On an unseasonably hot July day in LA, a makeshift crew has gathered at short notice in a Silver Lake apartment, close to downtown. The two-bed flat might be small by this zip code’s standards, but is perfectly poised on a ridge overlooking a blue reservoir where local hipsters pedal lazily on bright red pedalos. Beyond that lies the hustle and bustle of the city centre and Hollywood Boulevard, but the cool apartment up on the hill above the water feels a million miles from the Elvis impersonators and celebrity-hungry tourists.
It belongs to our photographer, who suggested the location for its eclectic surroundings, and the fact that the opportunity to shoot Trammell was only confirmed on the previous day (long story). It turns out to be an inspired choice. Dive burger joints, hippy vegan cafés and crass-but-cool doughnut shops — all perfect backdrops for a shoot — are all within walking distance, and Silver Lake’s bohemian ambience will match Trammell’s laidback demeanour perfectly. In Hollywood, these sorts of timescales are usually unthinkable, but we’re told that Sam is easy to work with, and the early signs are more than encouraging. He arrives just minutes after our 1pm call time, apologising for being late, even though he isn’t really, before warmly introducing himself to everyone in the room. His excuse: it took him a while to find parking in the tricky back street (a rare feat as most cover stars require a driver to drop them off at shoot locations). Wearing a creased linen shirt, lazy cargo shorts and running sneakers that he apologises for wearing in front of a style editor (he has come straight from the gym), our first impressions of Sam Trammell are that he is as un-starry as they come.
And let’s not forget that he is a big deal in Hollywood these days. Unless you’ve been living in the wilderness, eating what you can catch or grow, you will know who he is, or at least be aware of the show that made him famous. The forty-four-year old actor is best known for playing shape-shifter and bar owner Sam Merlotte, one of the leading characters in HBO’s sexy vampire series True Blood. Aside from having the nifty ability to turn into any animal at will, he gets to star alongside Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgård, and is one of the new league of TV stars currently dominating screens across the globe. The recipe of blood, sex and Southern Gothic horror has made True Blood the third-most-watched HBO show in history, after Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, with this year’s season six drawing an average of four million viewers per episode. That’s major-league prime-time TV, and Trammell, by rights, should not need to be hunting for parking spaces in Silver Lake on the hottest day of the year.
And neither should he have to postpone our interview on the day of the shoot because he has to drive through more LA traffic to pick up his two-year-old twin boys from nursery, but he will do that also, again very apologetically. (The fact that I’m also a twin is a regular source of interest throughout the day, as is his obvious joy at being a father). It’s possible, being female, that some bias might be at work here when I say that Sam Trammell is very good looking. In the flesh, he looks like a slimmer-faced Brad Pitt and appears younger than his age would suggest. But it’s his personality that seals the deal. He chats familiarly to the make-up artist about how he helpfully did his own hair prior to arriving, and within minutes is talking favourite brands with the photographer. Basically, Trammell is lovely, but not in a Please like me, I’m just so normal kind of way. (Anne Hathaway has fallen prey to this transparent tactic, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.) His blue eyes are warm, and he speaks in a soft, slow Mid-West drawl honed from years growing up in Charleston, West Virginia. Excitedly impressed by the rack of new season samples from the likes of Prada (his favourite), Tom Ford, Hermès and Giorgio Armani already hung up and waiting for him, Trammell’s temperament is not unlike his character’s preferred ‘shape’ — a border collie. A border collie that also has a brooding, unkempt sort of sexuality, that is. Bad analogy, perhaps. Scrap that. Let’s just say that he’s likeable and friendly and the shoot in hipster-central Silver Lake goes really well.
The son of a surgeon serving at the end of the Vietnam War, Trammell’s first memories are from the time his father was serving in the army, which took the family from state to state. He remembers running around an Indian Reservation in North Dakota where he lived with his parents, younger brother (who now plays guitar in the reggae band I-Vibes) and sister (a mother now living with her family in Houston) for a couple of years, before moving between New Orleans, Texas, Alexandria and finally settling in West Virginia. Coincidently, this is where Nick Nolte randomly moved in next door to his family’s home, down a little dirt road in Charleston. It was right around the time Trammell was leaving for college and he got to know Nolte a little bit, to the point where the two played golf together and well enough for it to sow a seed of something in his mind: the idea that acting was kind of a cool idea and seemed like a fun job.
That was the first piece of serendipity. His acting debut came in the final year of studying for a directionless semiotics major at Brown University (the theory and study of signs and symbols), which he switched to after an even more directionless year studying physics. Friends persuaded him to audition for the New Plays Festival, a show of nine amateur plays put on by the college. The twenty-one-year-old was sufficiently buoyed by his encounters with Nolte to be persuaded to read for a play written by a graduate student, and got the part. The second piece of good fortune was that the casting director was Angela Robinson (who is now a writer on True Blood). The play, Stupid Kids, written by John C Russell, received instant critical acclaim and years later eventually made its way onto Broadway. It was an auspicious start.
Trammell recounts this story over the phone from Pittsburgh a month later when we finally manage to schedule a proper interview. He’s there to film a movie with Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley and he speaks with a kind of gratitude for the journey that has brought him to this point. “Acting was never a part of my life plan, but after that one play I just knew I’d found something I was really passionate about. The obvious thing to do once I’d graduated was to move to New York.”
Arriving at Penn Station with just one bag, 100 original photo headshots (“career suicide, but I didn’t care,” he laughs) and nowhere to stay, Trammell nevertheless quickly found his feet. On his very first audition, for a small part in the Academy Award-winning Scent of a Woman, he made it all the way to screen testing with Al Pacino. “I didn’t get the part, but I got an agent,” he remembers. A box-like apartment on West Fourth Street quickly followed and a world of un-aired doughnut commercials, theatre productions across the country and full-frontal on-stage nudity opened up to the young actor. “If you’re a guy and you’re in your twenties and you’re doing New York Theatre, then you’re going to end up naked on stage,” he laughs, cringing at the memory. “I’m convinced someone out there has video footage of a twenty-five-year-old naked me running around.”
The fully clothed roles also kept coming and soon the stage actor achieved critical success. His on-Broadway credits included starring roles in Patrick Marber’s award-winning play Dealer’s Choice, plus If Memory Serves, Ancestral Voices and Kit Marlowe at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, where he received outstanding reviews. His performance in Ah, Wilderness! at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, secured him a Tony nomination, a Theatre World Award and a Clarence Derwent Award. “It was a total struggle, but a great one,” he reminisces. “I was single, had my thing going on, living in a small apartment in the big city, fighting the fight, trying to keep my integrity, being poor and having a blast.”
Then, in 2002, everything changed. Not only did Trammell meet his partner and mother of his boys, Missy Yager, who is also a writer and actor, he was also cast in a comedy-drama, Going to California, a TV series about two friends on a road trip across America. While the characters only made it to Texas and lasted a year, Trammell found his way to LA, where writer Alan Ball, fresh from the success of American Beauty and Six Feet Under, was working on a new series about vampires, based on books by American novelist Charlaine Harris. Having worked together on Broadway, Ball called the stage actor in to read for him and HBO. A few hours later, the part was his. No one could have guessed how big that part, or the show, would become. “You know it’s funny. When I was in my twenties, living in this place that was so small my brother would joke that I could cook from my bed, I wouldn’t even consider taking a TV role,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I was young and snobby about acting and only wanted to do respectable roles and theatre work. But, in a way, all those years of doing theatre instead of moving to LA and doing TV shows kind of did end up paying off.”
Patra Burgers on Sunset offers a mean greasy combo for $6. It has bars on the windows, plastic table covers decorated with pictures of citrus fruits, and it sits across the road from a Laundromat. Standing outside in the afternoon sun, a teenage fedora-wearing hipster draped in gold chains and sporting a ring on every finger shakes a sheepish Trammell’s hand. A small group of twenty-somethings also hang around outside while we’re shooting, pretending not to stare (they’re too cool in Silver Lake to be overt), but it’s obvious they know who is inside being photographed.
Trammell doesn’t seem to notice. He’s more concerned with the cheeseburger in front of him, a prop the photographer half-humorously suggests, knowing full well that he is currently on a starvation diet to lose weight for a role he starts next week. But he goes with the idea and even laughs at the irony of pretending to eat a burger when in just a few days he’ll be playing a malnourished drug addict. The film is called The Aftermath, produced and co-written by Trammell alongside producer, Shaun Sanghani, and director, Tim McCann (who the actor worked with previously on the as-yet unreleased small thriller, White Rabbit). The indie movie, he tells me, is being made on a micro-budget, with minimal crew and using real people as extras — a far cry from the multi-million dollar visual effects and vampire slaying of True Blood. I wonder if he had his own trailer though? Probably, which is more than can be said for the next scene in our shoot. It’s time for another wardrobe change and Trammell is using the photographer’s black Prius as a changing room. And if you can judge a man by the company he keeps, then he scores highly for his choice of assistant. Alex is a pretty Californian girl who acts less like a gatekeeper to a star and more like a welcome part of the gang. She’s happy to help out when the left-over junk food serves as a quick lunch rather than bark any dos and don’ts at us. This is helpful when you’re asking a Hollywood actor to change his pants in the back of a car.
“I’m extremely excited about The Aftermath because it’s going to have a really raw feel to it, almost like a documentary,” he explains. “The way we shot it and with the people we hired, it was definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done. As an actor to be working alongside real drug dealers in this seedy, underbelly of a town in Louisiana was so incredible. Plus, writing your own material means broadening your work as an actor.”
Expanding his horizons is an exciting but also necessary step for Trammell. HBO recently announced that True Blood’s seventh season this summer will be its last. Replicating the success of a show that has been so huge can be a tough call — a flick through the post-Sopranos IMDb pages of its cast members backs-up the theory. But while this means the end of Merlotte’s Bar & Grill, Trammell has more work lined up. The Fault in Our Stars, which he’s currently filming, is due out this month. Trammell plays the father of a teenage terminal cancer patient (Shailene Woodley) in a heartbreaking story about life and love. “Being a father has changed me tremendously as an actor, absolutely,” he admits. “It’s made me so much more sensitive as a person. I can’t watch any news story that has affected children in any way. And this role that I’m playing at the moment, being a father myself, the story has just affected me in such more of a deeper level. I can draw from that as an actor.” He says he hopes to create more of his own work and also has a Web-series to work on that has been written by Missy, his partner. In Patra Burgers he tells me, between faux bites, that she’s the love of his life and while they always meant to get married, they just never got around to it. “She played my wife in that last movie, so that was a blast, and I think we may work together some more and try and get the family business going,” he laughs.
Four pm in Silver Lake and our shoot is coming to a close. Trammell has an appointment with the nursery run to keep, and then he has to pack a bag and drive himself south down to San Diego where Comic-Con is taking place over the weekend. We’ve shot eight great looks, and the actor is fully into the swing of being an Esquire model. In fact, he jokes that he’s contemplating popping to some of the boutiques of a few of the brands he has been wearing to emulate the style of the shoot into his own wardrobe (the assumption that A-listers get to keep their clothes from photoshoots is not always accurate). He’s currently wearing a thick, Merino wool Fendi sweater, despite the 42-degree heat (scalding by LA standards) and beads of sweat are dripping down his forehead, but he’s not complaining. In fact he’s become more enthusiastic as the afternoon has progressed.
Before Trammell arrived, Lindsey the photographer had told me that her favourite photoshoots are ones where the model becomes a part of the creative process — not just a subject propped in front of the camera — which requires confidence and buckets of personality. Trammell has definitely been part of a creative process. He sneakily sits to pose on someone’s front porch as their curtains twitch at one point, while Lindsey tip-toes around him snapping away. “This is cool!” he cries, jumping in front of a shabby garage door, with faded blue paint peeling off, and she starts snapping away again. But it really is time to wrap things up, if two young boys are not to be kept waiting. As we walk back up a steep hill to Lindsey’s apartment for the seventh time that afternoon, Trammell’s showing us snaps of Missy and the twins on his iPhone. “Look, aren’t they just the cutest?” he asks, beaming. The heat of the day is giving way to a beautiful late afternoon, the light sparkling with all the clarity and promise that first drew filmmakers and dreamers to California. His two curly-haired blond boys beam toothy grins at the camera. They have their whole lives ahead of them and we have a feeling that, for Sam Trammell, this is also just the beginning of bigger, bolder things to come.
Photography assistant, Vanessa Joy Smith.
Make-up by Kristin Heitkotter at Celestine Agency using Oribe haircare and Chanel make up.