Anyone who followed season one of HBO’s True Blood will tell you the town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, is a sultry, quirky hotbed of paranormal activity—and at the center of the salacious thrills is Merlotte’s Bar, run by mysterious Sam Merlotte. Played to perfection by Louisiana-born actor Sam Trammell, Merlotte is at once devoted, loving, jealous and possessive. Which makes sense, given his tendency to shape-shift into a dog.

“My character is under the gun, from episode one all the way through the finale,” says Trammell of True Blood’s second season, which airs Sundays at 9 P.M. on HBO. “He’s just a magnet for punishment. He’s really challenged to open himself up in a way that he’s never done before. There are a lot of new characters and locations, and the stakes are very high. It’s sort of like a Mac truck barreling down a hill.”

Devotees of the show would expect nothing less from creator and executive producer Alan Ball, the man behind Six Feet Under. “The great thing about Alan and the show is he’s made a character-driven drama set in this fantastical world,” Trammell says. “The characters are the focus. If it were just a sci-fi show with sex and blood it wouldn’t be nearly as good. Alan explores everything—faith, bigotry, domestic politics—without banging you over the head with a message. For an actor it’s great fun.”

Much of True Blood’s magic comes from the spot-on casting—aside from star Anna Paquin, the cast is comprised of relatively unknown actors—and Trammell could not be better suited for his role. He first found success in the New York theater world, starring in several acclaimed productions and earning a Tony nomination in 1998 for Ah, Wilderness! on Broadway. On the small screen he was front and center in Maximum Bob, Trinity, and Showtime’s Going to California, while his filmography includes Autumn in New York, Fear of Fiction, Undermind, Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem and Lifetime’s What If God Were the Sun.

And yet True Blood is the gig that has put him on the map. Rightfully— and refreshingly—Trammell is very grateful. “As an actor you don’t know if you’ll ever be on a show people tell you they love and are obsessed with,” he says. “First you just want a pilot. Then you hope it gets picked up. But for a show to stay on a few seasons and be loved, I feel really lucky.”

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