Chris Bauer on "The Wire," "True Blood" and Addiction
Veteran actor Chris Bauer, star ofThe Wire and True Blood, talks about the damaged characters he’s played, the tragedy of drug war, and whether True Blood is really a metaphor about addiction.
Chris Bauer, the 44-year old character actor currently nabbing some of Hollywood’s most sought-after small screen roles, is like many of the characters he has played: hard-working, straightforward and devoid of fancy frills. Raised in California and currently playing the alcoholic cop Andy Bellefleur, on the juggernaut True Blood, Bauer graduated from the Yale School of Drama and then played small roles in high-quality films, like Face-Off and later Broken Flowers. But television is where he’s thrived—particularly the kind of expertly made and passionately followed TV shows produced by premier networks these days. He may have perfectly embodied the deeply flawed union boss Frank Sobotka on The Wire, but Bauer, in person, is soft-spoken, thoughtful and intelligent. While he doesn't talk about being an addict, he says that he hasn't had a drink in four years and speaks knowledgeably on the topic. And like us, he seems to spot addiction in unlikely places.
You have played some deeply damaged, dark characters on HBO. Do you see any similarities between Frank in "The Wire" and Andy in "True Blood?
They’re both very obviously flawed human beings and are dominated by their flaws. But both of them are inspired to be better people. I don’t know if that’s something I just intuitively read into everyone I play, because that’s kind of my own read on myself, or that’s actually there in the writer’s creation. But both characters are very similar that way. They are different in that Frank was really confident in his ability to manipulate and affect people and Andy is petrified of other people: he uses his badge and his gun and his attitude to fend off anyone who may make him feel better. He’s a guy who is maniacally compelled to avoid the solution at all costs.
He’s a drunk on the show, isn’t he? It’s not unusual for addicts to engage in self-sabotage at all costs.
That’s been my experience, certainly. I’ve witnessed it, I’ve heard it described. I think that it’s kind of cool that the writers at some level are able to intuit that kind of detail, because I’m not the kind of actor that takes a ton of time taking the writers out one by one, having an intimate lunch and trying to explain my perception of the character and trying to solicit theirs. The whole thing is an act of faith. The paradox is that on one hand it’s almost a comic book, where everything that Andy Bellefleur does is blown up and exaggerated, but on the other hand it’s a pretty detailed, accurate, informed portrait of an addict.
"The vampires’ reaction to the true blood has always reminded me of the idea of methadone—it’s like this thing that will keep them at bay essentially but it doesn’t satisfy them and there’s no thirst that’s actually quenched."
Watching the show, I always think that it seems that whomever conjured up the character Andy must have some personal understanding of addiction, rather than just clichéd presentations of it. It all feels incredibly real.
Well, if they do, they’re keeping it a secret. If I have to go on objective evidence, I just have to chalk it up to their talent. But there’s also a place where my performance and my instincts encounter what they’ve written and the two of them together collide and that’s what makes the guy come to life, so it’s certainly a mix of all of our insights that creates that detail.
When you played Frank, did you think he was aware he was part of the drug trade?
Frank was just maniacally focused on getting what he wanted, which evolved into a morally dubious scheme to benefit his union. He was willing to walk a little crooked if it would keep the union membership alive and thriving. I don’t think Frank ever focused consciously or primarily on the negative downsides to that—he didn’t dwell on the fact that what he was doing was illegal. He was an officer in a waterfront union. There are no straight lines by the time you get to that point. It was almost a fool’s game spending any time thinking about what was the morally correct path. It was about results. Everything he did was about results and I thought that was pretty human. He was desperate enough to resurrect this dying little working class family.
True Blood is often seen as a metaphor for the gay community. “God hates fangs” is pretty close to “God hates fags,” if you think about it. Do you think the show has deliberate gay undertones?
I certainly wouldn’t be the most qualified person to answer that, since I’m not gay and I don’t have to fight any of the fights that gay people have to fight.
But as an actor, you’ve probably known a gay person or two.
Of course. I have family members who are gay and I’m extremely protective and sensitive to anything that suggests they are less than me or anybody else. To be honest, I do think the show works as a metaphor for homosexuality, but I don’t think that’s the only community whose stories are metaphorically told on True Blood. I believe Alan Ball when he says that all the metaphors are opportunistic in comparison to the show’s most important mission, which is to entertain its viewers. When Alan says that the intention of True Blood is to entertain you for 60 minutes, I totally believe him. I think ultimately the primary identity of the show is that of just good, old-fashioned fun. But I think that the show works as a metaphor on a lot of levels.
So what other communities would it work for other than the gay community?
I think it works for anybody who is marginalized. I get asked frequently why are vampires so popular and it’s like, I don’t know—I don’t know anything, I barely know my lines. I’ve never been a junkie, but the vampires’ reaction to the true blood has always reminded me of the idea of methadone—it’s like this thing that will keep them at bay essentially, but it doesn’t satisfy them and there’s no thirst that’s actually quenched.