Oh, the hell of being beautiful. It's a Friday morning in the city, on one of those early summer days when Sydney sparkles like a showgirl: bright-eyed and shining, all cancan kicks and tassels and showing her teeth when she smiles. In a rooftop pool in the centre of the city - right in the showgirl's dimple - Ryan Kwanten is floating on his back.
He's fully clothed, and his white shirt is transparent, and his waterlogged jeans must feel ridiculous, but he still manages to look not only relaxed, but ineffably cool.
On the edge of the aquamarine water, a photographic team of nine stand watching him, bending and cooing and sometimes breaking into little rounds of applause. A nine-person photo-shoot - 10 if you include me, lurking on the outskirts - is not unheard of for superstars, but it's unusual for ordinary mortals. It's the kind of thing you might expect for J.Lo, Madonna or Mariah Carey.
Ryan Kwanten is not Madonna, but he is a kind of superstar - at least in the United States. In Australia we may have largely (and perhaps mercifully) forgotten his long-ago role as Vinnie the lifeguard on Home and Away, and his new role as Jason Stackhouse in the HBO vampire series True Blood is only just beginning to register on our viewing radars. But in the US, both show and actor are spectacularly successful.
This year, True Blood (also starring New Zealander Anna Paquin) has overtaken The Sopranos as HBO's most successful show, winning an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a host of other awards during its first season (which will screen as a marathon on Showcase from 8.30am, Christmas Day), and averaging 12.4 million weekly viewers in its second.
Kwanten and his co-stars, meanwhile, have become part of Hollywood's obsession with all things young, beautiful and bloodsucking.
Kwanten - who was named Australian GQ Actor of the Year the night before we meet - does not actually play a vampire (though he does drink vampire blood) but he's the obvious sex symbol of the show.
Off-set, his life has become a whirlwind of red-carpet appearances and fashion mag photo-shoots - the former while wearing Armani, the latter often involving not much clothing at all.
A few minutes after my arrival, he gets out of the pool, water streaming down his body. For a moment the group eddies around him - the photographer changing lenses, the make-up artist rubbing sunscreen on his arms, the stylist altering his sunglasses. I am some way back, but I see him look down and away, as if he's thinking thoughts far beyond the pool and the palm trees and the bright, beautiful day.
Standing there, he seems quiet and tired and not very superstar-ish. In fact, you get the feeling that Ryan Kwanten - with all due politeness - wishes he wasn't a superstar at all.
Up close, Kwanten is beautiful, but he looks older than at first glance. He has an Australian's sun-damaged skin - laugh lines round the brown eyes, freckles on the pale olive skin - and his body is corded rather than smoothly muscled. He's still boyish, with his slim build, soft mouth and tousled hair clipped close to the curve of his ear, but he looks his 33 years.
You can sometimes see a hint of this - the sinewy effort beneath the beauty - in True Blood. Kwanten was the first person cast in the series, after creator Alan Ball saw him in the film Flicka. Ball, the creative force behind iconic HBO series Six Feet Under and the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty, is one of the gods of quality American television. His name has become a byword for disturbing, wildly successful programs with an edge of the grotesque about them: a scalpel sinking into firm, cold flesh, a gush of blood down a chiselled chin.
Kwanten seems an odd choice for Ball, who often favours the unusual over the beautiful in his actors, but the director had no doubts.
"[In Flicka] he played the main character's hot brother, who was completely, effortlessly charming," he once recounted, "and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Which is a very hard kind of role to play, actually, because a lot of actors would feel the need to let us know as an audience, 'Hey, you know, I'm not really as dim as my character.' "
Set in a sexy, dirtied-up version of Louisiana, full of Spanish moss and sweat stains, True Blood chronicles the adventures of telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Paquin), her brother Jason (Kwanten), her vampire boyfriend Bill, and a host of supernatural beings. It's filled with baroque subplots: in a single episode in series one, Bill is turning a human into a vampire in a parking lot; Sookie and her shape-shifter boss are tracking a serial killer; and Sookie's best friend is exorcising a demon. Ball describes it as "popcorn for smart people" - but it's weird popcorn: popcorn with a worrying aftertaste.
The show is filled with sex and violence; most of the former and some of the latter fall to Kwanten's character. Jason Stackhouse is gorgeous, anxious and dumb. He has sex with four women in the first half-dozen episodes; he's often jumping around (and doing other things) totally naked; at one point he nailguns a man to a bar.
"[The way Ryan plays Jason] is perfect," explains Ball. "He doesn't comment on him, he doesn't judge him, he doesn't feel the need to let us know he's not really an emotionally stunted, sexually compulsive jock. He just plays it."
Kwanten looks slightly surprised - almost embarrassed - when I repeat this to him. "That's very gratifying," he says seriously. "I really do work my butt off, so it's, um, nice to be recognised for it. But I think I've also been really
blessed in LA." He pauses, and looks around the restaurant beside the pool, where we've retreated for lunch. "I really don't feel very comfortable with all this publicity stuff," he says suddenly. "I was - and still am - very much a sociophobe: I'm not really good in social situations."
Actors hardly ever say this sort of thing: they may admit to "private" or "reserved" or even "terribly shy", but nobody wants to acknowledge "psychologically ill-equipped". Wow, I say. Being interviewed must be hell.
"Oh, I'm okay one on one." He looks down. "But, for a long time, I didn't like acting all that much. It took many, many years to really understand it. And with True Blood, I think maybe for the first time, I'm really proud of the work." He looks up and smiles - a small smile. "So I'm happy to talk about it."
Not surprisingly, Kwanten never intended to be an actor. "There were two things I was interested in: law or being a professional athlete," he says as his spaghetti marinara arrives.
He extracts all the meat out of his clams and mussels before eating anything, a display of self-restraint that seems typical of him.
Even when I accidentally squirt him in the eye with crab juice, his poise is unaffected, and it strikes me that he probably would have made a good lawyer.
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