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.
The idea of addiction is prevalent in True Blood, from the culture of the bar to what characters are willing to do for the blood.
The way season three ended, my character had just found out about the properties of V—the vampire blood—and I’ve always sort of seen it as a mix of ecstasy, Viagra, coke, and everything, just the perfect salad of all that stuff. He’s found out it heals injuries, it keeps you strong, it gives you potentially three-day erections. And he’s really a straight-nosed redneck.
Well he’s a good old-fashioned alcoholic. He’s not nuanced in that way—he’s an old-fashioned cop.
His entire personality—namely his visible externals—are completely consistent with an alcoholic make up. At the end of season three, he finds out vampire blood has all the properties, and I think it’s evident that he was immediately intrigued. In some previous episodes, he had sworn off alcohol for life but vampire blood isn’t alcohol, which is so often the thought process of people who transfer addictions. All it took was one little drop for him to fall head first into the hole.
Addiction can manifest itself in many different ways. Do you think that’s something the show is speaking to?
By accident. I don’t think it’s intentional and I don’t think any of it is a conscious premise that is asserted and encoded in this vocabulary of vampires and supernatural creatures. I think what happens is that certain cultural impulses intersect at the right time. All of this started with this woman Charlaine Harris, who wrote these books in Arkansas and Alan read a couple. It’s not a stretch the way you’re interpreting it. What I find funny is your descriptions are accurate and they’re good insights and the vampires continually symbolize, to me, everything we ideally evolve out of. We evolve out of addiction, we evolve out of consumption, we evolve out of harvesting off of others for our own sustenance. But everybody wants to be a vampire.
One of the things I see a lot in True Blood is witch hunts and blame and finger pointing. It’s a lot like the drug war. What are your personal thoughts on the drug war?
I don’t have thoughts about the drug war, but I have feelings about the drug war. It’s heartbreaking. I think I compulsively empathize with the losers and identify with the losers. And the losers in the case of the drug war is everybody, as far as I’m concerned, starting from the bottom up. I don’t know much about it, but I know there are a lot of a people in jail and I know there are a lot of families who are destroyed for at least two generations because of the so-called drug war. I’m really reluctant to form an opinion about it, but on a people level, where’s the victory? I empathize with the cops, I empathize with the DEA guys who are going through what they’re going through to seize 1,000 pounds of cocaine. But while they’re doing that, somebody is digging a hole in another place complicit with somebody else on both sides of the border. It’s very sad. It seems like it costs an enormous amount of money and it doesn’t seem like drugs have lessened their presence in our culture.
The DEA’s admit that there is no meaningful or measurable change in the amount of available drugs after 40 years. So what is the goal of it? If the goal of it is to help people be sober or help them to avoid that pitfall, it’s failing.
If your premise is that drugs are bad and therefore we are going to punish the association, the use, the sale, it doesn’t deal with why people want to take drugs. And it doesn’t deal with that part of our culture that just encourages and pimps such a hardcore double standard from day one. I saw a lot of shitfaced grown-ups at little league team parties before I had any idea what beer tasted like.
Why doesn’t Hollywood do something about this problem? Especially in a community that’s ravaged by addiction?
Because everybody likes their half-assed glass of expensive chardonnay. It’s so empowered, that devotion to that glass and a half of wine that most people depend on; they’re not willing to forgo that—literally or figuratively. Whether it’s the money that comes in from the advertising of alcohol, or whether they just can’t bear the exchange with another person unless they get the buzz. We want to focus all the time on all the tragedies like the armed robbery of pharmacies and all the consequent carnage and the devastation therein, but it’s in every little party you go to. It’s so saturated in our culture that it’s an unrealistic expectation to think that all of that is just going to disappear. We have a cultural obsession with getting high and who’s willing to get rid of that? I read a statistic that what most influences a child’s relationship with drugs and alcohol is their parents’ behavior. That puts this whole thing into a very simple drawer, which is how do I raise my children? Personally, if me abstaining from drugs and alcohol increases the odds of my children living and evolving as healthy thriving people, then that’s enough for me to stay away from it. There is a path, a solution, a way to address that fundamental disease, but it’s about participation, it’s about advocacy, it’s about knowledge, and maybe it’s a very individual trip, but we are living in a world right now where there are solutions available to people who are ready to take on the problem. It is almost a consciousness thing about shining a positive light on the solution—encouraging it, living it, and advocating it.
So in a sense True Blood does work on that level for addiction. In some surreal sense, coming out of the coffin is kind of like coming out of a church basement.
I already feel I am in very dangerous territory and am really close to the transgression border, because my personal relationship to humility—meaning my point of view and my opinions and my thoughts and my connection to what I think is right—has never gotten me very far. The life that works for me is the life of actions. It’s a very dicey thing to talk about, because all I have is today, and I want that to be clear. I’m not an expert on anything. Not even on my own life.