I’m a wee bit tired. But good, really good,” she says. She is dipping into her free time to talk about her new TV series, Flack, because she is not only starring in it, but executive-producing it, too, and it is co-produced through her own company, Casm. She has spent five years trying to get it off the ground, in stops and starts, and they finished filming it just four days before we meet. Hence the tiredness? She nods. “It’s not a name-only credit. I’m a huge control freak. I’m involved in every single aspect of every single decision.”
In person, Paquin is brisk, earnest and articulate, and careful with her words. She was born in Canada in 1982, but grew up in New Zealand, then moved to the US as a teenager for work. She has been in front of the camera since she was nine, when she was cast in Jane Campion’s film The Piano. “I entered this industry in a very backwards sort of way,” she says. “I did one job, won an Oscar, and then people said: ‘Ooh, you have a career now.’” She points out, though, that there is a wealth of talented women in her age group, which means she will “still have to audition my arse off for stuff I really want”, but it does mean that she can generally work on things that she wants to. “I do have the luxury of being a little more choosy because of the circumstances of my career.”
In Flack, Paquin is Robyn, a hard-living, self-destructive type who works in the crisis-management area of public relations. The show is a lot of fun, and reminds me what good TV was like before shows developed grand cinematic ambitions. It’s outrageous, a little bit camp and darkly comic in tone. “Oh, it goes places, and it keeps going places,” Paquin says with a smile, admitting that it speaks to her sense of humour. In the first episode, Robyn has to cover up a philandering TV chef and a footballer’s drug-fuelled gay tryst, all the while juggling her own issues, which seem to involve a lot of cocaine. “Some people will be offended, other people will be laughing so hard they’re going to snort coffee through their nose while they’re watching it.” That’s a state of affairs that suits her. “I want people to absolutely love it, or, possibly, be violently like: ‘How could you?’” Would she take that as a compliment? “Oh, yeah. It means that we did it properly.”
Oliver Lansley, who wrote and created Flack, told Deadline Hollywood that with Robyn, he wanted to create a female character who could stand alongside “difficult men” such as Tony Soprano, Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Paquin feels passionately that stories about “complicated women” should be told. “I mean, take Dexter. Male protagonists get to quite literally be serial killers and the audience still loves them. Whereas traditionally, if female characters put one foot out of line, from the sort of patriarchal ideals of what a perfect woman is like, then you have to watch them being punished for it. And I really am enjoying the fact that I’m part of a generation of women in film where we can just tell interesting, complicated stories about people who happen to be women.”
What’s changed? “The power balance has changed,” she says. “There are more women in executive and behind-the-scenes roles who have just had enough of being told what we can and can’t do. And women like myself going: ‘OK, I’ve been doing this for 27 years; I’m not going to sit around and wait for those roles to show up. I’m going to go out there, find it, create it and make it happen for myself.’”
There is a reason, she suggests, that it takes more time for women to step into positions of power. “One has to work extra-hard as a woman in a very male-dominated industry. As an actress walking on to a film set, you’re guilty until proven innocent. They assume you’re going to be a pain in the arse, high-maintenance and difficult, and you usually spend the first couple of weeks having to work hard to prove that you’re not going to be a problem because you’re a woman. And I think we’re all just collectively done with that.”
I ask her about her experiences of being an adolescent in a business like this, and she takes a deep breath. “You’d need a year to really get into the broad strokes of that one. Look, I’ve had some really amazing experiences, and I’ve had some absolutely horrific experiences. People treat people who have no power, sometimes, in ways that are completely unacceptable. But when you’re a child and you don’t know any different, and you don’t want to get into trouble, you just keep your mouth shut.”
She is cautiously optimistic that, in these more open times, sets are being made safer, and women might be able to make it a better industry. “When I see younger girls on set, or kids, that I once looked at thinking: ‘Please, dear God, get out of the film industry,’ I now think: ‘Actually, we might be able to make this a safe environment for young people in positions of no power.’”
Paquin almost gave up acting in her late teens. She enrolled at Columbia University, planning to study French and English literature. Her mother is an English teacher, so she thought she might follow in her footsteps, or perhaps write. But theatre reignited her enthusiasm, and she went on to appear in a series of blockbusters, including a stint as Rogue in the X-Men film franchise. In 2008, she took her first TV role, as Sookie Stackhouse in the supernatural series True Blood, and it was a huge hit.
In 2014, while promoting the show, she sat down with the talkshow host Larry King, who asked her a series of what she found to be intrusive questions about its sex scenes. “I’m not saying that the generation thing is an excuse … but I do legitimately think he is of a generation where certain kinds of entertainment didn’t exist, probably, when he was growing up,” she says. Would that line of questioning happen now, even five years later? “I do think in general people are a little bit more careful about how they ask women questions about anything to do with sex, sexuality and provocative content. As they should be.”
She adds that he got more stick for asking her about being bisexual, and whether she was a “former bisexual” because she had married Stephen Moyer, her True Blood co-star. “He got the shit kicked out of him by the LGBT community.” Paquin, who came out as bisexual in 2010, says that misunderstandings are fairly common. “People understand the version of the world they live in, and if it’s outside their experience, then sometimes it frightens people, or they just don’t get it. And that’s fine.” She has worked with LGBT advocacy charities for years, and her Twitter and Instagram feeds suggest she’s more than happy to get into discussions with people who disagree with her. “I don’t want to hit somebody over the head with something and go: ‘You’re stupid.’ I want to explain things to people,” she says.
With Flack, there is a sense that Paquin is pulling back the curtain on showbiz. It is heightened, of course, but nevertheless it speaks of the uneasy relationship between the illusion of fame and the reality of it. “When you have a job that involves being everything to everybody at all times, being a chameleon, what does that do to your sense of your real self? How do you maintain a grasp on reality when your job is constantly playing with reality?” she asks. She’s talking about her character, but I tell her that it sounds like a good question for an actor, too. “Yes,” she laughs, quietly. “You could say that.”
Flack starts on Thursday 21 February at 10pm on W.